Cy Twombly and Robert Motherwell are each the subject of exhibitions currently in London – Twombly’s last paintings (together with a roomful of photographs) are at Gagosian’s showrooms, while Bernard Jacobson Gallery are showing around sixty of Motherwell’s prints.
As the two longest surviving major Abstract Expressionists, they make an interesting comparison (Twombly died last year, Motherwell in 1991). They share a sort of European, literary sensibility, which contrasted with the all-American muscularity of many of their contemporaries, and which made them slightly suspicious figures to a generation for whom the term ‘European’ was, if not an insult, then certainly carried a strong whiff of decadent backsliding. This decadence in fact became the essential trope of Twombly’s work, and was no doubt the source of his blossoming reputation among a new generation for whom copious literary interpretation, combined with a lovely Romantic gesture, was a boon and not a failing. The work of both artists is rooted in Surrealism’s automatic drawing, and the image making that inevitably emerges from this technique imbues their art with a largely submerged but persistent figurative element. Abstract Expressionism always carried a weight of symbolism, but both Motherwell and Twombly carried it more openly than most. Motherwell’s titles are full of references to the writers that he loved – Eliot, Baudelaire, Mallarme, Joyce – and Twombly’s immersion in the Classical world was such that I suspect he painted in a toga. The significant difference between the two I think, is that Motherwell, throughout his life, worked through these influences, reconsidering, reworking, refining and renewing their pictorial possibilities, but Twombly became an illustrator of them, and a parody of himself. Yet while the casual art mag reader might be forgiven for thinking that Motherwell died in the early 60s, Twombly became, toward the end of his life, valorised as the grand, blue-chip Greatest Real Painter, the subject of an industry of gushing interpretation, and mythical father of Kiefer, that other creator of big portentous paintings with name-droppings scrawled all over. This accounts for the difference in scale between the two shows.
Gagosian is exhibiting eight of Twombly’s last big paintings, as well as a lot of blurry snapshots that he seems to be marketing as a whole new product range. Closely related to the Camino Real and Bacchus paintings, these untitled works all share the same colours and form (red, orange and yellow swirls on a lime-green ground) in the same size and format. Minor variants on a luxury model, perfect for a space that feels like a Mercedes dealership. They are, in fairness, better than the Bacchus series. Like them, these are part of Twombly’s late return to his calligraphic ‘sentences’, lines of looping clockwise gestures that he used in his early 70s blackboard paintings and many works before that. Now though, the nervous intensity has drained away, they don’t look like fevered scribbling so much as an elegant way of filling space. There’s a sense of pathos in the way one senses an elderly man trying to impose himself on the scribbles in such a big physical scale. This doesn’t make the resulting painting any better or worse, but it’s all part of the popular biographical mythology. Unlike the Bacchus series, there is a degree of spatial complexity, although it’s pretty formulaic; the reds sink back and the oranges and yellows push out, and as the paint gets lighter in tone it also gets thinner in consistency, so the yellow seeps and drips down in a watery gauze. Drips are big in all of the late works – they are a great sign of authenticity, and they create nice misty veils, abstract equivalents of foggy German Romantic landscapes. I like the slightly bad-taste bright green of the ground though – it sets up an unexpected push-pull around the giant scribbles, and imparts a buzz that rubs against the generally portentous tone. But there is not much to be said about any particular painting; some are a little lighter, some are a little denser, otherwise they do essentially the same job: elegant scruffiness, carefully contrived rawness. I think David Sweet, in his essay on this site about ‘Para-painting’, overemphasised Twombly’s outsider qualities – he is above all, an aesthete, a maker of elegantly sophisticated whimsies. At least these last paintings spare us all the pretentious Latinisms and poetical sighing.
The photographs, on the other hand, are everything that was silly about Twombly’s art, distilled down into sixty little snapshots. All slightly out of focus, grainily printed in the sort of charmingly faded colours that always signal the passing of time, this looks like a display of illustrations to an Observer Magazine Mediterranean holiday pullout. It is embarrassing that a major gallery is trying to take this stuff seriously. There are pictures of garlic bulbs in fragments of carved marble, for God’s sake; of Italian conifers at sunset, of rustic tables with some paint brushes in a faded old coffee tin, all artlessly composed and presented in a gold tooled, silk bound solander box. Lovely.
Meanwhile, at Bernard Jacobson, the prints of Robert Motherwell on display are mostly from the 70s and 80s, all quite small but representing a remarkable range of both technique and form. Motherwell is a fascinatingly complex, even contradictory artist, who although famous for his monumental Elegy to the Spanish Republic paintings, never settled into a mannered style. He didn’t follow the well-trodden path of finding one great statement, and then repeating, or at best refining it, to the end. Hence the slightly bewildering range of the exhibition. All his major themes are here – the Elegies, the Opens, the symbols and calligraphy, the collage prints and the automatic drawings. Some of it is truly abstract (the Dutch Linen Suite) some of it is loosely figurative (Bird, House of Atreus) while a lot of it hangs somewhere in between the two.
This catholicism makes him, as I say, difficult to take in when so much is shown together. There is a kind of ontological confusion, as he himself once admitted while visiting an early retrospective. He uses space, for example, in very different and contradictory ways – as a Zen void against the sign, as field to hold figure, as positive and negative form, occasionally as semi-Cubist construction, as a flat wall to be etched onto or broken through, as dramatic orthogonal stage, even as a map. Neither is there a stereotypical Motherwell touch, a recognisable ‘hand’. The marks can be fast, broad and wet, drops of ink marking the lift of the brush, or they can be tight, dry, etched along a ruler leaving a fine dust either side like a fuse – or just a controlled black stain.
Arthur Danto defined artists as either dogmatists or pragmatists, and Motherwell is (almost alone among his peers) definitely the latter. He said that his “interest in the language of art is pretty much an interest in the tool that can lead one to being honest [but] which used without great care leads inevitably to the lie, the cliché, the standardised, and to all one thinks that one thinks and feels, rather than what one actually does.”
It’s the pragmatism of the word ‘tool’ that’s important here, and the sense of the moral task of art to describe and define subjective truth objectively. Motherwell used automatic drawing, which he absorbed directly through his contact with Matta and other émigré Surrealists, not as a divining rod to his subconscious, but as a method of uninhibited, unmannered invention: a source of imagery to be explored and refined. Motherwell was something of a Romantic despite his interest in Utilitarian philosophy and his friendship with the Pragmatist John Dewey – it’s an unavoidable part of his work, for better or worse. It is present in what has been described as his ‘evocations of the drama of the Spanish soul’, and in his rather nostalgic reverence for the whole pre-war Modernist milieu. Why, for example, are the scraps of packaging in his collages always old and French? Does it have to be a Gauloise fag packet and not a Lucky Strike? There’s a hint of Twombly’s aura of significance there.
But the unresolved traces of imagery and the self-conscious high Modernism are small things compared to the profuse inventiveness and intelligent beauty of so many of his prints – the sheer variety of emotional register and the infinite ways that black (or brown, or ochre, or olive) can give life to a rectangle of white. So Bloomsday, for exampe, may have a literary title, but I don’t think this affects the tenuously balanced abstract aquatint one way or the other.
There are, though, prints where the Symbolist element is still-born, a glyph cast adrift from its alphabet. Conversely, I find that some of the Open series, with their faint suggestion of a Matisse-like room – where an open-sided rectangle switches from sign-on-void to a door opening up a space beyond the picture – perhaps segué from subtlety to dullness. Maybe this is my failing – Motherwell is trying to find a way between his interest in the Zen conception of the Void (most obviously in his calligraphic glyphs) and the Modernist, Matisse-like interior space that pulls against the Void in the Open series. These attempts to find ground between two very different metaphysical conceptions of space, Eastern and Western, have obvious potential pitfalls, from confusion and contradiction to the taint of cultural tourism. The act of looking at, and judging, the most Zen ínfluenced calligraphic works is complicated by the fact that Chinese calligraphy is more an act of self-realisation, devotion even, for the artist than an act of communication with any potential viewer. But, given these ontological complications, even the simplest prints are exquisitely concise little plays on weight, movement and complex intimations of spatial relationships; ambiguity, or rather openness, of scale only occasionally broken by a too specific figurative element that can reduce the specifics of his line to a merely descriptive role.
Unlike Twombly, Motherwell is not a virtuosic artist, which is no bad thing. There are no tricks, clever sleights of hand, or easy transformations in his work; there’s more of a Protestant work ethic against Twombly’s easy Southern stylishness. There are repeating forms of course – the compression of ovoid and hard vertical (Elegy fragment II, with a pale pink ground breaking through the massive blackness top and bottom is terrific), the curious frequency of a downward-pointing open triangle – but these are useful forms to be worked at, not lazy clichés. Neither was Motherwell a colourist. He used a very limited palette (black and white, ochre, pale blue, occasionally red), and there is an obvious symbolic quality to them, which is in some ways a limiting factor in the range of his painting – although you only have to look at a late Elegy on show at Tate Modern to see what he can achieve with only black, white and ochre. Again, there are times when Motherwell’s Symbolist leanings break a painting – in Elegy to the Spanish Republic no.172 (with Blood) the red is overbearing, its melodrama undermining the abstract logic of the painting. Nothing in the Jacobson show falls apart like that, partly because colour is largely confined to the grounds, setting the emotional register of the print, rather than anything more symbolic or figuratively local. Glass Garden has a grass green rectangle, but the picture is both dynamic and coherent. This ‘impure’ bit of symbolism doesn’t negate the specifics, the ‘presence’ of the print- quite the opposite.
Motherwell’s attempts to find a balance between intelligence and sensibility, his persistent pursuit of ideas to their fullest potential, his openness to new form -and his brave and serious engagement with Eastern pictorial concepts – these are all lacking in such a degree in contemporary art, and it would be a very good time to have a serious retrospective of his paintings, to have a chance to judge how well he achieved these impossible synthesese.