Men, like trees, wrote Abraham Lincoln, are best measured when down. With the passing of Cy Twombly last week at age 83, we may finally begin to count the rings. Sculpture, now at the Museum of Modern Art, is an opportunity to examine the lesser-known three-dimensional works of the American painter.
Twombly is best known for his scratchy, graffitied canvases, whose subject matter ranged over centuries of classical myths, great battles, and -- in his final series, Bacchus -- giant wine-colored flowery shapes. His signature style, a combination of handwriting, scribbles, and Ab-Ex gestures, can be sampled at MoMA in Leda and the Swan (1962), hanging near the start of the exhibition.
Last week’s eulogizing of Twombly brought forth great ejaculations of praise for his influence on artists from Beuys to Basquiat. Numerous articles noted his long-held interest in Poussin (he is currently paired with him at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London) and his attempts to capture something of the architectural theatricality of Poussin’s paintings in his own work. Looking at his seemingly random, effete scritchings, one might be tempted to ask, Poussin? On what fucking planet?
His sculpture is a different kettle of fish. Solitary, dramatic forms, comprised of found objects such as wood, wire, and plastic flowers (untitled, 2005) huddle together in the small museum gallery. It is Delacroix who best explains Twombly’s relation to Poussin when he writes “Poussin...planted his figures side by side, like statues -- he did this habit of making small models so as to get the shadows correctly? But although he may have gained this advantage, I should be more grateful to him if he had attained a more closely linked relationship among his figures.”
Works such as By the Sea (1988) and untitled/Funerary Box for a Lime Green Python (1954) could have been on Delacroix’s mind. Small pieces of wood (Twombly’s sculpture, unlike his paintings, have an intimate, human scale) are patinated with white paint (“White paint is my marble,” Twombly once said). Seeing them arranged together like little puppets on a stage gives one a feeling of story and narrative that Twombly’s paintings purport to have but often lack. We also see Twombly’s sense of wit concerning history with a cut-out heart in the ice-cream-soda shaped untitled (2005), which has SNAFU scrawled across it. SNAFU, a military acronym for “situation normal all fucked up,” reminds us of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, as well as Twombly’s own history -- he combines references to his stint in the Army as a cryptographer as well as his own bisexual proclivities. Seldom has his work exhibited such witty intimacy. Seeing across the gallery into the permanent collection, we spy Louise Bourgeois’s Sleeping Figure (1950) and can see how Twombly links together surrealism and expressionism in these works in a way few artists can.
And this is what makes this show such a wonderful final tribute to the artist Robert Hughes called “The Third Man” of post-Abstract Expressionist art. Along with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, those hunter-gatherers of all things mundane and beautiful, Twombly had an innate sense of the romance of the everyday object, elevating it to Art through his manipulations. What a racket we make, who are doomed to cease and leave no trace behind. - Bradley Rubenstein
The Museum of Modern Art is at 11 West 53rd St in Manhattan
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.