Why Give So Much Space To Lightweight Twombly?

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

Alberto Giacometti.

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. Why Give So Much Space To Lightweight Twombly?