Cy Twombly’s Last Paintings exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street show us that the artist’s singular and astonishing creativity flourished till his death. For those familiar with his better known ‘pastoral’ work –all awash with pastel pinks and deep reds, as well as that peculiar rough/delicate way he could scrawl out a text –then the first thing to strike you is the startlingly upfront, near day-glo colour palette he’s employing. Jarring reds and greens jostle each other for attention, lending the works an energy that is immediate and palpable.
A lot of Twombly’s past work seems to flood out of the canvas and engulf its audience; the paintings jump out in front of you and punch you in the face. This move to more vigorous and confrontational colour schemes seems to have been brewing for the last couple of years of the artist’s life. You can see it forming in the ‘Paphos’ series from 2009; becoming more apparent with the following year’s ‘Camino Real’ series. An awareness of the artist’s own ‘narrative’ –he was ostensibly a sick, old man staring death in the face at this time –may lead you to form your own conclusions about the turn his work seems to take at this juncture.
You could follow that chain of thought further and imagine a pleasing return to first principles in some respects. The coiling loops that charge across these canvases have been an intermittently recurring motif in Twombly’s work since the 60s, as has the use of obtuse text resembling graffiti. In these new works these broad loops serve both functions –certainly not legible, or even provable, as handwriting. Nonetheless there’s just enough happening in them to make the viewer think twice. Maybe it is saying something; maybe you just can’t quite decipher it (it’s been noted that Twombly’s army stint as a cryptographer must surely inform this aspect of his work).
Over the long span of his career Twombly developed a complex and highly personalized ‘canon’ of (mostly classical) reference points, which could perhaps be academically deconstructed and ‘understood’. But would you want that? Isn’t it the mystery, the inscrutable nature of artists like Twombly or Beuys, even Bosch for that matter, that keeps you interested? True enlightenment, after all, is always just beyond our reach. Running concurrently with The Final Paintings, the retrospective A Survey of Photographs 1954 – 2011 concentrates on a far less familiar body of work, proving some enlightenment regarding Twombly’s methods but, fortunately, not too much. There’s a clear correspondence between these small, hazy still-lifes and his monumental painted work in both colour and composition but more importantly, these are beautiful works in their own right.
As great a photographer he was, though, The Final Paintings attests to Cy Twombly’s extraordinary talents as a painter. His work is often an affecting mix of delicacy and intensity and even at life’s end, seizes it more than ever.
Cy Twombly – The Final Paintings & A Survey of Photographs 1954 – 2011 are both at the Gagosian, Britannia Street, 6 – 29th September, 2012.