Cy Twombly (1928 – 2011)

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The magnificent retrospective of veteran American artist Cy Twombly at London’s Tate Modern is a bracing reminder that, before all else, painting is smearing and drawing is scribble. In his handling, informality can border on the infantile in its extremes of slightness and scatter. This show, which is curated by Tate’s director Sir Nicholas Serota, travels to the Bilbao Guggenheim in the fall and then Rome’s National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, and is the first major survey since the artist’s retrospective 15 years ago at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Twombly, who turned 80 this year, makes big, intellectually ambitious paintings and elemental sculptures that are complex in their interaction with other art and artforms. But he never lets us lose sight of art’s simplest instincts and manuvers, almost taunting the viewer with the base, raw impulses he lets loose. His art embraces contradiction. In room after room, this survey offers spare yet dynamic canvases, or cruddy yet evocative sculpture. However nonchalant his painterly marks may seem, they are somehow taut and expressive nonetheless. Almost scatological in their oozing and dribbling, his paintings are unfailingly elegant. There is also a dichotomy in Mr. Twombly’s work between the verbal and the non-verbal: Writing is key to his work — often there is text scribbled into his canvases, and titles manifest connections with poetry — but equally vital is a sense that splodges and gestures form an arcane system of pre-verbal expression.

more from David Cohen’s review of Twombly’s retrospective at the Tate in 2008 at Artcritical here.

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