Cy Twombly, “Lepanto”, 2001
panel 5, Acrylic, wax crayon and graphite on canvas



Cy Twombly at Gagosian provokes speculative cynicism. Blue-chip Gagosian showing the canonized Twombly looks like a bid for stable art-market security through the safety of the sure sell. As a high example of the trope of the fashionable Abstract painter and with recorded auction prices upwards of $3 million, Twombly certainly isn’t a hard gamble; one of the Twombly paintings Gagosian last showed sold at Sotheby’s for $1.3 million. In fact, the last few Gagosian painting exhibitions look like the eternal return of the commodity of painting; Rosenquist at the Chelsea gallery, a Pop Art show on Madison, and Cecily Brown at the Wooster space. The Twombly show seems even more disingenuous considering its inconsistent relationship with the tendencies of Gagosian’s Contemporary painting staples like Cecily Brown, Ellen Gallagher, Mark di Suvero, Dexter Dallwood, and Eric Fischl—all reflecting Gagosian’s interesting Contemporary focus. The work of these painters bares almost no reference to Twombly’s work, then or now, hence a skepticism whether Twombly is being shown for his merging with the predilections established by the gallery, or its Contemporary roster. Contemporary painting bares evidence Twombly’s influence has already been felt as a gesture in painting, already established and acknowledged as an influence to a Contemporary tendency (think Sue William) and already rejected (think Fisch). Hence there is the further cynical skepticism as to whether Twombly’s work presents any particularly new relevance to Contemporary painting in general; is it relevance or affluence?

Through the years Twombly has become more than a proper name, more than a style. Twombly has become a method of attack. In his painting is found an articulation of marking which served as rallying cry for impurity in Abstract art. The beautiful audacity of Abstract Expressionism, its austerity of touch, is dirtied by Twombly’s attack. Twombly’s painting is made up not of lines, but of effacing marks, closer to the mark of graffiti or hieroglyphics than the polyphonic or lyrical brush strokes of many of his contemporaries. Painters looking to overcome the lyricism of Abstraction or the confines of figuration turned to Twombly for aggressiveness. The force of accepting or rejecting the surface, the waving in intensity from color piles to rough cuts and scrapes, this cadence of a mark gave painters an alternative to the schools of Pollock or Katz.

The power of his scribble was how it could counter-intuitively avoid uniformity; avoid any structural repetitiveness by opening space, figurative and thematic. To scar and maul the stucco was to refuse many of the fundamental tasks of painting, even within the wildly exuberant styles of Abstract painting. As Twombly’s painting progressed, this violence began to give way to tragic smudging, dripping, and no longer a harsh, bruising, piercing trace roaming aimlessly in loops. Violence turned to precariousness.

The series of paintings currently exhibited at Gagosian come from the 49th Venice Biennale where Twombly and fellow Gagosian artist Richard Serra won the Golden Lion award. These twelve panels entitled “Lepanto” are a continuation of Twombly’s confrontation with history painting; their subject matter consists of the battle which wrestled Europe away from the Ottoman Empire. The paintings are a clear indication Twombly is done dirtying the clean wall. The childishness criticism touted is gone; the infantile imagination which tore at the surface and awkwardly drew from its Oedipal vocabulary the twisted messages scrawled on the canvas. Left out is also the compulsiveness of these marks, the patina of scars and their circularity, and their naive, but powerful, violence. An art that has been more topographic than narrative now pushes to a subtler touch, an epic attention to figuration which does not need to punish the surface for its cosmology, nor imprint the roughness of the unconscious unto a plane of figuration. The gouged and scoured surface, reaction against linear skein and the articulateness of Abstraction, is now subtler, denser, closer to the Abstractions which have influenced so much of Contemporary painting.

The series can be understood as a permutation within an ongoing series, but certainly not radically different for Twombly. The consistencies in style are conspicuous. The tendency of the series is consistent with Twombly’s work since the “thicker” paintings of the late ‘80s, with their drawn out and more expansive surface of color. A crude violence of the mark now becomes a bit more formal, conspicuously softer and more arranged, not yet quite figurative, but leaning towards a more formal Abstraction. This is a development of replacing abrasiveness with suggestiveness, which is seen in Twombly’s later work and his particular attention to sculpture in recent years. “Lepanto” reaffirms the importance of Twombly’s ongoing struggle between the power of the object matter of the work, and the heaviness of its form—a precarious balancing to which he seems to have become adept. Thematically, “Lepanto” continues Twombly’s attention to history painting and pictorial mythologies. These traces of events, historical and mythological in scope, which Twombly arranges pictorially, have even given harsh critics a reason to deride him as a Classicist.

If “Lepanto” is to pursue any hint of further influence of Twombly on Contemporary painters it will have to lead them away from their current tendency to a further redefining of the confines and semantics of figuration (unlikely); away from the current thematic attention (ie, a rise in historical, mythological subject matter); and instill a distance from Twombly’s initial current of attack (ie, a negation of the things that made Twombly influential in the first place). The full relevance of Twombly’s current work, if we assume there is to be such a function or such a pleasure of indulgence, then will only be felt if Contemporary painting removes itself from the particular progression it currently follows, into a revised full-circle of facing the logic of Abstract painting through one of the talismans of painting after Modernism. If not, then it surely must be affluence.

Joao Paulo Ribas

Pawtucket, New York