Contemporary Art Collecting and Consulting
JULY 6, 2011
CY TWOMBLY, 1928-2011
Posted by Peter Schjeldahl
The death of Cy Twombly has an oddly catastrophic feel—oddly because he was eighty-three and a canonical master, but catastrophic because he takes with him a certain epochal, now thoroughly historical, sense of wide-open liberty in very high culture. Such was the cynosure of new art in New York sixty years ago, when Twombly had his first show of startlingly scrawly, somehow furiously languid paintings and drawings. Unlike the heroes of Abstract Expressionism and his comrades Rauschenberg and Johns, he never drove that afflatus. Rather, he took it as a routine state of mind and soul. This could seem dandyishly insolent of him: shrugging off the requirement for logical necessity in big-time avant-garde art. He made clear that he did what he felt like doing. His feeling-like-doing-it was the point, ever just a dramatic whisker short of pointlessness. Who did he think he was?
To say the absolute least, Twombly was the all-time greatest Mediterranean artist from Virginia, the nerdy son of a once Major League pitcher who had bequeathed him his own nickname, after Cy Young. An expatriate in Italy from 1957 to the end of his life—but a New York School field painter, ineluctably—he was fantastically sophisticated in art, literature, and history. No one else on Earth could and would have painted, in 2001, an epic suite on the 1571 Battle of Lepanto: a dozen marvelous large canvases, evoking ships aflame in smears of paint as intimate as caresses and as shuddery as goose bumps. Frequently, his way of drawing brought to apotheosis a distinctive quality in works by his cherished predecessors Giacometti and Gorky: the sensation of something, almost unpleasant, crawling under your skin.
He never ceased to share the experience of being inside the irritable, ecstacy-prone skin of Cy Twombly. Some people, including me, aren’t invariably in a mood to relish this. I wrote in 2005, “I may often get impatient with Twombly’s showoffy irresoluteness and fustian poetic conceits, but if I try to imagine the art of our time without his exceedingly human presence in it, I feel a global chill.” Suddenly I needn’t imagine that. It is desolating.