Cy Twombly: The Last Paintings

Cy Twombly
The Last Paintings
Gagosian Gallery, November 1 – December 22, 2012

Explaining Twombly’s work is a little like trying to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. There is a stated formula and an equation that we are all readily familiar with but unless you  can decode the terms of the equation you are lost. Similarly we decode Twombly’s brush because it is his tool. For Twombly his equation was that paint was like language: it described the world rather than simply made pictures of it. - Michael Klein, New York Contributor

Cy Twombly | Untitled (Camino Real), 2011, Acrylic on plywood, 99 3/8 x 72 7/8 inches, 252.4 x 185.1 cm, © Cy Twombly Foundation (TWOMB 2011.0005)

Over the course of five decades, Twombly moved his language from private notations and scribbles thoughts about a place, and reflections of the power of history and fleeting drama of time. His was both a personal and private poetry; seeking guidance and direction from ancient and classic texts and players of Greek and Roman mythology. In his late years the message became fierce, dynamic verging on the cataclysmic. He leaned in the direction of a sublime, akin to a great Turner or Rothko, fierce power in expressive color and gesture. Regularity and speed, richness of paint and color and yet carefully placed on the canvas so that the whirlwinds of paint are controlled by some hardy undercarriage

For a painter in his mid 80 his energy never seemed to be depleted. Like the British artist Lucian Freud, Twombly came into his own in the later part of his life. True he had a long career of shows and successes but the universal appeal to his work was achieved slowly over time and much effort.  He grew from cultured avant-gardist to grand master. Of the post war generation he is perhaps the most passionate and romantic of painters, extremely different than his contemporaries like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and less pounding and stubborn than his Abstract Expressionists forbearers. Born and raised in America, Twombly came into his own living in Rome rather than New York; living with views of the Tiber River rather than those of the Hudson River.

Coming across a giant canvas at the Metropolitan Museum several years ago it was evident that the 1995 retrospective at MOMA had not ended his career or his yearnings. In fact there is rejuvenation in the late works, a power and a courage mixed with knowledge that sets this work beyond what had come before. The painting I saw at the Met that day- from the Bacchus Series- took my breath away. First because of its intimidating scale and secondly because of the monochromatic and intense red that held me in place. The series name is taken from the cult of Dionysus: of ritual madness and ecstasy both of which were in play.

Next came the blossoms, images of grand and triumphant peonies and roses again with the suggestion of evolution, coming into being and growth. As the century turned there began a series called The Notes from Salalah, a resort at the bottom of the Saudia Arabian Peninsula facing the Arabian Sea. Here the gesture reverts to a kind of arabesque script. The once agitated motion, the nervous line and swab of paint is relaxed into large loops as if the process of painting has slowed in tempo and we are now fixated on watching the hand of the painter glide. Twombly’s marks are a calligraphy that hides its meaning in lose forms and long, sensuous drips of paint.

What then is toiling within the late works of the past few years before Twombly’s death in 2011? These last works, acrylic on plywood, appear to be an on going cycling and recycling of natural phenomenon-air, wind, water, light. In his later years Twombly had became the master of an explosive dynamism, a torrent of passion and exuberance as if paint was exposed to the elements and the entire canvas was a theater of accident and alchemy. Many times drawn to or inspired by travel and nature, Twombly replicating nature through his efforts. But this artist’s view of nature was filtered through the diligence of a sharp cultivated eye and imaginative urbane dreamer.

Of these eight late pictures, all untitled but labeled Cameno Real, the palettes are uniform: bright, a green ground against which Twombly has worked yellow, orange red; stronger and extremely potent; a torrent of contrasts. Certainly we see a marked change from years of the 70s and 80s. Then we witnessed color subsumed by white or squeezed into and around white space. Or the blackboard paintings in which color was set aside and the repetition of a mark kept the surface alive. Color burns in these tall, vertically oriented late pictures.

Tennesee Williams 1953 play Cameno Real is described by its author as, “nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and the world I live in." Is this what Twombly had in mind? Through his last series did he set forth to describe the world in which he lived in a language all his own for us to interpret or simply enjoy?


Michael Klein is a private dealer and independent curator for individuals, institutions and arts organizations.


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