twombly: the beauty of consistency

Did you know Twombly made such colourful work? It came as a lovely surprise to me.

Did you know Twombly made such colourful work? It came as a lovely surprise to me.

The beauty of travel is the random discoveries you make. If I’m only in Paris for a week in April, I’m going to see whatever big show is at the Pompidou, regardless of the artist. But I certainly lucked out when the artist of the moment turned out to be Cy Twombly.

While this may be sacrilegious to my many artist friends who adore Twombly, I had no strong feelings about him going in. I had seen an exhibit of his drawings in Tokyo and enjoyed it. But a retrospective really allows you to understand the whole of an artist’s work and that whole is very impressive. This show had his drawings, paintings, sculpture, and photography. In addition, I got to go twice, which gave me even more opportunity to explore the details of the work. And I emerged a big Twombly fan!

The Work

First off, what is impressive about Twombly’s work is how early he came to making the loose marks that exemplify all his work. That consistency is impressive. There was one small room with oil pastel scribbles on graph paper. Honestly, these drawings are exactly what people would describe as being “something my kid could do.” And seen in isolation, they are unimpressive. But seen in the context of a decades-long career of making similar scribbles, the drawings become impressive. The restraint, the colour choices, the directional lines—every decision is the seed for the magnificent paintings that follow.

Another highlight was the Roman paintings made after his marriage to Luisa Tatiana Franchetti. They were huge complex canvases and one had the sexiest description I’ve ever seen in a museum: “Between 1960 and 1962 he produced some of his most sexual paintings, Empire of Flora being an evocative example. Partial glimpses of body parts, male and female, are scattered over canvases that seem to preserve the sensual memory of hot Roman nights.” Hot Roman nights! I’d like to meet the art historian who wrote that. Maybe it was only the translated French version of the show. Or maybe it’s the beginning of game show: Gallery notes or porn film title?

My favourite paintings in the show were Nine Discourses on Commodus. These nine beautiful paintings seemed to evolve between panels and showed many of Twombly’s regular marks: grids, words, loose paint strokes, mixed media. I spent a long time appreciating all the little details of the work. Shockingly, these paintings were not well received when he first exhibited them in 1964, but they still look gloriously contemporary.

There too many highlights in the show to list them all. But it was the first time I had seen his sculpture: found object assemblages coated in white paint and the occasional drip of beautiful colour. And his delicate photographs which focus on blurred objects and decay. Or the bright canvasses shown at the top of this post. And I’m grateful for the serendipity of travel which allowed me to really discover Twombly.