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October 2003

Yankee Doodle

The simple, impressive works of American artist Cy Twombly

Scribblings, scratchings, scrawlings, bathroom-stall doodles, lumpish painted forms melting into one another. The art of Cy Twombly easily falls into that category of painting to which many a museum-goer responds with, “my six-year-old could do that.” Visitors to the exhibition “Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Words on Paper” at the Pinakothek der Moderne, however, can rest assured that not even the most gifted six-year-old artist-genius would be able to re-create the restrained and provocative brilliance of Cy Twombly.

Born in Lexington, Virginia, in April 1928, Twombly is considered today by many to be one of the greatest living American artists. And with individual works fetching up to $3 million, he certainly commands very high prices. From 1948 to 1951 Twombly studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Washington and Lee University, Lexington; and the Art Students League, New York, where he met Robert Rauschenberg. With Rauschenberg he attended Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, for two years. There his mentors were Abstract Expressionists Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. In 1957, after working for two years in the army as a cryptologist, he took up residence in Rome, where he lives to this day.

Twombly’s Ab-Ex educators, however, were to have a noticeable influence only on his early work, for he never subscribed to Abstract Expressionism as a movement. Instead, suffused with the atmosphere of his adoptive Mediterranean home, and relatively isolated from the New York art scene, Twombly developed his own style. There, unlike his American artist-peers Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, whose canvases are filled with explosive gestures and sensational energy, Twombly restricted himself to thin, nervous lines and self-contained gestures. He was also one of the first American artists to look seriously at graffiti—not, however, the brightly spray-painted political protests or coded gang signs one sees on city streets today. Instead, Twombly responded to the harmless, absent-minded scribblings on various surfaces of public property in 1960s Italy. He transferred these half-thoughts and crudely expressed ideas onto his canvases, where they formed the foundations of his cryptic system of painterly hieroglyphics.

There is a certain silence that pervades Twombly’s art, owing to the dispersion of visual elements across his surfaces. This silence can be heard despite the use of the written word, or at least the intimation of it, in a number of the works in this exhibition. In many of the paintings from the 1960s and 1970s he takes a name—often one of a figure from ancient history or literature—and places it in the center of his work as a sign. The name is a trace, a residue repositioned in a contemporary context and subsequently abandoned. In this way Twombly highlights the discontinuities of history that alienate us from the past. And with his primitive, almost caveman-like handwriting, he makes us feel as though we are viewing the first painstaking, unrefined human attempts to use paint and pencils as tools of recording and communication. However, this primitivism exists side by side with a thorough knowledge of history and ancient mythology. Twombly knows exactly what he is referring to when he names his works “Pan” or “Proteus.”

Another of this artist’s unique features is his ability to lend his minimalism a distinct humanist sensibility. Twombly is not only concerned with the name, but also the human process of recording, erasing, forgetting and rewriting. Each painting is a palimpsest—a piece of written material on which the original writing has been erased or blocked out to allow for later writing. Words are smudged, half-erased or trail off into jumbled zig-zags. Twombly’s art springs forth from a consciousness of our pervasive cultural and historical amnesia, and is therefore an attempt to preserve at some level all that has fallen victim to unravelling and evanescence.

Considering his preoccupation with history and communication through the written word, paper—that age-old medium—may be the most appropriate material upon which Twombly could create his art. And this is not the only reason why the current exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne is a wonderful opportunity for Twombly fans and novices alike: owing to his subtle brushwork, half-erased scribbles and often intricate markings on the surfaces, his work does not lend itself well to reproduction. Only when directly confronted with his paintings and drawings is one free to explore the nuances of his creations. The exhibition brings together 80 works on paper spanning his entire career, from the first drawings and monotypes of 1953 to the bright, densely painted works done in Gaeta in the past few years. The latter include a hand-made book with vibrant patches of color playing across the pages as well as landscapes of the area surrounding Twombly’s home.

“Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper” will be showing at the Pinakothek der Moderne from October 8 to November 30, 2003.

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