Cy Twombly, who passed away this week, is the last lion (if you wish to lionize him) in the dynastic succession of abstract painting from squiggles, smears, and the monster-exegeses that legitimized them, to the deeply personal shorthand that was, as it were, his signature.
Of course, I want to pooh-pooh the man. I find today, and have always found, Abstract Expressionism to be oxymoronic. In my view, the least you attempt to express in a painting, while remaining faithful to a vision or aesthetic approach, the more "expression" is likely to get in there. To name an entire school after something that may well the end result of a creative process, but shouldn't (again, in my view) be consciously attempted, is hubris in the extreme. In fact, I think we should capitalize Hubris here. That begs the question, however: when shouldn't it be in caps?
I will let my miniscule readership wrestle with that question.
Twombly was, in the context of Abstract Expressionism, something of a pioneer. After meeting Kline et al at Black Mountain, he went to New York and, I would imagine, hung out at the Cedar Bar. But then: he vamoosed. Let me credit him with a sort of aloof independence. He could have battened on the half-baked theorizing of his colleagues almost indefinitely, but chose not to. If he did it at all, he did it from across the pond, where all the words got scrambled - not unlike the words in his paintings.
In Rome, he began to "paint" graffiti-esque canvases that drew upon street painting, classic literature and mythology, a sexuality that dared not speak its name (at least in the U. S.), and all sorts of other things that moved him. In these early works, he deviated from the Abstract Expressionist playbook and named names. Scrawling themes and titles across a canvas not only earned him points for bravery, but purisitic condemnation. I tend to be of the latter camp. Tell me a joke, but don't tell me you've told it.
From then on, his work morphed into a kind of ecstatic randomness, though it was always tied to a theme-presumptive, though I would like to suggest that you can call a doughnut an aircraft carrier. That doesn't mean it's so. That just means that you have a certain audacity. So, when Twombly chose his themes and matched them up with a smear or something that would pass for one, he insited that we regard this smear as relating to, explicating, or enriching his title. Just because he launched his small craft into the water doesn't mean that it had to float. But it does provoke discussion and that is largely what Twombly and his Abstract Expressionist colleagues are about.
In fact, nonobjective painting - even when the "painter" admits to a theme or possible imagery - is ambiguous enough to light the fires of innumerable interpretations. It's why all those rough-tough guys who splattered paint on unstretched canvases had to pink-slip themselves at five in the afternoon and rush over to the bar. As their buckets had spilled paint, their mouths needed to spew interpretive jitterbugs.
This is not to say that other painters are silent. But I will have to say that none of them talk as much as that Cedar Bar crowd did. Or need to.
And so Twombly evolved. At first, a lot of critics didn't like him. But most eventually caved in. I'm sure he was regarded initially as a turncoat. How dare he forsake the nerve center of painting and high-tail it to dead-as-a-doornail Rome? Well, he did and it was probably the smartest thing he ever did. Removing oneself is the first step to myth-creation. If you're not in a room, people will talk about you. Failure to show up ad infinitum will induce forgetfulness - or a stronger pull than ever. Twombly was somehow able to excite the latter reaction.
Yet I still can't see much to rave about in his work. He'll throw a forkball, but he'll telegraph it. Where's the mystery in that? He can co-opt an authority symbol - in his case, a blackboard - and scrawl all sorts of gibberish on it, but does it really challenge that authority? (Furthermore, is challenging authority what painting is supposed to be about?) Seems to me that, rather than tearing authority down, Twombly's canvases became a kind of authority unto themselves. Standing before one of his blackboard paintings, I'm sure naive collectors have consulted it, as their Greek counterparts once consulted the Oracle at Delphi. ("How much will you be worth in 2050? And could you please tell me: why don't you scribble something I can read? I'll admit that it sometimes makes me crazy.")
Once image-making relinquishes its original premises, as it did with the Abstract Expressionists, one can make a case for almost anything so long as he or she obeys the tenets of the New Painting he or she wishes to both honor and corrupt. John Mitchell's oeuvre is a case in point. Much of it is nothing more than whiffs of pure color dashed across a white surface, but she and her critics have tied them in with Monet. So they have their cake (gravitas) and they eat it too (first, and even second, tier Abstract Expressionist have made a lot of money. And don't preach to me about Pollock. He just didn't live long enough to be box-office boffo. If he'd hung on for another ten years, he would have had been able to match estates with anybody in Southamptom.)
I think I've adequately acknowledged Twombly's personal contribution to the Abstract - or, rather, Post Abstract - Expressionist canon. But let's go onto other things.
Painting today, while it can be stodgy and self-referential, is getting back to where it came from. Painters are looking AT things again and thereby getting to who, or whom, they are. They are inspecting old-timey realities and finding them good. Most are making cliches, but those who are not have re-invented painting and that's all the to the good. Twombly represents, I hope, the final gasp in self-laudation disguised as loyalty to First Causes. He grabs a few things from the past, says that's what his paintings are about, and mows down any sort of critical appreciation of the how and why. He just does it, people say. That's his genius. If Twombly had a genius, it was for co-opting a possible last gasp in an aesthetic paroxysm that could never sustain itself. Nobody except certain painters, certain critics, and certain arts professionals likes Abstract Expressionism. The person who will mostly likely respond to a painting of Something rejects the overpowering narcissism of a painting that's about Itself. "I can do that," says the person. And whether he can or not, he's getting at something that gripes the hell out of him. He wants to be spoken to. He wants for art - or even Art - to reveal its meaning as it illuminates something deeply personal. He wants to walk hand in hand with it rather than study it from the vast remove of a museum setting and think he's been hornswaggled. He wants the same thing he generally gets from a movie or sporting event. Transcendence. An understanding of limitless possibilities. A way into a world that seems utterly bewildering even as it flashes moments of grace.
This is not to say that we need a populist art. We know the road that goes down and I'd, for one, wish to pull it up and make a jogging-trail out of it. But we should attempt to re-examine what art is about. I'm going to throw my hat in the ring and say it should be about communicating universal experiences in a formal vocabulary that is sharp and vigorous, but not so goddamned arcane that it requires reams of explication for us to "get it."
Twombly was of the ilk that plays to the critics - who eventually adopted him; the curators, who put together his shows; the collectors, who were daunted by his "energy" or whatever; and the museums, which always follow the money.
Goodbye, old fellow. I'm sure I would have enjoyed sitting down with you and gazing wistfully over the Tiber as you waxed nostalgic about your native Virginia. A lot of people are likeable outside of their workplaces - or even in them. But that doesn't mean I'm going to cheer for the result.
Yes, goodbye old man. May you be the last in your line.