Taken with Twombly

After all the hoopla, one has to ask: Is Cy Twombly worth it?

Twombly's line and rendering of movement can partake of a dreamlike wandering or searching trace. For the most part, however, his linear style is full of contradictions, incisive yet loopy, both primitive and elegant, sensual and cerebral. Similarly, his work can be exuberant and rude at the same time. Leda and the Swan (1961), a carnal riot of cartoony hearts, buttocks and necks, is a far cry from most conventional treatments of the subject. Ferragosto V (1961) fairly explodes with roiling pink, brown and purple forms suggesting feces, blood and genitalia. Images can vary from airy tumbleweeds of tracery to monumental rhetoric, often achieving a kind of enveloping intimacy by dint of epic scale. And the drawing, alternately innocent and expressive, follows a deceptively "naive" course between brittleness and fluidity in lines that pause, and run on, at paces that are by turns contemplative and aggressive through skeins, knots and visceral clusters.

When Twombly's art does its job, the merger of handwriting, drawing and painting is matched by an interlocking of verbal and pictorial references -- numbers, geometric forms, architectural notations, hearts, penises, simple doodles -- that, by their free-floating placement in the field evoke the sense of a profusely marked wall. The synthesis of form and content has remained Twombly's prime quest, and at the Menil both the retrospective and permanent gallery reveal the effort involved when pictorial form and literary content -- traditional artistic antagonists -- are brought together head-on.

But Twombly isn't well-served by assembling an abundance of his works. The entirety becomes tedious and redundant, even bordering on overkill. For the written quality of his marks makes us persist in trying to read his surfaces. His marks project an aura of specificity that remains undisclosed, subverted by their maddening approximation to writing -- maddening because we want to decipher these images and can't. The parts simply don't add up to any whole.

Twombly is an up and down painter, and all the money in the world can't disguise that fact. Accordingly, the Twombly Gallery contains moments of real brilliance -- the alternately loony and explosive Age of Alexander (1959), commemorating the birth of the artist's son, as well as the mysteriously pure, multi-evocative "blackboard" paintings and gray "time-lines." But how to explain the room of drippy pink canvases with white frames that aspire to the combustible forces of J.M.W. Turner, yet veer dangerously close to bedroom froufrou? And what about the adjoining gallery of fussily shaped green paintings that Twombly produced for the 1988 Venice Biennale? They openly strive for the subaqueous atmosphere of Monet's water lilies, but -- hey, add a white trellis and you've got tea room decor. Taken together, these works look dated and wildly out of touch with the austere '90s, revealing more about an excessive lifestyle than an art of noble integrity.

Some of the recent works seem increasingly egomaniacal, if wholly contrived and effete. Awash in brilliantly colored drips and cascades, The Four Seasons has a pretentious, Johnny-come-lately look, suggesting a sidelong glance at Pat Steir's waterfall paintings as well as Joan Mitchell's painterly dynamic that blended an uncanny mix of willful energy and the involuntary overflow of its residue. I thought of Mitchell quite frequently while walking through the retrospective and permanent gallery. Mitchell, who died last year, was also a second-generation "expatriate" like Twombly, but lived and worked in France, not far from where Monet once did. She tended to suffuse the whole canvas with gestural energy, sometimes as a kind of atmosphere, at other times as a kind of transient flicker or darting movement. Yet for all its art historical sources and references, Varnedoe's catalog never mentions her name. Is her mark any less significant than Twombly's?

I came away from the retrospective with a queasy feeling of privileged lifestyle and, well, promotion -- a feeling exacerbated, I'm sorry to say, by the Cy Twombly Gallery itself, a 100-foot facade of uniformly sized concrete blocks that houses eight galleries. Uniform throughout the interior are white plaster walls and flooring made of 8-inch-square sections of light oak. As with the retrospective, the Twombly works here adhere to a roughly chronological plan -- though the amazing interplay of space and light seems to be as likely a draw for an enriched viewing experience as the art itself. The roof contains permanently placed louvers that filter out 60 percent of the Texas sun. Glazed skylights aid in the filtration process and create a covering for most of the building. Inside, computerized mechanical louvers make periodic adjustments for morning and afternoon light. Their workings take place behind what viewers perceive as the ceiling of the gallery, which is actually a seamless expanse of white sail cloth. The entirety, according to Piano, functions much like a parasol, with the scrim providing a good balance between transparency and opacity. The design certainly adds to its sensuous effect; whereas the natural light brings life to the space, the plaster walls allow the works to seemingly levitate and make the paintings look almost sculptural.

But something feels off. Is the building about Twombly or Piano? It's a toss up. All in all, it seems decadent for these works to permanently occupy a foolproof structure in which almost anything would look terrific. One can't help but compare the collaborative project to a bank vault, or at least a mid-sized mausoleum. And one simply can't ignore the economic factor in giving over the entire space to a living artist. While it's not unusual for collectors to promote certain artists, thereby increasing the value of their works, the Cy Twombly Gallery sets a strange precedent. What now will be the goal post that artists strive for? Their own museums dedicated to themselves? (A living artist! A living legend! Art worth a fortune!) When New York's Dia Center for the Arts (co-founded by the Menils' daughter) opens its Twombly space in 1997, will the New York/Houston axis become part of a franchise, sort of like the Orlando/Anaheim branches of Disneyland?

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