New York

Cy Twombly

The current wave of New Realist painting makes me appreciate Cy Twombly’s “blackboard” pictures more and more, especially the most abstract ones. Who since Jasper Johns has made such a resourceful choice of an image, except perhaps Ron Davis?

The illusionism in the blackboards is, so to speak, literal rather than pictorial; it is applied to the presentation the painting makes of itself, not just to something the painting can be seen to contain. In these pictures illusionism envelops the painting itself in almost a trompe l’oeil fashion with the result that the painting is set at a peculiar remove from the spectator. As with Johns’ flag paintings, I take that remove to represent the distance implied by the application of critical concepts to the experience of paintings. Twombly’s blackboard is not an image in the same sense that Johns’ flush flag is not an image; in both cases the tension between figure and ground has been supplanted by the tension between two literal aspects. A Twombly is only a blackboard insofar as it is a painting, but its claim to being a painting, that is to a certain kind of meaning, is based on the illusion it gives of being a marked-up piece of slate. This is not just a clever parody of the critical prescription of a certain kind of flatness for abstract paintings. What is invoked is the critical worry over whether this object is a painting or not; a Twombly blackboard takes advantage of that ambiguity to achieve its identity as a painting. There is implicit in these pictures, it seems to me, a negative reflection of the situation in which the question as to the identity of a painting has to arise; that is, they contain an implicit criticism of the modernist situation in which fraudulence is a real danger. That criticism is, I think, the meaning of the use of literal illusion to arrive at abstraction. However, having seen some new Twomblys at Castelli, I’m beginning to think that I just over read the blackboard pictures and that the strategy they involve was meant to free stroke and gesture as much as possible while keeping them from opening up a space.

What made it possible for the “chalk” marks in the blackboards not to open up a space was that they were already operating in a kind of fictive space, or on a fictive terrain which they reclaimed as literal insofar as they maintained the illusion that they were marks on a visibly hard surface. That illusion located the marks where they literally were, at the surface, and at the same time confirmed the unbrokenness of the surface.

The new paintings dispense with the blackboard image as if it were no longer necessary to arrive at abstraction, but they retain the look of the blackboard surface. It is as if Twombly came to regard the blackboard pictures as too pictorial, too figurative, and set out to make the abstract paintings that would correspond to those relatively figurative ones. Well, it hasn’t quite come off. The show contains three beautiful paintings, all with that pasty sensuousness and the illusion of hardness that stops one’s gaze with a kind of knock familiar in Twomblys. But not much is holding these paintings together other than their look. Instead of the scribbles, doodles, or diagrams of the blackboard series, these pictures contain primarily ragged horizontal lines, almost suggestive of horizon lines in the two darker pictures. I wonder if Twombly has looked at Rothko’s last paintings.

I’m inclined to feel that just about anything Twombly paints will be pleasing to look at, but there are two things about the new paintings that actually trouble me. The first is that about one quarter of the way up each canvas from the bottom there is a line that at first looks a bit darker and more precise than the other drawn lines. A closer look reveals that each painting is actually made up of two panels of canvas, a larger one on top and a narrow one at the bottom, and the line which divides them is a visual pun on drawn line. This seems to me a crude follow-up to the play of literal aspects that occurs in the blackboards, and I think its crudity really undercuts the paintings. The only other painter I can think of who uses sectioned canvas in this way is Larry Calcagno, whose work I can’t take too seriously. (Brice Marden’s way, for instance, or David Novros’ is quite different.)

The other thing that bothers me about the new Twomblys is that they seem to be riding on the esthetic of dinginess established in New York in the late ’60s and which persists in the works of such people as Dorothea Rockburne and Sharon Brandt. I find that esthetic of stains and burns and rust and such very seductive, so I tend to be suspicious of its use. I don’t know how closely in touch with the New York art scene Twombly has been in the past few years, but his paintings seem to stake a lot on that smudgy pretty look. Then, too, I’m not sure but what his work might have contributed to the formulation of that esthetic in the first place.

Kenneth Baker