In early October 2019 David Cook and I visited Peter Doig: Paintings at Michael Werner, and Cy Twombly: Sculpture at Gagosian, both in London. Afterwards, we discussed the shows by email. The following is the result of several weeks of electronic toing and froing...part three

David:

Yes, we are miles apart on this one! I suppose when I said it looked like the work of any old Expressionist painter, that was a lazy way of saying that some of the distortions seem a little over familiar and the non-perceptual colours and shapes used to suggest emotion seem second hand. Doig isn’t an emotional exhibitionist in the same way as the original Expressionists, but he is – like them – trying to nudge our emotional compass. It’s odd…his art appears naive to me, but it really isn’t. There is a slightly disingenuous quality to that.

Before we move on shall we just look at Night Bathers, (which I think we weren’t actually able to see on the day we went)? It has this same ambiguous innocence and slightly deceptive naive quality. It also has strong echoes of Gauguin and seems to be an aftershock of an unacknowledged sensuality. Is there a parallel between Doig’s Trinidad and Gauguin’s Tahiti?

This is another one I have a hard time with.

Peter Doig, “Night Bathers”, 2019
Oil on linen
275 x 200 cm

Richard:

This is interesting because the figures appear to be floating and the sea looks like a concrete wall. The various elements of the picture are very jarring in that the style of every area of the painting seems very different – the building! Ha, that’s brilliant!  It’s a superb palette as well – kind of descriptive of night time on a beach, whilst referencing modernist paintings and being toxic enough that it seems contemporary.

I agree with you that these paintings are not naïve – there’s an argumentative intensity to the clash of painting styles – and it’s a fine balancing act. They are irritating and sensual enough that I worry over the intent. And the images are simple enough that they linger in the memory. Maybe what I like most about these paintings is the element of risk at their heart – something which is not obvious in the earlier work (although maybe then the risk then was being a painter in a post-painting art world).

Shall we talk about Cy Twombly?

David:

Yes, let’s talk about Cy. A short stroll took us from Doig to Twombly, to a show of his sculpture. I can think of very little to connect the two artists except perhaps that they both live/lived in a kind of exile: Doig in Trinidad, Twombly in Rome. Perhaps both to some extent were ill at ease with their native North American culture.

Twombly always created works that feel harmoniously whole and strangely alive, like he was touching some kind of trunk cable inside himself and holding on as its current ran through him. And I love that very simple entry point the works have – energy, form, stillness. A certain kind of perverse wit, daring the viewer to see the work for what it really is – in the case of the sculpture, a lot of white paint on some old cardboard – but at the same time feel the wholeness of the form.

I know some people don’t like painted sculpture at all – but I disagree. I don’t know why Twombly did it though. Do you think the white paint on the objects is a kind of reference to the Carrara marble in ancient Rome?

Cy Twombly, Untitled (To Apollinaire), 2009
Wood, white paint, cardboard,
and plastic strings
53.3 x 30.5 x 24.1 cm

Richard:

The paint has been applied partly to create a tension between the form and the materials. We are being invited to contemplate forms made of cheap, everyday materials at a slight remove – because of the uniformity of the paint. The effect would not be the same if we were presented with an arrangement of cardboard boxes, bearing handling instructions, manufacturer’s logos and in different shades of brown. I don’t think the materials are supposed to be a distraction in that way. And, yes, I think the sculptures could well be referencing Carrara marble and playfully asking the viewer if a sculpture has to be made from particular materials to be worthy of serious contemplation.

While we’re talking about paint – do you think these works are extensions of Twombly’s painting practice or something distinct?

To be continued…

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Part one of this conversation can be found here and part two here.

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