On Cy Twombly
Out-takes from London Poem / London Journal
by Ken Bolton
These are two extracts from a travel-journal poem. This extract isolates my amateur ruminations on Twombly & the other art I saw on the trip—for any reader interested. I suppose it is clear that I have trouble nailing it with regard to Twombly, whatever ‘it’ is. As it happens I have been trying on & off for some time—to get it done to my satisfaction. Hence his fascination, for me.
For the reader I should posit the following truths, views or assertions that are background to the thinking in the poem.
Twombly’s reputation grew, late in his life, largely sustained to that point, I think, by the fact of earlier, exclusively European acceptance.
Guston was not favoured by the leading US critics while an Abstract Expressionist—& fell foul of most, for a time, when he adopted the mode for which he is now best known. Joan Mitchell was relegated at home to second or third tier rank &, like Twombly, was better regarded in Europe.
The following registers a revision, or the need for one, in the art history I received (eagerly, in the 70s) & which I’ve lived with. Followed by the write-up of a Manet exhibition near the end of the poem, together with that end.
While much of the abstract work
of the European 50s and early 60s
looks weak just as the American critics said it did,
much of the US work — big names —
looks very underpowered: Rothko. Morris Louis,
some of the Stella, some of the Pop. Rauschenberg
generally looks okay, looks good, the best Warhols
look okay. Fautrier, Soulages et al, look tired,
defeated gestures right from the beginning —
but the US stuff, too, often looks bloodless and pointless.
The European resurgence makes sense.
As well, Philip Guston
has terrific pieces — of the fifties, and
the second style — that are great, knocking Rothko sideways.
There’s a Joan Mitchell in London —
nineteen fifty-one or – two — (that is, ‘right on time’) —
that is tremendous. So you have to think,
embittered on her behalf, She didn’t make it …
because she was a woman (and one who stood her ground,
unlike, I suspect, Helen Frankenthaler). And Guston,
blackballed for ditching his Jewish name,
for not going for muscular action, for using
the small brush—‘easel painting’.
The objective judgements of the US
looks less and less so: ideological, prejudiced, not having,
even, much of an eye. The Cy Twomblys I see
look very good. Twombly. On my mind for a while —
as I have tried to separate the works from their reception, their PR.
The one I see in Berlin: a good, early scribble-and-defacement
thing, on beige: Fauve divisionism, only ‘aerated’ —
light, fragile, delicate. And I see a big group
in London—late—the big red paintings—and the sculptural,
cast, ‘Roman’ objects. Theatrical—
but hard to go past. For half price
I get the book—on him and Poussin: the excuse—
At the very least,
now I’ll have reproductions of them both.
(I had resisted the comparison: Twombly-Poussin
— the latter, for me, a source of fascination and of jokes.)
Regarding the scribbly works, and maybe them all,
Twombly, I think, must avoid his manner
turning into Expressionism, too much
unselfconscious attunement—to rhythms and to
push-pull, a reflex resort
to vocabulary or nascent system
(of communication, emotional vehemence): he
has always to affect ‘a fitful gesturing’ towards
(and at the same time an abandoning, of) communication or
developed argument. So the style is offered as sample,
as evidence, has (always) to be seen to fail: abjectness
and half-heartedness are ‘paraded’. An exposition
of ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’ or ‘our present state’.
So the ‘master’, Poussin — deliberated, structured,
rhetorical and didactic (exemplary, expository,
a ‘showing’ style — with big, classical issues and tropes) —
offers a structure to stand against Twombly’s
own efforts, both identifying Twombly’s subjects,
and keying the paintings to their (Poussiniste)
themes—and offering a contrast of styles …
(We all check watches, nod our heads knowingly —
these are serious times, fallen times, perspectives
much shrunk, etc — on the other hand,
the past was brutish… etcetera) The pictures
must seem desultory, ‘down’, abashed,
failed or failing — weak, fragile —
and neither code nor expression.
The Twomblys do gain leverage from the comparison —
more in the book
than in ‘real life’:
I mean, will they often be seen together, now,
outside those pages? In Berlin a picture that looks
sort of dirty — in both senses (so that we feel we
shouldn’t be seen looking at it — though looking at it
is great) — is like defilement — like ‘sex’ somehow
(instinctual, bodily, an index … of spiritual involvement,
of spirit in thrall to the bodily, to desires, to
spill and thrust, and the neither-adult-nor-childish.
And it looks beautiful: rose and crimson — and like
exasperation or gesture. It takes on pathos
as it ‘translates’ as Armida bearing the sleeping Rinaldo,
or Pan’s Triumph. Desperate, sensuous, and, then,
‘human in its failing’. Persuaded? The
enormous ones, in London — red, looping scrawls —
are differently persuasive. Their size
sort of trumps one. So this is what I think about
in Berlin, some of the time. And again in London, and in Barcelona.
I have resisted Cy Twombly’s works —
seen in reproduction — since the mid seventies —
they seem so seductive — so irresistible for our time
and sensibilities. It is as though they have it too easy: Twombly
would be amazed to hear that, maybe: but their expressivity,
their muted, forlorn, impoverished quality
aligns them with late Abstract Expressionism
—with expressionism, generally — and with minimalism,
and arte povera, and an historicist romanticism —
which we want but are not allowed to take
except through ironies, allegory, codedness,
failed codes, failing words.
And they have a delicious decadence we can
pity ourselves for recognising, as a
‘lost world’, ‘lost culture’ — a past
distantly ‘ours’ — that is, if we’re taking up the mantle —
of European, Graeco-Roman civilization.
Bad faith and complicity—high notions, captured
in — ‘signed’ by — the urchin’s graffito.
“It has to be cultivated, right?”
The dream of Motherwell — or Elwyn Lynn (!) —
Miro-loving tachistes and collagistes. Well, Twombly
got there, brought home that bacon. So irresistible
that the art world spurned it — NY’s protestant rectitude —
said no. But eventually caved in. (Has one caved in with it?)
Attendant is the usual fruity Catholic-corruption
—dear to a band of fogey creeps, Klossowski,
Waugh, anglo-catholics and ex-Nazis,
all slavering knowingly, men-and-incense etc. Yawn? Puke?
(Does Cardinal Pell ‘comprehend’ Cy Twombly?
What am I saying! How about a pope? Would they? Rosalind
Krauss, be with me now and defend! I remember, once,
I took heart in her reservations about Twombly —
which resembled my own, I thought then. I should run
a check—like a serious historian.)
‘You take your average Cy Twombly” —
supposed to have no credible rhetoric available:
a composition—decorative and, at some second-order level,
expressive—made up of isolated, sporadic, fitful and hesitant
how often can you stage this? — the works
are celebrated for their high attainment
to a realm that is lyrical, thrilling and heavily freighted
with the sensuous.
A series of cakes had and eaten?
Is this art or pastry? This is a regular dilemma
or terminus of all expressionism.
Pollock travelled the same route from angst to
Dionysian formalism — that looked … surprisingly Apollonian?
Or is that saying too much? (Guardians
of the Secret, to Lavender Mist or Full Fathom Five.)
But end-games, endgameism, have their fascinations:
we applaud the move towards conclusion:
Beckett, Mondrian, Twombly, Ryman.
One can be resolutely unimpressed —
Scribble, scribble, scribble — eh Mr Twombly?
or describe the works’ effects
(usually rapturous and sensitive—colours, line,
and textures, and their ‘poverty’ of ‘means’).
Gorgeousness and astringency.
We go with her to Brockley market, meet Gabe and Stacey and go
on, to the ‘Save Lewisham Hospital’ march. That night—
to the Manet show. Which we enjoy despite its faults. It is
‘portraits only’—so no still lives, no landscapes, no history
paintings, no ‘genre’ scenes—or none that couldn’t be included
under ‘portraiture’ (a term not used as Manet would have
understood it). Includes a lot of failures, and
unfinished pictures. But a lot of the 1860s stuff is terrific:
The Luncheon, a picture of Mme Manet at piano—her arm
‘through veiling gauze’ is great. The Portrait of Zola
is amazingly good—so surprising after seeing it in reproduction
for so many years as just a slightly cramped confection. Always used
to make some single point. (But wow, note the pocket book on the right,
and Zola’s chair!) The early picture of Morisot is beautifully fresh.
The portrait, from around the Zola time, of another man—a name
I remember as Auric, but know it’s wrong— Zacharie Astruc, it turns out—
is also amusingly good: a constellation of white patches against the dark
(face and two hands: hand bottom right hangs
like a glove, the other—thrust into vest—has a kind of
circle of paint as its main part and a thumb that becomes
transparent); below left a circle of lemon and lemon peel.
His patch of red vest further down.
The pictures of his favourite model (also an artist,
and chosen for one Salon that Manet missed out on)
were very good. No Olympia, but the Mother and Daughter
at Gare St Lazaire. The Tuileries picture seemed not so special.
Zola defends Manet as an “honest realist” but this is
clearly not the answer. So much that is quite accurately painted
is set up to look like props, as vignettes that are themselves
‘representations’, adequate (sometimes just barely) to the painting’s
purpose. The paintings seem to call some bluff—challenge the viewer’s
will to suspend disbelief: Manet so often says: ‘This is a picture’.
Zola’s realist was probably Caillebotte. Manet
is intelligent—mysteriously light, intuitive and coolly on the money.
Intellectually deft? Sometimes flakey. Hard not to love.
I read a lot of Peter Campbells’ art criticism: Titian—
where we see, says Campbell, “400 years of the future of painting
in one lifetime.” (As if gobbled up.) There is some of that
in Manet: the quick 1860s portraits that leap forward to resemble
conservative Fauvists (Marquet, Manguin) of 1907 or so
and seem more sure and firm at the same time. Not 400 years,
it’s true. (But he didn’t get to have an old age.)
And there’s Peyton and Kilimnik—current followers.
Cath not well. I read a lot of Peter Campbell while waiting.
As I read, Gabe and Stace work from home: remarkably quiet, a
rattling of keyboards. The afternoon Gabe spends on the phone,
wrangling, and I go down to The Orchard to continue reading.
I think how Peter Schjeldahl wants us to be excited
at the drama of judgement, of achievement, while Campbell wants us to say,
quietly, with him, Yes—to be fond, to assent to some clinching insight;
wishing to finger the artist’s solution, some difficulty overcome
or finally figured: he humanizes and downsizes
where Schjeldahl would cheer the home run, the slam-dunk.
I have a slightly ‘Laurie Duggan’ moment: reading about
Paula Rego while on the café soundtrack there plays ‘Under
My Thumb’. “Strolling is the gastronomy of the eye”—Balzac
(I read in Peter Campbell). And Cath’s preference, too, is for days walking
and on buses. We walk many many miles in
various directions, from the hub of Gabe’s Brockley, aided by buses—
taking in the sights: the ‘sights’, interesting for us, as outsiders,
being detail—of clothes worn, phrases used, architecture of houses,
the actual feel of the suburbs. We head to Ladywell or, more often,
in the direction of Arlo & Moe’s,
twenty minutes or so away—slightly more down-market
than the Brockley places, but more fun: well lit, warm in the sun,
full almost always of pairs of young mums—prams, little kids.
We stop there for a while and move on. Sometimes we call at the library
acrosss from it. One day, looking out their window, I see
a dog like our Pola, a Siberian husky, doing the usual husky thing—
of dragging her owner—leaning, so as to use her weight as well as her strength.
The guy stops at the ATM and the dog is patient. Then friends arrive
and talk begins and the dog grows restive, addresses a number of the guys
about the length of the delay. I email Anna this story,
say, Soon we’ll be home.
As I wash up on the last day (Cath
sick in bed, but recovering—we have had
to cancel our flights and rebook for two days later)
out the window are the trees that suggest “watercolour,
by Peter Campbell”. On one LRB cover a fox had
appeared, glimpsed crossing a field of snow,
its startling red a fact: not to be judged—as
should be there / should not—merely seen, in a silence
we take the fox to move in and which is
our own, as the artist , and we, take it in. A moment. The tree scene has
a similar quiet displacement of contexts—a mixture,
as with the fox illustration, of nature and the urban:
we see trees and, through them, the white, three-storey buildings behind
(and telephone wires, and the ‘framing’—peripheral—
of our own window). I usually see the last squirrel
abandon the branches for the mass of blackberry undergrowth.
They are in the trees to get the warmth of the early sun,
high at first, and descend with the light to ground level
by breakfast time. Branches sway slightly—no squirrel
this morning. They are long out of the tree, gone.
In an hour or two we are gone too.