50 Years in the Making: Cy Twombly at the Whitney

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.

Cy Twombly: 50 Years of Works on Paper is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, until May 8.

Bronze Bird

A few weeks back, a friend called on his cell phone while strolling through Central Park. “So,” he bellowed through a choppy connection, “what do you think of the construction site?”

He was referring to The Gates, the encompassing work of public art created by Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude. Before I could venture an opinion, he went on: “I just came from the Frick. They’ve got a sculpture of an ostrich there that puts Christo to shame. It’s in a show of bronzes. You’ve got to see it.”

No one has to twist my arm to visit the Frick Collection. After hanging up the phone, I made my way to Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, an exhibition of 36 sculptures, many on view for the first time in the United States.

The initial stop had to be Ostrich Strutting, with Wings Raised and Beak Open, a work dating from late 16th- or early 17th-century Florence. My friend was right: The ostrich, with its sinuous gait and meticulous textures, is a delightful bit of sculpture. Propelling itself through space with a regal élan, the big bird cocks its head as if to make plain that it won’t suffer fools gladly. I’d hate to think the piece isn’t the work of Pietro Tacca, the artist to whom it has “perhaps” been attributed. No artist this perceptive should be lost to history.

Ostrich Strutting literally walks away with the show. Few objects included in Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes can match its character or verve-which is not to say that the level of artisanship on display isn’t high. An overarching air of refinement, of emotions tempered and made fluid, marks this exhibition; it’s the level of inspiration that’s wanting. The majority of pieces are the doing of workaday masters, sculptors content to placate, rather than challenge, their considerable talents. Typical of the exhibition is Bacchus Standing (c. 1570-74), wherein the Dutch artist Willem Van Tetrode brings attention to his silky versatility and, in doing so, calls into question his ability to transcend it.

You’ll spend most of the time at the Frick doting on oddities-the upended Youth Doing a Handstand (Acrobat) (late 16th or early17th century), attributed to Barthélemy Prieur, for instance, or Old Woman Seated, a humbling reminder of mortality by an unidentified 16th-century German artist. If you’ve come that far, you might want to take a second look at Alessandro Algardi’s Relief: The Rest on the Flight into Egypt and Francesco Fanelli’s The Holy Family and the Miraculous Cure of the Robber’s Child (both 17th century), two consummate examples of relief sculpture, a notoriously difficult medium. The Fanelli, in particular, takes dramatic risks in the delicate traversal of pictorial and sculptural space. You’ll leave wondering what the rest of Fanelli’s output looks like, but not before revisiting the ostrich-the only piece you’re likely to remember five years down the road.

Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until April 24.