Lions spend an average of 20 hours a day doing nothing. It’s what they do in the other four that commands attention. But I never let myself forget the five sixths of every day that lions let slip through their being, like released rope through a pulley. One of the reasons my own childhood infatuation with big cats flowed naturally into a love of fine art had to do, I’m sure, with this business of doing nothing, which I have always considered a fine art of its own.
At university, I spent long hours in the fine arts library leafing through picture books, staring out of the window and eavesdropping on rich girls, who seemed, by their whispered talk about ski holidays and parties, exquisitely conspiratorial and spoilt. My favourite pictures were of people doing nothing, a subject richly represented in the history of art – so richly, in fact, that it seems to have escaped most people’s notice.
I liked images dense with the humours and vapours of indolence. But I particularly liked those works in which one could feel a struggle, an aching for repose not yet adequately satisfied. I would look at Manet’s picture of Berthe Morisot, her twisted body beneath her cascading white dress almost squirming with the desire for release, ravishment, undoing (that Manet loved Morisot seems clear, but she was married to his brother). I pored over recumbent nudes of every kind, from Giorgione to Courbet, from Ingres to Freud, and wallowed in their erotic lassitude.
I began paying more attention to marks: the way in late Titian one comes across passages of paint that describe nothing, that are just slathered on, and yet which somehow become the most emotionally precise ingredients of all. There seemed to be a connection between the sensation of doing nothing and having the brush “do its own thing.” So abstract painting caught my attention. But it is expended effort rather than mere vacancy that one craves. So I fell for de Kooning, who seemed to unravel in muscular, unforgettable ways, rather than Rothko, who seemed too vague; and I adored Matisse, whose Luxe, calme et volupte seemed the outcome of incredibly strenuous concentration.
Cy Twombly – whose works on paper are now the subject of an exhibition at the Pompidou in Paris and will arrive at the Serpentine in April – I discovered only much later. But when I did, his work brought back all those hormonally charged teenage feelings of physical indulgence and unanchored eroticism. He infused these feelings with a grandeur, an elegance, a sense of the epic.
Twombly got to know the young Robert Rauschenberg in his early twenties, and went on to study at Black Mountain college in North Carolina, where the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell was an artist in residence and where Rauschenberg, Franz Kline and John Cage all studied in 1952-53. Motherwell remembered Twombly as a “natural.” The boy had a “native temperamental affinity with the abandon, the brutality and the irrational in avant-garde painting at the moment,” he wrote. Twombly moved to Rome in 1957, making trips all over Italy, as well as to north Africa and Greece. When not untitled, he gave his works names such as Olympia, Arcadia, The Birth of Venus, School of Athens, Triumph at Galatea and Fifty Days at Ilium, scrawling these and other words across their surfaces – often legibly, but just as often not. And the rest of his surfaces were taken up with doodles, gestures, crossings-out, numbers, diagrams, collaged pieces of paper and lots of empty space (he still insists, aged 75, that he has a greater sense of paper than of paint).
In fact, a huge proportion of Twombly’s marks are really just smudges, lines that are not so much traces of energy as of the hand, and the body, coming to rest. They are about doing nothing, and yet they are powerfully suggestive of orgiastic energies and endeavours at some indefinable point in the past – possibly only a distant, dreamed-up past. The classical references are not so much enigmatic as vague. They are an indulgence, an intoxicating irony. Roland Barthes, who wrote at length about Twombly, likened his work to a pair of trousers – not the ideal pair hanging neatly on a rack, but a pair that has been discarded and left on the floor after wearing: “The essence of an object,” he wrote, “has something to do with the way it turns into trash.”
Twombly’s work evokes that childhood boredom people claim is salutary, but which can veer into perverse territory. And it suggests the fine line separating the luxury of indolence from the agony of torpor. I find something intoxicating in Twombly’s freedom, but at the same time a tension. His best works are narcissistic yet seductive. Just as they reach a point of maximum intensity, they seem to speak of something that can never be recovered.
This, I suppose, is what people mean when they use the term “decadence.” But the temptation, once such a word is invoked (especially in the vicinity of references to antiquity), is to seek out analogies with the culture at large. To do so is to engage in a sociological exercise, when these works really have to do with nerve endings, one’s inner life.