Taking Modern Art to School

John Haber
in New York City

Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly's career retrospective may contain the largest painting I have ever seen. Stuffed onto a wall of the exhibit's spacious central gallery, the slate-gray canvas is filled with tightly wound loops, like one long continuous chalk scrawl. In spots the grainy white oil paint was rubbed gently when wet, as if a blackboard eraser had passed—and might pass again. Cy Twombly's Untitled (Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston, 1967)

The canvas plays obviously with the painted gesture, but the blankness of the image denies its own trace of the living artist. The chalky marks could almost have been left by anyone, great as the effort required might be. The eraser could have been wielded by someone else again. Abstract Expressionism has, one wants to say, been sent back to school.

Painting for the museums

One used to hear a great deal about second-generation Abstract Expressionism. Every dominant style founds an academy, so that younger artists can use it and struggle against it, and the phrase "New York School" too soon grew curiously literal.

The institutionalization of Modernism drives postmodern criticism. Yet any image of a "great-society" program for modern art is misleading, even if museums exploit it for sanctimonious displays of abstraction. There is nothing wrong with a comfortable working method. Without one, fewer of the artists close to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Arshile Gorky might have survived. Gorky loved the discipline of drawing—and Rothko had a hard time giving it up—almost as much as Twombly loves to scribble in paint. de Kooning himself has managed to reach his own glorious third generation of Abstract Expressionism.

Still, younger abstract painters may have felt the need to be just a little more cautious, a little more reflective, and even a little more artistic. They knew what it was to paint for the museum and to be neglected by it. They stood at odds with the institutions, while defining art as one. Among the most interesting cases was Cy Twombly.

Artists never really paint like their influences, although some risk coming awfully close. In not doing so, they create a style, and they reveal what a movement was supposed to be. Like Clement Greenberg, the critic, followers saw the great art of the 1950s as fulfilling decades of exploration. Now painting could show itself as it is, marks on an essentially flat canvas. The brushstroke represented both the freedom to make a mark and the formal constraints of artistic tradition.

Maybe Abstract Expressionism never did have much to do with purity and flatness. Pollock's drip paintings often evoke nature and humanity, from images of eyes to warm, life-giving sunlight flickering amid the surface of a deep and threatening ocean. As I move close to his surfaces, the web of brushstrokes encloses me like traces of the artist's own hands. Stepping back, I start to perceive a clear, symmetric architecture of firm but shallow depth. Greenberg's prescription, however, defined the opposition for decades of art and criticism. It also pointed to possibility in art only beginning to emerge.

Greenberg wrote at first for small left-wing magazines. He meant the artistic process to reflect on the value and price of postwar America's progress on a larger stage. But the formalism of the painted mark was felt long after, from the supposed purity of color-field abstraction to the textual overlays of political artists. The subdued beauty of those second-generation Abstract Expressionists may well hold more meaning today than the august art of their predecessors, even if someone like Michael Goldberg straddles both. Late modern art would thus be the single greatest exemplar of a postmodern critique—and also the great exception.

Graffiti without angry words

Twombly began like the first generation, with suggestions of the human figure amid abstract designs. Like many older artists, he tried his hand too at small, rather threatening sculpture. He was tapping the surrealist unconscious, brought up to date by his training at Black Mountain College, home to Robert Rauschenberg, Josef Albers, and free verse.

Early in his twenties, however, Twombly turned subtly away from dark human "personages." Pollock's grand interplay between figure and depth gave way to an ambiguity of surfaces alone. In these largely white paintings, as in that huge gray canvas some years later, the viewer has to ask whether the marks are embedded in or on the painted surface. Black crayon curves dash across, or else wax is melted flat underneath the background whites. The materials and colors strongly recall the encaustic mixtures used at roughly the same time by Jasper Johns.

The reticence of these paintings, too, echoes Johns. When Pollock leaves a hand print, one knows that he had to reach for support, or maybe for dear life, while executing a drip. It is the trace of presence—with all the power and ambivalence that those two strangely conflicting words might imply. Twombly's odd hand print is fainter and not quite the right size. It could be the image of anyone.

Within a few years, the sketchy crayon and oil took on the form of words. The text, too, could be by anyone, hardly the graffiti-ridden crayon of Jean-Michel Basquiat or the heavy irony of Barry McGee. It is simply the record of a living language. The titles will start to evoke mythology, and the words will soon cite European poetry. This is not a stand-in for the artist but the legacy of a culture.

In some of the white paintings, a few thick clots of bright colored oil cling precariously. They further accent the problem of the painted surface, almost as directly as Frank Stella with his more geometric approach around that time. They remind me, in fact, of Stella's quip that he only wanted to make his paints look as good as when just squeezed from the tube.

Twombly never returns to depth or imagery, although he has returned to Lexington, Virginia, where he befriended Sally Mann. Despite slightly pastoral colors in paintings of the 1970s, there is nothing like Joan Mitchell, with her sea of flowers as if in a hidden handwriting. Despite the brief interruption for grey surfaces, the elegant reserve of his art never varies.

His consistency and originality are never in doubt, but this viewer, I hope, can be forgiven for never quite enjoying either one. Mostly a resident of Europe since the 1950s, Twombly is not exactly in exile, like James Joyce or Ralph Ellison. Rather, he is too comfortable with his solitary reflections on human civilization. He echoes centuries of human voices without quite putting any of them into question.

I felt the anticipation of graffiti art, the artist's book, and political text, but I wanted something of the challenge these forms would bring to art and its buyers. I understood the comparison to Johns and Stella, but I missed the shock of their thrusting the painted grid in our face.

Johns had taken a target, meant to be pierced forcibly from a distance, and set it down in front of us, with cold but tactile handling of the encaustic surface. Stella told us that what we see is what we get. Twombly acts as if what we see is a distant memory of great things. Whereas Johns flashed bare human skulls, Twombly is suavely paring his fingernails.

I went, with some hesitation, for his urbanity, but I stayed for that astounding blackboard. Be patient, it insisted. Fine art that reveals itself slowly and graciously probably has to be of a second generation, and sometimes in life that is more than enough.

A postscript: Twombly's drawings

For fifty years, Cy Twombly has taken writing and drawing as the basis of his art. Paint gives the illusion of of pencil on paper or chalk on a blackboard. Colors have the scribbled pungency of crayon, and their arbitrary placement calls attention to the surrounding fields of white. Words, in Twombly's inimitably awful handwriting, may spell out a classical theme or a time and place of observation and creation. They may function less as a definition of the subject at hand than as a sign of disjunction between the image and its origins.

Twombly's interest in drawing makes sense for someone of his generation. Born in 1928, he came of age when American art was making Modernism at once more rigorous and more rugged. Pollock, Krasner, de Kooning, and others obliterated the very distinction between painting and drawing—or among the flatness and symmetry of canvas, the shallow space of its painted surface, and ideal, infinite space of vision and representation. For Twombly, however, the facticity of paint seems almost incidental, and so do the lofty aspirations of formalists and metaphysicians. He identifies the sublime with Greek myth rather than northern lights and human heroes.

Twombly's means and ends make a retrospective of his drawings natural and even perhaps essential. Then again, it risks seeming superfluous. What could happen to drawing that announces itself as drawing, that sheds the illusion and sticks to the self-reference? Twombly's patchy images and his fancy invocations of Italian landscape always risk looking a little too pretty, too personal, and too precious.

I have often understood him that way. In this very page, one of my first attempts at a review, I could fully appreciate only his blackboard series. Painted at the dawn of Minimalism, it fit best into my own preference for formalism and mind games. Besides, he meant its minimal means to evoke the streets of lower Manhattan, where he worked. And in the loops, reaching for once toward the edge of the canvas, he really let loose.

Ten years later, the drawings help me a lot. I went through them more quickly than I might wish, so perhaps still more with respect than with engagement. After ten years, however, he seems almost contemporary. Younger artists have worked much more with words since 1995. Women artists have opposed scratchy clusters of paint and pencil marks to white space. They have used these marks to suggest the body as dangerous, unfinished territory rather than completed by another's gaze.

Twombly obviously does not have the same message, and he is still at home with pretty colors and the names of Greek gods. Still, I can sense at least a little better the vigor and pleasure behind them.

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"Cy Twombly: A Retrospective" ran in the winter of 1995, at The Museum of Modern Art. His "Fifty Years of Works on Paper" ran through May 8, 2005, at The Whitney Museum of American Art.


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