New York

Cy Twombly

Gagosian Gallery

What I like about Cy Twombly’s sculptures is the way they subvert all the clichés about his paintings. An original one—if a cliché can be called “original”—is Roland Barthes’ notion that the canvases are a kind of writing manqué; more ordinary is Arthur Danto’s remark that the paintings are “dense with classical allusions” while remaining an “anthology of [abstract expressionist] marks.” Peter Selz contradicts both, maintaining that Twombly’s “scrawls carry no linguistic meaning” but rather “combine decisive gesture and indeterminate action.” I suppose one sees what one is predisposed to see, but looking at Twombly’s bronze sculptures one can’t help but notice their patina, and realize the extent to which time has been his theme all along, regardless of medium. Twombly’s art marks time at its most “primitive”—“duration experienced in the course of action,” as Jean Piaget says in another context—which is always “mingled with impressions of expectation and effort.” The scrawls on his canvases can be seen as the residue of that duration experienced in painting, and the patina of his sculpture as the apotheosis of primitive time. Twombly’s whole art is an attempt to make time, as “experienced internally,” in Piaget’s words, external and conscious. He succeeds in doing so, with subtle decisiveness, in his sculptures.

In this recent show, ten pieces cast from earlier wood and found-object sculptures were on display, ranging from what is ostensibly an abandoned chariot, treated manneristically—the reins and platform are absurdly elongated, as though made for a Giacometti charioteer—to a group of five flowerlike forms. The flexible stalks of the latter, also elongated, are attached to rigidly upright verticals, as though they were young shoots requiring support. Whether mounted on a geometrical base or emerging from an inchoate mass of material, they also obliquely resemble Giacometti figures with their noble air of petrified abandonment. By contrast, Rotalla, 1990, and an untitled piece from 1997 can be read as pure geometry—both make use of half-circles, mounted upright. In two others (By the Ionian Sea, 1988, and Vulci Chronicle, 1997), the elements register as isolated gestures. Each seems like an actor who discovers his role only when put next to another actor, creating just enough of a formal plot to make a bare-bones drama.

Twombly’s pictorial language, often a barely legible graffiti blur, loses its immediacy in the immensity of his canvases, becoming a temporal whisper. It too reduces to the language of patina, of temporal surface, just as the patina of his sculptures becomes liquid gesture. Patina not only bespeaks the movement of time, but does so in a manner as seductive as a siren song. The lush surface dares to announce the presence of death, if not without the Delphic flourish appropriate to a royal mystery. In the sculptures of flowers or stalks, it is as though Twombly has drained the life from their fragile bodies, leaving behind a perfect shell marked with the auratic patina. This concise act of mourning results in an artistic shadow—a form of immortality that is ironic insofar as it is dependent on mortality. However oriented to classical thought Twombly’s paintings may be, his mummified sculptures, in their ambiguous relation to life and death, seem almost Egyptian.

Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin that is harder and more durable than either, requires technical sophistication to make. It is traditionally associated with the rise of civilization, one marker of which is the preservation of the life of the past in the symbolic form of art. Molten bronze ensures the exact reproduction of every detail in a mold, so a replica or mummied form can be created in a material that, paradoxically, is permanent even as its patina signals time and decay (the patina, in a further paradox, itself preserves the underlying metal). It thus comes as no surprise that bronze served as the ideal medium in which to represent ancient civilization at its most ideal.

If Twombly’s sculptures partake of the glory of the material, they signal anything but triumph. Though By the Ionian Sea, Rotalla, and Vulci Chronicle, along with the chariot and plaque pieces, are indeed technical achievements in transforming decaying wood into enduring bronze (in the work on view, two of the originals were destroyed in the casting process), their significance rests on the fact that, unlike the flower sculptures, they read more as abstract constructions than memorial monuments. While the former group of works has the archaic clarity and archaeological character of the flower sculptures, their evocative patina seems to dress up rather than fuse with their barren geometry, and as such fails to redeem such formal gestures. Indeed, all the sculptures look like the relics of a now ancient era of avant-garde sculpture. I think that for Twombly this golden age began (more or less) with Medardo Rosso and ended with David Smith. (The primitive wagon suggests Twombly’s awareness of Smith’s works on wheels made in Voltri, Italy, in 1962. All the work in the show seems beholden to Etruscan tomb sculpture, which shares certain affinities with early avant-garde sculpture. It is as if Twombly makes avant-garde tomb sculpture, as though he has bronzed the practice of abstraction to signal its failed idealism.)

The pursuit of pure form reached a kind of climax in Minimalism, where it discovered its limits and inhumanity. Twombly seems to be trying hard to humanize form, but his patina in emotional fact signals its death (one outcome of casting it in bronze). His sculptures are like hadean ghosts, mnemonic traces of a world of art that no longer exists. They look back on what will never return, or at least what will never return in the same form. Twombly has always been dependent on art history; his transformations of that history, whether carried out through bronzing or through gestures on a canvas, suggest that the dependence is his ironical way of mourning—or at least expressing his skepticism toward—the future of art.

Donald Kuspit is a contributing editor of Artforum.