Friday, 8 July 2011
Cy Twombly 1928-2011
I was very saddened to hear of the death of painter Cy Twombly, at the age of 83 in Rome this week. I’m a huge fan of his work, which has famously divided critics over the yerars. Indeed, I’ve found myself defending his work to sceptical friends, artists and not, over the years too. The paintings spoke to me enormously, and I never understood the problems people had with them: they just seemed to express so deeply what it is to be human with their scribbled marks and paint pushed, pulled, dragged, smudged, thrown, swirled, fumbled and found, in that way painting does so much more than other media. They were the expression of the ‘experience’ of painting, as much as great paintings that stood on their own, seemingly willed to life.
I’m sounding a bit flowery. Twombly seems to brings this out in me. Not just me though. Here a few really interesting testaments I‘ve cut and pasted from The Guardian to share on the blog. They are from a range of other great painters that I admire too. As Fiona Rae remarks below, his death does seem to really mark an end of an era in painting and art.
I can't remember exactly my first encounter with his work, but it was a knockout. I think it was in Philadelphia: there was, or is, a room in a gallery there totally devoted to his work [Fifty Days at Iliam, 1978, inspired by Homer's Iliad]. The experience was one of total immersion. He painted with such emotional freedom. I went to see the new exhibition of his work alongside Poussin's at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London last week, and they were well matched. Much of his work refers to Poussin, as well as to other artists.
I never met him, unfortunately, though I think I would have been very uncomfortable if I had: I would have felt jealous. Painters don't necessarily get on well with one another. What would I have been jealous of? I think the fact he made his work so expressive in all sorts of ways, without it becoming expressionist. At a time when painting is perhaps not taken as seriously as it once was, he was an extraordinary beacon for other painters. Certainly I learned from him, from that total emotional openness. His work became increasingly sensitive and romantic.
I don't have a favourite painting; and if I did, I wouldn't tell you
For me, he was the greatest living painter. The life force he achieved with the touch of his paint could certainly not be achieved by any mechanical means. He was so moved by his subjects – the upward thrust of a tulip, the fragility of a rose, the noise of a street market, the abandon of a bacchanal – that he moves us, profoundly.
It is as if his paintings are being made in front of me: they are not dead, finished things. The juxtaposition of life and death is finely balanced in every mark: the paint breathes. I am taken into unknown territory that is made immediately familiar.
In these days of so much dry, clever, soulless trivia, completely lacking in worthwhile subject matter, Twombly stood a towering hero. His mixture of intimacy and grandeur, force and delicacy, creates a sexy dynamism. He advanced the language of paint – from late Titian, through Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Rothko and Pollock – and so takes his place among the elite. He is dead, but the courage of his work lives on.
I first encountered Twombly as a student in the early 60s. I've been thinking about how his work seemed then, how it was thought about – which I'm not sure is the same as it is now. The dominant art of the period was abstract expressionism: a very assertive, extrovert, macho art like that of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, very gestural. And then there was Twombly's work, which was introspective and fragile. It was also abstract, but the mood could not have been more different.
One of the amazing things about his work, from the earliest days to now, is that you can see him in it – right through the whole thing. It is a very sustained and powerful body of work. But in his later years, when he was in his 70s, the paintings themselves got bigger and the gestures got bigger; they became much more extrovert.
He brought a certain kind of mark-making to art – that slightly childlike feeling of scribbling on paper, but which suddenly becomes very sensual and full of potential meaning. These were the kind of marks that didn't really exist in painting before him: seedy-like marks and scratchings. You can see that, say, graffiti art came after him: he is the person before [Jean-Michel] Basquiat.
He started this thing of being delicate and understated, but more sensual than emotional. His works showed different possibilities in painting. Now that he's famous and his work is familiar, it's easy to forget what an invention that was, what unknown territory this was.
The paintings themselves are very obscure, full of fleeting meanings. If you're not attracted to that, and want an explicit subject matter and message – which people often do today – these paintings are probably too subtle, ungiving. They're like a mental speculation - when your mind is slightly wandering. They're not didactic.
He was such a distinctive voice; there wasn't anybody else quite like him.
It feels like the end of an era. With Robert Rauschenberg and Sigmar Polke also gone, most of the major heroes of contemporary painting have disappeared.
His paintings have influenced me enormously. They seem full of an improvisatory spirit and embody a freedom to express and include whatever he wanted – whether words from poems, or scrawled cartoonish hearts, or loopy, repetitive drawing. To me they seemed full of humour, as well as the spiritual profundity for which he is the well-known poster boy.
His sculptures had a fantastic sense of the bathetic and hand-made, too: he was just as likely to include bits of scrunched-up coloured tissue paper on top of an object as more tasteful, sculptural materials. His paintings straddled high and low, with intensity and feeling, like sad bouquets.
As a student, I went to the Menil Collection in Houston, which has a whole gallery devoted to Twombly's work. It had a huge effect. When you see a range of his work you realise how adept he was at handling paint.
The first time I met him was about four years ago, when I worked on the 2008 Tate Modern retrospective with Nicholas Serota. We both spent a lot of time talking to Cy about his life and work. The word genius is used quite often, but he's probably the only person I would mark down in that category: the way his mind worked was so riveting. All kinds of things would make him laugh – not just things that were scholarly, but things that were bawdy. That combination of high and low was really crucial. It was a completely natural, spontaneous reaction; it wasn't premeditated. He was an incredibly warm, generous, thoughtful person.
It would be a shame if the work seemed different after his passing. It has an element of melancholy, but always leavened with a sense of the pleasures of life. His position in art history is assured. We're now able to go to Paris and see his ceiling in the Louvre, a permanent commission, and his uniquely beautiful works, which proliferate in museums around the world.
Nicholas Cullinan was co-curator of Tate Modern's 2008 Twombly retrospective, and of the current exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery
I remember seeing his Discourses on Commodus paintings in 1964, soon after I moved to New York. It was the show [artist and critic] Donald Judd famously panned. There was a centralised grid and a lot of roof paintings, and I was struck by the combination of that grid and the looseness of the painting. I used to wonder what happened to them, why I never saw them around. Now, reading the obituary in the New York Times, I see that everyone hated them. Later, when I became [Robert] Rauschenberg's assistant, he bought Twombly's Panorama, white chalk on black or brown; it was quite a treat to see that every day.
I call myself an abstract painter, and he's one of the greats, so he's definitely an influence. Cy wasn't afraid of paint, and he made it do the most beautiful things. I don't think he was too affected about whether or not he was fawned over on the art scene. He was amazingly relaxed, very comfortable with himself. I never heard him discussing his work, or Roman poets. You knew he liked to hang out and watch things; everything else went into the painting.
It's always very interesting to see him in relation to Jasper [Johns] and Rauschenberg. They all came out of abstract expressionism, but Jasper and Bob are realists, they used real images; Cy stayed abstract. There is that European touch, a certain elegance – and I don't mean that in a derogatory sense.
Yesterday, I was trying to imagine him at work. I can see Richter, all these other people, but it's hard to see him physically applying the paint. There was the relaxed demeanour he had, but such an intensity to the paintings. Was the relaxed demeanour because he had to be that way to work up that kind of intensity? I don't know. I sent him a note once, about his sculpture show in Basel, and he told me he taped it on his wall. It was an unbelievable show.