Andrew Lambirth

Traces of self

<strong>Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons<br /> </strong><em>Tate Modern, until 14 September</em>

Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons

Tate Modern, until 14 September

This year, Cy Twombly celebrated his 80th birthday. As the leading modern American artist who decamped to Europe and went his own way regardless of developments at home, Twombly was for many years out in the wilderness. But he held his course and now he is the darling of the art glitterati. However, his work is not so easy for the uninitiated and many feel slightly at a loss when confronted by one of his scribbly canvases. Those with closed minds tend to dismiss him, and, as Nicholas Serota in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue (£24.99 in paperback) points out, Twombly’s art is ‘elusive and, for many people, even enthusiasts of contemporary art, unfathomable’. As a major exhibition of his work from the last half-century opens in London (there was a much smaller show at the Serpentine in 2004), I offer some reflections on his difficult but rewarding art.

For a start, it should be noted that this is not a Twombly retrospective so much as a series of potent groupings of themes and interests. The show begins with a powerful trio of black-and-white paintings from the early 1950s, showing Twombly’s origins in Abstract Expressionism and his stylistic affinity to Jackson Pollock. (Actually, it soon emerges that he was closer to de Kooning or Robert Motherwell, who inspired his interest in calligraphy and the automatic drawing techniques of the Surrealists.) In this first room we are also given our first taste of Twombly’s addiction to scribble, his determination to access the state of mind below the conscious. This is much more than a naughty schoolboy scribbling on a blackboard; it’s a deliberate strategy to seek the deeper meanings below the obvious.

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