Looking back on Cy Twombly

by

Special To The Japan Times

For “Cy Twombly Photographs: Lyrical Variations” Chiba Prefecture’s Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art brings together exactly 100 photographs, chronologically arranged to span the length of the artist’s career. A selection of prints, paintings and sculptures are also being shown, to be reconsidered in light of the photographs.

Twombly moved to Rome in 1957 and continued to live between Italy and New York until his death in 2011. His artwork is very much a product of this lifestyle decision. “I liked the life. That came first,” he once commented when talking about Italy, and although his work refers to Mediterranean history, mythology and literature, it is also concerned with daily life there. His pieces are a mix of history and autobiography, and his photography, in particular, highlights a curiosity and sense of humor in relation to everyday objects and rituals, which in Italy often unavoidably allude to the past.

The exhibition begins back in America, with a series of still-life pinhole camera photographs produced by Twombly while studying at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, in 1951. These black-and-white pictures resemble the paintings of Giorgio Morandi in their modest subject and monochromatic light, and they display the sparseness and sensitivity toward objects that is found throughout the exhibition.

Another early series of photographs focuses on Sicilian temple columns, showing dark shadows cast across the ruinous buildings’ symmetrical architecture, or rocks piled at the temple’s edge. The photographs, taken at Valle dei Templi when Twombly was traveling around the Mediterranean with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg in 1952, emphasize materiality and weight, which also find expression in the exhibition’s sculptures. The images elicit contemplation of Twombly’s 1989 bronze sculpture “Untitled” and its resemblance to a temple facade. Painted white and cast from a series of upright sticks bandaged and nailed together on a small staircase plinth, this is a sad object, heavy and decrepit.

The exhibition is full of such relationships and correspondences between works of different media, and the same motifs and subjects repeatedly occur. For example, the oceanic theme of Twombly’s “Untitled” painting from his “Blackboard” series of the late 1960s is further explored in photographic and sculptural pieces. The large, dark, blue-gray landscape painting is crossed with lines of white wax crayon, some half-erased with paint. This produces a shallow illusion of depth, similar to waves lapping on a shore, a subject revisited in the sculpture “By the Ionian Sea” (1988) and again in beach photographs taken in Gaeta, Italy (2005).

Preceding the main space of the exhibition is a room of drawings and prints, including two lithographic series that again underline Twombly’s desire to link related subjects. In the set of busy mushroom-themed prints, fungal images from books are placed with words, drawings, measurements and diagrams. In a botanical series, common fruits and plants are drawn and annotated with their Latin names. They are a visualization of the mediation of reality by language, in that the historical names accompanying the objects affect our relationship to them. Figs are Ficus Carica; oak trees, Quercus Robur; and bay trees, Laurus Nobilis.

This cross-pollination of themes and motifs is further exemplified by the 80 photographs in the exhibition’s main room. The prints on display are created from scans of Twombly’s Polaroid pictures. They are often blurry or overexposed, meaning that a degree of detail is lost and ambiguity is lent to tangible objects. A detail of a classical sculpture in one image, for example, approximates the folded petals of a bouquet of flowers in another, and in turn the flowers make a visual pun of a can of Twombly’s brushes. Elsewhere, vegetables and fruit become anthropomorphic when placed next to images of people bathing or figures in a painting. A particularly fun but poignant photograph shows two zucchinis in a basket, bringing to mind a couple in a bed.

Twombly’s photograph “Bread” depicts a bread roll placed upon a tumbler, to the left of and below which is another roll. Displayed among images of sculpture, the elevated roll resembles a statue and the one below a viewer. It is a humorous interpretation of romantic longing and in this picture, as elsewhere, his concern for metaphor lends the ephemeral a sculptural solidity. The development of these ideas and relationships is evidenced in pictures of his studios, which are full of brushes, flowers, sculptures and details from his paintings.

The only overtly or decisively contemporary content comes from two photographs taken in 2007 at Twombly’s birthplace of Lexington, Virginia. They both show a jumble of children’s stuffed toys, including a SpongeBob SquarePants in garish colors that even he couldn’t mute. There is a sadness and humor in this reflection on the transience of youth. Times have changed. It is these two images that point to Twombly’s key inspiration: the contemplation of the past.

“Cy Twombly Photographs: Lyrical Variations” at the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art runs until Aug. 28; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. kawamura-museum.dic.co.jp