PRINT September 1994

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THE EMINENCE GRANTED Cy Twombly by our era’s leading art critic, the auction market, bothers me. I tend to accept the market’s long-term judgment as the most sensible gauge we have allowing for a sanity lag of twenty or so years—of art’s relative values in and for the wider culture. Say what you want about money; it is sincere. But watching the wild run-up in the ’80s, and comparative buoyancy since then, of prices for the Other Guy from Black Mountain has given me a tic of alienation.

I will not be unhappy if Twombly’s MoMA show squares my taste with that of the collectors who, checkbooks aloft, seem to be voting him the boss abstract painter after the New York School. But I rather expect the darker satisfaction of confirming for myself the triumph of a reactionary impulse among art’s major consumers. Twombly’s case is a far closer call than last year’s disheartening Lucian Freud boom, though a related soul-sickness may be afoot.

Twombly as an artist is plenty soulful and incredibly seductive. Also serious. He is no Richard Diebenkorn confecting middlebrow desserts from modern art’s kitchen scraps. He projects a splendid irritability. His work is as much a form of behavior as a product of craft. It is restless, with the discontent of a dog that turns and turns, unable to feel just right about the place it has chosen to lie down. The main place Twombly has chosen since the ’50s is the New York School big painting, in its definitive combination of matter-of-fact touch and cosmic field.

This site defines Twombly as a poet of belatedness. Brilliantly, he makes it a medium for fugitive traces of other lostnesses: Mediterranean aches, Roman poetries. There is wonderful tension between vatic reference and vernacular mark, the ineffable and the crude. Twombly conveys a peculiar state—reminiscent of the poems of C. P. Cavafy—of possessing in mind and heart a territory that his body cannot share, because the body cannot inhabit memory. His body’s gestures toward that zone—itchy, stammering, tender scrawls—deliciously hurt. Meanwhile, he checks a tendency to the precious with bold and practical experiments in picture-making form.

Twombly’s lingering grace note to the silenced symphony of Abstract Expressionism has had a good influence. It has helped numerous painters, from Brice Marden to Terry Winters and Ross Bleckner, see ways to be tough and exquisite. The little tragedy of the Twomblyesque has even enjoyed a second full production, as farce, in the hippopotamus ballet of Julian Schnabel. But the most honest and forward-looking ideas in these last forty years of painting, not to speak of more robust art mediums, leave Twombly at their margins. His current prestige gives evidence of a positive taste for historical backwardness.

Twombly is an artist of authentic medium-sized virtue inflated by others, through no fault of his own, with the gas of an inauthentic, smarmy, self-hypnotized nostalgia. This nostalgia is smarmy because uninformed by acknowledgment of actual loss. It marks an evasive consciousness among the privileged of society that their days of identification with the evolution of art are over—a divorce Twombly’s elevation backdates to the ’60s, when present woes were born.

I do not mind that Twombly’s song of loss has begun to drown out certain brass bands of ’60s avant-gardism. Frank Stella, for instance, got the right recognition at the right time for a Twombly than a Stella until I don’t know when. The trouble is more obvious in a preference for Twombly over the slower burning innovations of Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, and others faithful to the plight of abstract painting after the collapse of modern pictorial conventions. Lots of additional near-contemporary and contemporary painters, not all of them German, count more than Twombly in diverse ways, if truth to our time is what interests us.

Anyone gets to like anything, and all the winning art-historical judgments are based on sheer liking in the long run. If our art culture were healthy, however, it would be the turn of somebody other than Twombly to be lionized, somebody more predictive of the present. Our art culture is not healthy. The spirit of liking, which separates the rich from their money, is split off from the spirit of truth-telling, which distinguishes living art from bric-a-brac. There is no use casting blame for this split, a collective misfortune. The laurels now being heaped on Twombly suggest that it is gaping ever wider.

Peter Schjeldahl writes art reviews regularly for The Village Voice, New York. His next book, Columns and Catalogues, will be published by The Figures, Great Barrington, Mass., this fall.