Cy Twombly at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Cy Twombly, Venus (1975), oil stick, graphite and collage; courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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Strolling through Cy Twombly: 50 Years of Works on Paper, an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I couldn’t stop thinking about the carpeting. Has the Whitney always had it? I can’t, for the life of me, recall walking on it before. Yet there it was, under my feet, exhibiting the wear and tear of pedestrian traffic. I began to wonder if Mr. Twombly had requested the carpeting, in the same way Julian Schnabel demanded the floors of the Whitney be kept in an unfinished state during his mid-career retrospective almost 20 years ago. Didn’t Mr. Schnabel say he wanted the museum to have the feel of an Italian palazzo? Whatever.

I didn’t fret about flooring while attending recent Whitney shows devoted to the art of Romare Bearden, Isamu Noguchi and Arshile Gorky. They didn’t allow me the opportunity: What was on the wall, the pedestal and, yes, the floor was more absorbing than the exigencies of museum décor. The Gorky drawing retrospective repeatedly came to mind during my visit to the Twombly show.

Mr. Twombly’s art is indebted to Abstract Expressionism: A set of untitled drawings from the early 1960’s contains bulbous forms–some blatantly sexual in character–that derive from Gorky’s evocative brand of biomorphic abstraction.

Gorky’s looping, sinuous line brought forth an intimate cosmos fraught with psychological and physical yearning. Mr. Twombly has a lovely way with line as well–at the Whitney, you can watch it stutter and flow, ramble and rage with an impressive consistency–yet it never gets beyond itself. Disassociated from any corresponding sensation, experience or thing, Mr. Twombly’s graffiti-inflected abstractions skim over whatever surface they happen to occupy. There’s no metaphor inherent in the pieces, no magic or takeoff. This isn’t art for art’s sake; it’s style for style’s sake–the distinction being a breathless deficit of substance. Mr. Twombly has an appealing gift for having nothing to say.

Pseudo-mathematical equations, hasty doodles, compendiums of graph paper, fingerpainting, splotching and erasing (always erasing)–anything Mr. Twombly puts his hand to is reliable in its insouciance and consummately superficial. He can be pretentious, too: In a suite of drawings from the mid-1970’s, Mr. Twombly lists the names of mythical figures (Venus, Apollo, Pan and the like) as if an array of artful scrawls could somehow embody one of humankind’s grander fictions.

An artist who trades in trivialities should know well enough not to mess with themes that are beyond the scope of his talent. Then again, common sense ain’t got nothing to do with the amazing trajectory of Mr. Twombly’s career.

Originally published in the March 13, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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