A hero lost
One of my absolute favorite artists died yesterday. Cy Twombly was 83, an incredibly prolific painter, sculptor and writer, and one of my heroes. The New York Times called him “an artist of selective abandon,” and a “towering and inspirational talent.” He was a mark-maker, an experimentalist, an iconographer, and a thinker, and the deceptive simplicity of his paintings belies the power and intensity bursting forth from his canvases. He worked almost up until his death (this painting below was created in 2010), and has had more solo shows and retrospectives than I can count.
I first saw his work as a child at the Whitney Museum in New York City, which we visited many times when I was growing up. I remember being blown away by his work even then, and by one painting in particular, though I couldn’t quite remember which one it was…until I was reunited with it several years ago, again at the Whitney. It was this painting:
This second time I saw it, it was hanging alone on a center wall, huge and shocking, and as I came around a corner of the museum, it literally stopped me in my tracks and made me draw in my breath, my knees buckling and my eyes tearing up immediately. Yes, that’s right, I was the crazy lady standing alone in the middle of the room crying in front of a painting. I think I may even have moaned. Honestly, this painting is that moving. If you’ve ever seen it in person, you’ll know what I mean.
But it’s not just the one painting, or even two or three, that I love. It’s all of them. There aren’t any duds in the bunch. And they are all moving, in their own way. How many artists can you say that about?
I love these two paintings, below, not just for their apparent evolution, but also for their obvious ability to stand alone, without knowing about the other one. The first is titled “School of Athens, First Version,” and the second is “School of Athens, Second Version,” and they are both from 1964. They are both modern and almost traditionally pretty at the same time, with their romantic, fleshy pinks and melancholy grays giving way to great arcs of gesture and movement across their canvases. I think sometimes people are afraid to call modern art pretty, or maybe even can’t find the prettiness in it to begin with, but these paintings, I think, make it very easy.
Cy’s work is humbling, not just because of the sheer size (some of the paintings are HUGE), but also because of its success. I don’t mean success from any financial standpoint (though I’m sure he found that as well), I mean the kind of success that comes when you know you’ve said your piece in your own clear voice, and somehow, though you’ve been speaking your own made-up language all along, you’ve still managed to make your listeners hear you, to understand you, to feel.
What resonates so clearly in so much of his work is just that–the strong, obsessive language that he speaks, a language that is rooted in the academic but is still so understandable and accessible. References to history, religion, literature and science are often tempered by a playfulness, an irresistible expressiveness, a joy. His voice is unmistakable. And while he sometimes seems to be shouting, he never belittles. It’s smart work, but it’s not oppressive or lecturing.
His work is experiential and emotional, thoughtful and curious, open and yet infinitely controlled. Even his works that are least successful for me are still arresting. And his most successful are ravishing.
He’s been a great love of mine through the years, influencing my choice of path and my work in ways that even I don’t understand. I am thankful to have had his work in my life for so long, and I look forward to the moments I know will still come where I will come around a corner, find his work on a wall, and have to suck in my breath and try not to drop to my knees as the power of the canvas overtakes me.