Springtime at the Serpentine is an ideal moment for a Cy Twombly show. Inside, the works on paper from the past half-century of Twombly's long career explode in a riot of organic richness, as if the septuagenarian artist were determined to outdo the blossoming beyond the windows.
Twombly's father was a professional baseball player, and from the outset, this show seems powered by a restless, fast-moving agility. But the earliest works, produced just after a trip to Europe and North Africa with Robert Rauschenberg, are monochrome. Two untitled monotypes in paint, both dating from 1953, are reminiscent of white marks scratched on grubby black walls. Like Klee and the surrealists, Twombly was fascinated by the impromptu eloquence of graffiti. He seems already to rejoice in the liberating zest of unruly mark-making. Are these figures, or fissures? Is Twombly alluding to acts of violence, erotic encounters, or an uneasy blend of aggression and intimacy?
His exploration of colour could not be delayed for long. Twombly had, after all, studied under abstract expressionist artists at the legendary Black Mountain College, and by 1954 he was ready to unleash a far more fiery vision. Wielding colour pencils and crayon now, he fills most of the picture surface with a feverish, almost incandescent commotion. Scarlet, orange and brilliant yellow lines undulate and gather into spirals before breaking up into hectic bursts of scribble, evoking storms and forest fires raging out of control.
Even when he reverts to pencil in 1956, the absence of colour does not lessen the overwhelming turbulence. All the lines appear to be caught up in an apocalyptic frenzy. And the following year, this mood culminates in two larger images where house paint is used to submerge all the pencil marks in a deluge, suggesting that fire has now given way to flood.
As 1957 was also the moment when Twombly decided to leave his native America to settle in Rome, these images may reflect a sense of inner crisis. A two-year gap ensues at this point: perhaps Twombly needed time to assimilate his new surroundings and decide how Italy would influence his work.
By 1959, collage and glue are used to build up a free-floating cluster of fragments. They could be torn pieces of paper blown away in the wind. Or they might just as plausibly evoke the shattered ruins of a civilisation long since reduced to rubblealone. Either way, they suggest that Twombly is now in a mood to begin reassembling a world of imagined forms after the obliteration of 1957. Over the next decade, his mischievous and often erotic sense of play returns. References to body parts abound in works where free association seems to prevail. A whole series of pencil images called Bolsena teems with numbers, either suspended in isolation or attached to rectangles suggestive of building blocks or blank canvases.
For a while, between …