I first fell in love with Cy Twombly’s paintings when I saw Fifty Days at Iliam at the Philadelphia Museum of Art about 15 years ago. The ten large starkly white canvases flame with a narrative of the Trojan War, mixing abstracted image, brilliant swaths of color, and scribblings of text. “Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It” (pictured left) remains one of my favorite paintings, and I’ve had the privilege of spending a good deal of time with Twombly’s work on two trips to the DeMenil gallery in Houston that houses a permanent collection of his canvases and sculptures, as well several exhibits that have hung here in New York.
I was not, however, hot to see the exhibit of his paintings that Gagosian Gallery had this past November and December. Perhaps because the show was called Last Paintings, and it’s hard for me to bear the thought there will be no new work now, no more brilliant surprises from this singular artist, but moreover because the image used on the gallery website to announce the show seemed such a disappointment. The reds and greens seemed muted and dull – not at all the vibrancy I’ve come to love in Twombly’s work. And the painting itself seemed a sort of regression back to his early days of his signature repeated squiggle -- a row of constantly looping eeeeeeeeee that reminds me of grammar school cursive writing practice. Not my favorite work from him. Yes, I see these works as part of the magic cryptography of sign and symbol that draws me to most of his other work, and yes, I see the abstraction of… well, something. But what generally blows me away about Twombly is that amazing use of color -- especially because it is so carefully and sparingly doled out -- and his abstracted allusions to recognizable objects – flowers, boats, the shore, the sea.
I did want to see the photographs, though, so off to the gallery to pay my last respects on one of the last weekends of the show. So many flowers! And so lovely to see how he how he used the photos – often blurred tight shots – as studies for the images in his previous paintings, whether they remained as flowers or explosions or just beautiful blobs of paint. The photos did not disappoint. I’m not sure what process or lens or filter he used to achieve the muted colors and soft edges displayed on the prints, but the muting promts the viewer to understand that these are not necessarily rows and rows of tulips we are looking at, but an inconsistent and lovely repetition of shape and coloring that Twombly clearly found more compelling than the idea of “flower” itself.
And so, after looking at these lovely forms with their soft coloring that lulls the viewer into blissful reverence, on to the paintings in the gallery above.
But wait, what’s this? These six large canvases with their repeating eeeeeeeeee are not dull green and red at all. The gallery announcement’s photo reproduction has done them no justice. These are Twombly’s last paintings and they are the strongest and brightest use of overall color on the canvas I have seen in his work. The green is almost neon. The red, a brilliant tomato. And the yellow, somewhere between school bus and canary and singing. And what’s this? Oh my – the eeeeees are no longer letters, god bless us, they’re tulips!
Thank you, Cy, thank you.
Sharon Preiss is the owner of Mobile Libris, a NYC-based book-selling service that specializes in selling books at author events. She earned an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College and has taught literature, creative writing and composition classes at various institutions. Her poetry and prose have been published in PIF Magazine, Massachusetts Review, 5AM, The Tucson Weekly, CoverMag, and the Albany Times-Union.