(1) "Untitled," polaroid photograph printed on cotton fibre
paper coated with gelatin, printed 1991.
(2) "Untitled," polaroid photograph printed on cotton fibre paper coated with gelatin, printed 1992.
(3) "Untitled," polaroid photograph printed on cotton fibre paper coated with gelatin, printed 1993.
(Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills)
When I first encountered Cy Twombly's work, in the form of a small show
of works on paper at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1982, I was staggered.
And I do not use "staggered" as a figure of speech. I mean that
I actually had to seek a bench in the dimly lit, empty gallery so I could
recover from the turmoil into which the artwork had plunged me. What caused
this had a much to do with what Twombly's notational drawings disclosed
about an attitude toward the world as it did with what they proposed about
the pictorial possibilities of the "writerly" gesture.
Through these epistolary drawings/paintings I got a hint of what it means to possess an aristocractic spirit. Several of them consisted of little more than the artist's spastic signature scrawled large across a surface distressed and aged through repeated erasure and obliteration. Here, evidently, was an artist whose profound appreciation of his own oddness could transform the least promising, most awkward of gestures into the perfect expression of his superior grace and infallible sophistication.
Years later, on the occasion of the retrospective which travelled from MOMA to MOCA I found confirmation of what I had surmised about Twombly's character in remarks attributed to the aritst's brother-in-law. Describing the young Twombly he met in 1957, Giorgio Franchetti called him "a natural aristocrat. . .very elegant, very handsome, very aloof. . ." Unfortunately, that retrospective also revealed that Twombly had in his later years succumbed to the temptation to make "important" paintings that bore a distressing resemblance to Julian Schnabel's.
Now comes a show of Twombly's photographs which, while not perhaps terribly significant in themselves, provide tantalizing evidence of the precious aestheticism that has always been at the foundation of his deceptively raffish graffiti paintings. Shot between 1991 and 1993, the 29 images on display are divisible into three theme groups: trees and sky, parrot tulips, and classical statuary. The combination of these amorphous subjects with the archaic Fresson printing process, which Twombly is partial to, produces images that have the washy quality of watercolors. As a photographer Twombly is an unabashed pictorialist. He brings painting into photography.
This work will be most gratifying to those already familiar with Twombly's work and who will therefore appreciate the various connections between these photographs and the rest of his oeuvre. The parrot tulip pictures, for instance, latch onto a chromatic harmony based on orange, magenta and sap green that is frequently encountered in the paintings from the mid-eighties onward. The pictures of plane trees, consisting mostly of beclouded sky and blotches of dark green cutting in from the edges, will likewise recall a favorite compositional device of the aritst. And there is the obvious connection between the pictures of Roman-era garden statuary and the references to pagan literature and myth that abound in Twombly's paintings and drawings.
Of course, none of this explains what makes these photographs affecting. That stems from a quality they reveal which is probably the one thing about Twombly that is unmistakably American. Call it a residue of innocence, call it naiveté. It's what in the past allowed him to tackle and inject new vigor into mythological subjects that had been closed to painting ever since the gradual decline of mythological themes in the nineteenth-century into academicism.
In this instance one cannot help but be struck by the almost foolhardy romanticism of this work, which seems untroubled by even a hint of irony. Were one to attempt to date them on purely stylistic grounds, one might as easily assign them to the end of the last century as to the end of the present one.
Therein lies a connection between these photographs and the rest of Twombly's work that goes deeper than formal kinship. It has to do with the peculiar genius of this artist for harvesting new fruit from the age-gnarled tree of European culture even as others declare it to be dead and good only for firewood. Nietzche, who like Twombly loved Italy, could think of no higher form of praise than to call someone a "good European," and although I doubt that he ever imagined the term could be applied to an American, it fits Twombly perfectly.