Cy Twombly (2004)

Twombly and Gagosian (Galleries Magazine, June 2004)

Behind a cool smoked glass screen down an anonymous side street in Kings Cross lies one of the newest and largest galleries in London.  Although its setting may resemble W24th street in Manhattan, in truth there is something about the awesome scale and uniformed security which is a million miles away from the chaos of building work and traffic noise that surrounds it.  Here taste and money bear down on you, demanding a willing compliance with it’s big gun status.

On four giant walls hang ten large paintings by the oracular master Cy twombly, each encased in a wooden frame washed in gun metal grey that seems only to reinforce the creeping sense of unease at daring to disturb the sepulchral stillness of this giant mausoleum.  It  makes a stark contrast to the airy classicism and generous green vistas of the Serpentine gallery, where a survey of the last half century of Twombly’s work recently ended.  The ludic quality of his work on paper is quite absent in these new paintings, all completed this year, all the same size and all resolutely untitled.  The variety and speed of his mark making has here been reduced to a more singular and stately pace.  The colours too are spare and uniform, a combination of  dark sepia, duck egg blue and flat white.  The vibrant tints of his most recent works on paper  are absent, the feint traces of rose and lemon in one of the new paintings all but obliterated.  There are a few Twombly signature marks - the hand smears impressed on knots of paint,the apparently careless dribbles left to run their course - but not many.  The range is decidedly narrow.  Almost entirely gone is the scriptural dimension, the sharply incised letters and teasing incantations.  The large brown marks  hang mutely in space, as though from the hand of a giant calligrapher, but without the suggestive power of this erstwhile cryptographer.  You don’t search as you once might  have for occluded meaning, the urge to decipher diminished by the physical unravelling of the code as the paint work slumps and dissolves. He’s like a Zen master who in the pursuit of nothing chooses to write in the pouring rain.  And the vertical drips slow these pictures down where once a diagonal thrust could energise the clusters of pigment in their peculiar groupings on empty grounds.  Now everything floats evenly in aqueous space, with unfolding shapes that suggest root- like tendrils or seaweed, or even mud bloated worms in tidal shallows.  The underbelly of Monet’s waterlilies, whose scale and serenity they possibly seek to echo.  And there are other echoes too.  The flat house paint  and grand gestural structures of Franz Kline are somewhere in here, a reminder of Twombly’s famous lineage, while something in the sober tones and attenuated forms returns the onlooker to the simple rough hewn totems of his north African drawings of fifty years ago.  Occasionally you sense  an affinity  with the  loose  meanderings of de Kooning’s last paintings.  However there is something wise in these late works, a kind of mystical emptiness that eschews the sublime. We are still rooted in phenomenal matter.

But if they  remain essentially true to his child like impulses, they are nevertheless at odds with their value as icons, and it is this other level of meaning which predominates. While the eye registers filaments of house paint on hardboard the head knows that it is a desirable objects for the few that they are here paraded.  While Cy Twombly’s own inimitable signature is pencilled high up on one of his panels, Larry Gagosian’s large name hovers with predatory elegance on the face of the building and the market place.

Luke Elwes 2004