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Gagosian Quarterly

December 11, 2015

Cy Twombly

An exhibition of Cy Twombly’s late works, including paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, inaugurated Gagosian Gallery’s new exhibition space at Grosvenor Hill in Mayfair. A concurrent exhibition of photographs by Cy Twombly is on view at Gagosian’s Davies Street location. In the following conversation, Olivier Berggruen, art historian, author, and scholar, and Mary Jacobus, professor at the University of Cambridge, both of whom have written on late works by the artist, speak about the works in the exhibition.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 2007, acrylic on canvas, left panel: 120 ⅞ × 59 ⅞ inches (307 × 152 cm); right panel: 118 ⅛ × 149 ⅝ inches (300 × 380 cm) © Cy Twombly Foundation

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 2007, acrylic on canvas, left panel: 120 ⅞ × 59 ⅞ inches (307 × 152 cm); right panel: 118 ⅛ × 149 ⅝ inches (300 × 380 cm) © Cy Twombly Foundation

MARY JACOBUSIn your essay on the Bacchus paintings, you included a quotation from Barthes, “Action made visible,” and I wondered if you thought it also had resonances with other paintings included in this exhibition?

OLIVIER BERGGRUEn
Yes, indeed, and there’s a whole history in Twombly’s work of making gestures and actions visible. We see that in Paul Klee’s work and throughout the twentieth century.

MJIt came into my mind as I was looking at the marvelous Bolsena drawings from 1969, and I connected them with the question of how you make action visible. In this case, perhaps it is the action of thought, or space. The collection of drawings are intensely mobile—these rectangles seem the last things that might be flying through the air, yet in some sense, they are launched into a space.

Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, Untitled (Bolsena), 1969, pencil, wax crayon, and colored pencil, 28 ¾ × 40 ⅛ inches (73 × 102 cm) © Cy Twombly Foundation

OBWell, to go back to the Roland Barthes quotation, it seems to me that there are two layers. Throughout this career there was an unusually poetic dimension to Twombly’s work, which culminated in the late Bacchus paintings. So there is this drama unfolding on the canvas. It’s not just the visual drama, but the drama of the process of actually engaging with the painting. For instance, the repetition of gestures in the blackboard paintings from the 1970s and 1980s is now being revisited thirty or nearly forty years later in the Bacchus canvases. I find both layers very interesting.

MJYes, I think you’re right, and I think the layers are also—you put your finger on it—temporal. There’s a layer of time in the way Twombly’s Bacchus paintings seem both to go back to earlier works, like the blackboard paintings that are in some ways so austere and cerebral. Yet in the Bacchus paintings, there’s an extraordinary sense of release, so you have this idea of reprise and release, which moves in a kind of temporal action through the different eras of Twombly’s work, as though he returns again and again to a problem and then finds new energy in the way he releases it both in gesture and in the way he addresses each canvas. And I think you’re right to point to that element of drama on the canvas. And, just to return to the Bolsena drawings, which were created in a particular moment, the moment of the Apollo landing, there is a drama in there that also seems to be a possibility of collapse. The reason I say this is that I’m free associating to Tenniel’s extraordinary illustration for Alice in Wonderland, when the entire pack of playing cards fly into the air and fall down—there seems to be something about the energy, which is both captured and also about to collapse, that is fascinating. And even in the excess of the Bacchus paintings you have the facing off of Psilax and Mainomenos: facing off, going too far, celebrating the excess.

Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, Untitled (Bolsena), 1969, pencil, wax crayon, and felt-tip pen, 27 ¾ × 39 ⅜ inches (70.3 × 100 cm) © Cy Twombly Foundation

OBWell, that goes back, in part at least, to a set of historical circumstances. Let’s think back to the 1950s when Twombly was still living in the US all year round, in the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism undoubtedly made a very strong mark on Twombly’s work, but the tradition of gestural painting was itself very much influenced by the earlier tradition of Surrealism. And we must not forget that Surrealism itself was based in two divergent concepts, one in which works of art were first elaborated in the mind and then translated into pictorial matter. And another, which was based on the idea of automatic writing, or an interest in spontaneity, and of course that was the aspect most embraced by the Abstract Expressionists. However, Twombly’s work is remarkable, in part, because we always see him combining both ideas, collapsing them into a precarious equilibrium. There may be a mental image that gets unleashed on the canvas, or perhaps a poem or even a quotation from an Ancient Greek or Roman writer. Then there is something that seems to happen spontaneously during the process, with the artist not knowing where it was going or how he was going to tackle it. So, there is often an element, which can be seen in these canvases, of struggle or a moment of grace that Twombly ultimately reached, with each one becoming a part of the miracle of his paintings.

We have that sense of the accident always about to happen, and yet it’s harnessed into an extremely determined and powerful line.

Mary Jacobus

MJThere was a wonderful phrase that Twombly seized on in a book of Rilke translations that he quoted on one of his drawings in the seventies: “Orpheus brings order and beauty to Dionysus.” Maybe picking up on that, you used the term grace, which suggests the energy and unexpectedness, the uncertainty of the outcome, and yet the idea of Orpheus or the principle of art, not necessarily music, as bringing some kind of order to this exuberant and potentially quite destructive way of addressing the canvas. And through the doubling of Psilax and Mainomenos: by facing them off against each other, Twombly sets up a type of dialogue. And that dialogue, or tension, can also be seen as balance or control. Nicholas Serota has talked about the extraordinary control in those late paintings, where they seem to be quite wild and yet the enormous scale of them makes them a triumph of control over the gestural. It’s painted with brushes that have very long handles and dripping paint. We have that sense of the accident always about to happen, and yet it’s harnessed into an extremely determined and powerful line.

OBWell, certainly these contradictory elements are part of what makes them so very, very interesting. But then there is another contradiction in Twombly’s later works: the raw physical engagement with paint, the sheer size of the canvases. At the time of the original Bacchus exhibition, Twombly often referred to Giulio Romano, the great Renaissance painter who made a room of the giants in Mantua at the Palazzo Te. The sheer scale on which Twombly worked late into life is an affirmation of life itself at a time when he must have been aware that life was slowly coming to an end. There is something very endearing about the use of these incredibly lush colors, something he probably wouldn’t have employed earlier in his career, certainly not with the same abandon. It is absolutely remarkable that there is this sense of release and freedom that comes late in life; we can see that in Titian, in Cézanne, or in the late work of many artists.

MJYes, and when I think about this scale and the freedom or even pleasure, it brings Matisse to mind. And the extraordinary burst of creativity that seems to be associated in some way with a sense that physical capacities may be limited or strenuous work may be problematic. But the question of scale is also fascinating, because in some of these works, ones that are basically folded paper with flower shapes, and some quite luxurious and wonderful gestural works, again, folded as if the smearing might be part of the making.

Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, Bacchus, 2006–08, acrylic on canvas, 128 ⅞ × 99 ⅜ inches (327.5 × 252.5 cm) © Cy Twombly Foundation

Those remind me very much of Matisse’s use of the flower shape in tiny miniatures when he’s writing to his friend André Rouveyre and addressing these delightful little letters to the Joie de Vivre, where he lives. Also, the use of petals and poppies as wonderful illustrations to a poem, Pavot d’Or, “Je t’aime pour me delivre du poids du mon coeur,” the idea of the flower that relieved one from the heaviness of the heart. And I think that’s part of why these paintings seem so joyous both in Matisse and in Twombly, who actually sizes them up, makes them larger, enlarges the flower in a way that Matisse had miniaturized—which is an extraordinary way of affirming the joy of the flower, but is also infused with some melancholy about the imminent collapse or death of the flower.

OBBut I do see a difference between late Matisse and late Twombly, and of course, there is a sense of the joie de vivre, of experience, of serenity. But after the war, Matisse was more or less bedridden. He had a lifelong desire to give the viewer something where one could lose oneself, offering images of such serenity that the outside world is lost, forgotten, so much so that aesthetic contemplation becomes everything. That was also partly why Matisse was so keen to work on his chapel. He creates these wonderful maquettes and stained glass windows for the chapel in Venice. With Twombly, there is that release but there is also a lyrical quality, an undercurrent of forces that are not necessarily joyful. That kind of undercurrent gives us a sense of something more complex, of a serenity that is more difficult to gain or regain than in a Matisse, for instance.

Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, Strawberries (Gaeta), 2008, color dry-print, 10 ¼ × 9 ⅞ inches (26 × 25.1 cm), edition of 6 © Nicola Del Roscio Foundation

MJOf course the complexities are actually in both, but I think you’re absolutely right. Let’s—just to take up the question of flowers and scale in a slightly different way in the photographs—I’m very struck by a couple of photographs where you actually can’t tell if this is a beautifully decorated plate or a layout of flowers or just what it is. With these deliquescent flowers, these crowding petals and tiny, tiny miniaturized blossoms on a twig that could be a bunch of bananas or could be an exquisite piece of wintersweet, it’s hard to know. And that question of “What is it?” is wonderful, and it gets brought to light in the photographs. Is that a lemon?

Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, Lemons (Gaeta), 2008, color dry-print, 10 ¼ × 9 ⅞ inches (26 × 25.1 cm), edition of 6 © Nicola Del Roscio Foundation

When Twombly photographs a lemon, they become unrecognizable and yet deeply sensuous textures, just pure texture or shadow in their blurring. They’re remarkable. And they seem to me to be part of an investigation on Twombly’s part about how scale can make common things unrecognizable. Why does an enlargement have such a strange effect on a very familiar object?

OBThe photographs by Twombly are remarkable. They don’t look like anything else in the history of photography. They are really the creations of Cy Twombly, and they raise questions about subject matter, surface, and textures. These are not easily resolved, but they have an enduring poetic presence, which is how I can relate them; I tie them in with Twombly as a painter or as a sculptor. But these images have a life of their own.

MJWell, there is pure beauty of the texture, the graining, the slight sheen of the surface, the depth of color: They’re extraordinary. And one wonders how he moved from one to the other, what kind of attentiveness to the possibility of the photograph produced these pictures and in what mood did he make them? They’re both beguiling and very pleasurable in some ways. They’re pleasurable partly because they don’t have the polish and sheen often expected of photographs, but some recall his early still lifes, things that were very much influenced by photography at Black Mountain College. But what is different in these late photographs is the way in which he can blur and dwell on a detail until it becomes quite luminous and strange.

Cy Twombly is on view at Gagosian Gallery Grosvenor Hill, London through December 12, 2015. Cy Twombly: Photographs is on view at Gagosian Gallery Davies Street, London through December 12, 2015.

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