Cy Twombly

Whitechapel Art Gallery / Anthony D'Offay

Cy Twombly’s marks carry, with consummate elegance, all of the density required to strike a balance between gesture and representational element, graphic component and communicative sign. They reach back to Surrealism and automatic writing, and to the desire for a kind of presocial Ur-language. Striving for something that is beyond the deadening prescriptions of our particular culture, they nevertheless derive their potency as art from his very close reading of the nuances of contemporary style. Twombly’s works are, in every sense, stylish.

The retrospective exhibition that came to the Whitechapel Art Gallery (a traveling show, organized by the Kunsthaus, Zurich, in collaboration with the gallery) clearly indicates how Twombly’s use of the graphic and painterly mark has developed over the years since his first trip to Europe with Robert Rauschenberg in 1951. The early wet, white grounds, drawn into with pencil, crayon, and graphite, slowly give way to works that are not only more colorful and representational but also the bearers of marks that pull inexorably toward some sort of recognition of themselves as language—that is, they express the desire that they be seen as language. In the progression of works shown here there is also a growing sense in which Twombly appears to be working with a cultural legacy, into the richness of which he is eager to immerse himself. Leda and the Swan, 1961, has an outburst of pencil-scratched incident in the mid foreground, tinged and smudged with flesh pinks; Zeus’ visitation is rendered, graffitolike, by a stream of hearts entering the frame from top right; and above all this, in the center of the canvas, is a simply drawn window whose scale throws the scene even further forward within what is now clearly denoted as a contemporary space. It is here and now.

Twombly is at his most pedagogic with the “blackboard” paintings of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Those at the Whitechapel, such as Night Watch, 1966, and Untitled, 1968–71, were augmented by a selection of drawings and paintings from the same period at Anthony d’Offay’s gallery. Among the works shown there were four gouache-and-crayon drawings from the “Roman Note” series, 1969–70, which demonstrate the kind of easy accomplishment that makes one uneasy, with a style that seems in danger of defining content as specifically literary.

In some ways, of course, Twombly’s work is literary Grand Tour, taking in, among others, Xenophon, Matthew Arnold, Percy Shelley, and Christopher Marlowe, but even with the last of these, in Hero and Leander (To Christopher Marlowe), 1984–85, the persuasive tone of the mark-making holds the image above pure sentiment. It is not a sublime image, to be sure, in the way that its Turneresque opacity might lead one to hope, but it has a confidence of execution that makes it more than a timorous salute to a once-great culture. Paradoxically, it is not Twombly’s distance from his subject matter that suggests frailty, but his sure handling of culturally significant marks to express his pleasure (both intellectual and physical) in that material. That they are so right, now, is a function of their provisional nature.

The simplest, most pared-down images, however such as Virgil, 1973, and To Tatlin, 1974, are the ones that continue to work best. In Virgil, the ghostly presence of the poet’s name written boldly across the width of the paper is just visible through a superimposed layer of white paint, making a powerful palimpsest. Twombly’s sculptures, too, are better when they are simpler. The wooden pieces, cobbled into formal and functional suggestiveness, as with the elongated “chariot” of Untitled, 1978, extend the “language” of the two-dimensional works, whereas casting them in bronze seems to have added nothing except an uneasy manner.

Michael Archer