At Ca’ Pesaro, Venice’s MOMA, Cy Twombly is having a moment entitled “Paradise”. Of all the shows done in concert with the Biennale I thought this one was absolutely beautiful. Once again I know that I’ve been suckered in by the space where this show is sponsored. And I’ve also reached the conclusion that all galleries should be designed like Venetian palazzos. They don’t have to be big, per se. (The Doig show in the Palazzetto Tito – see previous post – is not a huge affair, but man, is it tasty!) These buildings are made for the light, they are elegant visual spaces and they make paintings look amazing. Even the churches here are awash in light from beautiful windows placed high along the cupolas. This is different than the dark dramatic barracks of Florence or the midnight theatrical caverns in Rome. Anyway, Twombly’s paintings with all their smudges, empty billboard spaces, drips and scribbles, composition tropes that usually drive me crazy, came alive in these spaces. The direct crisp light of the sun and the reflected watery light of the Grand Canal poured through the blown glass windows of these graceful rooms and massaged these paintings into reality.
Obviously, this photo does not do this painting justice (in fact I haven’t seen one online that does). The color is off, the light is too flat and you don’t get a feel for the history at work in this space. There was a wonderful visual dialog going on between me, this room, the Grand Canal, the painting, and the different kinds of light bouncing around. Then there’s Twombly’s ephemeral entropic flowers expounding on nature and beauty, the scrawl of the Rilke poem on love and death, the processes of the painting dripping down the canvas, and that flat bright acidy blue of the billboard background that fills the space like fragrance. Visually, the room was a dream with Venice as a backdrop. You’d see the painting, glance to your right to the Grand Canal, pace back and forth, see the Baroque architecture across the way, glance back at the painting from a different vantage point. “Place is everything!” – as I’ve said before…. Yes, dammit, I was being seduced. Look, I’m not a big fan of Twombly’s painting legacy. I’ve seen too many pretenders working these tropes into the ground, but there is a mastery here, along with an elegance, that I found surprising.
The starting point for this kind of American Postmodern Abstraction is actually being shown down the way at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, a beautiful palazzo on the way to Salute and the Dogona. Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” was a watershed painting in the history of American culture. Pollock and crew didn’t really know it at the time, but “Mural” opened the way for the Postmodern world that we all exist in – AbEx broke the European Surrealist chokehold on painting and provided an endpoint to Moderism. More important, it opened up the idea that meaning and process should be one while legitimizing the idea of a pure abstraction inherent in that process. I’ve never seen this painting before, this most American of paintings, and I had to come to Venezia in order to do it. Weird. Hopefully, this painting will go on tour before it goes back into the ether. At least it should make an appearance in NYC for a little while – I’d like to see it with other works of the time. The Guggy does not allow photography of this piece so I’ve used their photo of the room and it’s not a bad shot.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Clem to come across this massive thing. I don’t know if he saw it in the studio or installed at Peggy’s, but it probably knocked him senseless. Finally, an American painter embodying the kind of pure painting that he had been going on about since 1939! (Ok, that might piss a lot of people off, but without Clem there would not have been a Pollock.) The process in this painting is right there front and center, and though Jackson still clings to a bit of figuration, he’s dropped it into the stroke itself so completely that it exists only as a metaphor. The painting moves and keeps moving stridently across the canvas. The brush never stops loosely applying the running paint – the dripping isn’t overly done or mannered like we see in Twombly’s painting. It’s just a side effect instead of being the endgame. The color – mostly splotches of bright yellows, fireplug reds and army greens – breaks through in bits and pieces though it’s held in check by the black, white and blue gray of the drawing. In fact the whole painting is closer to drawing than to painting and therein lies it’s real audacity. You can not improvise this kind of movement at this kind of scale without drawing, and in this painting Pollock lets the drawing guide the composition. Jackson works from top to bottom from side to side and expands the reach of the image, pushes at the edges of that image to make it feel larger than it actually is. The painting crowds the room. “Mural” was and is the precedent for so many works today that we tend to forget its uniqueness and its importance. I’m lucky to be standing in front of it!
It had been raining fairly heavily while I was in the Guggy enjoying Jackson’s legacy. When I came back out into the court yard the weather had cleared leaving deep puddles and a heavy warm haze in the air. It was exhilarating to see the way the bright light of Venice was now turning everything into pure vibrant color. The leaves, the flowers, the buildings, the canals, even the aesthetic tourists – everything was sparkling. For the visually inclined this city is like no other and it’s no wonder that painting was a natural part of its history. I really do love it.