Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Cy Twombly's photographs

Twombly, Landscape, Villetta Barrea, 2008
The lushness of his paintings remains, that is the surprise.  But if so it's in a muted and muffled form, as if the earlier work had succeeded so well that the eye is now allowed to come to rest.  The scrawls have departed, and the huge canvases in rose madder and creamy white so admired by the public, with their quotations from Ovid and Homer, their antic and ancient energies amid swirls and loops and delicious doodles, are off hung in the greatest museums and sometimes, as with the Menil Collection in Houston, in museums all their own.  The photographs too are lush, but it's of a quiet, very settled kind of lushness, solid, mature, at times mannered perhaps but always masterly.  Another surprise is that these small works are every bit as powerful in their own way as the paintings, yet very few people seem to know about them. 

Cy Twombly (1928-2011) had been taking pictures, as we say - as opposed to making pictures - at least since the 1970s, often using the popular and inexpensive Polaroid SX-70 instant camera which was introduced to the market in 1972.  He was far from alone in this: Andy Warhol and even Walker Evans and Ansel Adams also toyed with it.  Twombly's dedication appears to have been much deeper however, seeing in the oddly pictorialist palette of the camera and its frustrating focusing system a way of celebrating memory, or the memory of a memory, though these are not his words.  In his painting and sculpture meanwhile he was ultimately addressing this same theme, using other tools.

He didn't show his photographs until late in life, in 1993 at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York - nearly half a century after exhibiting his first paintings.  The occasions for the photographs seem to be moods of reverie he found himself in, at times prompted by a desire to distance himself from his ongoing studio work whether in Italy or America.  An object would capture his attention, an idle view of fruit or flower - a hazy, deliquescent moment - you can imagine a smile crossing his lips or a tear welling in his eye, Verdi on the phonograph in the other room, as he got down close to snap the picture.

Twombly, Interior, Rome, 1980

The soft focus and the peculiar color saturation were part of the simple system he was using, but he was alert to its possibilities.  He tinkered with the photos, blowing them up, cropping them.  At some point - the histories have yet to be written - he found himself in Sauvigny-sur-Orge outside Paris in the workshop of the Fresson family whose ancestor, Théodore-Henri Fresson, in 1899 had invented an early type of carbon printing process.  Pigment-based, unlike the dye methods becoming common in the 1980s, the Fresson process, now using four colors, assured photographers of an unassailable archival quality to their prints.  For Twombly, the process turned his Polaroids into editions of unexpected nuance and sensitivity. 

Twombly, Tulips, Rome, 1985

Twombly, Interior, Bassano in Teverina, 1980

Twombly, Lemon, Gaeta, 2008

Twombly, Studio, Lexington, 2009

Gone from these are the glorious brushstrokes of his paintings, the excitement and freedom of his almost giddy imagery.  In its place he has given us complete intimacy and peace, sensuous and literary at the same time.  'I would have liked to be an architect,' he says.