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.

What was your best art experience while travelling?

"Study for the chimpanzee" by Francis Bacon. As usual, the reproduction colour is not right, the canvas is actually a gorgeous red/pink.

My daughter, Julia, is backpacking her way through South America right now. On her very first day, she went to an art museum in Bogota and saw some Botero and Bacon. (Try saying that quickly three times!) Obviously, my parenting work is done here, since my kids love art even when not being nagged about it.

I have so many great memories of art I’ve seen while travelling. I couldn’t take my eyes off an extraordinary Francis Bacon painting of an ape on a bright pink background at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice.  I saw a huge Ed Ruscha retrospective at the Whitney in New York City that made me fall utterly in love with his charming and intelligent work. And I went to Palm Springs just to see a show of Wayne Thiebaud work, where his confectionary colours and lush paint application seemed to fit perfectly with the artificiality of an oasis city in the desert.

However I think that my best art moment came 10 years ago in Milano. After touring through Italy and seeing the wonders of ornate cathedrals and dark Renaissance masterpieces we were drawn to a strange anomaly: a Whitney show of American art which had travelled to Italy. We wandered through the bright lights and white walls which contrasted completely with the dark spaces we had been touring. The kids laughed at giant Oldenburg food sculptures, while Pat contemplated a Lee Krasner work that vengefully dwarfed the Jackson Pollock beside it. I recognized artist after artist that I had been studying at art school, this was a greatest hits collection of the rich period of American art in the 50’s and 60’s.

Mark Rothko, in living colour

Afterwards, as we relaxed in an outdoor patio with fizzy Italian drinks, we compared notes. “What was your favourite painting?” is a question I often ask the kids.  Amazingly, Pat, Julia and I all liked the same painting: an absolutely luminous Mark Rothko. I can’t even remember exactly which one it was, but the yellow on the canvas glowed so brightly, you were drawn to it from across the room. We all agreed, it was the best painting we had seen that day.

I remember being impressed that we could all love a simple abstraction so much, and also shocked that a painting I had seen in books could be a thousand times more beautiful in real life. Even now, looking back, I remember a certain happiness, perhaps at seeing something new and yet familiar, something simple and  modern after so much ornate history, or perhaps just a connection to North America while we were so far from home.

Bacon, Rothko Yikes.

This brings me to the May contest.  I wanted to know, what was your best art experience while travelling?

I have the appropriate prize for this contest, a painting using the topographical maps I got through the kindness of Natural Resources. However this photo shows a work in progress, I’m not quite finished the painting yet, so it will still change, hopefully for the better…but who knows. 
It measures 8” x 8” or 20cm by 20cm. Anyone can enter, even if you've won before. You can enter in the blog comments, on facebook, or send me an email at, I will summarize the comments at the end of May and have a draw for the map painting then. 
One question came up about why I'm running contests, and I'm not trying to promote anything; I just wanted to give a little art to people who want it. Good luck!