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Taken with Twombly

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

Is anyone else puzzled by the Cy Twombly phenomenon? So who voted him as our most fashionable abstract painter of the moment -- with recorded auction prices of $3 million to match? I've always liked his "blackboard" paintings well enough -- the white-on-gray rows of calligraphic loops that resemble old-fashioned handwriting exercises -- but it's not like I'm passionate about his work. And I'd wager he wouldn't make anyone's top five list of favorite artists.

Yet, suddenly, it's Cy Twombly's moment. The most comprehensive survey ever held of his work (organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art) is being presented at the Menil Collection in conjunction with the opening of its $5 million Cy Twombly Gallery, an elegant 9,300-square-foot building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and created solely to house some 35 major paintings, sculptures and works on paper made by the artist since 1954. Works by Twombly are also being shown at Robert McClain & Co. (drawings) and at Texas Gallery (Fresson color photographs). In addition, Twombly's epic 50-foot-wide painting Untitled (On Wings of Idleness) occupied the Museum of Fine Art's Cullinan Hall for a brief stint.

The Houston confab is a significant bid to redefine Twombly's place as a singular master in post-World War II art. To be sure, plenty of hoopla accompanied the opening soirees that honored the life and works of the 67-year-old artist, who's better known in Europe than in the United States. Once again, the Menil had garnered worldwide attention for Houston, which seemed to bask in the star glow of famous artists (Twombly's old friend Robert Rauschenberg was in town for his own opening at Texas Gallery), blue-chip dealers, New York art cognoscenti, chic European collectors, and an assortment of wannabes and hangers on. All in all, it was a week of real celebration, plus a lot of shuck-and-jive that left many people thoroughly perplexed and asking questions, the obvious being -- does Twombly merit the eminence granted him?

Twombly's career has been full of mixed press, and this recent round proves to be no exception. Writing in the New York Times about the artist's retrospective, critic Michael Kimmelman allowed that, "There is a place for Mr. Twombly in the group of America's leading postwar abstractionists, just not at the front." Twombly's four exhibitions at the Stable Gallery in New York during the mid-1950s all fell flat at the time, as did the artist's 1964 show of paintings at Leo Castelli. Moreover, his last retrospective -- mounted at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979 -- was panned as an all-out flop.

On the other hand, his deceptively childish, alternately nervous and restrained "written" mode of drawing, the scatological smears of paint, the esoteric echoes of poets past scrawled onto his surfaces, have also earned him devoted followers. In any case, Twombly seemed the elegant odd man out, an artists', writers' and rich collectors' artist who has cultivated an ivory-tower position ever since his departure from America in 1957 for the adopted homeland of Italy. For years, Twombly was regarded as a remote figure off in Europe, out of sync with art in America, and much less interesting than his contemporaries Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Now, riding a wave of renewed interest in contemporary European art -- and painting in general -- MOMA chief curator Kirk Varnedoe is laying odds that Twombly's shadowy figure, his very "betweenness," will now be effectively annexed into the modernist canon.

Certain events earmark periods irrevocably. For those artists beginning their careers during the post-World War II years, the overwhelming critical success of abstract expressionism would have to be counted as a pivotal moment. Chronologically, this is Twombly's generation; his closest contemporaries are American artists who came of age in the early '50s, artists generally described as the first true second generation of American painters. Yet Twombly was not an abstract expressionist. Neither was he a postpainterly abstractionist or a pop artist. And he paid little attention to the direction American art took in the '60s toward minimalism. Rather, Twombly developed his own version of painterly abstraction with itchy, skittering forms that coalesce and dissipate in a paradoxical fusion of messiness and grandeur. Hoping such purposeful disorder will appeal to a younger generation, Varnedoe makes the case that Twombly serves as a living link to the New York School tradition of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

But Twombly's personal version of graffiti-like, stammering lines also links him to the epic mannerism of 1980s postmodern painters such as Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Moreover, the tension between the ineffable and the crude, elegance and toughness join him as well to such painters as Brice Marden, Terry Winters, Ross Bleckner, Pat Steir and Suzanne McClelland.

At his best, Twombly as an artist is both soulful and seductive. Throughout his art, Twombly juxtaposes images, themes and values of the past with those of the present. Intertwined with banalities of personal life, schematized penises and breasts are citations of Mallarme, Keats and Homer -- at issue is the clash between reality and the poetic ideal. Yet Twombly's process of over- and under-painting is often meandering and complex, especially in the way drawing is seemingly suspended within wet paint. The unifying principle in the work is Twombly's line and graphic touch, the physical act of handwriting and an art based on drawing as a generating source.

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?

In fairness, encyclopedic collections are things of the past, so a space with a panoramic range such as the Cy Twombly Gallery does allow for an assessment of an artist's career, enabling us to form an opinion against which we can check ourselves from time to time. And admittedly, the Gallery places Houston squarely on the global art map, and promotes the titillating idea of the city as a metropolis of art pavilions or mini-museums. (Anyone want to lay odds that a similar setup for Rauschenberg or Johns may be in the offing?) But will these spaces provide the ephemeral "communion" with art that the Menil has nurtured or will they merely provide the chance to gawk at the work of bona fide blue-chippers?

Still, the Menil has always gone against the grain, has always been committed to the artists it has championed. To give the community something permanent is not out of line with the Menil philosophy. Never mind that obsessing over keeping a collection together and intact is a little like becoming embalmed. While the Cy Twombly Gallery contains some works that have never been exhibited before, the retrospective presents a good number of the same paintings that were panned in 1979. Now that body of work is being praised. Does it matter that Twombly is currently fashionable, but that our opinion could change again in ten or 15 years? Has the Menil put all its eggs in one basket? Remember, forever is a long, long time.

"Cy Twombly: A Retrospective" will show through March 19 at The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400.

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