When was the last time you saw a major American museum
devote 10 large galleries to the sculpture of a distinctly minor contemporary
talent? This is but one of the many questions raised by the overscale
exhibition of Cy Twombly’s underweight sculpture at the National Gallery of Art
in Washington, D.C. Even in a period like ours, when museums routinely favor a
promiscuously high tolerance for underachievement in art, I cannot think of a
precedent for such lavish attention to be focused on a sculptural
accomplishment so derivative in conception, so degraded in execution, and
otherwise so overweeningly pretentious in what it claims for itself.
Yet at the National Gallery, 10 spacious rooms in the
stately West Building-or eight, perhaps, if you count as single rooms the two
largest, which are both divided into two exhibition spaces-have been
extensively and expensively renovated for this curious event. The walls of the
elegant, high-ceilinged rooms have been repainted a lovely soft white to
provide a pristine atmosphere for the white paint and plaster of the sculpture.
The newly refinished hardwood floors glow with a satin reflection under the
abundant natural light flooding in from the newly opened skylights. Even the
customary wall labels have been banished in favor of a single understated
diagram in each room identifying the objects it contains. The result would no
doubt make an ideal setting for some of the greatest sculpture of the modern
era-or, for that matter, any era.
But what are we given to look at in this rarefied setting? A
show called Cy Twombly: The Sculpture .
One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry. If comedy can be said to result from
the deliberate juxtaposition of incongruities, then Cy Twombly: The Sculpture must certainly be counted a very comical
experience. On the other hand, for the National Gallery to exhibit sculpture of
such low accomplishment on this outsize scale is no laughing matter.
You need not despair, by the way, if you have never before
heard of Mr. Twombly’s sculpture. As Katharina Schmidt, director of the
Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel, hastens to point out in the lavish,
oversize hardcover monograph that accompanies the exhibition, Mr. Twombly “is little
known as a sculptor.” That is as it should be, you may think after seeing the
show. But he is anything but an undiscovered talent. Mr. Twombly is well-known
to the art public here and abroad for his large, mostly whitish abstract
paintings and drawings in a style best described as graffiti-like
scribbling-or, as some critics prefer, abstract écriture .
Not so long ago, in 1994, these scribbled abstractions were
the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. And in Houston,
there is a permanent Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection, which
collaborated with the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in organizing the current exhibition in Washington.
I haven’t had the
pleasure of visiting the Menil Collection since the Cy Twombly Gallery was
inaugurated, but I have a vivid memory of the 1994 retrospective at MoMA. If
that exhibition represented for some of us the dregs of what, in Mr. Twombly’s
youth, had been the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, it has proved in
retrospect to be a salutary introduction to his sculpture, which similarly
represents the dregs of what used to be called the New Sculpture-the
constructed, sometimes painted sculpture of the 1950’s. But there is this
difference between the paintings and the sculpture. Whereas the paintings aspire
to replicate the large-scale dimensions of Abstract Expressionism, Mr.
Twombly’s painted wood constructions miniaturize and cannibalize the New
Sculpture, turning it into a kind of boutique modernism.
To compensate for this
reduced scale-and perhaps, too, for the crudity of the workmanship, which is
casual to the point of indifference-the artist has let it be known that these
unprepossessing constructions and assemblages draw upon all sorts of ancient
and modern traditions and symbols for their meaning. Thus, we are invited to
believe that what may strike you or me as some rudely assembled pieces of wood
and other materials that have been covered with white paint or plaster to no
very great effect are really profound aesthetic meditations on everything from
the historians of Greek antiquity and the monuments of ancient Egypt to the
poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Constantine Cavafy and the sculptures of
About his use of humble
materials, Mr. Twombly is no less immodest. “White paint,” he has grandly said,
“is my marble.” This is contemptible nonsense, and is also, among much else, a
profound insult to every sculptor, from the ancients to the modern world, who
has ever attempted to carve a sculpture from a block of marble.
At this game of elevating
the commonplace to something exalted, even sublime, by means of rhetoric rather
than artistic skill, Katharina Schmidt is also a dab hand. “He handles his
materials freely and creatively,” she writes of Mr. Twombly, “repeatedly using
elemental forms and figures of monumental import to build a bridge linking the
remembered simplicity of fundamental cultural discoveries and their evolution
in myth and history to the meaning these things have arrived at today.” This
is, to be sure, a translation from the German original, but in neither language
does it do much to explain these sad little objects or their presence at the
National Gallery of Art.
To understand such
art-world mysteries, it must also be understood that the academic and
curatorial elites who nowadays are in a position to nominate contemporary
talent for stardom have agendas which often have little or nothing to do with
artistic excellence. They actually seem to prefer low-level art of this sort,
if only because it is so crucially dependent upon the lucubrations of the
academics and curators themselves for providing it with a significance that the
work itself, unaided by cataracts of artspeak, cannot achieve on its own.
Like Mr. Twombly himself, these academics and curators are
the intellectual offspring of that grand master of Dada nihilism, Marcel
Duchamp, and thus represent a species of avant-gardism now nearly a century old
and clearly-to judge from Cy Twombly: The
Sculpture -at the end of its tether.
The exhibition remains on view at the National Gallery of
Art in Washington through July 29.