Abstract Critical

Twombly and Motherwell – Painting, Prints, Photographs and High Culture

Written by John Holland

Cy Twombly and Robert Motherwell are each the subject of exhibitions currently in London – Twombly’s last paintings (together with a roomful of photographs) are at Gagosian’s showrooms, while Bernard Jacobson Gallery are showing around sixty of Motherwell’s prints.

As the two longest surviving major Abstract Expressionists, they make an interesting comparison (Twombly died last year, Motherwell in 1991). They share a sort of European, literary sensibility, which contrasted with the all-American muscularity of many of their contemporaries, and which made them slightly suspicious figures to a generation for whom the term ‘European’ was, if not an insult, then certainly carried a strong whiff of decadent backsliding. This decadence in fact became the essential trope of Twombly’s work, and was no doubt the source of his blossoming reputation among a new generation for whom copious literary interpretation, combined with a lovely Romantic gesture, was a boon and not a failing. The work of both artists is rooted in Surrealism’s automatic drawing, and the image making that inevitably emerges from this technique imbues their art with a largely submerged but persistent figurative element. Abstract Expressionism always carried a weight of symbolism, but both Motherwell and Twombly carried it more openly than most. Motherwell’s titles are full of references to the writers that he loved – Eliot, Baudelaire, Mallarme, Joyce – and Twombly’s immersion in the Classical world was such that I suspect he painted in a toga. The significant difference between the two I think, is that Motherwell, throughout his life, worked through these influences, reconsidering, reworking, refining and renewing their pictorial possibilities, but Twombly became an illustrator of them, and a parody of himself. Yet while the casual art mag reader might be forgiven for thinking that Motherwell died in the early 60s, Twombly became, toward the end of his life, valorised as the grand, blue-chip Greatest Real Painter, the subject of an industry of gushing interpretation, and mythical father of Kiefer, that other creator of big portentous paintings with name-droppings scrawled all over. This accounts for the difference in scale between the two shows.

CY TWOMBLY. Installation view. Photo by Mike Bruce. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Gagosian is exhibiting eight of Twombly’s last big paintings, as well as a lot of blurry snapshots that he seems to be marketing as a whole new product range. Closely related to the Camino Real and Bacchus paintings, these untitled works all share the same colours and form (red, orange and yellow swirls on a lime-green ground) in the same size and format. Minor variants on a luxury model, perfect for a space that feels like a Mercedes dealership. They are, in fairness, better than the Bacchus series. Like them, these are part of Twombly’s late return to his calligraphic ‘sentences’, lines of looping clockwise gestures that he used in his early 70s blackboard paintings and many works before that. Now though, the nervous intensity has drained away, they don’t look like fevered scribbling so much as an elegant way of filling space. There’s a sense of pathos in the way one senses an elderly man trying to impose himself on the scribbles in such a big physical scale. This doesn’t make the resulting painting any better or worse, but it’s all part of the popular biographical mythology. Unlike the Bacchus series, there is a degree of spatial complexity, although it’s pretty formulaic; the reds sink back and the oranges and yellows push out, and as the paint gets lighter in tone it also gets thinner in consistency, so the yellow seeps and drips down in a watery gauze. Drips are big in all of the late works – they are a great sign of authenticity, and they create nice misty veils, abstract equivalents of foggy German Romantic landscapes. I like the slightly bad-taste bright green of the ground though – it sets up an unexpected push-pull around the giant scribbles, and imparts a buzz that rubs against the generally portentous tone. But there is not much to be said about any particular painting; some are a little lighter, some are a little denser, otherwise they do essentially the same job: elegant scruffiness, carefully contrived rawness. I think David Sweet, in his essay on this site about ‘Para-painting’, overemphasised Twombly’s outsider qualities – he is above all, an aesthete, a maker of elegantly sophisticated whimsies. At least these last paintings spare us all the pretentious Latinisms and poetical sighing.

CY TWOMBLY, Light Flowers I (Gaeta), 2008, Color dry-print, 17 x 11 inches, 43.2 x 27.9 cm, Edition of 6 © 2012 Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio

The photographs, on the other hand, are everything that was silly about Twombly’s art, distilled down into sixty little snapshots. All slightly out of focus, grainily printed in the sort of charmingly faded colours that always signal the passing of time, this looks like a display of illustrations to an Observer Magazine Mediterranean holiday pullout. It is embarrassing that a major gallery is trying to take this stuff seriously. There are pictures of garlic bulbs in fragments of carved marble, for God’s sake; of Italian conifers at sunset, of rustic tables with some paint brushes in a faded old coffee tin, all artlessly composed and presented in a gold tooled, silk bound solander box. Lovely.

Robert Motherwell, The Persian II, 1985, Aquatint, lift-ground etching & aquatint on Whatman paper, 70.5 x 58.4 cm, copyright Dedalus Foundation, Inc / Licensed by VAGA, New York, courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery

Meanwhile, at Bernard Jacobson, the prints of Robert Motherwell on display are mostly from the 70s and 80s, all quite small but representing a remarkable range of both technique and form. Motherwell is a fascinatingly complex, even contradictory artist, who although famous for his monumental Elegy to the Spanish Republic paintings, never settled into a mannered style. He didn’t follow the well-trodden path of finding one great statement, and then repeating, or at best refining it, to the end. Hence the slightly bewildering range of the exhibition. All his major themes are here – the Elegies, the Opens, the symbols and calligraphy, the collage prints and the automatic drawings. Some of it is truly abstract (the Dutch Linen Suite) some of it is loosely figurative (Bird, House of Atreus) while a lot of it hangs somewhere in between the two.

Robert Motherwell, Seaside Studio, 1990, Aquatint and etching on Whatman paper, 80 x 70.5 cm, copyright Dedalus Foundation, Inc / Licensed by VAGA, New York, courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery

This catholicism makes him, as I say, difficult to take in when so much is shown together. There is a kind of ontological confusion, as he himself once admitted while visiting an early retrospective. He uses space, for example, in very different and contradictory ways – as a Zen void against the sign, as field to hold figure, as positive and negative form, occasionally as semi-Cubist construction, as a flat wall to be etched onto or broken through, as dramatic orthogonal stage, even as a map. Neither is there a stereotypical Motherwell touch, a recognisable ‘hand’. The marks can be fast, broad and wet, drops of ink marking the lift of the brush, or they can be tight, dry, etched along a ruler leaving a fine dust either side like a fuse – or just a controlled black stain.

Arthur Danto defined artists as either dogmatists or pragmatists, and Motherwell is (almost alone among his peers) definitely the latter. He said that his “interest in the language of art is pretty much an interest in the tool that can lead one to being honest [but] which used without great care leads inevitably to the lie, the cliché, the standardised, and to all one thinks that one thinks and feels, rather than what one actually does.”

Robert Motherwell, Beige Open, 1981, Soft-ground etching on beige Auvergne on la Main Richard de Bas handmade paper, ed of 80, 50.8 x 66.7cm, copyright Dedalus Foundation, Inc / Licensed by VAGA, New York, courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery

It’s the pragmatism of the word ‘tool’ that’s important here, and the sense of the moral task of art to describe and define subjective truth objectively. Motherwell used automatic drawing, which he absorbed directly through his contact with Matta and other émigré Surrealists, not as a divining rod to his subconscious, but as a method of uninhibited, unmannered invention: a source of imagery to be explored and refined. Motherwell was something of a Romantic despite his interest in Utilitarian philosophy and his friendship with the Pragmatist John Dewey – it’s an unavoidable part of his work, for better or worse. It is present in what has been described as his ‘evocations of the drama of the Spanish soul’, and in his rather nostalgic reverence for the whole pre-war Modernist milieu. Why, for example, are the scraps of packaging in his collages always old and French? Does it have to be a Gauloise fag packet and not a Lucky Strike? There’s a hint of Twombly’s aura of significance there.

But the unresolved traces of imagery and the self-conscious high Modernism are small things compared to the profuse inventiveness and intelligent beauty of so many of his prints – the sheer variety of emotional register and the infinite ways that black (or brown, or ochre, or olive) can give life to a rectangle of white. So Bloomsday, for exampe, may have a literary title, but I don’t think this affects the tenuously balanced abstract aquatint one way or the other.

Robert Motherwell, The Wave, 1978, Soft-ground etching and chine colle, 78.1 x 65.4 cm, copyright Dedalus Foundation, Inc / Licensed by VAGA, New York, courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery

There are, though, prints where the Symbolist element is still-born, a glyph cast adrift from its alphabet. Conversely, I find that some of the Open series, with their faint suggestion of a Matisse-like room – where an open-sided rectangle switches from sign-on-void to a door opening up a space beyond the picture – perhaps segué from subtlety to dullness. Maybe this is my failing – Motherwell is trying to find a way between his interest in the Zen conception of the Void (most obviously in his calligraphic glyphs) and the Modernist, Matisse-like interior space that pulls against the Void in the Open series. These attempts to find ground between two very different metaphysical conceptions of space, Eastern and Western, have obvious potential pitfalls, from confusion and contradiction to the taint of cultural tourism. The act of looking at, and judging, the most Zen ínfluenced calligraphic works is complicated by the fact that Chinese calligraphy is more an act of self-realisation, devotion even, for the artist than an act of communication with any potential viewer. But, given these ontological complications, even the simplest prints are exquisitely concise little plays on weight, movement and complex intimations of spatial relationships; ambiguity, or rather openness, of scale only occasionally broken by a too specific figurative element that can reduce the specifics of his line to a merely descriptive role.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy Fragment II, 1985, Aquatint, lift-ground etching and aquatint on GDH handmade paper, 87.6 x 61 cm, copyright Dedalus Foundation, Inc / Licensed by VAGA, New York, courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery

Unlike Twombly, Motherwell is not a virtuosic artist, which is no bad thing. There are no tricks, clever sleights of hand, or easy transformations in his work; there’s more of a Protestant work ethic against Twombly’s easy Southern stylishness. There are repeating forms of course – the compression of ovoid and hard vertical (Elegy fragment II, with a pale pink ground breaking through the massive blackness top and bottom is terrific), the curious frequency of a downward-pointing open triangle – but these are useful forms to be worked at, not lazy clichés. Neither was Motherwell a colourist. He used a very limited palette (black and white, ochre, pale blue, occasionally red), and there is an obvious symbolic quality to them, which is in some ways a limiting factor in the range of his painting – although you only have to look at a late Elegy on show at Tate Modern to see what he can achieve with only black, white and ochre. Again, there are times when Motherwell’s Symbolist leanings break a painting – in Elegy to the Spanish Republic no.172 (with Blood) the red is overbearing, its melodrama undermining the abstract logic of the painting. Nothing in the Jacobson show falls apart like that, partly because colour is largely confined to the grounds, setting the emotional register of the print, rather than anything more symbolic or figuratively local. Glass Garden has a grass green rectangle, but the picture is both dynamic and coherent. This ‘impure’ bit of symbolism doesn’t negate the specifics, the ‘presence’ of the print- quite the opposite.

Motherwell’s attempts to find a balance between intelligence and sensibility, his persistent pursuit of ideas to their fullest potential, his openness to new form -and his brave and serious engagement with Eastern pictorial concepts – these are all lacking in such a degree in contemporary art, and it would be a very good time to have a serious retrospective of his paintings, to have a chance to judge how well he achieved these impossible synthesese.

  1. Luke Elwes said…

    It was not clear to me, and perhaps someone knows, if Twombly’s photographic work is contiguous with the paintings – the product of reflection or studio ‘down time’ – or a tasteful afterthought. Are they integral to the process or just expensive souvenirs? There is unfortunately no clue to their genesis in the catalogue (itself an expensive souvenir).

    Uniformly presented by Gagosian as luxury tokens, it is hard to differentiate those which simply revisit his paintings by other means from those which fleetingly reveal the eye behind the camera: perhaps most strikingly in the less designed and more humble shots of trees in Lexington, where the eyes of the old artist simply register dark shapes of foliage drifting in pale skies. They appear as fragments in the drift of days, in which his/our judgement abates. To call them ‘thing-poems’ (in a Keatsian vein), as Edmund De Waal does in the catalogue, is to give them a weight and substance they do not obviously possess – perhaps to see them (the last ones at least) as the trace of an unmediated eye at work might be more helpful. Even Motherwell, if he were here, might have appreciated their ‘zen’ sensibility.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      I’d say ‘obviously do not possess’ rather than ‘do not obviously possess’. Perhaps the problem is not seeing past them as luxury items but seeing past the rhetoric that has built up around around Twombly? Though I also sort of think that if we need to put so much effort into finding a way to look at them, they may not be worth looking at in the first place.

  2. Sam Cornish said…

    One of the striking things about Twombly is the lack of any real sense of scale. Motherwell works his smaller pieces through a number of different stages so that they fit on the larger scale of his full paintings; Twombly just seems to make his marks bigger. Though I agree with John’s characterisation of Twombly as a stylist this certainly fits with David Sweet’s image of him as a ‘Para-painter’: I don’t think the two ideas necessarily contradict each other.

    In the paintings at Gagosian there was a very odd (and momentarily intriguing) sensation that the rectangle of the canvas was an image taken from a view finder, that was zooming in and out and capturing different views of a unitary (infinite?) field of loops that were all the same size.

  3. Robert Linsley said…

    I agree completely.