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…