Taken with Twombly

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.

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Susie Kalil