Linnea West wrote this essay for the fifth session of our Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program. The session was led by Chuck Reece, co-founder and editor of the Bitter Southerner, and was titled “Where Does Your Work Come From?” He asked the mentees to reflect on what compels them to write, and specifically to write about art. We were impressed and at times moved by the essays, which we’ll be featuring over the coming weeks.
There was a specific moment when I fell in love with contemporary art; I was 19, a prime age for falling in love, as I would discover, and on a study abroad program in England. One weekend, some other students and I visited London. Along with sites like Parliament and Big Ben, we visited the Tate Modern, not so much because it was an art museum as because it was something for tourists to see and do. Vaguely, I remember walking through the galleries feeling like I was in a dream, as if I could stay there forever, or at least the day, and never need to eat or drink again, so transfixed was I with what was probably my first glimpse of great modern and contemporary art. After all, I was a young bookworm from a town in Georgia in my second semester of college, abroad as an adult for the first time. My eyes were opening to the wider world all around me, and with all the intensity of first love.
What I remember most particularly about that day was a group of four large paintings hanging in Turbine Hall, the vast entrance to the Tate Modern’s revamped industrial building. They towered over me, wild, fervid with color and covered with markings, like the kind an animal might make and that I hadn’t known could be art. And that I hadn’t known could be so beautiful. They were Cy Twombly’s series of paintings Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons), and there was a canvas for Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Winter’s stark ice-white swathes floated in contrast to sidelong sweeps of black, accented by electric yellow I found surprisingly elegant. Autumn, however, was my favorite, with its rich, dark greens coated with warm magentas and molded round like mossy growing things should be. Overall, I loved how the colors in these painting shone carelessly, elegant but playing it cool, as if it were all fast and loose, a little James Dean and a little Audrey Hepburn. The scrawled phrases on the paintings (for example: the name of the represented season in Italian) gave my mind something to hold on to, as it strove to make sense of this manner of representing the world. The paintings read like half-formed poetry, lyrical passages broken by swaths of cream canvas, a respite and shelter before the next profusion of intricate, worked-up paint.
Looking at those paintings for as long as I did that day introduced me to a whole new language, a way of meaning-making that I didn’t quite grasp then, or perhaps even now, and which I had never known existed before. It filled me with a desire to know more, to decipher Twombly’s scrawls, strangely accessible and yet ciphers. To learn how he balanced his compositions between chicken scratch, abstraction, and poetry. I inherently loved the relative minimalism of the muted, warm-white background that his drips and strokes inhabited. It felt as if passion and reason were two opposing forces in these paintings—working in dialectical opposition to produce the excitement and the harmony.
At the time, the gift shop didn’t have a postcard of these works, so I left the paintings there at the Tate Modern. I went on to fall in love with Shakespeare, and freedom, and an English boy who I haven’t seen since I was 19. But the impact of Le Quattro Stagioni stayed with me. Although I went on to major in English, I continued to be fascinated by visual art. Museums were one of the great attractions of New York City when I moved there after graduation from college. Imagine my surprise when, within a week of moving to New York, I went to MoMA for the first time and Le Quattro Stagioni were hanging in the museum’s atrium, waiting for me. I took it as a sign that it was meant to be; it blessed my decision to move to New York, despite not having a job or a friend or the money to last me more than a frugal three months.
I went back to MoMA many times that summer and drank them in, really looking at these paintings. I began to think of them as my own and felt a little possessive and offended when people would casually glance at them and walk by. Now, I didn’t know at the time that there are two versions of this series, one at the Tate Modern and one at MoMA, but I did realize that the paintings were hardly placed there to foster some burgeoning passion of mine for the visual arts. Yet in my heart, even today, I believe that seeing Twombly’s series in both museums was a sign. Perhaps another work of art could have had the same effect on me, just as perhaps your first love could have been anyone else under different circumstances. But being just a bit more romantic than I like to let on, I think that, in this case, it was more than Le Quattro Stagioni being in the right place at the right time. Not just any paintings could have been the catalysts that opened my eyes to a whole new mode of expression.
To my knowledge, this series of paintings hasn’t been on view at MoMA since 2006, and I haven’t seen the other version of the series at the Tate Modern since my first viewing. I would love to see them once again, not for sentimental reasons, not because of what they once were to me, but because I think I can still marvel at the casual grace of those blobs and drips of color and relish in the defiant bravery of his graffiti, half-expressive and half-taciturn. The yellow streaking down the cream canvas of his painting Summer speaks to me just as much of a quintessence of blinding summer sun now as it did then. His Spring no longer strikes me as garishly violet and overly muddled in the center with swathes of pink and cream, like remnants of a bloodbath of pansies. In the chaos of its destruction, I see more than ever seeds of regeneration. Or, at least, I like to imagine that I would.
Linnea West is a writer, art blogger, and Athens native pursuing a master’s in art history at the University of Georgia. She is also a participant in BURNAWAY’s Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program.