Tuesday, 26 July 2011


NOTE: I recently found this piece in my files. I'd written it early in 1995, as you'll see, and it appears I sent it in ms form to the New Statesman. This may have been the piece which prompted the response 'I like it but I can only use pieces I've commissioned', to which I replied 'well, why not commission it?' which prompted a hang-up. That editor will remain nameless, but it's not an unfamiliar occurance. My memory says the DeKooning show was the one that had the biggest impact on me of these three, but that was probably because I was already convinced by Kline, and probably felt re-establishing him in the pantheon with Pollock, Rothko, and now DeKooning was important. There is a theory that it was DeKooning who got Kline interested in using an enlarger, but that doesn't really change things one way or the other. So here it is, as written 16 years ago...

The New York School is hot again, just when it seemed about to become old hat. Following the Whitechapel's Franz Kline retrospective last summer, the Tate is hosting the massive 90th birthday Willem De Kooning show, which comes to London from New York's Metropolitan Museum. Back in New York, just before that show closed, a powerful Kline exhibition opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art; it closes on 12 March.

In New York, the De Kooning received curiously mixed reviews. The criticisms were largely due to the didactic nature of the show; it was presented chronologically, and as such documented the intellectual development of de Kooning's work alongside his stylistic progress, making clear the way he grasped the logical basis of the process of painting, the way he was able to blend the advances of the New York School into the more analytical approach he had already adopted. For an audience used to seeing lots of de Kooning, over a period of some 50 years, this somehow seemed to reduce his stature. But to a London audience, somewhat less familiar, the Tate show should reinforce his position as both a great painter and a major force in the leading art movement of the post-War century.

If we think of Jackson Pollack as the muscular force of the New York School then perhaps de Kooning was its intellectual center. The Tate's show makes clear the way de Kooning was able to take his "woman" paintings, full of Jungian symbolism, and combine them with the powerful 50s work which seems almost like Kline, but in colour. He achieved a synthesis in the 60s, by which time Pollock and Kline were already gone, which took him to a new level, and then amazingly he was able to continue pushing himself into new areas, at first as if by logical progression, and later as if by pure instinct.

And if Pollack were the muscle and de Kooning the mind of Abstract Expressionism, perhaps Rothko was its soul, but then Franz Kline was surely its heart, the one who searched for a way of transferring his feeling directly onto canvas, and having discovered that means, pushed it for all it was worth. The Kline retrospective at the Whitechapel was instructive, showing the conscious pace of development in his style, suggesting ways in which that development might have continued had he not died in 1962. But the Whitney's show, organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, is different. It is, simply, six rooms filled with Kline at his artistic peak...a few early 50s works to show the directions he was heading, and then a cannon-blast of mostly large-scale Kline which nearly overpowers the viewer.

To many casual viewers, seeing one Kline is the same as seeing them all. The fallacy of that position becomes evident immediately at the Whitney. When I say that Kline is an emotional painter, I don't mean it in the sense of DeKooning, or even Rothko, where you can see the nature of the work expressing emotions. I mean that he was able to transmit his feeling directly to the canvas, that his feelings are equal to the reality of the paint; a Kline painting is not an expression of emotion, it is emotion itself, reflected in the spontaneous nature of the individual act of making the particular painting itself..

Elaine de Kooning stopped just short of this realisation in her description of Kline's brush strokes, which " expanded as entities in themselves, unrelated to any reality but that of their own existence." While this makes a good theoretical basis for modern painting, the brilliance of Kline's work is that those brush strokes are, obviously, also related to the reality of his own existence--and that is what he is putting onto the canvas. The thing, that is, is real in itself. This feeling is present in the poetry and music of the post-war era: the open field poetry experiments of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, the be-bop jazz of Charlie Parker and his followers. There is even an affinity with the photography of film noir movies. It is an expression of the reality of emotion, through the apprehension of real things.

The Whitney exhibition contains a revealing set of small oils on paper from the collection of Cy Twombly, in which Kline seems to have realised his vision. We see from the early outlines on the pages of old phone books, and in the 'Study for Black and White #1' (1952) that Kline has found his form of expression, and from that point he produces work of such individual power that to see them grouped here, and realise their cumulative impact is literally amazing. The ways in which Kline experiments with motion 'August Day' (1957--at the top of this post), portraiture 'Elizabeth' (1958), structure 'Mahoning II' (1961) or raw feeling: 'Requiem' (1958--above on the right) belie the notion of his being a one-trick pony. And though we think of him in black and white, when he died he was working frequently with colour; compare 'Henry II'(1959-60--on the left) with DeKooning's work at the time (the 1966 painting from the 'Woman' series above it on the left) and ask who was influencing whom.

Kline reflected the raw energy of New York in the post-War period, with his background in gritty, coal-mining Pennsylvania he was able to see the power in the landscape of urban construction. He also strikes me as expressing more clearly than any American painter since Hopper the essential loneliness of the American soul. In his lifetime, Kline was always considered one of the major figures of Abstract Expressionism, yet since then he seems to have been relegated to something of an afterthought. It could be because he was just starting to reach his artistic peak when he died; you could argue Pollock and Rothko both had reached theirs when their lives ended. I suspect his death from heart failure lacked the dramatic impact of Pollock's car crash, or Rothko's suicide. The British reaction to the Whitechapel show was somewhat lukewarm, concentrating on the mechanics of Kline's work; the pages from the telephone book with the calligraphic brush strokes on them. Yet with that show, and especially the one at the Whitney, he should be restored to his place as one of the great painters of the Twentieth Century.

Thursday, 7 July 2011


Yesterday I wrote this obituary of Cy Twombly for the Independent, but because of a glitch in my computer, I never actually filed the copy to them, and as they were unable to reach me later they had to rush to get another piece. This is the kind of mistake I hope I never make again, wasting their time and mine, and losing the opportunity to register my appreciation of Twombly in print.

I first wrote about Twombly after I went to the Tate Modern's 'Cycles and Seasons' exhibition in 2008, the very first post for this blog about art, which has been more irregular than was intended. You can link to that essay here. I had always been interested in Twombly, because of the Black Mountain connection, but that show was a revelation to me, because I hadn't realised how beautiful much of his work could be, and I was overcome by its ability to express emotion and move me. I regret messing up that assignment from the Independent, and apologise profusely to my editors there. What I wrote for them about Twombly follows.


The American painter Cy Twombly, who has died aged 83, was our last link with the glory days of the Abstract Expressionists, but his work was always an awkward fit with that movement, indeed with any modern movement. It was a mark of his idiosyncratic talents that he abandoned New York for Italy just as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline were at their peaks of success; moreover, where all of those artists died at the height of their fame, appreciation of Twombly's work progressed slowly, dividing critics and the public alike. Some of the reasons for this became evident in his hugely successful retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2008. Where individual Twombly canvases might seem ephemeral, random, and difficult, presented together their impact was intensified and became clearer. His mix of dripping colour, hand-written notes or fragments of poetry, and chaotic lines for many obscured his mix of classical and modern concerns. Cynical voices accused him of deliberate obscurantism, but Twombly never indulged in flamboyant display for its own sake, preferring to find new ways to express old stories.

If Abstract Expressionism wanted to go beyond the pure self-involvement of abstraction, Twombly's work can be seen as constantly seeking more direct expression, and even in a European context, spoke of a uniquely American perspective. Like the Abstract Expressionists, there is a sense of American pragmatism, but there is also the intellectual curiosity which allowed him to absorb European classism, and meld it into something sui generis.

He was born Edward Parker Twombly, Jr., 25 April 1928 in Lexington Virginia. His nickname came from his father, a pitcher in baseball's major leagues who was called 'Cy' for his resemblance to the great Cy Young. He studied in Lexington with the exiled Spanish artist Pierre Daura, and after finishing high school, he spent a year at a prep school in Georgia followed by brief spells at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts school. In 1950 he got a scholarship to New York's Art Students League, where he met and became close to Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg introduced him to Franz Kline, and persuaded Twombly to enroll at Black Mountain, an experimental college in North Carolina, where Kline, Ben Shahn and Robert Motherwell taught, and where Twombly's affair with Rauschenberg would lead to the breakup of the latter's marriage.

The influence of Kline and Motherwell was apparent in Twombly's first New York shows, one arranged by Motherwell at the Samuel Kootz gallery, and another at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery, where he shared the space with Joseph Cornell. But Black Mountain's influence extended beyond painting. The college's rector was the poet Charles Olson, and much of the writing on Twombly's canvases recalls Olson's 'Projective' verse, and his dictum that 'form is never more than an extension of content'. Kline's work is often compared to Chinese written characters, and Olson drew on Ernest Fenollosa's studies of them; we can often see Twombly's graffiti as objects in themselves. John Cage taught music at Black Mountain, and the silences in his work might be seen to have their equivalent in the large expanses of blank canvas in many of Twombly's larger works.

A grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts allowed Twombly to travel to southern Europe and North Africa. 'Virginia is a good start for Italy,' he said, referring to his Southern sense of faded glory, but he returned from that first trip to go into the Army. His service as a military cryptographer also had a profound influence on the writing he would include in his paintings. Moving back to New York, he worked closely with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who were was breaking away from Abstract Expressionism, and would be crucial in the foundation of Pop Art. Twombly left Stable for Leo Castelli, fast becoming New York's most influential modern art gallery, but by then he had moved to Italy, and, in 1959 married Tatiana Franchetti, the sister of one of his patrons.

If his 1959 'Poems To The Sea' show a fusion of Kline's art and Olson's poetry while celebrating the peaceful Mediterrean shore, Twombly was already creating new work which reflected the heat and passion of Italy, such as 'Crimes of Passion' and 'Murder of Passion', as well as more classical influences, including Roman myths, particularly Leda and the Swan. His series based on the Discourses of Commodus, which he painted to reflect the assassination of John Kennedy, received a savage reception from the critics when shown at Castelli in 1964. Although that setback caused his production to slow down, he began returning to the States more often, working both in Lexington and in New York. His painting reflected this part-time change of setting, particularly the series Treatise On The Veil, whose strong brush strokes and serenity remind one of late Rothko. At the same time, the elegaic Nini's Paintings seem an almost violent grief in response to the death of the wife of his Roman dealer.

One can see pieces of Shahn's emotional impact and Cornell's cool found-object commetary co-existing in Twombly, but his scale was always increasing. By the Seventies, massive works like his deliberately-mistitled 'Fifty Days At Iliam', based on the Trojan War had restored his reputation, prompting a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1979. He began spending most of his time in the southern Italian coastal town of Gaeta, producing sculptures based on boats and paintings with watery themes, like his version of the myth of Hero and Leandro. Twombly showed at the Venice Biennale three times, thirty-seven years apart, and had retrospectives in Zurich and Paris before the monumental 1994 show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, In 1995 the Cy Twombly Gallery was opened at the Menil Collection in Houston.

One of the highlights of the Tate Modern show, titled 'Cycles And Seasons', was Twombly's two versions of what his arguably his greatest work, 'The Four Seasons'. Although influences of music and poetry abound in the paintings, there is an obvious reference point to Poussin, and just last week the Dulwich Picture Gallery opened 'Arcadian Painters', a joint exhibition of Twombly and Poussin, which does much to answer the still-spiteful voices in the British press who, even after his death, rushed to deflate his reputation. Twombly died in Rome 5 July 2011, after a long struggle with cancer. His wife predeceased him in 2010; he is survived by his son Cyrus Allessandro, and by his long-time companion Nicola del Roscio.

Note: this essay appears also at Irresistible Targets

Friday, 4 February 2011


I wrote an essay recently for APEngine, about artist film and documentary, and their intersection. You can link to it here, where it's been paired with a piece by Michael Avatar about working with Steve Jackman on a film about the choreographer Jeremy James. There's also a link to the trailer for Waste Land, Lucy Walker's film about the artist Vik Muniz's work with the garbage pickers of Rio, which was my absolute favourite among the films I watched while helping write the catalogue for the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. I've also appended my essay below, for archive, but please do check the site out. APEngine is having funding problems in the current climate, and deserves support...


Putting strict boundaries on a notion of artists’ film and documentary would be both impossible and self-defeating, but the obvious common ground that might define such a genre is linked to process. Later in this piece, Michael Atavar describes his use of ‘process work’ with filmmaker Steve Jackman, which both illustrates and demonstrates the point. There is a natural impulse toward the documentary to follow the process of artistic creation, yet there is an equally natural imperative born of film’s ability to, ‘unearth inner material’.

‘Form is never more than an extension of content,’ said the poet Robert Creeley, and artist film dealing with artists naturally embraces the materials of film narrative. Issac Julien mixed home movies, interview, ‘behind the scenes’ film footage and a Tilda Swinton essay into a portrait of Derek Jarman. Process forms the intrinsic link between art and film. We apply the concept literally to the visual arts, where we believe we ‘see’ work being created (think of Hans Naumath photographing Jackson Pollock painting on glass), and we understand instinctively that moving pictures are all about their own process, put together frame by frame. In Chris Landreth’s Ryan this means appropriating the tools of animation to approach the animator’s life and work.

Ryan reflects the way documentary film has traditionally chased process while trying to discover what makes things the way they are. I think of filmmaker Mary Lance’s Agnes Martin: With My Back To The World whose very structure, as well as its composition both reflects and illuminates Martin’s work, or Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, where the documenting of Vik Muniz’ project among the catadores of Rio De Janiero’s garbage dumps becomes part of the completed work itself.

Think back to the Tate Britain’s 2003 exhibition, A Century Of Artists’ Film In Britain, curated by David Curtis, whose broad boundaries included Duncan Grant and Gilbert and George, Kenneth Anger and Steve McQueen, and early shorts by Sally Potter and Peter Greenaway. It’s a world of crossover; Andy Warhol static films grew into the crucial spin to the elements of artistic process when he filmed Larry Rivers in Sleep; Warhol’s progress from art film to exploitation feature-films provided the model for Sam Taylor-Wood’s career. Yet when actor Ed Harris directed Pollock, a mainstream bio-pic, for all its reliance on the story elements required of feature-film drama, he not only recapitulated Naumath, but made the crucial link between the process of creation shared by artist and the actor.

Our world of Einstein and quantum physics is one where nothing is certain, where everything changes, and where the act of looking at, measuring, documenting an object is assumed to force a change on that object. In the bigger sense, all art is now documentary, and in an immediate sense, the borders between fiction and documentary grow ever more flexible. In Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, that border is assaulted as actors mime the voices of ‘real’ people from Andrea Dunbar’s documentary, and Dunbar’s plays are restaged on the estate where she grew up and one of her daughters still lives a life filled with tragedy and pain. Some critics found the mix less powerful than a straightforward doc about Lorraine Dunbar might have been, yet Barnard moved directly at the crucial question of what process informed Dunbar’s creativity. Explaining Ryan, Chris Landreth quoted Anais Nin, and defined that crucial distinction which informs the new meeting ground of artist film and documentary: ‘we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are’.