Review: The ancients live on forever in Cy Twombly’s abstract art, now on view at the Getty

Immortality makes a god a god. Firing a bolt of lightning is eye-catching, while the morphing of a human projection into an animal avatar can be unsettling. Feeding a crowd with just five loaves of bread and two puny fish is impressive.

But immortality seals the deal. Across the world, various gods have patrolled various underworlds for millennia, with death as their sinister duty of guardianship. But with rare exceptions, gods themselves do not die. That’s what makes her different from you and me.

And unlike Cy Twombly, the American artist who died in 2011 at the age of 83.

A compact and thoughtful new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum delves deep into the relationship between his well-known painterly abstractions, which rose to prominence in the 1960s, and his obsession with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. (Surprisingly, the exhibition is at the Getty in Brentwood, not the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, home of the museum’s ancient art.) Cy Twombly: Making Past Present focuses on the artist’s poetic visual response to the Mediterranean antiquity .

The exhibition does a good job of exploring how Twombly did it, although it’s not exactly clear why Mediterranean antiquity should be a pressing topic for contemporary abstract painting. I think immortality helps explain that. Whatever themes Twombly took up – say epic war stories or classical ideals of beauty – he framed them as painterly interactions inhabited by gods.

War in Twombly’s art is imbued with references to Mars, beauty to Venus. A multi-tasked god, Apollo emerges for both battle and beauty.

But contemporary art is made in a culture that is decidedly secular in its social and artistic life, let alone a culture where ancient history is, well, ancient history. For us, unlike ancient civilizations, a great work of art is itself an emblem of potential immortality. For what is the purpose of a museum – a thoroughly modern invention – as a mechanism for preserving art objects for eternity? Twombly’s evocation of the past confirms our current belief in artistic immortality.

The exhibition was primarily organized by Christine Kondoleon, Curator of Ancient Greek and Roman Art, and Kate Nesin, Curator of Contemporary Art, both at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she is traveling next year. (Getty curators Richard Rand and Scott Allan oversaw the current installation.) They selected 12 paintings, 27 works on paper, and 11 sculptures by Twombly, which they mixed with ancient Greek and Roman objects, most of which once belonged to the artist belonged to and were exhibited in his home and studio.

A painting on a white background

Cy Twombly, “Leda and the Swan”, 1962, oil, graphite and wax crayon on canvas

(© Cy Twombly Foundation / © The Museum of Modern Art, licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York)

Paintings by Twombly are an acquired taste. Only slowly does something more emerge from the initially chaotic, dashed scrawl and a few awkwardly spelled names and words.

In fact, an elegance emerges, even a glamor. Twombly brought great sophistication to late 20’sth Century legacy of abstract painting.

Take Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves (IV), a monumental canvas that is almost 9 feet high and 7 feet wide. A luxurious burst of flowing red-orange color marks the center of a lush turquoise field, above which the painting’s title is scrawled in pale yellow. The yellow title casts a greyish shadow within the turquoise, a pentimento whose sign of an earlier layer of paint signals a layer of history. The runny burst suggestion of a boat with oars floating on a transparent sea is linked to ancient Paphos, the Cypriot city that is the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek predecessor of Roman Venus and goddess of sex and beauty.

Say this for Twombly: The guy had style.

What else he had was not always easy to determine. Twombly’s first solo show in Los Angeles was in 1968 (at the groundbreaking Nicholas Wilder Gallery), but the longtime American expat’s work in Italy – he moved to Rome in 1958 and has stayed in the country for more than half a century – has been here sporadically since to see.

The 1994 touring retrospective from New York’s Museum of Modern Art came to LA at the Museum of Contemporary Art, while the Broad Museum now houses a relatively permanent gallery chosen from the roughly two dozen Twombly paintings and sculptures in its collection – one of which his largest holdings are by a single artist. (A second large “Paphos” painting in the Getty exhibition is on loan from the private collection of Edythe and the late Eli Broad.) The Gagosian Gallery displayed several of Twombly’s last paintings in a memorial exhibition after the artist’s death. And that was about it.

Some of the most compelling things about Making Past Present are works on paper, a material whose apparent connection to writing elevates Twombly’s paintings as visual poems. A monumental 1970 composition at the entrance consists of 30 sheets arranged in a grid, six across and five down, each sheet covered with thin, brushing, light gray oil paint. Wave after wave of gestural scribbles in deep blue chalk are repeated like an incomprehensible penmanship. The repeated “writing” comes across as a frustrated but determined attempt at communication.

A sculpture

Cy Twombly, “Thermopylae”, 1992, bronze

(© Menil Foundation Inc. / Hickey-Robertson, Houston)

Twombly’s sculptures are among the least convincing things, especially when viewed with actual Greek and Roman examples such as are here. Most are modest accumulations of scrap wood united by streaks of cream paint. One label dubiously describes an angled wooden slat standing on a crate on a plinth as referring to “a form emerging from a rising wave” like the birth of Aphrodite from the sea; While that may be the source of the composition, the geometric sculpture hardly conveys the organic myth.

The main exception is a wonderful lumpy dome of roughly hewn cast bronze that looks like a small mountain. (The lump is approximately 3 feet high.) Based on a tumulus, an ancient burial mound, and titled “Thermopylae” after the legendary, blood-soaked battle in which a small band of Greeks vainly defended their home territory against legions of Persian invaders, The Sculpture shows four spindly stalks sticking out of the pile, their flower petals not yet open. The stalks, parts of life emerging from a place of death, thrust into empty space, at once desolate and hopeful. Twombly’s sculpture eloquently captures the contradictory flavors of an immortal tale whose vanquished combatants prevail in the story’s moral esteem.

“Cy Twombly: Making the Past Present”

Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood
When: 10am-5:30pm Tuesday-Friday and Sunday, 10am-8pm Saturday. Until October 30th.
Contact: (310) 440-7300, Review: The ancients live on forever in Cy Twombly’s abstract art, now on view at the Getty

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