People hate Cy Twombly
Not everybody, of course — but the collective side-eye is enough to fill a football stadium — in comparison to his lovers who would, conversely, be hard pressed to fill a large art gallery.
Cy scribbles. I mean, he really scribbles. Like a kindergartner. No attempt is made to hide is handedness which means, he has almost altogether abandoned a commitment to technical proficiency. His use of color is sophisticated, but the complete abandon with which he pursues a veneer of fun masks a depth that perhaps only Mark Rothko has mined.
I’m not scholar, but that’s what it looks like to me.
Anybody who has read my work knows I love Willem deKooning’s work. And deKooning’s early paintings, while not scribbled, are not exercises in restraint. In comparison to Twombly, deKooning is the worst kind of painter — a photo-realist. That said, I challenge any viewer to command deKooning’s visual language and technique. Read Ulysses in Arabic and get back to me.
My oldest son loves art and, thankfully, loves the Abstract Expressionists as much as I. If he has ever questioned their language and value, he has never expressed that uncertainty. To be sure, he was raised in a home with the language, and like every other child, speaks the language without questioning the source. It exists because it exists.
The language of art brings him, if not joy, a connection to something inside that lives in the same neighborhood.
While still in high school, he took a date to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The visit was, er, colorful. It was a tour of Beijing with nary a Chinese citizen within spitting distance. Mao didn’t hang in a gallery and they never left the Philadelphia city limits. The experience was that foreign to his girlfriend.
To most speakers of the English language, Chinese is gibberish. It is a scribbled language where, while in its presence, one knows something of value is being said, simply because that’s what words do, but one has no way to understand without study.
My son’s date had a rather rigid personality, with no exposure to art to that point in her life. She expected, as most people who are confused by modern and contemporary art, to have my son explain the work, while coming from a place where she embraced the possibility — and opportunity — to pull back the curtain and expose the Wizard of Oz.
As they wandered into a gallery devoted exclusively to Twombly — a gallery with thirty foot ceilings and paintings that are easily 8' x 8' — she was confronted with scribbles that make chicken scratch read like James Joyce.
Her blood boiled. As my son described, her face literally turned red and she stomped out of the gallery like she had just been robbed by giving her purse to a stranger without ever having been threatened. A red-haired roofer’s sunburn. A chemical peel gone awry. An Alaskan pipeline, bolted to her neck, pulsing.
Great art provokes.
Tenth grade geometry
George Bernardin, a brilliant man who, at the time was a brilliant teenager, sat next to me in geometry class. For the first four weeks, as the teacher was explaining something or other, he and I would give each other side-eye during class — often — with a perplexed, peripheral look. Geometry was Chinese chicken scratch. It was scribbled circles and triangles. Controlled gooey-ness. Euclid was an idiot.
At test time, during those weeks, we were red-haired roofers in August.
Then, one day, on the same day, we sat in class, looked at each other with knowing smiles. Somehow, the light went on during the previous night’s homework. Synchronicity five years before Synchronicity. Geometry went, over the course of twenty-four hours, from being Chinese characters to being so easy that we failed to fail flawlessly for the rest of the year. We fell out of the boat and hit water every single time — and the water was the beer that every tenth grader steals easily.
It happened that I was within three feet of several of Cy’s painting’s recently, and I had the time to be quiet. The paintings could face my back while I strolled around. I was well within their peripheral vision, turning their heads slightly but unmistakably, like a hen-pecked husband trying to watch a beautiful woman walk by while half-listening to his wife talk about tiles for the new powder room, the paintings watched me.
Of course I flirted. One can’t be blamed when flattered so.
Not wanting to look desperate, I waited to confront the beasts with a figment of cocktails and beer goggles. It’s easier that way.
My wing-man, the ghost of George Bernardin, and I, bounded over, and were eaten, digested and spit out in a nano-second by a Twombly. I forget the title of the painting, but who cares.
There was geometry in the scribbles.