Classic natural gas
Works by Cy Twombly at the Getty Center
by Bondo Wyszpolski
It would be fair to ask me, why did you insist on reading the entire catalog for Cy Twombly: Making Past Present when you were almost convinced he was an overrated artist? Because I wanted one of the essay writers to enlighten me after half a century of viewing or exposure to his paintings, drawings, and sculptures.
After his death in 2011, Roberta Smith of The New York Times called Twombly “an outstanding and inspiring talent” and placed him in the company of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, a trio who rose to some prominence in the 1950s.
He was christened Edwin Parker Twombly, Jr. but was nicknamed “Cy” after baseball icon Cy Young. The connection seems to end there. From 1947 to 1948 Twombly attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, which was located across from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1952 he received a travel grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which enabled him and Rauschenberg to visit North Africa and Italy.
Italy hit the mark. Twombly moved there in 1957, and although he also lived in the United States, he spent his final days in Italy. To decorate his apartment in Rome he collected classical artefacts and – how else could you afford them? — broken or fragmented heads, busts and statues.
He enjoyed what has been called a poetic exploration of antiquity. He read the classical Greek and Roman authors and many of his canvases have the name of a Greek god or Roman hero, also poet and philosopher, scrawled over them – a long list that includes Orpheus, Dionysus, Plato, Homer, Sappho, Apollo and Venus. This gives the impression that Twombly’s work now contains a classical and literary element and therefore makes it the subject of a Getty exhibition. According to Matthew Teitelbaum and Timothy Potts of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (where this show originated) and the Getty here in LA: “If Twombly seems to have ‘looked back’ at the ancient world, he also constantly brought something forward with it into the period of his own production… The obliterations, ambiguities and sometimes total illegibility in Twombly’s work speak to our imperfect recovery of the past while leaving room for new and renewed encounters in the future.”
It seems they plead for erasure, ambiguity, and illegibility as something laudable. I think so, if you can pair Twombly’s canvases and “sculptures” with examples of authentic ancient art.
“What we can’t see or read,” says Mary Jacobus, “is part of Twombly’s stylistic repertoire: the casual-looking, casual acts of illegibility.” But what she can’t say is that the scribbles are atrocious. Neither does Christine Kondoleon: “Writing text in pencil is key to Twombly’s innovation of introducing language into painting.” are canvas and nothing or very little else.
And then of course we have the works themselves, some with titles that can conjure up images that are actually difficult to spot or decipher in the images themselves. So here is the question. If the images are abstract, should the titles be taken literally?
Kate Nesin writes extensively about Lexington, Virginia (where Twombly also lived) and Italian public places while attempting to interpret “Blue Ridge Mountains Transfixed by a Roman Piazza,” which Twombly created in 1962. She focuses on the word “transfixed”. , which she says “begets a stormy immersion, the genuine affect that so often motivated Twombly’s engagement with textual and material figures, stories, and objects from history; but … also carries a touch of violence when done or acted upon, paralyzed, albeit forced.” In short, she finds “a more or less literal relationship between the painting and its title”.
For real? A more “literal” interpretation of the sketch might end up differently: five planks forming a walkway, between two clumps of snow-covered brown vegetation. Does Nesin really see a mountain range and a Roman piazza? As anyone who makes art knows, whatever title you throw in the ring is going to have critics drooling over it and spouting nonsense about what it means. In art, the cart pulls the horse.
In a footnote on p. 241 of the catalogue, Twombly is quoted as saying: “People make too much of the mythological titles” and adds: “To me they are just a stepping stone.” And Nesin himself should have suspected that, because she also writes, “Twombly was notoriously taciturn, reluctant to talk about his work, and often elliptically or shrugged when he did.”
The catalog also includes several so-called Leda and the Swan-inspired images that look more like captured fox-in-the-henhouse shots with feathers everywhere. Mary Jacobus writes, “The strongest myth of transformation with a swan is Zeus’ rape and impregnation of Leda – an uncomfortable myth for our #MeToo era.” Zeus as Harvey Weinstein? I think it is inappropriate to refer and apply #MeToo to Greek mythology. In passing, why not say that sexual assaults by Russian soldiers are an uncomfortable reality for our #MeToo era? At least you would be more up to date.
As I mentioned, I’ve been perusing the catalog looking for someone to enlighten me as to why Twombly is considered an artist of real significance. None of these authors (with the exception of Anne Carson), writing for their academic peers and not for the curious lay reader, could do it, and not even Kirk Varnedoe when I looked elsewhere. In his defense of Twombly’s work, he noted that its uniqueness “lies in the orchestration of an earlier, uncodified set of personal ‘rules’ about where to act and where not, how far to go and when to stop,” and so on .
I look for art and it can be abstract or figurative that offers something that can capture and hold my attention and then draws me closer, embraces my curiosity and stimulates my imagination. Some of Twombly’s work succeeds in doing this for a variety of reasons, mainly because there’s a hint of something vaguely figurative to play with, such as ‘Death of Pompey’ (1962) – is that a mortal throat wound? – and “Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves (III)” from 2009, the latter suggesting a flotilla of boats in the Aegean. This one also contains something that’s somewhat rare in Twombly: rich, alluring colors and shapes.
I’ll keep looking at the other pictures and maybe one day I’ll have an epiphany and have to apologize on my hands and knees to the authors of these essays. But not with the sculptures, because they have no value for me.
Some of the large, expansive canvases would make bewitching backdrops for fashion photography, which could be a fun touch, and also reminiscent of one of Twombly’s comments on his work I found in the New York Times. “It’s more of an experience than an image.” Perhaps that’s a good starting point for many of us, too.
Cy Twombly: Making the Past Present is on view through October 30 at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Complimentary season passes required (Parking $20 per vehicle; $15 after 3:00 p.m.) Hours of Operation Tuesday through Friday 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Call (310) 440- 7300 or visit getty.edu. HE