As readers of this blog know, I was fortunate to spend an art-laden holiday in London this past summer. I was delighted that a major exhibit on at the Tate Modern while I was there was “Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons.” I knew that Cy Twombly was a second wave Abstract Expressionist, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen any of his work. But AE is my passion, so armed with my trusty little notebook and my idiosyncratic “active looking” method, I headed off alone for a day at the museum. (I had to skip exploring a fabulous food market which my husband and daughter enjoyed — but the kind of intense study that I intended to do requires solitude.)
Twombly was born in Virginia in 1928 and studied art in both Boston and New York and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina at the height of Abstract Expressionism. He became interested in the Surrealists, and began incorporating “automatic writing” — which took the form of multitudes of pencil markings on the surfaces of his early paintings.
Room 1 of the exhibit contains these early paintings which are extremely disorganized looking, hesitant and random in their images, like graffiti or scratchings. They seem more like sketches or musings than finished works. One pencil scribble states “I have known the madness of my scattered dreams.” The impermanence of the pencil wars with the large scale of the paintings. These works seem exploded, dissolute, there is no focal point. Looking very hard, I could find body parts, sexual, but disintegrated. I must admit that I had to force myself into the next room because I couldn’t find a way into these works. They seemed truly like the work of a disturbed child — ugly, random scrawls — and frankly disturbing.
In 1952 Twombly traveled to Italy and Morocco with Robert Rauschenberg. He produced work with “scratched and gouged surface” and sculpture such as Untitled 1953 which”resembles a pan pipe, formed from a slightly dishevelled row of wooden scraps, rusty nails and soiled bandages” (catalogue by Nicholas Cullinan, co-curator, and Simon Bolitho). In 1957 he returned to Italy where he has been based since. In 1959 he produced a group of 24 drawings called Poems to the Sea. These suggest seascapes but continue to use pencil lines, blobs of white paint and “scratchings.” According to the catalogers, “The series reflects Twombly’s interest in what he described as the ‘symbolic whiteness’ of the French poet Stephane Mallarme” (the foremost surrealist poet).
In the early 60’s Twombly’s works such as Murder of Passion and Crimes of Passion II and subsequently His Ferragosto series are characterized by increased saturation of color and smearing of paint, red and brown, which looks bloody and excremental. More sexual imagery appears, disembodied breasts or buttocks or phallic images, bodily waste, orifices — and . . . spaceships. The work looks as if done by someone unstable, but is increasingly dense, more fertile and sensual, pulsing with life.
Room 5 of the exhibit contained a series of 14 paintings Twombly made in 1969 while staying at Bolsena, a lake north of Rome. They are largely white and off white and contain many mathematical jottings and numbers. Twombly was responding to the Apollo space flights and the first man on the moon walk. And Room 6 contained and even more jarringly different set of works: Treatise of the Veil 1968. These works are extremely minimal, “sketchy” and unfinished, looking like a chalk board that has been erased. The interior no longer seems to be that of a “raving” or “maddened” individual; a quietus of sorts has been reached. The vision is strict and spare.
Room 7 (are you getting the picture? — this exhibit was huge!) was dedicated to the Nini paintings — tributes to Nini Pirandello — 4 large canvases filled with “scribbling” that looks like writing, a common language, but is in fact not. This work, however, has a far calmer and more melodious feel than the earlier “scribbles.” At this point in the exhibit, I found I had to literally go back to the beginning, to the first room, because I had come so far with the artist, that I felt I could get a better handle on what he was doing in the earlier work. This happened to me repeatedly during my many hours in the exhibit. I went back and forth, back and forth, connecting my initial impressions with what I was discovering and feeling and thinking about the work that followed.
In the 1980’s Twombly’s increasing fascination with and study of poetry and mythology is visible in the three panels of the incredibly beautiful paintings of the Hero and Leander myths, The Wilder Shores of Love. The landscape has become somewhat more realistic, the color is more saturated, there are more colors, and the canvas is far more covered than in the early works. The paint is more liquid and flows across the canvas. These paintings seem to be inspired by Turner.Waves, pools, ponds occupy the artist. I now could go back to the 2nd room, with the 24 drawings ,and see the beginnings of his obsession with the land/seascape of the Mediterranean and the light of Italy. As the catalogue states, “From the early 1980s onwards. . . Twombly displays an ever-deepening fascination with water. ” This is unmistakable in the wooden panel series Untitled, a Painting in 9 Parts. These works are notable for several reasons: they are a very unusual shape, like a keyhole as though we being offered a glimpse of something special. The paintings are almost monochromatic — green and off white. They begin with very little paint and light in color and progress to more and more color, darker and darker. The paint is dripped and splashed on ( a la Pollock?) and brushed, smeared and dabbed by hand — almost like finger painting. This technique leads to a feeling of almost unbearable immediacy. The 9 panels seem to be of a pond or a body of water seen at different times and in different conditions (like Monet’s haystacks), but the effect is more emotional and direct. They convey a spiritual experience that is urgent and strong and yet light and delicate. The first panel contains fragments from Rilke’s poem Fortschritt (Moving forward). The poetry speaks of nature washing over and subsuming the individual resulting in heightened consciousness and imagination:
And in the ponds broken off from the sky my feeling sinks as if standing on Fishes
Room 11 of the exhibit contained two versions of Quattro Stagioni, The Four Seasons, painted from 1993 -1995 when Twombly was in his 60’s. In these works, each season represents a stage in life. The canvases are very large. Spring of course is youth with its energetic yellow greens. The movement is joyous, upwards, growth. Along the right side of the painting are penciled writings, looking like a journal, but actually more poetry of Rilke . Wine harvesting is suggested by reds and burgundies of Autumn, the season of ripeness and maturity. . The colors are deeper, more saturated. The look is almost like Chinese brushstrokes. The lettering is bold and sure, the words of the Greek poet Seferis. Winter (Inverno), old age, is sparse, cold, like evergreens in the snow. The words are hard to read, covered up with white paint, like snow, like death.
Finally, the exhibit closes with a series of 8 red paintings from 2005 referrencing the war in Iraq and inspired by Homer’s Iliad. The series, Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos, points, as Twombly often does, to the god Bacchus (Dionysus), god of wine, women and song. Bacchus had two natures, sexual pleasure and debauchery; he is the god of sensuality who was literally ripped apart. Here these is pleasure and release, and excess, abandonment and savagery. These paintings revel in the reds that are both wine and blood –much more paint than any others in the show, and yet the scratching and scribbling and cuts of the very earliest works are also visible: “The calligraphic quality” according to Cullinan and Bolitho.
Twombly wrote in 1957, “To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release, and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse.” That he has been true to this belief is obvious to anyone looking carefully at his work of the last 50 years. As he aged, the artist came closer to the elements, the cycles of the year, to the mood and colors of changing seasons. Yet throughout his career, paramount importance has been given to the graphic mark and expressive paint.
I have left out of this post any discussion of the many sculptures (many of boats) which were a significant part of the exhibit. I couldn’t really bring them into my own looking at the exhibit, so I passed by them fairly quickly. Despite this, by the time I got to the 12th Room of this show (having returned to previous rooms time and again), I think you will believe me when I say I was totally exhausted – drained, dazed. But dazzled. I was truly fortunate to have been able to see this inspired exhibit, and to have worked my way to an introductory understanding of this giant of contemporary painting.