In Defense of Poetry:

Cy Twombly, Leda & the Swan, 1962, oil, crayon, pencil on canvas, 75 x 78 3/4 inches

Glancing at the recent issue of Modern Painters the other day, I turned to Matthew Collings' review of the Twombly retrospective at the Tate. I usually find Collings to be one of the most interesting things in that magazine -- I enjoy his railing against market driven art, and his advocacy for deeper impulses. So it is a bit surprising that he really goes after Twombly as a comfortable and vaccuous dilettante who has been simply repeating his own mannerisms since his peak in the early '60s.

Cy Twombly, Untitled (Bolsena), 1969, house paint, crayon, pencil on canvas, 79 x 94 3/4 inches

Collings also gets very pissed off at the contributors to the Tate catalogue, and indeed at everyone who has attributed critical validity to Twombly's sustained endeavor over the years. His contention is that there just isn't much there, and he holds Twombly's own nebulous remarks about his work as prime evidence. But what Collings, himself a painter, seems strangely to be missing is that the body of criticism is not the work, and Twombly's statements are not the work. The work simply does not operate in the realm of words, much less of theory or criticism. In fact, Twombly spent more than half of his 60+ year career working decidedly outside the "prevailing critical discourse", seemingly quite happy to be immersed in his own domain without the sprawling critical baggage that accompanied the work of Rauschenberg and Johns. It is only since the early '80s or so that Twombly's work has been championed by so many, and widely appreciated as a paradigm of painting.

Cy Twombly, Wilder Shores of Love, 1985, oil, crayon, pencil on plywood, 55 1/8 x 47 1/4 inches

Far from being an artist who settled into a signature image and repeats it to death, Twombly seems to have an uncanny ability to take whatever thing he is interested in at the moment, and enlarge its essence to create new and astonishing bursts of painterly effulgence. Each new theme is infused with a combination of childlike fascination and energetic grandeur, ratcheted to a hallucinatory intensity. A perfect example is the magnificent Lepanto cycle from 2001 -- a painting in 12 parts, each panel being roughly 7ft x 10ft -- it can only be described as epic in its scope. But what is most remarkable to me is that the 73 year old artist was able to muster and sustain a level of extraordinary physicality, and a consistently precarious balance between control and chance, rawness and elegance. It's a masterful work.

Cy Twombly, Lepanto 1, 2001, acrylic, crayon & pancil on canvas, 83 x 113 1/4 inches

I wasn't fortunate enough to see the Tate show, but I did see the MoMA retrospective in '94, and I've seen a good lot of Twombly's work from all periods first hand over the years. I've also read a lot of what's been written about him, and must say I do agree with Collings on that count -- the criticism is mostly irrelevant or at least peripheral to any real experience of the work itself. I have quite a number of large books on Twombly, and I'll probably buy the Tate book too --- certainly not for the essays, but to have access to more images of his work -- to be able to return to them again and again -- to study their idiosyncracies, to be energized by their distinctive sensuality, their openness, their implications, their poetry.