Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery has mounted an intimate selection of the late Cy Twombly’s last paintings, alongside a survey of the artist’s photographs from the past seven decades.
Eight untitled paintings, all of the same large, portrait format, regurgitate variations of acid-toned swirls over a uniform green ground. Their corkscrews of colour record the action of an arm circling at the elbow, looping red on yellow from left to right across each plywood panel. Occasionally, overpainted arcs of either colour redraw elements so that no single passage ever dominates. Grouped together, they reverberate hotly across the space, and though individually they hum with polychromatic intensity, it is serially that they work to their full potential. ‘Drips’, ‘drizzles’, neither word adequately describes the fall of paint from their burning, brushed-on swathes, rippling down the panels with disturbance, violence, and urgency. They are related to the Camino Real series that inaugurated Gagosian’s Paris gallery in 2010, a group of works linked to Tennessee William’s 1953 play of the same name, concerned with aging, artistic courage, and the atrophy of dreams. Twombly’s dynamo-like explosions of red and yellow have much the same climactic quality, always grating from the inside out, and spinning with a kind of fatal velocity.
Every so often, near the top of each work, where the colours filter out to cleaner lines against the green behind, letters loom into view – ‘a’ or ‘e’ perhaps – maybe even a word – ‘read’ or ‘greed’. At the point of becoming recognisable, these scrawling phrases seem immediately to scramble before your eyes, pulsing in and out of focus and blending together as parts of an overarching, abstracted language. Perhaps Twombly felt his paintings could no longer be communicated through anything but pure colour. Many artists turn to broad brushstrokes in their late surges, removing all but the vital, immediate man-made mark in time. Certainly, those definable, mythologically imbued, or sexually charged words and names visible in many of Twombly’s earlier series are absent here. In their final move to abstraction, they are more like Albert Irvin’s canvases, though that artist is not producing anything nearly as potent a symbol of abstract colour as Twombly could in these last works, pregnant as they are with colours humming in tension.
Just as enticing for me are Twombly’s photographs, displayed in an adjacent space. They touch where, in my mind, the paintings cannot. Many of them record Twombly’s sculpted works, the act of sculpting in plaster, and the resultant objects in transition, affirming such processes through a medium at once instant, intimate, and distant, impartial, and mediating of their subjects. They observe spilt plaster, mounds of material and pseudo-plinths, building blocks of his sculptural style scrutinised in great depth. They are private images most of them, like Medardo Rosso’s studio shots; part of a process of assimilating and qualifying the sculptures by interrogating them through a lens. Can the objects they record stand up on their own? Are they of sufficient force? This is a fascinating strain to, and ability of, the photographic medium, and one which Twombly obviously felt very keenly indeed. These shots took time to develop of course, and as such also speak of that cooling off period after something is made, cast, or poured; they capture that precious gap between frenzied creation and the final, cold editing process.
Like many of Twombly’s paintings, particularly series overtly concerned with life and death such as the remarkable Fifty Days at Iliam, these photographs also express the temperament of an artist at home with death. Indeed, it seems as if, for Twombly, whatever subject appeared in each photograph was being judged on its ability to succeed or fail, live or die, as an object first and foremost. Gravestones and memorials, columns, flowers, or people – it didn’t matter to him, one senses. One of the more self-consciously posed images in the selection appears in the gallery’s grouping of early works. In it, a boy sits alongside a columnar plinth supporting a large marble bust above. Heightened exposure has caused tones to essentialise, and the boy’s form and planted chair legs serve to balance the monument beside him in binary opposition; light and dark, dead and living. Much of the bust is turned black (though it sits only in soft shadows), and the hard light hitting its back tears the stone in two in midair. It is clear from such an image that Twombly’s preoccupation with the essence of form and tone, a concept carried through to the very last works he made in every medium, was hatched from the very beginning, inbuilt and untaught.
Having suggested the elisions between Twombly’s chosen media, his photographs do serve to corroborate and explain the paintings. When chromatic qualities are at the forefront of the artist’s mind, focus is often compromised. Where colour is absent, the focus is pin-point, precise, and hard. However, the two are never far from each other, and each image appears to be permanently and precariously on the cusp of change. Alongside this, Twombly’s photos dip into colour with an acute feeling for what the subject communicates about forms in the moment of flowering, of vitality. As with a series of stunning sky-scapes, in which azurite skies hang between clusters of black canopic branches, where colour is used in the photographs it is simultaneously cool, yet full of the density and emotional redolence of the pigments that mark his paintings.
This is a well-considered selection of works, entirely suited to a farewell celebration. Moreover, the paintings and photographs gain strength from groupings not often available in museological contexts. The exhibition’s dedication to Twombly’s incisive powers of observation make it difficult to talk of an artist who is now dead, for in these works he feels very much alive, still scrutinizing and critical, still active in the sweep of each brushstroke. Even so, it is both fitting and fortuitous that on the return journey from the show’s opening, as I stood on Regents canal looking West, there was a London sunset of magnificent and searing beauty. It was heavy, laden with the pigments of atmospheric pollution, of light caught in an almost tangible state, with clouds, whole skies, on fire above the earth. More in the present tense, and of course infinitely more egalitarian than an exhibition at Gagosian, it was a send-off I think he think he would have enjoyed immensely.
Cy Twombly, The Last Paintings
Open 6 – 29 September 2012 at the Gagosian Gallery
6-24 Britannia Street
London WC1X 9JD
T. 0207 841 9960
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