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Published 24/07/2008 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons

Tate Modern, London
19 June-14 September 2008

Vibrations from Apollo's laurel branch
stir tremors through the temple.
Depart from here, O you sinners,
Phoîbos taps the door with lovely foot.

Don't you see, the Delian
palm tree nodded,
a sudden sweetness, the swan sings in air,
bolts slide from the door, the hinges swing,

The god is no longer far.1

The opening of Callimachus's 'Hymn to Apollo' as translated by Lombardo and Rayer. The god, patron of archers, poets and musicians, is about to arrive. The signs are all around: trembling, nodding, sweetness and singing in the air. The world is vibrating in expectation of presence. Then the poet veers off into a learned digression on Apollo's names and deeds, which becomes the whole poem: by the time he looks up from his books, the god is sat there giving Envy a kick up the backside. There are two ways of looking at this: either as a fantastic let-down, the feverish ecstasy of the god's coming drowned in academic notation, the whole moment missed, or 'the most masterful negative stroke', which renders Apollo's presence 'implicit in the exuberance, the exquisiteness' of the poetry.2

It would be useless to try to recreate the moments in this exhibition when it feels as if the god is about to arrive or has just left the building: when, for example, 'Herodiade' (1960) calls from across the room with its red 'haptic smear',3 as if only a moment ago something dragged its crimson fingers across the space of the canvas and is perhaps even now just in the next room. Criticism cannot substitute for presence; the best its words can hope for is the masterful negative stroke. Callimachus, the critic, and Cy Twombly: each fails to produce the untouchable thing in their work - the god, the painting, the world. But Twombly, and this is why his works consistently evoke pleasure and yearning, is always working towards that moment, engaged with what is becoming, and refusing the stasis of what is completed.

But to start at the art-historical beginning, lest we be guilty, like Roland Barthes, of taking the 'synchronic approach to Twombly's style'4 (though to do so with this retrospective, where each room is a flash-bulb exposure of a radically evolving style, would take some effort). The first two rooms of the exhibition show Twombly's early Black Mountain and Abstract Expressionist influences, and the move from a black and white palette and the use of heavy materials (bitumen, white lead), towards the light canvases typical of most of his later work (making the reversals of his 'blackboard' paintings all the more unexpected). As Kirk Varnedoe writes, the 'romance of dark pitch and flaking iron was transmuted into a new love of exposed rather than buried things'.5

Yet the exposure is only ever partial in these paintings from the mid-1950s, with white emulsion used to make earlier scribblings obscure. The palpable layering reconfigures the canvas as public wall, 'an object that already has had a life of its own',6 as Barthes writes, although this is a change which only registers fully in the paintings of the early 1960s, when the tracing takes on the recognisable form of graffiti.

So far the lover of Twombly's later work may have been walking quickly, impatient and hardly able to enjoy the neurotic, hesitant line that seeks its difference from the fluid line of Pollock, desiring instead libidinous pigment. But the colour is already here, before its time, disguised in white, in 'Paintings to the Sea' (1959). Painted in what Varnedoe calls a 'pivotal year', together with 'ten of the barest, most austere works of his career'7 (exhibited in the 1994 Museum of Modern Art retrospective but not here), these 24 spumy miniatures splatter white paint over white paper (and crayon and pencil). In the year of Twombly's marriage, these are a paean to Aphrodite, born of foam. The difference is material: they are made with oil paint, tube paint instead of house paint,8 that grows into excrescences and needs smearing out. 'The foamy surface is birth itself, it is the goddess who is born and who is divine only in being born in this way, on the crest and rim of each wave, and in each of the hollows into which the foam spills and spreads', as Jean-Luc Nancy writes in his own 'Paean for Aphrodite'.9

The lewdness of graffiti and the erotics of colour thus evolve in parallel, and together keep the works of the early 1960s in constant tension. If Twombly's work is never static, it is also never pure: it is always cross-cut with the cross-contamination of writing-drawing, desiring-abjecting, rising-falling, containing-smearing, stating-erasing.

If there is one painting in this show that approaches an exceptional state of being over, it is 'FerragostoV' (1961). Weighed down by its encrustations of fleshy paint, this great ejaculation (literally depicted as one of the painting's key elements) seems like nothing else to state consummatum est: it ends the 1961 'Ferragosto' cycle, and ushers in the notation of the rational in the 1969 'Bolsena' paintings next door. The dates alone, however, flag this as a dramatic flourish rather than a chronological necessity, and indeed this curatorial da capo positions the notional consummation of 'Ferragosto V' as yet another birth, of a more sober and restrained style. It also evokes the art-historical/biographical convulsion that took place when Twombly's multi-canvas 'Discourse on Commodus' (1963) was savaged by a New York art world in love with minimalism, prompting the painter's stylistic turn, or so the story goes. But why not show the 'Commodus' series itself, part of the Bilbao Guggenheim's permanent collection since 2007?

There are a few such mysterious ellipses: the 'blackboard' paintings undoubtedly have an important place in Twombly's oeuvre, but are represented only by the relatively late 'Treatise on the Veil' works (1968 and 1970). Austere though they are, these monumental pieces resonate with the earlier, baroque Twombly. In 'Treatise on the Veil (Second Version)' (1970), for example, a series of white lines are dragged in wax crayon across ten grey metres of canvas. This new form of mark-making adapts the indexical function of graffiti and hand-painting, the scribble or smear as guarantor of the artist's bodily presence, to a new post-minimalist interest in repetitive processes.

Following the cycle of 'Nini's Paintings' of 1971, the exhibition moves away from minimalism and returns to Twombly's abiding interest in using names and fragments to approach a mythical or historical knowledge. 'Apollo and the Artist'(1975) and 'Mars and the Artist' (1975) epitomise this approach: from the bottom of these two paintings, a schematic flower or a hand, labelled 'Artist', reaches up towards the god's name. In 'Apollo', this is visible in blue over several earlier revisions and paintings-out in white oil, which has mixed with the blue to make an impure bath of colour surrounded by scribbled signs, fragmentary attributes and measurements.

These revisions, and the extended hand or flower (which, in metamorphosis, filters the divine through botany) are repeated attempts to bring the god to presence. As Tacita Dean writes, she imagines Twombly 'not allowing himself to break off the connection but working towards the moment of contact: his actual encounter with the great god Mars, or gentle Apollo, god to all poets'.10 That moment is never quite completed though; there is always a gap before the outstretched hand, the imposition of white space that might function, like poetry's line break, as a willed caesura in meaning, or else as the wavering of the maculate hand before the immaculate body, swayed by a noli me tangere. What this hand can do though is write, label, colour and mark, and in doing so manifest the signs of presence. And it is precisely sign as index, as handprint or handwriting that is bound to its maker, towards which Twombly shifts his ghostly symbols: these gods, these battles, these heroes, these names all are filtered through his own body.

Anyone who loves the Twombly of the epic imagination will regret the absence here of his 1978 work '50 Days at Iliam', but curation must be the art of the possible. As consolation, Twombly's return to sculpture is well-represented in the last rooms, and the paintings feature several variations on the sensuous, even sentimental romanticism that characterises aspects of Twombly's more recent work. 'Hero and Leandro' (1981-84) is a multipart piece that shows a more figurative and expressive use of paint in the heavily-daubed body of the drowned man labelled 'leandro' - the name as only proper marker of the dead - with its purples and greens gradually diminishing, over two further panels, into a grey sea. The final panel is a small piece of unpainted graph paper, scrawled with the last line of Keats' 'On a Picture of Leander': 'He's gone; up bubbles all his amorous breath!' Here, the work of writing is distinguished as mourning or remembrance: it attaches to the corpse, in the manner of a mortuary tag, and functions as the epitaph, but in this the scrawl of words has separated from its emulsion in paint, and stands alone.

It is interesting to note how often Twombly approaches his classical subjects indirectly, through translated fragments of poetry, from Pope's Iliad to Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus (this a double translation, from myth to poem and from German to English), or through painters ranging from Poussin (as in Twombly's reference to 'The Kingdom of Flora' [1631] in 'Empire of Flora' [1961]) to Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770). Writing in the catalogue, the Tate curator Nicholas Cullinan argues strongly that the untitled 'Green Paintings' (1988), which fill a room in this exhibition, should be read through the lens of the Venetian mannerist, rather than as Impressionist pastiches after Monet or Turner. This interpretation is supported both by the striking Rococo lunettes of the two largest canvases in this nine-piece work, and by the rapid, liquid application of the paint (Cullinan quotes Heiner Bastian, who writes in the Catalogue Raisonné that while Monet sought the 'material weight' of symbolic reality, Twombly's painting leads in the opposite direction, towards an 'immaterial, fluid animism').11 It is as if Tiepolo's shade gives Twombly the freedom to indulge in theatrical caprice, without the need for a classical subject: even if the first panel frames a prominent quotation from Rilke, the rest of these paintings are remarkable for their concentration on qualities of liquidity and light, putting concerns of content aside. What remains is movement without narrative, a bubbling surface that is coyly revealed, in brief, almost accidental glimpses of bare surface beneath the paint, to be pure artifice.

The earlier boat sculptures such as 'Winter's Passage: Luxor' (1985) and 'By the Ionian Sea'(1987) anticipate the boat motif that features in the 'Four Seasons' / 'Quattro Stagioni' cycles of paintings (painted between 1993 and 1995), although the sculptures that share the penultimate room tend to the arboreal, memorial, or both at once, as in 'Thicket' (1991). The room is dominated, however, by the eight huge canvases, which in their intensity of colour, and density of classical and literary reference, form a crescendo to this latter half of the exhibition that parallels the 'Ferragosto' cycle. Yet this one is in an elegiac mode, the sensuousness of the colour tempered by its liquid fall down the canvas. 'Primavera' (1993-95) freely translates the ending of Rilke's last Duino Elegy: 'And you who have / always thought of / happiness flowing / would feel the / emotion / that almost / overwhelms / when / happiness / falls'. These paintings engage with the dialectic of rising and falling that has run through much of Twombly's work from the late 1950s onwards, and the effect is indeed almost overwhelming.

The exhibition has a final twist: three of Twombly's newer paintings, from the 'Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos' series (2005). The title refers to the tension between different aspects of the god of wine, his flights of pleasure and wild frenzy, and the paintings themselves provide a contrast to the lyrical tenor of the other recent work. While the severely reduced palette of red on tan might provoke comparisons with his minimalist turn of the late 1960s, the looping circles bear a relation to the war chariots of later works, such as 'Anabasis' (1983), shown at the Serpentine in 2004. Working in series, and using variation and repetition, has allowed Twombly to introduce the passing of time into his paintings; the Tate's approach of exhibiting whole cycles of work together makes it possible to appreciate this. However, the portion of the retrospective dealing with his late paintings seems too selective, leaving out the 'Lepanto' series (2001), as well as Twombly's recent floral works, such as the 'Peony Paintings' of 2007. Significantly, the omission of works which take famous battles as their subject obscures the harder edge to Twombly's late work, working through the sumptuous surface: not only Bacchus but also Apollo has two faces, as the sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay knew, dedicating a temple in his sculpture-garden to 'Apollo, his music, his missiles'.

James Wilkes

1. Callimachus. Hymns, Epigrams, Select Fragments. Stanley Lombardo and Diane Rayer (trans). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987: 7.
2. The Poems of Callimachus. Frank Nisetich (trans). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001: xxxvi.
3. Marjorie Welish's phrase, which differentiates Twombly's work from the 'optics' of colour-field painters. See: Marjorie Welish. Signifying Art: Essays on Art after 1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999: 59.
4. Ibid: 57.
5. Kirk Varnedoe. Cy Twombly: A Retrospective. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994: 19.
6. Roland Barthes. 'Non Multa Sed Multum'. Henry Martin (trans). In: Cy Twombly. Fifty Years of Works on Paper. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2004: 32.
7. Kirk Varnedoe. Cy Twombly: A Retrospective. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994: 30.
8. An observation made by Varnedoe. Ibid: 30.
9. Jean-Luc Nancy. 'Paean for Aphrodite'. Jonathan Derbyshire (trans). In: Simon Sparks (ed). Jean-Luc Nancy, Multiple Arts. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996: 52.
10. Tacita Dean. 'A Panegyric'. In: Nicholas Serota (ed). Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons. London: Tate Publishing, 2008: 35.
11. Heiner Bastian cited by Nicholas Cullinan in 'Writing on Water: the Green Paintings'. In: Nicholas Serota (ed). Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons. London: Tate Publishing, 2008: 184.

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