Cy Twombly: Works from the Sonnabend Collection, Eykyn Maclean, London

“And what is it that you do?” Jackson Pollock famously, insultingly, asked Cy Twombly in the 1950s. Twombly’s complex answer to abstract expressionism took a lifetime to evolve, and several decades to find acceptance in his native America. Leading New York dealer Leo Castelli gave him his first shows during the 1960s, to mostly negative responses – “a fiasco . . . there isn’t anything to these paintings,” Donald Judd wrote in 1964 – but Twombly’s real supporter was Castelli’s ex-wife and talent-scout Ileanna Sonnabend. “She had the eye,” Twombly recalled shortly before his death last year.

As a gallerist herself, Sonnabend amassed a private collection of early Twomblys that fascinatingly demonstrate his development between 1956 and 1975, and are the subject of the London launch exhibition of New York modernist dealers Christopher Eykyn and Nicholas Maclean.

Half a dozen pieces here from the 1950s and early 1960s blur the line between painting and writing, with symbols, scribbles and references to cultural and mythological figures – Vivaldi, Galatea – forming part of thickly layered surfaces of gestural marks and scrawls: abstract works with narrative elements. A key gouache and wax crayon on paper from 1969 is reminiscent of a blackboard, and is part of the artist’s signature “grey paintings” series, with which in the late 1960s he abandoned his looping baroque style in favour of the restrained monochrome – in conversation with, though different from, the epoch’s dominant minimalism.

Then in the 1970s he changed direction again – as illustrated here by “Napoli” and an untitled work from 1975 – to adopt the large-scale gesture in bold vibrant colours that would define his oeuvre for the rest of his life. By now he was nearly 50: in this long apprenticeship, one traces all the experiments, hesitations, and building up of mastery, as well as the unfurling and unravelling of modernism, that make his late painterly work among the greatest of its time.

From February 7 to March 17

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