It’s difficult to make a calibrated and semi-nuanced case in favor of a prominent artist who’s just died. Opinions at that moment -- and we have one here with the passing of Cy Twombly -- tend to fall emphatically either in the direction of praise (Twombly was one of the greatest American artists of the post-World-War-II era) or bah-humbug (Twombly was a late-to-the-game Abstract Expressionist who tarted up comparatively vacuous paintings with references advertising his erudition). For me, the two extremes are both true, but in a way that leaves my estimation of Twombly not in the middle, but way over -- albeit not all the way over -- on the positive side.
Cy Twombly stretched -- “attenuated” is a better word -- Abstract Expressionism to its limit. He was a kind of homeopathic AbExer, creating vast canvases (when I visited him in Virginia for a Newsweek story in the early 1990s, he’d rented a huge railroad depot building along the tracks in order to work on a single painting), filled with a whole lot of white, punctuated by what most critics affectionately call “scribbles,” words printed or written as if by a palsied hand, and clots of nervous brushstrokes that looked like chrysthanemums. (He was a Southerner, you know.)
These are paintings that you either buy into, or don’t. Unlike the white work of Robert Ryman, no amount of explaining the theory (internalized by the artist, not posted as a manifesto) behind them can make you like them if, initially, you don’t. I did like them. Twombly “held” a big format without bombast, with a kind of seeming effortlessness. He got great impact out of little beans of color in a vast white-ish soup (Ben Nicholson did the same thing more precisely, in much smaller paintings). And -- this is the sticking point with most of Twombly’s detractors—his touch, his stroke, his handwriting-within-painting can seem pretentiously epicene (“pretentiously” is the operative word here). But it always looked, and still looks, just right to me. It’s as elegant in its improvisational parts as, say, Brancusi’s Bird in Fight is in its deliberate whole. Anyway, self-indulgence is a nice quality to have in painting, if the painter’s as deft, literate, and sure of himself about it as Twombly was.
Is my appreciation of Twombly’s work a product of his being, at least to me on that one occasion I spent time with him, cordial to the point of courtliness? His house in Lexington was so quiet, so tastefully furnished in a hyper-traditional Southern way, so politely dimmed and cool against the insistent humid heat outside, that it might have been owned by a grand-niece of a Daughter of the Confederacy. I remember waiting in the living room for Twombly to return with drinks -- lemonade, I think it was -- and listening to the tock-tock of a grandfather clock while marveling at the flawless sheen on a dark, oval tabletop. The painting he was working on down at the depot was more than spatially impossible in regard to the house; it seemed psychologically impossible, too. One of the Twombly obits quotes the artist as saying that Virginia was “a good start” for ex-patting to Italy (which he did in 1957). I can see the huge painting, with its built-in ancientness and feeling of the preciousness of bright flowers against sun-bleached stucco Roman walls, in terms of Italy; I can see Twombly in terms of Virginia; and I can see the artist and the painting in terms of each other. So I guess that indirect triangulation is part of what makes Twombly click for me.
But there’s still something faintly galling about Twombly’s words on canvas, and I probably don’t believe that he misspelled “Ilium” as “Iliam” in the Fifty Days at Iliam permanent gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on purpose because he wanted an “a” to refer to Achilles. Do we really need the words? Do they really add anything, visually, to the work? Do they really evoke anything about their putative subject, beyond simple labeling? Nope. But I don’t believe all that Jungian backstory in Pollock, either. The words are Twombly’s goad to get himself to paint, and he’s entitled to them. But, in my opinion, the Twombly paintings without profound proper names are better than the ones with them.
And Twombly’s work is better enjoyed in small doses. Whole galleries of his work (e.g., the Renzo-Piano-designed one on the Menil Collection grounds in Houston) are a bit much. But encountering a choice, single Twombly like the Guggenheim’s The Italians (1961), nicely installed among other works by other good artists, is as refreshing as running through a lawn sprinkler on a hot day. Critics like me like to put together adverb-adjective couplets to sum up works of art, and I can’t resist “profoundly refreshing” in regard to Twombly’s painting. If it were any more profound, it’d be too heavy and not refreshing; if it were any more refreshing, it’d be too slight, with no gravitas at all. Twombly found a balance of the two. And the wonder is not that he achieved that difficult equilibrium, but that he kept it up for so damned long.
PETER PLAGENS is a painter and art critic.