Cy Twombly, Art Institute of Chicago

Chicago

Cy Twombly. Untitled, 2007: Acrylic on wood, 99 3/16 x 217 5/16 in. (252 x 552 cm) Private Collection, © Cy Twombly. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.Cy Twombly. Untitled, 2007: Acrylic on wood, 99 3/16 x 217 5/16 in. (252 x 552 cm) Private Collection, © Cy Twombly. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

By Bill Clarke

Cy Twombly
Art Institute of Chicago
May 16 - September 13, 2009

American painter and sculptor Cy Twombly’s work from the 1950s and 60s has been deservedly canonized for its then-innovative blurring of the lines between drawing and painting. His large canvases from this period consist of graffiti-like squiggles, daubs and hand-written text, dancing energetically across neutral backgrounds. This approach to mark-making is typified by The First Part of the Return of Parnassus (1961), which is on display in the Art Institute’s new Renzo Piano-designed Modern wing.

Cy Twombly. Untitled, 2002: Dry print, 11 x 13 1/2 in. (28 x 34.5 cm) Collection of the artist, © Cy Twombly. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.Cy Twombly. Untitled, 2002: Dry print, 11 x 13 1/2 in. (28 x 34.5 cm) Collection of the artist, © Cy Twombly. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.The Natural World, Selected Works: 2000-2007,
brought together recent works by the artist. The works on paper, photographs, paintings on panel and sculptures in The Natural World draw inspiration — unsurprisingly, given the exhibition’s title — from nature, and all were produced at one of Twombly’s two studios — in Lexington, Virginia, or Gaeta, in central Italy. An untitled series of seven colourful paper works from 2001, accompanied by a selection of rough-hewn sculptures (2000-04), opened the show. The works on paper depicted abstractions of flowers in runny acrylic, thick wax crayon and, in some, collaged elements.  These works relate visually to the sculpture Untitled — Lexington (2001), a pile of flora-like shapes piled on a whitewashed wooden plinth. This sculpture is, in turn, pictured in close-up and from various angles, in a suite of soft-focus photographs from 2002. All of these works could be dismissed as ‘too decorative’ were it not for the underlying sense of mortality, time’s passage and decrepitude they conveyed. Twombly’s blooms, despite retaining their vibrant hues, seem just past their prime.

The second gallery hosted selections of large canvases from two series: A Gathering of Time (2003) and Untitled (Winter Pictures, 2004). In the Winter Pictures, particularly, the heavy scrawls and rivulets of paint streaming down the panels harken back to Twombly’s earlier groundbreaking work.  From these sombre paintings, the exhibition moved to three (from a suite of six) enormous, eye-popping works from the Peony Blossom Paintings (2007) series. As well as drawing on nature for inspiration, these paintings also reference French decorative art, Japanese poetry and German romanticism. The centrepiece of this series — the entire exhibition, in fact — is a six-panel piece on which white, drippy blossoms float on top of an apple green background.  Stanzas from a poem about peonies by the Japanese writer Matsu Basho (1644-94), written in pencil and crayon, were added to the painting last.  Like the paintings in the first gallery, these flowers are also simultaneously lush and wilting, while the text enhances the piece’s melancholic tone.

The three large paintings that comprise the III Notes from Salalah (2005-07) series closed the exhibition. Over dark green backgrounds, Twombly painted in thick white and runny strokes, which are based on Arabic script. The inspiration from nature is less obvious in these three paintings. Salalah is located in a topographically diverse region between the Hadramawt Mountains and the Indian Ocean, making it a lush and green anomaly in that part of the world. The white strokes against the green background, then, become abstract representations of tumultuous waves, rolling hills or fluffy clouds. Of all the works in the exhibition, the hand of the artist, intuitively moving his brush across the panels, was felt most strongly here. The effect of these paintings verges on the sublime, and the effect of the exhibition as a whole was captivating. At 81, Twombly continues to produce bodies of work that remain remarkably bold and cohesive, and reward quiet contemplation.

Cy Twombly. Note II, 2005-2007: Acrylic on wood panel, 96 x 144 in. (243.8 x 365.8 cm) The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection, © Cy Twombly. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.Cy Twombly. Note II, 2005-2007: Acrylic on wood panel, 96 x 144 in. (243.8 x 365.8 cm) The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection, © Cy Twombly. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.