Twombly is best known for his large-scale paintings with their drawn gestural marks that reference handwriting or the delicate graffiti of the pre-spray-paint era. The marks range from tentative to obsessive and are better-known than his brushier paintings where the delicacy of the line disappears into not very interesting brushwork. The sculpture on view at the Menil is the 3-D work of a 2-D artist. Line is paramount and surface integral, but when the work is viewed as a whole, the repetition of sticklike vertical or blocklike horizontal constructions of found objects seems not to come from choice but from a limited vision. Since he makes sculptural works intermittently and then only a couple a year, Twombly's exploration of the form is much less concerted than that of his paintings.
The surfaces are one of the major strengths; most forms are coated in a matte white house paint -- "white paint is my marble," once remarked the classically minded Twombly -- that unifies the various objects that constitute the sculptures. Applied in thick, often dripping coats, it has that kind of grubby patina that develops on walls and furniture that should have been painted in a more easily cleaned semigloss. Other works are encrusted with chalky plaster, and even the bronze pieces are patinated with a white as well. White is a neutral, pure tone that forces us to focus on the form itself. The arty feeling we have for white sculpture comes from our fascination with the white marble figures of the Greeks, an effect unintended by the original sculptors, who would paint their figures in a fairly gaudy manner. Twombly's white is the bleached, worn white of artifacts.
References to antiquity are a major component of Twombly's paintings. He married an Italian aristocrat and moved to Rome in 1959. According to the catalog, "His fascination with the Mediterranean world, the density and historic evolution of an ancient cultural landscape with its myths, its history, its poetry, and its art, had already inspired Twombly to undertake his first grand tour in 1952/53." Cy the Europhile is originally from Lexington, Virginia.
The sculptures' platforms reference the way objects are displayed in a museum, and the vertical pieces are slightly anthropomorphic, sometimes with angular additions that recall the stances of Egyptian statuary. A more direct historical reference occurs in Thicket (Thickets of Akkad -- Sumer), a lumpy, rocklike base of concrete that sprouts a slender tree trunk with bare branches. Coated with white, it is hung with tags bearing the names of cities from ancient Mesopotamia. It calls up a hazy image from art history survey class, the gilded ram in thicket from Ur, 4,600 years ago.
Most of the pieces are geared toward a frontal viewing that reinforces their connection to Twombly's two-dimensional work. Twombly's paintings and sculptures frequently have scrawled references to Virgil, Homer, Sappho and ancient gods; sometimes it works, and sometimes it seems forced. Unless you lived a couple thousand years ago or received a classical education in 19th-century Europe, are they really such an integral part of your view of the world?
The Menil brought the exhibition into town with a full-blown Twombly lovefest that included a reading of poetry that had inspired the artist. A fawning talk by Kirk Varnedoe served to intensify the pretentious stench that often attaches itself to the work of an admired artist. After referring to the artist's various homes, Varnedoe remarked something to the effect that he couldn't previously imagine the work being shown outside the beautiful interiors of Twombly's residences, but the show's installation in Basel, Switzerland, was wonderful, blah, blah, blah. The focus on personal biography is even part of the identification labels; the location where each work was made is part of the information -- Jupiter Island, Rome, Bassano in Teverina, Gaeta. The locations of Twombly's various homes/ studios is not necessarily relevant to the work.
Varnedoe's talk described each juncture, each limb of the work, with a pornographic detail. Twombly's work is wonderful stuff for art historians, because its spareness acts as a clothes hanger upon which they can heavily drape meaning, conjecture or extrapolation. It is a visually appealing skeleton that they can flesh out with rambling poetic passages. The works' faint classical references only add to the art historical ecstacy.
At the end of Varnedoe's talk, an earnest art viewer stood up and said (basically) that he liked the work, but now he felt like it would take him years to understand it. Whereupon Varnedoe replied, "Oh, no, if I've given that impression, someone should take me out and shoot me." Well, cue firing squad.
Much of the dialogue surrounding Twombly's work offers an example of what's wrong with the art world. Presenting art as something the average person could never hope to understand, as the enigmatic work of one touched with greatness, is a load of horseshit and perpetuates an elitism that ultimately undermines the cause of art. I don't know about Twombly per se, but most artists do not studiously read poetry in the morning and then spend the afternoon magically creating masterpieces in response to it. The interplay of influences is much more down-to-earth and integrated with life.
Random comments from other artists about the exhibition have ranged from unbridled enthusiasm to "Shows you just how boring sculpture can be" to "I like it, but really, if I brought this stuff to any gallery in town, no one would pay attention to it." Which brings up the intriguing issue of context. You can place the same object in a garage sale or in the display window at Neiman Marcus, and the context will dramatically alter the perceived "value" of the thing. The same thing happens with authorship. The Menil's luminous installation of Twombly's work shows it to tremendous advantage, and the artist's stature affords him the benefit of the doubt.
That the cult of Twombly gets in the way of his work may not be the artist's fault, but then again it may; he doesn't seem to do a lot to curb it. Regarding the sculpture, there are some strong pieces, but it ain't all gold. However much his fans may wish it, Cy isn't Midas. As for Twombly and the Menil, we wouldn't be surprised someday to see the artist's knucklebone installed in a Renzo Piano-designed reliquary. Or maybe even a Leninesque glass coffin right in the middle of the Cy Twombly Gallery/Mausoleum.