Cy Twombly: A Survey of Photographs 1954-2011 @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 102 color photographs, framed in brown and matted, and hung against white walls in a single room on the 5th floor of the gallery. Additionally, 2 portfolios (several images on view for each) are displayed in wood/glass cases in the center of the space. All of the works are color dry-ink prints (some mounted on cardboard), made between 1951 and 2011. Physical dimensions of the prints range from roughly 8×17 to 28×25 and editions range in size from 3+2AP to 10+2AP. A catalog of the exhibit is available from the gallery for $80 (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Gathered together in conjunction with an exhibit of Cy Twombly’s exuberantly gestural last paintings, this show provides a retrospective look at the artist’s lesser known efforts with a camera. Starting with a few Morandi-like glass bottle still lifes from his time at Black Mountain College in the early 1950s and continuing all the way through recent floral images from a cemetery in St. Barths in 2011, the survey offers an inside look at Twombly’s approach to photographic problem solving and aesthetic experimentation. It’s a mixed bag full of thoughtful trial and error, and a surprisingly intimate and personal sampler of visual tests and memories.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Twombly’s photographs is their unexpected texture. Taken as Polaroids and then printed using the relatively arcane color dry print (AKA Fresson) process, the prints have a luscious tactile quality, almost like washed out watercolors. Regardless of subject matter, the inks float over the paper, the colors becoming ephemerally soft and blurred. The effect is a mix of Pictorialism in color and outright romance.

Compositionally, Twombly seemed to be drawn again and again to changes in scale to create abstraction. Whether looking a vase of tulips, an ancient sculpture in shadows, or up at the silhouette of trees in the sky, he produced sets of images that move in and out, allowing blurring, distortion, and edge cropping to happen naturally. His three portfolios of striped pink tulips are the strongest and most original works in the show. Twombly gets right up close, turning clusters of petals into blasts of fiery yellow, creamy pink, and rich red. Graininess turns into subtle Pointilism, and flowers break down into component parts of curving fuzzy color. The permutations are seemingly endless, especially as the shapes become more indistinct and illegible. Separate groups of white peonies and yellow tulips get the same treatment, although to slightly less boldly abstract ends.

Twombly tries his fragmented vision on serious bits of ancient stone sculpture as well, but these images seem much fussier, like he was trying to hard too be artistic. Aside from a wonderfully blended swirl of paint brushes in a can, his studio interiors and outdoor landscapes are generally forgettable, and Twombly’s seascapes are equally boring, except for a dark whorled sunset bleeding orange, ochre, and yellow. Other later images of lemons, glossy green leaves, and other table top remains are more successful, bathing in a warm golden glow and exploring more complex spatial relationships. His last images start with white crosses and tombstones and periscope into overexposed piles of lush lilies, daisies, and roses, becoming more and more expressive with each dissolving step forward.

Seen as an entire career-length body of work, Twombly’s photographs are decidedly uneven. But at their best, his images are effusively inventive, hypnotizing in their diffusing abstraction, and warmly nostalgic in their sumptuous, lavish, painterly color.

Collector’s POV: The individual prints and portfolios in this show are priced between $30000 and $80000 each. Twombly’s photographs are not readily available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail is likely the only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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