New York

Cy Twombly

Leo Castelli Gallery Uptown

Cy Twombly’s new works were billed as watercolors, but no one familiar with his work would expect them to-restrain themselves to that category. He uses watercolors, all right, usually brown and green, but they are often straight from the tube, smeared and occasionally washed over. But there are also pencilled passages from Spenser. The structure of the paintings themselves continues Twombly’s Scotch-taping of paper segment atop paper segment. The process is too orderly and systematized to be called collage: sheets of watercolor paper are located in a carefully chosen fraction of larger sheets. Wax paper sheets are placed over sketches and drawn and painted upon yet again. Postcards, covered with the wax paper, are interpreted in washes on the paper beneath. A separately framed set of Twombly’s script is smeared over and erased beside most of the paintings.

A section from “The Faerie Queene” on mutability becomes text for the mutations accomplished by the smearing of paint and pencil lines and the overlaying of poetry. The scrawled word “Epithalamion ”title of another Spenser poem—accompanies postcards of Frederic Church’s Rainy Season in the Tropics sandwiched under wax paper. Other works make notational reference to Robert Rauschenberg’s studio in Florida, where Twombly made many of these pieces.

The themes all interact. The wax paper is a material embodiment of the mutability referred to in the poem: it smears and softens the underlying images. It is also used in art books to shield color reproductions: perhaps history and criticism subject works of art to similar mutations. The wax paper covers the Church postcard, which was probably bought in an art museum, and underneath Twombly interprets the rainbow in his own loose style. The Church painting, again, carries the viewer back to Rauschenberg’s tropical island and to the changes of atmosphere referred to by Twombly’s notes in other paintings about the time of day and the mood.

Once Twombly was parodying writing and graffiti with letterless, illegible scrawl. In the ’50s, Twombly served notice that writing was for him the specific autobiographical performance of which painting was a refinement. Here Twombly keeps the words in most cases, but plays changes on the script of the Spenser quotations, puns, substitutes letters, divides words across several lines, works visual moods with the script. As some of the work is redrawing, this is re-writing, subjective pondering on the words, interpretation through variation. What, Twombly seems to be asking, are images, words, poems, treasured works of art, for, if not to be put to our own different uses?

Such subjectivity might make Twombly the most unreconstructed of Abstract Expressionists. But the cool and determined systemization Twombly has given the work places him close to more recent, less subjective artists whose style takes the form of series-making. Twombly is interested above all in showing us how great a change small changes can produce—reproduction, repositioning, redrawing. His work is a series of these mutations, exaggerated.

Phil Patton