At the Serpentine

Paul Myerscough

You have to trust yourself in front of a Twombly. The critics won’t help. They’re worried about naivety – Twombly’s, or possibly their own – and tend to overcompensate for it. Here’s Simon Schama in his introduction to the catalogue for Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper: ‘Twombly’s Apollo is not the fine-limbed hunk of the Belvedere, but the pitiless flayer of Marsyas … what Twombly draws from archaic mythology is its poetic emphasis on the consolations of metamorphosis; cruelty, rape and death … transformed into the irrepressible burgeoning of nature.’[*] Maybe. But if you look at Twombly’s Apollo (1975), what you’ll see is a generous expanse of white paper, with somewhere towards the top of it an angry oil-stick scrawl of the god’s name in indigo and black capitals, and below that two columns of hurried pencil graffiti, the first a list of classical Greek names, the other of plants and animals: ‘laurel, palm tree, swan, hawk, raven, snake, mouse, grasshopper’.

This isn’t Titian. Whatever else is going on here, these drawings and paintings are not allegories of Apollo or Venus, Proteus or Pan. It’s striking, as you drift through five decades of Twombly’s work, just how little you care what his paintings are ‘about’. The majority are untitled; when they aren’t, the titles are puzzling, or appear irrelevant, a joke. If his work is about anything, it’s about painting, about what it means to put marks on a surface and to frame them in space, about the materials you use to do that and how they determine what you can show and the process of showing it. There are invitations to interpretation in the paintings, for sure. Shapes recur, one in particular: a pointed ellipse, which in different contexts seems to be a bird, a shield, a vaginal opening or an eye. There’s a biographical temptation: Twombly, born in 1928 in Virginia, spent his mid-twenties travelling in Italy, Spain and North Africa before settling in Rome. The first drawing in this exhibition, from 1953, has the ellipse looking like a tribal shield. Some critics find it reappearing later as a sailing boat in the Mediterranean. In the most recent flower paintings, from 2001, it turns up in cut-out form, a leaf obscured beneath petals. It’s a formal element so simple that it can sustain any amount of interpretation, and this is surely the point.

The same is true of the written marks in Twombly’s paintings. They’re there from the beginning, from the indecipherable scrawls in the early drawings to the measurements and memos in sketches from the 1970s, the lists and word associations of Apollo and Venus and, more recently, the fragments of poetry in his masterpiece, Quattro Stagioni, tucked away in a rarely visited room on the third floor of Tate Modern. (A caption helpfully tells us they’re about ‘the transience of human existence’.) It’s a natural assumption that his daubs and the words he writes in them and alongside them somehow inform one another, but that’s to ignore the more telling effect writing has in his early work. The loops, spikes and waves of pencil in two untitled drawings from 1956 look like writing crossing itself out. They are unreadable inscriptions, and as such convey the permanence and provisionality of all inscription. A year later, the same illegible script drowns beneath a hasty whitewash, only to be retraced in the surface of the paint with the wrong end of a brush. As recently as the early 1980s, you can find Twombly making his first mark – the letters ‘HRIH’, a spoked wheel, a set of indeterminate forms – then submerging it, almost but not quite completely, in circular scrawls of crimson and black crayon. There’s a barely controlled abandon, and more than a hint of anxiety that once the act of inscription has begun, it can’t be undone. The work will always be a record of its own making, so that no erasure can ever be quite that; rubbing something out just adds another layer to the palimpsest.

In other pieces, the problem of what to do after the first mark has been made turns into the question of when to stop, how to know when the work is done. In the Bolsena drawings of 1969, rough rectangles, numbers, scribbles and outlines accumulate like doodles on a telephone notepad. In one, the marks gather towards the bottom of the frame, forming a horizon across its middle; in others, they collect in the left-hand corner, or the right; the rest of the yellowing paper is left blank. Twombly is famous for leaving parts of his surfaces untouched. He’s fascinated by the way the mark and the blank surface articulate one another: the canvas isn’t ‘canvas’ until it’s marked; white isn’t ‘white’ – and not, say, ‘absence’ – until it’s splashed on canvas.

But once the surface is marked, it looks oceanic, unmasterable: there’s just too much of it. How could a painter possibly account for it all, and in a way that would be coherent? Better to embrace incoherence, Twombly sometimes seems to say, an accumulation of marks and paint (though he’s so good at putting things in place that the effect is always decorative; Twombly doesn’t do ‘ugly’), and to recognise that finishedness is always in some sense arbitrary, isn’t guaranteed by covering the canvas and doesn’t, in fact, require it.

This obsession with finishedness, with when an event begins and when it can be considered over, is one strand in a thread running through all Twombly’s work: a concern with temporality in painting, how to represent the passing of time in and through the process of putting paint on a surface. Having left the US in the 1950s, he keeps faith with the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock rather than, say, Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko. Twombly’s brush and pencil are always moving, his fingers forever in the paint. Look closely and you’ll see just how densely textured his paintings are – the splashes, drips and streaks settle layer on layer – but from a distance you might think they’d been executed in a few frenzied minutes. It’s an effect suited to the subjects of his recent work: the four canvases of the Quattro Stagioni, and the flower paintings of the last twenty years in the Serpentine. ‘Ah, it goes, is lost,’ reads one of the few scraps of poetry in his paintings that it is tempting to make something of, in the panel Quattro Stagioni: Estate (‘Summer’) in Tate Modern. It captures Twombly’s sense, once anxious, now ecstatic, that the moment of ‘spring’, ‘summer’, ‘autumn’ or ‘winter’, the moment when a flower blooms, a fruit ripens, is undecidable, that it’s gone as soon as it is recognised, and certainly too quickly to be captured in paint as it passes. There is freedom for Twombly in this recognition, and his earlier worries about how much of the surface you were supposed to cover now give way to an exploration of just how minimalist or excessive you can be. The Petals of Fire (1989) are lubricious dabs of black and blood red, spilling into the virgin white space around them. And in the most recent works, the untitled acrylics from 2001, paint out of control marks the impossibility of capturing a passing moment in the time of composition. Flowers become melting blueberry and mango ice-cream, their drips coagulating at the bottom of the frame, or they’re splashes of milk and squished blackcurrants, staining the paper as they burst. They’re roses, irises and peonies, but they needn’t be: more than that they’re colour, and paint, and the moment of their making.

[*] Edited by Julie Sylvester (Art Data, 110 pp., £38, April, 0 948835 41 9). The exhibition is at the Serpentine Gallery until 13 June.