Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cy Twombly: Words for a New Generation of Artists

"Cy Twombly: The Natural World" is on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago May 16 – September 13, 2009

Allan Kaprow famously stated, in his 1958 essay entitled The Legacy of Jackson Pollock, that artists after Pollock either had to continue on with the famous Abstract Expressionist’s dance-like, subconscious, gestural method, or abandon painting altogether, in favor of a an art that was more like the experience of life itself. Kaprow chose the latter. But what of the artists who chose the former? How could they continue the traditions of painting in original and innovative ways?

As the prominence of Abstract Expressionism began to wane, the existence of one dominant movement within art ceased, as well. The age of pluralism had arrived. Artists of the next generation floundered as they attempted to retain elements of Abstract Expressionism while seeking alternative methods of working in an age marked by nuclear proliferation and a Cold War. Second generation Abstract Expressionists and those not of the New York School, like Mark Tobey, sought inspiration in the calligraphic gestures of the East. The artists attached to Black Mountain College (Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Cage) concurrently opted to transform the stuff of everyday life into art for a new world.

The artist Cy Twombly somehow made his way between these two streams. Twombly received his foundational training in painting while at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Next, while working in the ferment of the Art Students League of 1950’s New York City, he made the acquaintance of Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg, in turn, insisted that Twombly take some time in the more experimental atmosphere of Black Mountain College. But it was Twombly’s travel grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in 1952, that made the greatest impact on the artist. He and Rauschenberg traveled throughout the Mediterranean (Italy, Spain, France, and North Africa). The history, geography, poetry, and mythology of this region has marked his work ever since.

Though the gestures of Tobey were indebted to the calligraphic writing of Zen Buddhism, Twombly retained elements indicative of Western cursive writing styles. At times legible, Twombly’s looping scrawls are often more suggestive than representative of actual texts. The highly energetic, tactile line quality, mixed with masterful coloration, alludes to the myths and locale of the Mediterranean. This underlying Classicism has positioned Twombly’s work squarely within the Western tradition as Postmodern shifts have drastically altered the fabric of the art world over six decades.

The work’s coloration is served best in its simplicity. In pieces that are nearly monochromatic the elegance of line and gesture are allowed a more dominant role in the composition. They approach the poetic, near musical quality of Whistler’s compositions which often incorporate the appropriate word "Harmony" in their titles. One also thinks of the early monochrome paintings by Rauschenberg such as 22 the Lily White.

In every stage of his development Twombly has fused together various media into cohesive works. His use of paint, pencil, and crayon, along with manipulations by his hands and fingers, has produced a unique style—a hybrid of painting, drawing, and writing. The graffiti-like mark making is indebted to his early affinities at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts with the painting and drawing of Alberto Giacometti. His interest in text may also be linked to the collage work of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, for whom he had a similar admiration during his time in Boston.

The series of paintings often called Blackboard Paintings (1966-72) reveals Twombly’s continuing engagement with the more conceptual currents of the art world. These white on gray works bear a resemblance to texts written, erased, and overwritten on chalk boards. As text was quickly becoming a stand in for the visual image in conceptualist circles (see Joseph Kosuth and Art & Language), Twombly’s acknowledgment of this shift, while still utilizing the traditional medium of painting, is a sign of his deft use of appropriation.

One is also reminded of the blackboard works of conceptualist Joseph Beuys when viewing Twombly’s paintings of this era. The obvious difference between the two is medium. It seems that Twombly took Kaprow’s words to heart. When Cy came to that crossroads he recognized that the tradition of painting was not yet dead. His work resuscitates painting’s proclaimed corpse, proving that there is still unexplored territory to cover.

In recent years, as represented in the current show at the Art Institute of Chicago, Twombly’s work has swung in the direction of a more traditional format. To qualify this, it must be acknowledged that the tradition is Abstract Expressionism and its roots in Surrealism. Both Paul Klee and Robert Motherwell, early influences on Twombly, had retained links to Classical Western art. Twombly’s newer works, while not actually representational, provide clearer visual cues to themes of landscape and flora.

This move from non-representation to semi-abstract forms is not unusual. One is reminded of the artist Philip Guston—a notable Boston painter—who gained his initial acclaim for his Abstract Expressionist era works; dubbed by some as Abstract Impressionism. His final decades were imprinted with a change of style that incorporated cartoon-like figures and imagery that still retained his former pastel palette. The shift signaled a return to figuration for several artists who rose to prominence in the 1980s.

Producing mural-sized canvases, Twombly’s recent works recall hues and forms of flowers. He seems captivated by the medium of painting. In his final years, no longer fearing the need to remain relevant, he engages the canvas for the pure love of working the medium. While previous works may have engaged and utilized texts from epic poetry and ancient mythology, these late paintings approach Classic forms with his signature mark making, but through a symbolic visual vocabulary.

Over the course of several decades Twombly has achieved what few artists could. His work is firmly entrenched in the tradition of Abstract Expressionist painting through his autographic, gestural style. At the same time, he has honored the new traditions of textual criticism found within Deconstructionist approaches to art making. This bridge-building posture places him as one of the few Modern painters with ability to carry painting into a new realm, keeping it on par with newer media at the dawn of a new century.

1 comment:

techne said...

my wife and i saw the twombly exhibition too. while the work was less interesting to me than his room at the philly museum of art, it was great to see his sculptures (conservators' nightmares though they are). the paintings were definitely more classical, more traditional - beautiful big blobs of colour hanging on the idea of peonies, or flowers. but i think the work is thinner, somehow.