Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Heroes - Cy Twombly

CY TWOMBLY   The Rose (IV), 2008   
Acrylic on plywood   99 3/16 x 291 5/16 inches (252 x 740 cm)

While perhaps not quite deserving the title of 'greatest American artist you've never heard of', Cy Twombly is by far the lesser known of the two truly great artists to emerge from the famous Black Mountain College. There are several reasons for this, not least his decision to leave the US and settle in Italy, which made him less visible than his friend Robert Rauschenberg. Twombly's style, with intense elements of abstraction and scribbled words or sentence fragments on stark, often sparse backgrounds, is also less immediately accessible than the recognisable Americana of Rauschenberg's famous pieces. And the themes of romanticism, nature, poetry and classical mythology which have dominated Twombly's work, though obliquely treated, are more the stuff of 'old' art than the contemporary. 

Cy Twombly, Quattro Stagioni: Autunno, 1993-5, © Cy Twombly

As a huge Twombly fan, and having seen many of his major works in isolation or as part of themed shows or collections in Paris and Bilbao, I was sorely disappointed I couldn't get to 2008's Tate retrospective. So the chance the following year to see The Rose, five new multi-panel paintings, at The Gagosian Gallery's Britannia Street location, was an opportunity not to be missed. The show certainly didn't disappoint, and with the gallery almost to myself late on a Tuesday afternoon, it was wonderful to experience these spectacular works and examine them up close and personal. The evidence is that Twombly's creativity and technical brilliance burns brightly still at over 80 years of age.

CY TWOMBLY    The Rose (IV) (panel 3 of 4, detail), 2008
Acrylic on plywood    Panel: 99 3/16 x 72 13/16 inches (252 x 185 cm)

Each painting depicts three giant roses across four large panels, with the final panel containing scrawled fragments from Rilke's poem cycle The Roses. This combination of nature and poetry, painting, drawing and text, is Twombly's signature style, and in these monumental works creates an awe-inspiring and partially disconcerting effect. Simultaneously we are drawn into the abstraction of the running paint and the dynamic brushwork evoking the flower as it bursts into full bloom. Simultaneously we are drawn into the power of the vibrant tangerine, gold and crimson, while entering the internally reflective world of the poetic text.

CY TWOMBLY: The Rose    Installation view
Seen close up, the paintings are a revelation. On the last work in the series, which depicts the rose in a state of decay, almost black, the drips show black paint running through bright green, indicating that the artist was working quickly, layers of paint being applied on top of still wet layers. On other panels, the work is more careful, colour densely layered upon colour and the running paint forming distinct patterns and layers of its own. The style is perhaps more gestural than some of his earlier work, but the overall effect is powerful and evocative, and Cy Twombly is without doubt still a master of the merging of abstract and figurative, image and word.

CY TWOMBLY: The Rose    Exhibition Catalogue
The Rose is not currently being exhibited, but an intriguing exhibition setting Twombly alongside Nicolas Poussin runs at Dulwich Picture Gallery from 29 June to 25 September.

Find a fantastic resource on Twombly here,  including a gallery of over 200 works from 1951-2002.

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