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On Cy Twombly, 1928 - 2011

Posted by Sebastian Smee  July 5, 2011 11:52 PM

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Twombly.jpgCy Twombly, who died Tuesday, was loved and loathed in equal measure. Those who loathed him considered him a fraud, and were frequently heard to mutter - or shout: "My child could do that!"

Those who loved him often did so a little too earnestly - you felt they professed their love with a stridency equal to the outrage expressed by his detractors - as if honor somehow inhered in adoring an artist who became rich covering canvases with scribbles.

I would trace my own love of Twombly back to the fact that, during my adolescence and early twenties, all my favourite pictures seemed to be of people doing nothing. I liked pictures dense with the humours and vapours of indolence. But I particularly liked those works in which you could feel a struggle, a restless, twitching aching for repose, not yet adequately satisfied.

I would look at Manet's great portrait of Berthe Morisot, for instance (Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art), her body beneath her cascading white dress squirming with the desire for release, ravishment, undoing. I pored over recumbent nudes of every kind, from Giorgione to Courbet, from Ingres to Degas, and I relished their atmosphere of erotic lassitude.

I began paying more attention to marks - the way, for instance, in late Titian one comes across whole passages of paint that describe nothing, that are just slathered on, and yet which somehow become the most emotionally precise ingredients of all.

There seemed to be a connection, I felt, between the sensation I liked of doing nothing and having the brush "do its own thing." So abstract painting caught my attention. But I craved a sense of expended effort rather than vacant atmosphere. So I fell for De Kooning, who seemed to unravel in muscular, skittish ways, rather than Rothko, who seemed too vague; and I adored Matisse, whose "luxe, calme et volupte" seemed the outcome of strenuous concentration.

Cy Twombly I discovered only later. When I did, his work brought back all those visceral, teenage, hormonally charged feelings of physical indulgence and unanchored eroticism. It put me in mind of the sensation of drifting off into unconsciousness, with all its attendant bodily twitches and random dreams. At the same time he infused these feelings with a grandeur, an historical sweep, a sense of the epic that set up exhilarating tensions with the childish-looking marks he made on the canvas.

Twombly's canvases, I find, are incredibly sweet, and at times almost ridiculously romantic. But they're gruelling, too. They are powerfully suggestive of orgiastic energies at some indefinable point in the past. The art critic David Sylvester compared them to "a soiled sheet after a wild night." The image works, if you can imagine a wild night several thousand years ago.



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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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