Thursday, December 15, 2016

Cy Twombly @ Centre Pompidou

Cy Twombly, Sculptures @ Pompidou
I feel very privileged to have seen so much of Cy Twombly’s painting in the past few years, and it’s a treat to see another major exhibition. The sheer uniqueness of the work must be reason enough for people to flock to see this retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. I kept thinking as I walked around the vast retrospective that no one was doing what Twombly did, anywhere, in the 1960s and 1970s, in particular, in America, or in Europe. The lines, sometimes gentle, sometimes aggressive and violent, the reflections in paint, the erasures and changes of mind, all of it amounts to a body of work like no other. And my sense is that the uniqueness of Twombly’s work is what makes it difficult for the visiting public and art critics alike. Compared to the 75 minute lines to enter the Magritte exhibition, the Twombly rooms were empty. Also, the singularity of Twombly’s work might account for an exhibition that had its high and low points, an exhibition in which some aspects are unforgettable, others unforgiveable.
Cy Twombly, Nine Discourses on Commodus, VII, 1963
To begin with the remarkable high points: the most exquisite paintings of those I had not seen before were the Nine Discourses on Commodus, 1963. I have always thought the references to mythology on Twombly’s paintings were difficult to discern. Probably because they give narrative and order to works, often in a series, that are fully abstract. I went to the Pompidou with an artist friend who confidently exclaimed, “oh, but he just added those titles to satisfy the art market.” I am still trying to grapple with this idea: what if, after the pages and pages of critical exposition that search for the hidden layers of Twombly’s meaning, the endless books, the indecipherable critical essays, what if the references to mythology are no more than a throwaway crowd pleaser? And, along these same lines, what if the writing in pencil on the earlier canvases is no more than a graphic element? What if? If we jettison these inaccessible layers of history and mythology supposedly strewn all over these canvases, as spectators are we freed from the intense process of trying to understand what is, in the end, just a painter moving across a canvas?
« “Night Watch” est l’une des premières peintures grises, dites “blackboards”, qui inaugurent une nouvelle direction dans l’art de Twombly, marquée par l’austérité et l’économie de moyens. Elle fait partie d’une série de trois peintures qui voient le motif de la fenêtre évoluer vers une construction spatiale. »
Cy Twombly, Night Watch, 1966
 Without the complicated stories of an arcane Roman Emperor, the Nine Discourses on Commodus become about blood and shattered hearts. Although the cycle was hung in a room of its own, it didn’t have the movement and force of its linear display at the Guggenheim Bilboa, and so we were left to see the cycle as a collection of individual paintings, which they are not. They begin with the entrapped white form, in a Bacon-like cage, and move through the bloody, then bleeding, and onto the shattered hearts. The text accompanying the cycle notices its concurrence with the Kennedy assassination in 1963. As an historical event, the sweep of the car through Dealey Plaza is visible through the increasing energy of the clotted, coagulation of paint as it begins to bleed and drip down the canvas. The paintings are heart wrenching. Like so much of Twombly’s work, The Nine Discourses on Commodus are, to me, about the body. Twombly’s persistent concern for the inseparability of the body and paint, the body and the emotions painted. All through the works on display, and indeed, all of Twombly’s paintings, is the presence of the artist’s hand. Even when the prints of his painted fingers do not appear on the canvas, the movement of the hand across the canvas is always carrying the energy of the paintings. And so, it makes sense that Nine Discourses on Commodus are a representation of intense pain, torture, even death, and the bloodied body in paint.
Cy Twombly, Fifty Days at Iliam: Shades of Eternal Night, 1978
There are too many other works in this exhibition for me to write on all those that inspired me. Instead, I will say that I came away with a new appreciation of Twombly’s sense of the space of a canvas. Of course, we might want to draw connections between his use of the canvas and that of Pollock, or even de Koonig—there is always the temptation to see Twombly’s work within the context of Abstract Expressionism—but the way he uses the canvas is his own. There are always layers and levels to Twombly’s work, even the apparently blank or untouched areas of the canvas, that are meticulously measured with a sense of the life and emotion of space. Critics want to talk about the mathematics and logic of Twombly’s inscriptions in chalk, wax and pencil. But I am more interested in the space around these markings. For example, in Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) the white where oil, crayon, graphite, paint haven’t marked the canvas is as rich in its luminosity and intensity as the uncertainty of those spaces where blue and red and black have not gone. Again, these ten works may be about Homer’s Iliad, but I don’t understand them as an allegorical response to history. Twombly’s series seems more interested in something internal and eternal to nature. And simultaneously, the works explore the rhythms and pulsations and explosions and tensions in the apparent absence or the places where nobody looks.

« Après une période sous le signe d’Eros, Cy Twombly se tourne, dès 1962, vers Thanatos. Dans cette “peinture d’histoire”, il interprète une scène clé de l’“Iliade”, d’Homère où Achille pleure la mort de son ami Patrocle, tué par Hector dans les murs de Troie. »
Cy Twombly, Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus, 1962
So ultimately, it’s true, Twombly’s work might be difficult and abstract. However, perhaps more than any of the other postwar American painters, the way to approach Twombly is through getting quiet, and looking at the lines, at the way they interact with the intense moments of thick oil paint, the never quite empty spaces around them. The paintings and drawings might be about rage, or might be about a sense of the movement of time, of the layers of history and story, rather than the substance of a particular legend or story. And lastly, despite the museum’s claim that the sculptures stamp him as an anti-colourist because they are objects covered in white plaster, Twombly is devoted to colour. Throughout the oeuvre, colour is everything. I doubt he would use white paint without meaning. This is why the spaces are so important, because they are full, even if they are full with white. There is no such thing as a void on Twombly’s canvases.

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