Cy Twombly at Tate Modern

I went to the Twombly exhibition at Tate Modern today. What a fabulous name, btw: I tried climbing the Eiffel Tower but the height made me go all twombly.

He’s not someone I knew much about beforehand, and I don’t know how excited I would have been if I had known; he does what you might describe as scribbly abstracts. In fact with some of the the early ones, white covered with scrawly pencil marks, you wouldn’t be totally surprised if you were told they were taken from the wall of a particularly chaotic primary school. Or perhaps, given the presence of crudely-drawn genitalia and thick gobs of turd-brown paint smeared on with the fingers, a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum.

The paintings in the exhibition, which covers his whole career, are nearly all large whitish canvases with various kinds of roughly-applied scrawls, smears and squiggles. The colours, the media used, and the arrangement of the marks all vary, but there’s a clear continuity through the work. Despite the brief outbreak of genitalia they are overwhelmingly abstract; only the titles and a few scrawly bits of text give you a hint of what they are ‘about’. The two main themes seem to be classical myth and particular places, mainly I think in Italy where he works.

'Quattro Stagioni: Autunno' by Cy Twombly

When I say I might not have been excited to see the show had I known what the work was like, it’s because I find myself increasingly unsympathetic towards non-representational art. Which is a bit philistinic, I know, and I don’t want to get too Daily Mail about it — I do know there’s a baby somewhere in the bathwater — but I think it’s just a sense that when abstract art doesn’t work it’s really exceptionally dull, and I’m not sure even the most successful stuff can ever reach the heights, or have the richness, of representational work.

Having said all that, I did actually enjoy this exhibition. Twombly has the knack of producing charismatic objects. Even the paintings which appear most messy and haphazard have a kind of presence to them. I was going to say that they are more than the sum of their parts, but perhaps it’s that they don’t seem like the sum of parts at all: they come across as organic wholes. Why that is true strikes me as a deepish mystery. The sheer size of them helps give them authority: the painting above, which is perhaps 8’×5′, is typical. There’s a room of much smaller works, about 18 inches square, and although I quite liked those too, they were that much easier to ignore.

» The painting, Quattro Stagioni: Autunno, is © Cy Twombly; the picture is taken from the exhibition website.

2 replies on “Cy Twombly at Tate Modern”

The thing is, the threshold is a lot higher for abstract expressionism, isn’t it? A representational work can fall well short of total gestalt and still be enjoyable to look at.

Even the most mediocre picture of a cat is at least still a picture of a cat.

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