Friday, May 18, 2012

Studs, Pigs and Dogs: Renaissance Portraits at the Met

A shorter version of this piece appeared recently at The Huffington Post.


I recently had the good fortune to attend the now-closed show "The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini" at the Met. (If you are disposed to buying pricey art books, they offer quite a nice one.)

Wandering through the large number of works, I saw a few pieces which will serve well as reference points for a network of ideas the show inspired in me. First, consider the death mask of Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492):
Cast of the Death Mask of Lorenzo de' Medici, Orsino Benintendi, 1492, stucco on panel, image © 2012 Laura Gilbert

Our classical education being the irregular and half-forgotten shambles that it is, we lean on Wikipedia to refresh our memory of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Scion of the wildly successful Medici family, Lorenzo inherited his grandfather Cosimo's clever practice of both banking, and running Florence. Writing poetry, patronizing the arts and sciences, and pulling off tricky diplomatic feats ran in the family. Lorenzo himself was born at the right time to be buddies with Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo.

Apart from indulging in the exact profligacy Machiavelli warned against, with the depressing balance sheets Machiavelli foretold, Lorenzo dodged death in the Cathedral of Florence, surviving an assassination plot engineered by the rival Pazzi family and their friends the Archbishop of Pisa and Pope Sixtus IV. Lorenzo's brother Giuliano ("The Screw-Up") ain't make it.

Understandably irritated, Lorenzo responded by executing a gaggle of Pazzis and lynching the Archbishop. The Pope did not take this at all well, excommunicating the Medicis, seizing whatever assets he could, and placing Florence under interdict, which was a very impressive thing to do back then. The whole mess escalated into a full-scale war between Florence and Naples, resolved only by Lorenzo deciding to exercise his diplomatic acuity.

What we conclude from this is that Lorenzo was one of history's enlightened bad-asses: rich in learning, deep in insight, charming at parties, and handy with edged weapons.

Considering the death mask, we think, "What the hell -- he looks like he should look." Lucky man! A strong square jaw and a wide, expressive mouth; a mighty nose, manfully crooked; sculpted, fashion-plate cheekbones; enormous eyes, capable of great soulfulness, beneath the glowering brow of deep thoughts. Here we have Art perfectly matched to Meaning -- but this is no Art. Nature herself has decreed that Lorenzo should be magnificent, and should resemble precisely what he is.
Now let us move on to the rather less fortunate Niccolò di Leonardo Strozzi:
Niccolò di Leonardo Strozzi, Mino da Fiesole, 1454, marble, image © 2012 Laura Gilbert

Niccolò was a banker in Florence of the generation preceding Lorenzo. Also, his looks were nothing to write home about.

All commissioned portraits testify to the wealth of their subjects. But Niccolò's portrait speaks more clearly than most. Straining my ear, I thought I heard him whispering across the centuries. He said, "You want to know how much money I have? Fuck you, that's how much money I have. You see this wattle? That's how much fucking money I have. I will buy you and fucking eat you. You think I can't afford the mustard? I got the mustard right here, pal. It takes a lot of mustard to keep three chins going. Look at my imbecilic gaze. You see that? You know how come I had my imbecilic gaze chiseled into goddamned Ferrara marble? Because that's the fucking mountain of gold Florins I have in the vault, that's how come, you fuck."

Which is to say, no doubt he was a powdered crook, but what joie de vivre he had in it! What verve! That is what this profane portrait memorializes for us, all these years later: not the wealth alone, but the character. The character still stands, in defiance of the forgetfulness of time.

This bust is not an act of mechanical recording, as is the death mask of Lorenzo de' Medici. It represents a choice by Niccolò to flaunt just exactly what kind of an ugly pig he was, and the aptitude of his sculptor Mino da Fiesole in capturing the particularity of the man. It is so wonderful a thing, this hideous bust -- a raucous I Am that rings down through the ages. It is as magnificent, in its way, as Lorenzo's heroic visage.

Now take a look at what seemed to me the saddest piece in the show, a low relief portrait of Eleonora of Aragon:

Eleonora of Aragon, Savelli Sperandio, 1475, marble, Rijksmuseum

The caption helpfully informs us that a contemporary of Eleonora's described her as "small and short of stature, heavy and fat, the head broad and the neck short." And, yeah, you can kind of tell from the portrait. But what you can mostly tell is that she is not a good-looking individual. How exactly she isn't good-looking is unclear.

As you know, I'm a working artist, and I've done commissioned portraits. I've never had the luck to work with a chortling Niccolò, who bounded in and said, "'Zounds, friend, make me as ugly as possible." But I've dealt with any number of Eleonoras. These clients come in and say, "Oh, don't make me look old -- fix my jawline -- can I look thinner? -- can you take out the bags under my eyes?" And there's only so much you can take out, before there's nothing left. The portrait assumes a generic, abstract character. That is what has happened to Eleonora of Aragon. Whoever she was, it's not here. It's not like her sculptor Savelli Sperandio couldn't have individuated her -- consider his portrait of Ercole I d'Este from the same year:
Ercole I d'Este, Savelli Sperandio, 1475, marble, Palazzina di Marfisa d'Este

No such unique homeliness and honesty for Eleonora of Aragon. I am reminded of the wisdom of Bones. In Season 1, Episode 10 of the popular Fox TV series, Bones and Angel have a little trouble reconstructing the face of a murder victim who had undergone cosmetic surgery of the skull:

ANGEL: ... by now I usually have a feel for the person. What they wanted. How they felt. What was going on in their lives. With this girl, nothing.

BONES: She thought she was ugly. She did everything she could to make herself beautiful and all she did was make herself more invisible.

Bones is outraged at this erasure, and I am outraged too. There are very, very few means by which humans can leave a mark long past living memory. We can leave words and works, and if we have some money, we can commission monuments and portraits. Eleonora of Aragon, unlike most of the billions who lived and died before us, had the resources to buy our memory of her, from 1475 all the way down to March of this year. And she blew it. For whatever reasons -- vanity, shame, social constraints on women -- she elected to become a ghost, a hole in art history shaped roughly like herself. There are so few, so painfully few that have remained; and we lost her.

Consider again these three key portraits from the show:

First, we have a man who so looked as he ought to have looked that the Renaissance equivalent of a photograph, unadorned, does justice to him as a charismatic and individual presence.

Second, we have a man who was ugly, who embraced his ugliness with gusto, and in embracing it, ensured his survival. His ugliness, so individual, so true, enriches us still.

And third, we have a woman who was ugly, who sought to conceal her ugliness, and wound up vanishing; because no art can make the ugly formally beautiful, and retain a plausible resemblance to its subject.

If the bitter sweep of history has one lesson to teach us, it is that we cannot all be Milla Jovovich. It is nice to be beautiful, but if we can't be beautiful, we can be ugly. Ugly, and vividly, vitally ourselves. The only sin, quite literally a mortal sin so far as art is concerned -- the sin that kills the sinner -- is shame in our flesh. This will surely obliterate us, and eclipse every benefit of memory the portrait can bestow.

Photographs of Lorenzo de' Medici and Niccolò di Leonardo Strozzi courtesy of Laura Gilbert, via her blog Art Unwashed

Image of Eleonora of Aragon courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Image of Ercole I d'Este courtesy of the Musei Civici di Arte Antica, Ferrara.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Where'd Those Toes Go?

So, there is a characteristic problem with only vaguely planning out where you will put your drawing on the page, and then jumping straight to details instead of blocking in the large masses.

Rachel's Legs, 15"x11", pencil on paper, May 15, 2012


P.S. Replies to comments soon - very busy, hectic schedule, blah blah blah.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Clear and Distinct

Raise your hand if you remember Bishop Berkeley:

His sermon on the non-existence of matter so infuriated Samuel Johnson that Johnson kicked a rock while exclaiming, "I refute it thus!" Fortunately, Boswell was on hand to write down Johnson's witticism in his Moleskine. The gesture was clever, but I am far from the first to note that it doesn't address Berkeley's argument.

Berkeley's denial of the existence of matter (claiming, if I have it correctly, that it's simpler for the entire universe to be an Idea simulcast directly into all minds) was a relatively direct one-upping of Descartes' inward-turning method. Descartes wanted to use radical skepticism to eliminate all assumptions and establish a solid foundation for philosophical proposals. Descartes' method reduces his universe temporarily to his own mind (I think, therefore I am), but he builds back up from there to things like the proton, the electron, and the income tax. Berkeley doesn't.

I was reminded of all this at Spring Street the other night, when the phrase "clear and distinct" intruded on my thoughts. "Clear and distinct" is a philosophy phrase, which seems to go back to Descartes. Like the legal principle of the "reasonable man" test, it is less definable than it is useful.

Here's what I was drawing:

This model, Gabriel, is extremely hunky, and also waxed.

Descartes feels compelled to cook up the concept of "clear and distinct" as a fancy way to import axioms - unprovable foundational propositions - into his system of logic. Axioms are troublesome in all logical systems, because no system is capable of generating its own axioms. They're the stones on which the rest of the system is built. The trick is to minimize their number and choose them well.

Descartes, whom you will recall made a big stinking fuss about eliminating assumptions from his reasoning, so that he could derive only the truest of truths, addressed the embarrassing detail of axiom selection by claiming that he was going to, ahem, *assume* the truth only of things that were "clear and distinct."

In the Principles (pasting a quotation from here), Descartes offers the following by way of explanation:

I call 'clear' that perception which is present and manifest to an attentive mind: just as we say that we clearly see those things which are present to our intent eye and act upon it sufficiently strongly and manifestly. On the other hand, I call 'distinct', that perception which, while clear, is so separated and delineated from all others that it contains absolutely nothing except what is clear.

This is pretty good work, and it seems to make sense, although subsequent philosophers have softened "clear and distinct" to mean approximately "stuff that I totally know what I'm talking about."

While I was drawing Gabriel, the concept of the "clear and distinct" returned to me after having taken a leave of absence of some years.

I was considering why it is that I draw men better than I draw women. It's not like I draw men more than I draw women. You show me a life drawing workshop which books more male than female models, and I will show you a life drawing workshop discoverable only to gay men by means of those mysterious channels of communication known exclusively to them.

So it's not a question of frequency. Let's approach the problem from another angle. Say you drag a civilian off the street into life drawing. In almost every case, the civilian will find it more congenial to draw a woman than a man. This is not entirely due to sexual preference; it holds true for the breederest of chicks and the homoest of dudes alike. Since I have personally dragged a few civilians off the street in my time, I can report that when asked why she preferred to draw women, Charlotte said, "Women are easier. You just have to make some curves."

I think this holds the key to the reversal in my own case. To a new draftsman, it is more congenial to draw curves, because you don't really have to get it right. You can get it in the right range, and it will read as more or less accurate, both to the draftsman and any person looking at the drawing. I am long past the point where this approximation is good enough for me when I'm in tight-drawing mode. I feel a need not just to get it right, but to get it absolutely perfect.

And yet, women, apart from Manou, are not clear and distinct.

 Manou, at whose approach swift-footed Achilles trembled

Consider a drawing I did only the night before I was drawing Gabriel:

This is Madison, who is in person a tiny little woman of fashion-model thinness. Even so, we can see here that her frame is constructed from a group of loose curves. There is no body of knowledge applicable to these curves. These curves are, one might say, akin to the cloud of unknowing. In fact, let us turn to The Cloude of Unknowyng itself, a bitchingly-titled medieval English treatise on how to come to know God:

For He can well be loved, but He cannot be thought. By love He can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

This is a pretty good description of how to draw a woman properly. In order to reproduce the unclear and indistinct curves one sees, one may consider anatomy, perspective, and all that, but then must cast them aside. One must perceive the curves directly, and discipline mind and hand into transcribing them faithfully.

Now, I've pretty much done that in the drawing above, but it was hard as all hell. I am under no illusion that I do a good job every time.

Let us return to Gabriel:

Take a particular look at that shoulder on the top left. He had his arm twisted behind his back during this ten-minute pose. Since Gabriel has, oh, at a guess, 5-6% body fat, the torsion of his shoulder visibly separated the fibers of his well-developed deltoid muscle into individual structures wrapping around the tubercles of his humerus. These structures were clear and distinct. Each one had a broad flat face, and beveled edges. Each one was separate from the others, and had a different relationship with the light source. Drawing Gabriel's deltoid was not a question of getting a curve about right. It was a matter of getting it right, or getting it fucking wrong.

For me, at this point, that is ever so much easier to do. There is a clear and distinct external referent (the model) which leads your own work, and with which your own work can be compared. You draw, you check - you did it or you didn't. Moreover, the external referent can be compared with a pre-existing body of anatomical knowledge which, however explicit or intuitive it may be, helps to guide the eye. One might as well fill out a times table.

With women, on the other hand, you draw, you check - and who knows? It looks about right. Maybe the hip is a little wider. Maybe the breast goes down a bit less at the bottom. Men are fundamentally similar; women take one million forms. You have to achieve transcendental clarity to have the revelation that allows you to see a woman clearly once, and then you have to achieve it again in order to check your work. Transcendental clarity, it turns out, is tiring.

Anyhow, that's what I thought about at Spring Street.

This post is for long-time reader Synamore, a close friend in real life who remarked recently that my new shtick of "thinking about other artists" will do, but what she really likes about the blog are the investigations of the mechanics of my working process. I think she may be onto something, so I wrote this up all for her.

In general, while I know that this blog has a fair amount of traffic these days, I am going right on pretending that I am basically writing letters to a group of seven or eight people - you know who you are - who have been good enough to read them since nearly the start. You guys keep me from getting tongue-tied altogether; thanks for sticking around.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Artist Mother Artist Son

Today is Mother's Day! As usual, let me practice a little diversion in approaching the topic.

I have a dear friend in LA who is a landscape designer or, less fancily, a gardener. She has the bizarre ability to give a random seed the squinty eye and say, "I think you need to be planted in warm moist soil," or "I think you need a couple weeks in the freezer and then a good hard tap."

Gardening runs in her family. She has an aunt who is a gardener as well. What's interesting about this is that her aunt's gardening is nothing like hers. My friend likes the wild look - huge diversity and all kinds of crazy arrangements. Her aunt gardens like the primmest of Frenchmen. They share a talent, but their instinctive styles are their own.

My mom is an artist, but she's nothing like me. Here's something of hers, and something of mine:

To Gorky, Ellen Maidman-Tanner, 1974, oil on canvas, 48"x72"
Hands #1, Daniel Maidman, 2011, oil on canvas, 24"x24"

For all that, we're both artists. If you want to know where I got my artist genes, I got most of them from her. Genes alone don't make an artist, though. Making art is kind of a stupid career to choose. Nobody needs art, and if you become an artist, odds are good you'll either suck, or starve. Likely both. It takes encouragement to become an artist, reckless encouragement. I got that kind of encouragement.

Most people want to be artists, a little bit, I think. And by and large, people should be discouraged. Art-making should be necessary; it should burn the artist not to make art. All good parents would like their children to be safe and secure - to make a living, save something for retirement. But parents have another concern: that their children should be happy.

I got the usual crayons and watercolors as a child. And then I got interested in other things, for a long time. When I came back to making pictures, my mom saw what it meant to me, and encouraged me to go so far as I could. That's a big thing.

Here's another big thing about her: while she's an artist, she had to reckon with my sister and me needing to get fed and educated when we were little. Her mothering isn't the maternal type we associate with matching hand towels and adorable clam-shaped soaps. She's more of a wild animal, and I wasn't so much a child to my parents as a small, nosebleed-prone friend. My mother is an adventurer; my father's mother was an adventurer; my sister jumps out of airplanes. We're all adventurers, one way or another, probably me least of all.

So here you have my mom, 24, 25, jazzed on graduate school and Eva Hesse and matte-finish postcards for three-person shows. It's the sort of lifestyle that doesn't involve a lot of cash flow, and like I said, we were hungry and ignorant, as little children are. It was going to take a real income from two parents to raise us, not just my dad. So my mother stopped making installations, and went into advertising. I remember her being an artist when I was a toddler, and I remember her being in advertising, and then marketing, and then executiving, when I was in elementary school and high school. It was obviously a demanding career, but we never caught a whiff of resentment; we knew we were loved.

I took it all for granted at the time, but I don't take it for granted now that I'm following the same path she started down. Once in a while, I consider getting a real job. Fortunately, I live a nearly responsibility-free life, and what responsibilities I have, I fail miserably at. It causes a lot of stress, but not so much stress as if I had to stop making art. That would break me in two. What my mom did to provide for us before we could provide for ourselves is a hell of a thing. That she neither resented nor parasitized our own creative pursuits is a part of it, a remarkable part of it.

There is good news: for those of us fortunate enough to live in the new world, life is long and resources are plentiful. There is time to put your children first, and time left to undertake the arduous return to yourself. There is room for a lot of love. Now that my sister is safely shipped off to her airplanes and motorcycles, and I to my brushes and canvases, my incredible mother is calibrating her high-powered career to allow more time to paint. She started out strictly abstract expressionist; now she's doing loose watercolors in her bewilderingly far-flung travels. On Mother's Day, I'd like to share some of her work with you:

Marrakesh, Ellen Maidman-Tanner, 2009, watercolor on paper

St. Martins, Ellen Maidman-Tanner, 2010, both watercolor on paper

Doodle, Ellen Maidman-Tanner, 2011, pen on paper

With lots of love to you, Ima, and gratitude to all of you mothers out there, for everything you do and sacrifice to raise us. It is noticed. Happy Mother's Day.


Crossposted at Artist Daily and The Huffington Post, hence the slightly different writing style. I'm working on some stuff just for you guys as well - more soon.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fire Sale

I am finding, to my consternation, that being an artist does not mean I don't have to pay bills.

Given this sad, sad fact, from now until the end of the month, I've got a fire sale going on 15"x11" drawings. Ordinarily they go for about $350, but I've dropped it to $100 + $8 shipping.

The drawings are on Rives BFK Tan archival print-making paper, in white Prismacolor and graphite. Many are posted at my website here, with hundreds more available but unscanned (if you describe something you're interested in, I can probably find something like it in the archives, and scan it for you to verify; as long, of course, as you're interested in naked people and parts thereof). There is also a handy Paypal button.

While I'm on the subject of you buying things from me, let me remind you that lovely, limited-edition giclee prints of some of my paintings are available here.

The two drawings below are already gone. Head on over and get the ones you want before they go too...

 Claudia Reclining 6, Daniel Maidman, 2012, pencil on paper, 15"x11"

Gabriel's Torso, Daniel Maidman, 2012, pencil on paper, 15"x11"

I remain

Your loyal correspondent,


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Old Bones, New Flesh: Sonnabend's Twomblys

So - this is a piece on Cy Twombly which went up at The Huffington Post a few days ago. I have a few comments to add to it - they're appended to the end of the piece, below.


Eykyn Maclean Gallery is showing the 11 Twomblys in late collector/dealer Ileana Sonnabend's personal collection until May 19th, so I hied myself uptown the other day to take a look.

 Cy Twombly, Sperlonga Drawing, 1959, tempera, pencil, and pastel on paper, 27 x 391⁄2 in., Sonnabend Collection, New York, ©Cy Twombly Foundation

Even decades after the fact, Twombly remains a difficult artist to approach. Let's sneak up on the idea of Twombly. In 1999, wunderkind Harmony Korine made a movie called julien donkey-boy. It was the first American film awarded a Dogme certificate by the faux-austere Dogme 95 filmmaker gang in Denmark. julien donkey-boy was not faux austere, it was the real thing. Actually, it was nearly unwatchable, a salad of enlarged, low-rez digital video heaped atop a simple and ugly story. For all that, it was significant, because it pushed the film medium so far that the seams started to show. When film is comfortable, and functioning properly, it seems flawless; the medium itself slips into invisibility. So you tend not to ask, "How does this work? Why does this work?" Those are important questions, and julien donkey-boy, in disrupting our ability to just watch the movie, thrusts them into the foreground.

This is Twombly's starting point as an artist. He shows up at the Déjeuner sur l'Herbe with a backhoe, chases off the dandies and nudists, cuts down the forest, and excavates to bedrock.

 before and after:
Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, 1863, oil on canvas, 81.9 x 103.9 in., Musée d'Orsay, via Wikipedia 
Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1960-61, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 10 ½ x 13 ¾ in., Sonnabend Collection, New York, © Cy Twombly Foundation
This is not pleasant, or even particularly civilized. But it's important to sometimes ask how we know what we know. Twombly does not exist outside of visual art, like pure Dada, which is essentially conceptual. He subscribes to the visual tradition. This gives him the affinity and perspective to pull a Korine with it, to scrape off the flesh until the bones of grammar emerge.

The work in Sonnabend's collection seems to me to divide into two categories, one reductive and the other constructive.

Consider a reductive piece, Triumph of Galatea:

Cy Twombly, Triumph of Galatea, 1961, colored pencil on paper, 10 1/2 x 13 3/4 in., Sonnabend Collection, New York, © Cy Twombly Foundation
Certain recognizable elements persist, despite Twombly's attempts to overwhelm them with the shuddering disruptions of his scribbles. This is distinct from Pollock's or Rothko's pure abstraction. Twombly isn't eliminating the ordinary means of representation. He is, however, trying to separate them from what they represent, to produce pure line, shape, color, and composition; not in the simplified sense of an Albers, but with the complexity of ordinary picture-making. He is attempting to isolate representational means from representation itself, without reducing the complexity of the visual system. This is a logical extension of his wartime work as a cryptographer, which after all involves unlinking language and meaning.

As the foreground of representation recedes, Twombly discovers other properties of picture-making, chiefly the physicality of the act, a topic we discussed previously. Once his lines cease to represent images, their own creation comes to dominate what they express.

Cy Twombly, Untitled (to Vivaldi), 1960, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 10 1/2 x 13 3/4 in., Sonnabend Collection, New York, © Cy Twombly Foundation

Here we see various moods of line making -- some lines are tight, anxious gestures starting in the fingers and ending at the wrist. Others are swoops of the arm with the elbow locked. Cutting himself off from the world, Twombly is left with the boundaries of his body as the limit of his subject. But the interior of his subject is his mind -- his passages of lines link up into a composition which resembles the disconnected memories we are told flash across the brain of a dying man. Twombly cannot scourge his idiom without scourging himself. He is seeking a deep structure of composition, something essential about how our minds understand the populated picture plane, prior to perception of the external world.

The reductive work leads Twombly down to the bedrock of sight, where line, color, and composition float in cartesian solitude, waiting for a world to latch onto.

From this point of absolute minimalism, Twombly starts out fresh. Physicists stake a claim about the Big Bang: that, given these few initial conditions, it could have gone any number of ways. The proton might have weighed more, or less; the forces might have been distributed otherwise. Twombly, acting as a human particle accelerator, manufactures his own Big Bang. He discovers the few initial conditions for visual cognition. And then he says -- "Screw all of you, I'm starting the universe again with my own preferred proton mass, my own preferred distribution of forces." It will not look like our own universe -- it is his alone. These are the constructive works.

Most exciting among them, I think, is Untitled, 1969:

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1969, gouache and wax crayon on paper, 30 x 39 3⁄4 in., Sonnabend Collection, New York, © Cy Twombly Foundation
The tension of the skeletal muscles has dissolved in his arm. He no longer agonizes: How much? How little? He has reached a point of This, only this. He is like a man who closes his eyes on a windy day, and lets the light rain fall upon him. He has moved into a flow of effortless motion, which starts far beyond one end of his paper and ends far beyond the other. This is a record of communion with an alien cosmos.

There is weather in his cosmos:

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1975, tempera, pencil, and pastel on paper, 31 1/2 x 19 1/2 in., Sonnabend Collection, New York, © Cy Twombly Foundation
Twin storms are recorded here, frenzied storms. The gesture remains loose, as it does in all the late work, but the ambient energy is high. The marks are much more confident than they were in the earlier pieces, when he didn't know where he was going. Here he has arrived, and uses his reconstructed visual system to make a picture with the guileless trust in his means he could not embrace for classical representation.

Twombly starts out difficult, and he ends difficult. At a glance, his work looks like the scribbling of a child. His excavation of the mechanism of representation fundamentally links his work with the first drawing attempts of a child. An adult man, he strips his brain down to the infantile basics, seeking to make sense of the concept of drawing. We don't need to like what he does to benefit from it. If we stand with it for a while, and wait for the twinge of resonance, what unfolds before us is the vast inland of an individual mind, and a skeleton key to the cipher of how sight becomes drawing.

Eykyn Maclean, Cy Twombly: Works from the Sonnabend Collection, until May 19th, 23 East 67th Street New York NY 10065


Alright, thanks for getting through that. A reader at Huffington complained that I was substituting rhetorical flourish for actual explanation. And I can see this reader's point - I'm not sure this is the most substantial thing I've ever written. But I did do my best, and I'm too tired of the topic now to start over.

If you've been with me for a while, chances are good that you're pretty favorably disposed toward representational art. You may find yourself at odds with Twombly. You might be asking, "Why should I even think about Twombly?"

My answer is, "Because he's important." There are plenty of artists that you and I don't like, who are also unimportant, whatever their art historical coverage and auction prices say. Twombly isn't one of them - Twombly is a big rock in the middle of the road, and we gotta go through him.

I came to this project for personal reasons. I'm working on a project, which I can't share with you just yet, which draws on some of his mark-making. Not directly: I knew the idea of Twombly when I started, but hadn't really looked at Twombly per se. I went to the gallery to get a better sense, but it turns out the idea of Twombly is more or less the same as actual Twombly. I'll share my project with you a little later.

Apart from my personal motive for approaching Twombly, Twombly has much to teach us about the formal nature of art and the cognition of sight. That's what I was trying to get at with the piece. I find him more interesting than Pollock or Hirst, for instance, because I see them as producing much more mechanical work. Twombly's work, as alien as it looks, is processed through a mind nearly so much as our own work. The differences are revealing.

Do I actually like Cy Twombly's work? Does it resonate with me? Stir me? Of course not. When I look at Twombly, I feel like I'm lost in a crappy neighborhood in Berlin on a drizzly November afternoon. Twombly makes me want to find a warm Starbucks and check my email.

Let me point this out though: Getting lost in Berlin may not be fun, but it is an important part of life. I didn't come here to look at things I like and say, "Isn't that nice?" I came here to study with you, and see if we could learn something. Disliking Twombly is an insufficient reason not to engage seriously with him. For too much of the past century, the kind of representationalism native to us has been dismissed by people who think about art. Now that I'm being offered a chance to speak on what appears to be an ever-rising platform, certainly I am going to push for our kind of work. But I am not going to practice the kind of exclusion that has been practiced against our forebears. Wherever something is interesting, I will ask you to come along with me and consider it. We are not going to be provincial in our interests; we will take the diversity of riches the world has to offer and make the most of them.


Full disclosure: I have never been to Berlin. I just picture it as consisting of nothing but wretched, crumbling concrete buildings, and a few tangles of wire and rebar scattered around with, of course, some fast food wrappers and plastic bags adhered sadly to them. And christawful weather.