The serial format that Twombly employed has been rather overused by artists in recent years. Walter Robinson, the artist and critic who popularized the term Zombie Formalism in 2014, expressed frustration with the way in which the legacy of Twombly and his like filtered into market-ready artworks. So what makes Twombly different from his more recent imitators, aside from getting there first? How can we look at his fascination with materials and his works in series free from the fog of contemporary market abstraction?
“The ‘machine’ that makes the art is the idea, and that notion came of age with the Ab-Ex guys, the original [Clement] Greenberg clan,” Robinson explains. “So each Ab-Ex guy had his ‘brand,’ his machine, his idea. For them it stood for a break with the past, a declaration of American triumphalism, an ontological and epistemic exploration.” In Twombly’s case, that meant his signature scribble, which reflected “the human inclination to pull meaning from randomness, to fill empty vessels with meaning,” Robinson says. “For the Zombie Formalists, it is a brand, a machine, a method without meaning.”
It is perhaps Twombly’s references to literature, myth, poetry, and language that most set his work apart from the superficial derivations that followed. His titles and imagery refer to ancient myth and art history, from Apollo and Venus to
. It was by engaging with the context of history that the artist gave his work great depth and political dimension.
“Cy often spoke through metaphors in his paintings. For example, the cycle of Commodus paintings implies his emotional response to the assassination of Kennedy,” del Roscio explains. “He used the metaphor of the violent Roman emperor who, frustrated about being unable to be creative, found solutions to problems through murders. Some of his cycles of paintings, like those focusing on Bacchus, describe the horrors of war, like the recent one in the Middle East.”
Twombly’s work carries a visceral punch, a sense of the violent, and an impulse to connect with the past. For fans of his painting, the Pompidou show is a beautiful summation. The works that stand out the most are those that refer to gods, such as a pair of compositions in which the scrawled name of the Roman god Apollo, in blue, above a list of other Olympian deities, is positioned alongside one in which the name of Venus is scrawled in red, with a list of female nymphaea and lesser goddesses beneath. You can feel the artist grappling with the past, like an academic trying to unlock the meaning of history. The results are poignant, emotive, and free.