New York

Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly’s is one of the more rare instances of an American artist—Joan Mitchell’s is perhaps another—whose work continues to hold interest despite having been uprooted and transplanted to Europe about ten years ago. Its distance from its place of origin and source of information tells in an arrested development, but not so strongly as to overwhelm the authenticity of its vision. Twombly’s residence in Rome has cut him off from all that has happened in art here since the late fifties, but it has not obscured the elegance, irony, and insouciance that had earlier marked his contribution. These qualities refresh his current show at Castelli, even as it now seems testimony of a voice expatriated from the past.

It would be obviously false to say that because there is a gestural sensibility evident in Twombly he must be identified, in any sense, with the Abstract Expressionists. Rather, his impulse toward spontaneity, be it of the large white graffiti pictures for which he is best known, or these recent canvases that are like backboards, perversely apes the anarchic scrawls of children—scribbles so unrelated to Surrealist automatism or Expressionist “action,” that they ward off any attempt to think of them as valorous under pressure. Without an inherent tone of struggle, or pretense of evoking the unconscious, his calligraphy assumed that it was nothing other than what it was. No metaphorical lens was needed to view it as somehow subsisting in “picture land.” Rather, the context in which his by turns dainty and naughty doodles disported themselves was one of displacement—the canvas was violated as may be a wall stenciled with Defense d’Afficher. Additionally, the myriad markings of oil, pencil, and crayon, while slapped or scraped airily into each other, still purveyed the look of a surface whose disfigurements had their own random history, external to any creative process. They did not have the “personality” belonging to an artist scratching his own sign language so much as they indicated the taste of a man posing as their anthologist. Such elaborately oblique maneuvering (and hidden iconography) suggests a great affinity with Rauschenberg and Johns.

Indeed, the current show registers a similarity with Johns’s grey paintings like No or Tennyson—even to the comparable employment of an “illustrator’s grey” and an all over, but low pressure, imagery. In this case, Twombly, seemingly mindlessly, loops a perpetual mobilum of tiered lateral ovals, in white crayon over the grey ground, as if he had been listening interminably to a telephone in school. They are exercises not so much in boredom, as in distraction. Nothing could be less arty, and yet everything about them—the pentimenti, the double rhythms, the casual, immaterial curves—is quite fastidious. The rather Ensoresque, minutely-scaled squirminess of the early work has given way to this more elementary and spare charade, and though it would be impossible to say what this augurs for the future, I like very much what we have been offered for the present.

Max Kozloff