If you see one exhibition in London this year, make it "Cy Twombly's Cycles and Seasons" at the Tate Modern. As a lover of painting, and particularly, artists who make it their life's work to explore the properties of paint on a canvas, I am somewhat biased towards this exhibition. That said, I have seen many of the Tate Modern's temporary exhibitions since it opened in 2000 and few have been as profound as this one. The exhibition gives an overview of Twombly's development as a painter from some of the earliest work in the 1950s to the recent cycle Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos (2005). Each of the twelve rooms is given over to a particular series, cycle or period in Twombly's work with the culmination of his work on display in the penultimate room of the exhibition: the two versions of Quattro Stagioni (1993-1994). The brilliance of the curatorial choices is evidenced in Nicholas Serota's creation of a particular tone, temperature, mood and power of emotion in each room. Each is quite distinct from the others.
One of the most remarkable features of Twombly's paintings is that they are always a part of a series, a cycle, and they abound with repetition, both within and between canvases. They only ever make sense in relation to other paintings. This is one of the many ways that Twombly challenges the conventions of painting: most of his works reach off the canvas. They are rarely centered - balanced maybe, but never centered - because the painting exists in conversation with the canvas next to it, as it bleeds and spills off the edges of its own canvas. Alternatively, the coagulations of paint reach out to us, as they protrude from the surface of the painting, demanding that we become involved with them. There are also less tactile ways that Twombly's works solicit completion from beyond themselves. The scratches, doodles, incisions, lines that go nowhere and seemingly half-finished gestures with the paint brush, all give the impression of exposing a process, a mind at work, still with places to go. When we see a single Twombly, there is something missing, something not quite complete about the painting. It needs to have the painting next to it, or alternatively, it is only ever in existence when we are there to witness its motion, its meanderings, its ineffability. The curatorial decisions and architectural layout brings the necessity of all these conversations to the surface in this exhibition. It offers us the opportunity to experience the paintings in the community in which they make sense. Together with other works by Cy Twombly.
On entering the room filled with a series of tributes to Nini Pirandello, the deceased wife of Twombly's Roman galleriest, Plinio De Martis, we are struck immediately by the power of line and color. Each canvas is different from the next, but all are composed of a series of undulating, cursive calligraphic lines against a background of changing color. The power of the inarticulate, obsessive lines resonates with the effemerality of color when soft blues turn to green to yellow and orange in the background to evoke what cannot ultimately be represented: grief at the memory of a lost loved one. The works envelope us as we stand, mesmerized by the melancholy and intensity of other emotions.
Beyond their expression and solicitation of emotion, Twombly's works are and are not of their time. We see all the references, or more like cross-pollination with Rauschenberg - the use of found materials in the sculptures, the scribbles and scrawls that are patched together on a canvas, all in the name of the constant search for a visual language that has the complexity to articulate the world, the body, the depth of human emotion. And the conversation with Pollock is everywhere in Twombly's work: the drips, the aleatory, the process, and the reiteration of the unfathomable representation that is in fact painting on canvas. But despite these and other references to the painters in his environs, Twombly is also unique. What makes his work unique? Everything: the struggle between paint and lead pencil, between image and word as it is played out across the canvas. Perhaps most profoundly, in Twombly's work we find the uniqueness of a 20th century male artist engaged in the expression of powerful emotions through paint. At a time when many other artists turned away from a use of paint, Twombly persisted in looking for a way of representing the depths of what it means to be human. And while the paintings testify that the search is forever unsuccessful, he never lets go of the importance of searching.
If there is one thing that disappoints in this exhibition, it is that the beginning and endings are uncomfortable. The transitions between Twombly's early work and the Italian paintings of the 1960s are too rushed. As are those between the Quattro Stagioni and the final room of giant, bold red scrawls across the canvases of Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos. These transitions could have been smoother and more logical by including some interim works, demonstrating where the developments and continuities we see so vividly laid out in the rest of the exhibition took place.
- Frances Guerin
Cy Twombly. Wilder Shores of Love (Bassano in Teverina), 1985. Oil-based house paint, oil paint (paint stick), coloured pencil, lead pencil on wooden panel, 140 x 120 cm. Cy Twombly Collection © Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly. Quattro Stagioni: Autunno, 1993-4 from Quattro Stagioni (A Painting in Four Parts). Acrylic, oil, crayon and pencil on canvas, support: 3136 x 2150 x 35 mm frame: 3230 x 2254 x 67 mm painting. Tate. Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery and Tate Members 2002. @ Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly, Ferragosto V (detail), 1961 Private Collection, Courtesy Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich @Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly, Untitled VII (Bacchus) (detail), 2005, Acrylic on canvas, @ Cy Twombly