I went back to the art museum alone yesterday, was able to linger in the galleries, wander aimlessly. I was rewarded for my return by Cy Twombly’s 10-part series, Fifty Days at Iliam, based on the last fifty days of the Trojan War. These ten canvases are large — most about sixteen feet long and ten feet high — and nine of them are hung in a small gallery that perfectly contains them.
When I entered the gallery it was empty, and the feeling that washed over me — reverence, awe, surprise — was as sudden and intense and it was unexpected. I don’t know much about painting or how to speak or write about paintings, but my response was visceral and immediate. Hand-scrawled text, bold, fierce strokes, minimal color, except for the dark red that dominates a few — all immediately suggested the chaos and violence of war, its aggression and confusion. All at a scale I could not help but be moved by immediately. I was reminded of hearing Eileen Myles talk about the painting of Joan Mitchell — the way she took the world in through her body and her painting became the utterance of the experience. I find the notion of painting (or of other forms of art?) being the transfer of the energy of experience through the body — the way its performance becomes a kind of utterance, a kind of language — appealing.
There were other pleasures to be had. An exhibit of Agnes Martin’s drawings and writings (notes, artistic statements, correspondence) provided quiet insights on sustaining a working life in art. She wrote on beauty and inspiration:
As I describe inspiration I do not want you to think I am speaking of religion.
That which takes us by surprise — moments of happiness — that is inspiration. Inspiration which is different from daily care.
Many people as adults are so startled by inspiration which is different from daily care that they think they are unique in having had it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Inspiration is there all the time
The poet Ralph Angel introduced me to Martin’s writing on beauty some years ago, and then, as now, I am struck by the complexity in it that resists my easy understanding. Her statements are at once straightforward and elusive. I think I understand it, but then question. I find I must return to it, consider it for a while. Think about it in the context of her meticulous, meditative drawings and paintings. Their repetitions, their spare, quietly-controlled gestures.
There is more to say about the glorious hours I spent there in the galleries. But we are packing up now for the trip home.