Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins,[1] the Artist Takes Notes – thoughts on three current, un-visitable London exhibitions [2]

Robert Rauschenberg, Cy + Relics, Rome, 1952. Gelatin silver print. Photo copyright the Rauschenberg Foundation.

“[…] he mistook the curtains of the window of his room for a canvas, and he kept describing what he was painting: the colors, shapes, and shades.”[3]

On broad empty surfaces, marks begin to show—indicative of fragility, a sense of loss? Or expectation? Thought-full? Thought-less? Mannerisms coincide. A type of gestural painting that emerges out of contradictions. Too much, I felt, too much pathos. Yet architectonic enough to let that pathos live, consume, burn out. “The Fire that Consumes All before It” he wrote in a 1978 painting. The type of art that requires more of the viewer, becoming manifest only after the first impatient encounter is past.

In museums I often grow impatient. It happened with Twombly every single time, while secretly I was flirting with those scratches and scribbles and grays, seduced by the casual violence of raw color stacked atop the fibers, the mad mess that verged on spilling onto the clean white gallery walls. That whole magnificent period in the ‘50s during which his life and career intersected with those of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns intrigued me. Likewise, his subsequent move to Italy: rare expat, never to return from a strange form of self-imposed exile.

Cy Twombly, Tulips, Rome, 1985. Dry-print, 17 x 11 inches (43.1 x 27.9 cm).

I happened to be in Vienna in 2009, at the time of a retrospective of his work at MUMOK. On one of the walls was a small series of dry-print Polaroid transfer photographs he took at different points in life. Sculptural pieces arranged on work tables, paint splattered on the floor of what looked like a domestic space, especially when placed next to images of flowers, food, shoes: the artist’s studio. I wish I could find the exact sequence, but most examples will do. The dissolved color on the print made sense. So did the soft immateriality of film, objects partly diffused, merging contours, certainly nostalgic.

I’m not convinced by the argument that Twombly used photography to work through problems pertaining mainly to painting. In general I find such verdicts rather artificial, especially in the case of an artist who often used paint as if it had the roughness of stone, carving at it with the wrong end of the brush. Someone who used white paint to cover sculpture, suturing the impermanent seams as if they were bits fallen off of ancient sculptures dug up during the Renaissance.

While Twombly’s paintings are expansive, monumental (best seen in the permanent installation at the Menil Collection in Houston), his photographs are concentrated, focused, detailed. Like real, tangible landscapes the paintings spread in the space outside the frame. Indeed, they unpack the same notional spaces that cave in, in the photographs.

Yes, in so many ways, because of those photographs, I now imagine Twombly as a Postmodern Renaissance master, whose paintings open windows onto the world. “The world” not necessarily as it “is” or as it “seems”—whatever definition of essence and appearance you might choose—but the world as it encodes, at it builds itself up in ciphers, crisscrossed by myths, nightmares, dreams, and poetry. And somewhere in that experience there is a true celebration of materiality, which cannot be easily contained—the heavy lightness of paint.

Cy Twombly, detail of Untitled, Lexington, 2001. Wood, plastic, pulp and printed paper, plaster, synthetic resin paint, and acrylic, (39 x 40 x 29.8 cm). Collection of the artist.

1. I’m referencing Henry Fuseli’s famous drawing The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins also known as The Artist in Despair before the Magnitude of Antique Fragments, 1778-80 from the collection of the Kunsthaus Zürich. The parallels between the two images are pursued in the catalogue essay by Nicholas Cullian: “Notes on Painting,” in Twombly and Poussin, Arcadian Painters (London: Dulwich Picture Gallery and Paul Holberton Publishing, 2011): 28-30.
2. Robert Rauschenberg, Early Photographs // Cy Twombly, A Survey of Photographs // Cy Twombly, The Last Paintings organized by Gagosian Gallery, September 6–29, 2012.
3. Nicola del Roscio, Foreword, in Cy Twombly Drawings: Catalogue Raisonné, edited by Nicola del Roscio (München: Schirmer/Mosel, and New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2011).

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