American artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011) devoted the years 2006 to 2008 to painting flowers — but what flowers! The depiction of blossoms and blooms might sound a bit placid, almost antiquarian activity. Until, that is, you have stood in front of a picture such as “Roses IV” (2008), on view in the exhibition “Cy Twombly: Paradise” at the Ca’Pesaro, Venice until September 22. These are huge floral Catherine wheels of paint, the size of targets, made with flaring brush marks of scarlet, purple, and yellow which drip streams of pigment — like blood — down the light blue background.
“Paradise” is billed as a full career retrospective, which indeed it is. The treatment of the painter’s earlier career, however, is somewhat perfunctory. The interest of the Venice exhibition — a medium-sized affair, presented in splendid 17th century rooms designed by the master of the Venetian baroque, Baldassarre Longhena — lies in the way it puts some of the artist’s very last works in the foreground.
It suggests an intriguing proposition: Twombly might actually have got better in high old age. He certainly became bolder. The grand central salon of the palazzo is dominated by paintings from the series Twombly entitled Camino Real from 2010. These were not quite his final works, but almost. This was his penultimate group of pictures, done at the age of 82.
They fizz with energy, and bound off the walls: big spattering loops of red and yellow against green background. In terms of color this is a crashing, Van Gogh chord. In line it elevates a loose, hand written scribble to a monumental scale. Twombly’s art had always been concerned with the question how much could be expressed by how little (that was one of the most modernist things about him).
From the 1950s — in works such as “Panorama” (1955) — Twombly had used a line like that of somebody doodling with a pen. These were perhaps descended, art historically, from the skeins of paint to be found in the abstract expressionist works of Jackson Pollock and others. But they also looked like writing, and often Twombly would inscribe words on his pictures (lines of poetry by Rilke, for example, on the Rose series of 2008).
Early Twombly inclined to monochrome sobriety, but bit by bit, color crept in, frequently in the form of blobs and patches like wounds or flowers. He also found ways to depict things with loose, gestural strokes of the brush. The two paintings in the Venice exhibition entitled “Landscape” (1986) seem like a commentary on a tradition running from Titian, through Constable to Monet. So much Western art had turned on the way in which oil paint, manipulated by a cunning hand, can be made to metamorphose into grass and trees, light, and air.
In these Twomblys, and others from same the period, there are none of the usual markers — a building, fence, or passer-by, that usually clues as to what and where you are looking at. There is just a mass of tangled green, and a lighter zone, yet still it somehow turns into foliage plus sky or water.
Twombly was an ecstatic painter, or to use the word he chose himself, a “lyrical” one. In an extremely rare interview — he generally avoided journalists, critics, and all forms of publicity — he told Nicholas Serota something about his working process. He didn’t mind going for months without entering the studio, waiting patiently the right impetus. Then, he would think for a long time before working very rapidly. “I sit two or three hours, and then in fifteen minutes I can do a painting.”
The point, though, was that there was a lot of thought involved. The same is true of other painters, such as Lucian Freud, whose process was very different. Painting might seem like manual work, but with great painters there is a surprisingly conceptual affair.
Sex, love, the way everything passes and dies, like a rose: these were among Twombly’s subjects. Art, he thought, provided a sort of earthly paradise (hence the title). The speed of execution is part of the point; what you are looking at is the briefest of moments. The blooming rose is fading even as you see it on the wall, and the man who painted it knew he was dying. Perhaps that’s why Twombly’s works, and particularly the late ones, look at home in Venice the city of passing pleasure, beauty, and decay.
First published by Blouin Artinfo