This is one helluva cruel, hot August in Texas. And even if you are fortunate to have air conditioning that works and don’t have to rely on “cooling centers,” sometimes you just need to get out of the house. Some go to the malls, but the older I get the more I hate them. You can go to the movies. You can go to a public library, if you can remember which hours have not been eliminated by city budget cuts. Or you can head to a few art galleries or your favorite museum.
Before my visit there several days ago, I had not been to the Twombly Gallery at the Menil in a long time. Twombly died in early July of this year, after a long, and some would say idiosyncratic career. The Menil gallery has 30 or so paintings and sculptures, the earliest from around 1953. Those early paintings remind you of the fact that Twombly studied with Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, and early on was associated with Rauschenberg and Johns. “Volubilus” (1953) has a large central form/figure which seems to come “face-to-face” with the half-figure on the left of the canvas. The scribble marks are there, with black over pale grays, sepia, what appears to be paynes gray, and white. In another painting from 1954 (“Untitled”), you see the lyrical pencil lines alternating with heavier scribble marks. These are on a pale background of a canvas that is small for Twombly, and is reminiscent of looking at marks on a cave or a mountain wall.
Twombly served as a cryptologist in the US military, and it’s hard to forget this as you make your way through the galleries, first with the impressive “Age of Alexander” (1959-60), a kind of stream of consciousness or free associating on canvas that reminded me of Jackson Pollock’s psychoanalytic drawings. There are words here and there (eg, Roma, floods) as well as graffiti renderings of airplanes, in oil, oil/wax crayons, and pencil. The Menil Collection has a large central gallery containing three of the artist’s “blackboard” paintings from the 60’s/early 70’s, white oil stick on graphite grey. Housed together, they are very much distinct from one another.
On a hot Houston afternoon, it’s a pleasure to be surrounded by these “pictures of nothing,” to use the term of the noted curator Kirk Varnedoe. ?In his book with that title (actually they are the transcripts of a series of 6 lectures he gave shortly before his death), Varnedoe takes a look at some of the most famous abstract painters of the latter 20th century, among them Marden, Richter, and Winters. His book is a very readable, no-nonsense volume on abstraction, the title referring to a comment made by a 19th century Brit on viewing the “landscapes” of Turner as pictures of nothing.
For me, there are some misses in the collection. I have never been a huge fan of the group of “green” paintings (Untitled-A Painting in Nine Parts-1988), with their obvious reference to water lilies and French impressionism. But it’s hard not to admire the exuberance of “Bay of Naples” (1961) or the 3 huge panels from 1994 that comprise “Say Goodbye, Catullus…Anatomy of Melancholy,” a vast expanse of mark-making and color that seems to reflect travel across space and time.
Hopefully, this will be the first of many blogs on my new website. Stay tuned, and stay cool!