Cy Twombly, on the face of it, is an artistic hermit. His conception of painting is as a kind of hermetic script, rich with allusions (to classical civilization, poetry, and personal sensory experience) and diverse nuances (the symbolic whiteness of Mallarme, late Monet, and Turner, but it is essentially indecipherable
Having trained with Rauschenberg under Motherwell and Ben Shahn at the unorthodox Black Mountain College in North Carolina, he travelled in Italy and North Africa, before establishing himself with a series of exhibitions in New York. Like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Twombly employed the Abstract Expressionists' liberating aleatory use of paint, but without their heroic pretensions or universalist goals. Twombly and his colleagues utilized an iconography of everyday life (such as representations of numbers and letters). The suggestion of carelessness and defilement inherent in Twombly's paintings (they elicit comparisons with the sexual graffiti in a public latrine) is also present in the work of Rauschenberg, with whom Twombly traveled to Italy in 1953. His emigration to Rome in 1957 was perhaps the hinge of his career. Twombly could not have had less to do with the direction American art in the sixties took towards Minimalism and what Robert Hughes calls the 'iconic blare of Pop Art' being an expatriate counted against him in a New York art world saturated with cultural chauvinism. He had sided with the beautiful Italian losers, against history.
A survey of his career thus far reveals a constant desire to broaden or change his painterly language: while his sculpture remains uniformly whitewashed, we find that within two years he has leapt from an austerely minimal approach of using only pencil and white cementito paint (Untitled, Lexington, 1959) to a Dionysian abandon of phallus, breast, sperm and shit (Untitled, FerragostoI, FerragostoIII, Rome, 1961).
The paint is in a state where it appears to be part of some subtle system but yields almost no clue as to its meaning. We see a hermetic script germinating before our eyes whereby a single pencil stroke seems alchemically altered, charged with a kind of nervous beauty. It is a language that inhabits a wonderful limbo-world between the untutored child's joyous smearing and the delicacy of the masters.
I would know like to explain why I find Twombly's work so intriguing by breaking down his idiolect into its individual aspects. 1 Human Activity
'A bird seems to have passed through the impasto with cream-coloured screams and bitter claw-marks'
, 'Cy Twombly', 1955
'It's to do with human activity', Twombly says in conversation at his house in Gaeta
I mention the 1955 painting 'The Geeks' and he smiles-'I like that painting…it's like a nervous system
'. It is full of a kind of hairy scratching, committed by a hand that is neither lazy nor aggressive, but agitated and frenetic. He likes his line to be light, like (that phrase again) 'the flow of a nervous system
', not the heavy marks that are a bi-products of weariness. Roland Barthes
speaks of the pencil seeming to 'alight almost nonchalantly' on the canvas: 'What is good is light' (Nietzsche
). It can allude to a kind of sparse, innocuous graffiti
(perhaps roman, before the word meant repetitious 'tagging
' by city kids with luminous spray cans) or a child struggling to mimic a model of good penmanship. The inclination to make these marks comes at an instant that must be built up to: 'painting's not golf, but it's about the same right moment
'. If this activity is nearest writing, it has no syntax or logic (though it has the widest vocabulary in the universe). If it is to be considered within the western tradition of painting, then it rejects all the usual formal properties (though the deposits on the canvases always seem to be mysteriously oriented). 'The Geeks', in its all-overness, suggests a wall metaphor, a build-up of alphabet fractures and mutant, scribbled writing. Writing, that is, in its most human form, not finely modelled Seventeenth century belle main but a splutter, a murmur, a muttering: something vague, smudged and half erased. It is a gesture that has value regardless of any communicative function; Twombly tells me that it is often the very 'shape' of the writing - that is what the word or scrawl implies as an image alone – that justifies its place in the matrix of marks. It is often classed as 'CHILDLIKE' but this seems an inadequate description. Occasionally, it shares something of the wild, primal nature of a very young child's first efforts at writing, but it shares nothing with the concentrated look that appears a little later, when a child begins to aspire to the bland calligraphy that is so very grown-up. What is the child expressing in its first stabs with a pencil other than the sensation of making a mark? Bursts of this oblivious, compulsive activity have a bewitching effect on the viewer, who takes pleasure in grazing from stroke to stroke. Perhaps there is an affinity with the intention declared by Klee
in his diary in 1902:
'All little things and close to the other, but taken in the whole they represent a real activity…I create as if I did not know anything about painting…
It is a bizarre paradox that in the context of painting, marks that are clumsy, naïve and 'ungainly
' (Barthes) have an astonishingly poetic quality. Broken rhythms, enigmatic pentimenti and whispering vibrations reveal the fertile possibilities of the line (drawn or written) and remind us what a sensitive act 'painting' is. On a fundamental level, Twombly's work is always about the mysterious act of painting itself. In 1958, he wrote in the magazine L'Esperienza Moderna:
'Action must prove from time to time the realisation of life. Act is therefore the primary sensation. In painting act is the formation of the image, the mechanical action of its evolution, the direct or indirect impulse brought to exasperation in this high act which is invention
The canvas we are presented with is the physical evidence for obsessive efforts, serial gestures, painting as a curious, intensive act. In paintings such as 'The Geeks', these gestures have a certain autonomy, being self-sufficient and not subservient to something that requires illustration.
'The creator will never participate in anything other than the creation of a small dirty deposit, a succession of small dirty deposits juxtaposed'
Jacques Lacan, seminar, March 11 1964
Twombly's activity affords his materials a quasi-mystical power. When placed in one of his paintings, the latent charm of a brown smear or a wiggly line is slowly released. Barthes points out that 'Twombly imposes his materials on us not as something which is going to serve some purpose, but as absolute matter'. As for the Alchemists, his materials – graphite, crayon, house paint, oils – are the materia prima. In 'Triumph of Galatea' (1961), the colouristic and scatological frenzy of marks works because they are allowed to exist as things without any dominant symbolism. Two pink circles may suggest buttocks, or, on closer inspection, lurid breasts, but above all, they are enigmatic painterly marks. This elusive quality is achieved through Twombly's evident grasp of what Asian art has known for centuries: a vital spaciousness. Crucial in Japanese aesthetics is Ma, in Latin Rarus: that which sparse, scattered, with gaps and interstices. This is not simply negative space but something which enhances the marks, affording them drama and dignity. As Barthes puts it, 'sparseness begets density, and density gives birth to enigmas'. Thus stains in 'Triumph of Galatea' which differ infinitesimally from the tone of the canvas itself demand attention, while vortices of flesh and pink look like the most anguished motifs ever painted. Although the Ferragosto paintings may initially look like a fit of idle doodling, they soon begin to seep something intriguing and it dawns that the placement of these marks in a big field is energetic and brilliant. The small size of individual deposits of paint or trails of crayon across an expanse of canvas traps the curious eye and compels it to roam in a messy labyrinth. So that nothing is ever easy to grasp, the medium is constantly changed. What begins life as a pure line of graphite becomes lost in a swirl of white, and then emerges shakily as a pastel stutter. In La Caduta di Iperione, strokes of brutal orange become diluted by swirls of cementito cream, half obscuring a scrawled phallus.
Twombly's discourse is often hard to make sense of because its language is still in evolution. In Panorama it is as if we see a whole new abstract means of communication germinating. The variously indistinct marks flicker and disappear: 'the whole space is crackling in the manner of a television screen before any image appears on it' (Barthes). The irregular passages of line suggest the efforts of a distraught or arthritic person to commit some legible marks to a surface, or the rhythms of anxious contemplation. It is the visual equivalent of a frenetic soliloquy, where the individual utterances are baffling, but the whole speech is awesome. It is a breathless stream of stuttering, a struggle to enunciate. If one searches, individual letters extricate themselves the tangled web… 'HO'… 'HAS'… 'AA' … 'CARN'. Or is it just the brain wanting to infer certain familiar symbols? Just as a baby's gargles occasionally contain a semblance of a recognisable word, these scrawls, in their constant mutability, occasionally stumble across a known sign. Crucially, nothing is made explicit, maintaining the plurality of nuance that is essential to the artist's oeuvre. Mallarme 'speaks in order to no longer be understood', and Twombly's intricate but unintelligible lines of white chalk on black house paint suppress any notion of subject matter. As Frank O'Hara said at the time, though the painting is 'all white and black with grey scoring, the range is far from a whisper, and this new development makes the painting itself the form'. Twombly's art is a historical anomaly in that it apparently 'does not grasp at anything'. Eluding classification as part of any painting movement per se has no doubt contributed to his reputation as an outsider. Panorama is Twombly's Demoiselles d'Avignon, where he has opened a Pandora's Box that would remain a talisman for over a decade. Its simulated mindlessness and arrhythmic repetition hold a mesmerising power
In the 1990 painting Summer Madness, a clump of blooming flowers from the kindergarten paint pot are accompanied by what appears to be a bungled diary annotation. Dates and monograms have long been part of the fabric of Twombly's paintings, but following the customary notes like 'C.T. Bassano in Teverina/ Aug 20 90', we notice several fudged attempts to commit to paper the painting's title. An excitable hand, perhaps frenzied by the heat of this 'Summer Madness', has written the phrase at least twice with a red paint, effaced it with white, and finally written in red pencil. In the word 'summer', the '-ummer' part is written twice; there has certainly been a struggle to enunciate. 'Mistakes' like this suggest fatigue and forgetting: a hand exhausted by a three-hour examination, or the slurring of simple words after too much wine. Similarly, Night Watch (1966) shows inept attempts to draw a box in space. A rectangular structure stumbles towards us, unusually without erasures to mask its evolution. This has been read as a connection to Italian Futurist conventions of depicting movement in space, but it seems more likely that it is a palimpsest of errors, like the frustration of an earnest child. The final, almost correct floating shape is left abandoned, looming as a symbol of vain effort. This predicts a trend that emerges in pictures of 1971, where the fate of such efforts is told in a collapse from upper left to bottom right. In Untitled, Roma 1971, a semi-circle, recognised by Philip Fisher in his essay 'Next/Next' as the 'agent of effort', enters with apparent confidence before meeting a violent struggle to survive with its form intact. Rain-like diagonal marks pound the motif downwards, aided by the inevitability of gravity, turning it into a mere curve. The persistence of this process extinguishes the individuality of the mark, and the attempts to enunciate a pure semi-circle become increasingly pathetic. Just before its extinction, the mark is nothing but a faint comma.
This left to right narrative of exhausted effort ascends a grander stage in Hero and Leandro
, 1981-84. Conceived as an expansive, sparse landscape using almost purely painterly means, it opens with frenetic brushwork that cascades towards the bottom right corner. Erotic
purple-pinks and vibrant greens bloom most fully in the first third of the canvas, screaming desire and love. But even in this first instalment, the marks become sparse. In the second panel, just a few diluted greens intrude on a calming sea that drowns the pleasure of the first. A black oil stick scribble on the bottom of this picture seems to stand for the end of an energised struggle, after which all vitality is gone.
The final panel is an end-game of off-whites where all is swamped by the vastness of the ocean and nothing is enunciated. Leander, after vain appeals to Aphrodite and Poseidon, has drowned, and has hurled herself from the tower to be united with him. The reductive process of whiteness obscuring all colours eliminates Twombly's linguistic or graphic efforts, with the effect of muting everything but serene, wave-like gestures. There is a postscript to this triptych, scrawled in the artist's inimitable hand on a sheet of paper.
all his amorous breath.
The air that gave Leander the ability to express himself with words has been expelled from his body in the form of bubbles, which make no visible disturbance on the surface of the water. Such is the fate of efforts to enunciate in Twombly's oeuvre.
4 Pastoral Contemplation
In the eighties, Twombly's work begins to suggest a continuation of late Turner or late Monet, whilst simultaneously developing his own idiolect in a radical way. Versions of Hero and Leandro allude to the flickering urgency of Monet with impaired eyesight.
Twombly's late oeuvre – a remarkable surge in his plastic output aside – is concerned with evocations of rural hills, the sea, boats, and flowers. He is no longer the schoolboy covertly scribbling base erotica into a copybook, but something of an old master who allows elegant brushwork to exceed line, whose fertile possibilities had preoccupied him all his career thus far. Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair (1985) is a 'marvellous investigation into the possibilities of thick pink paint' (Sylvester). There is a curious, poignant tension between the weeping matter on the canvas and the casual scrawl on the formal plaques above each picture in the triptych.
In the better-known version of the Quattro Stagioni (1994), Twombly's apparently new-found painterly abandon meets epic subject matter. Colouristically, the Estate canvas seems like a glorious homage to Turner. Yellows melting in a blinding whiteness recall the master at his most abstract, in the unfinished canvases from his last years and the shockingly impressionistic 'colour beginnings'. However, though the accent is Turner's, the voice that enunciates, with elegance and hesitance, is undoubtedly Twombly's. Behind the bruises of yellow are half-effaced evocations of boats, drawn with an anxious hand. These boats, as Twombly puts it, show an 'irresponsibility to gravity', levitating on three different levels. The painting shows a similar 'irresponsibility' to orthodox notions of composition, though it has a certain serenity. Inverno seems like a beautifully logical progression from Monet's late canvases.
The yellow of Estate survives in the form of stubborn, isolated flowers that float like the flecks of suggestive colour in Monet's Waterlilies. Preliminary drawings in Monet's sketchbooks confirm the influence of the dynamic linearism and expressive empty space of Japanese screen painting on his conception of the Grandes decorations for the Orangerie in Paris. In Soken's pair of screens, White herons in summer and winter, the artist has painted superb freehand drawings of a willow and a stream with banks accented by bamboo, set against shimmering, silvery space.
Similarly, Twombly understands these concepts of sparseness (Rarus/Ma) and insistent linearity. Inverno seems to be an investigation into a kind of repeated, flowing gesture, and it does not take an enormous leap of faith to connect Monet's swift, broken brushwork with his (broadly-speaking) abstract-expressionist strokes, or Soken's empty space with his appreciation of whiteness.
Autunno is a raucous, jarring painting that is, I think, misinterpreted by Jed Perl in his essay 'Twombly Time' when he claims that, 'want(ing) to learn a thing or two from the late Joan Mitchell…his juxtapositions of yellow and blue and purple and green have no impact'. Arguing that Twombly is 'no colorist', making 'virtue…of liability', Perl claims that the colour combinations attempted in this canvas are beyond him. Au contraire: though it may seem merely garish at first, it is the subtlest work in the cycle. It was inspired by the annual wine festival near the artist's country residence in Bassano in Teverina, and, sure enough, there is Bacchanalian intoxication, stomping and pulping – even a purplish cluster that may be a bunch of grapes. Unlike the graceful, rhythmic action of Inverno, this painting is composed of staccato punctuations, more with an air of childish abandon that is more explicit than usual. It is deliberately less refined than the other three; there are finger marks, disturbing phrases (your blood) and crudely drawn branches laden with berries. Shit and phalluses lend it an air of primeval baseness, which is a compelling digression from the lazy grandeur that marks his late oeuvre.
Twombly has always had what he calls a 'pastoral streak' in his temperament, manifested in his love for Virgil's Eclogues; life at Bassano, where he first began restoring a decayed house in 1972, nurtured this sensibility. The surroundings of the house and the depopulated village were thoroughly rustic: the tinkling of shepherds' bells on the hillside would float through the studio windows. What late Twombly does share with Mitchell is the subject of landscape, executed with an energetic physical gesture infused with a romantic sensibility. In River (1989), My Landscape (1967) and Sunflowers (1990), Mitchell responds to places and moods that occupy her physical and psychic environment. Twombly, responding to the weather being 'so fucking hot', made a series of Green Paintings in the summer of 1988, a cycle of abstractions 'very much under the spell of the water imagery of Monet's later life' (Varnedoe) that can be read as evocations of rural hillscapes near his home in Gaeta. In Chicago (1966-67) and Bracket (1989), Mitchell, like Twombly uses multiple panels and a grand scale so that a painting may be treated like a poem, with breaks and shifts that sometimes repeat and recycle.
This panels-as-stanzas format, permitting repetition and re-iteration, is the defining structure of
Twombly's great paintings of the last decade. The huge, almost 16-metre wide Untitled Painting of 1994 with its subtitle Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor (the title itself is a recurrence from the Estate panel of the Quattro Stagioni) uses the motif of the ship in Rilke's 'metaphoric constellation' (Hochdorfer) of the boat on the open sea as a symbol of poetry and the last refuge of a metaphysical activity. The left-hand side of the painting is a vast sea of whitish emptiness, in which faint boats drift, isolated. Letters and fragments of poems are scattered in their midst; “Shining white air trembling/white light/reflected in the white flat sea”. Bruises of colour emerge towards the right, hanging in various repetitions, bleeding downwards in a way that is 'reminiscent of sighs' (Hochdorfer). It is an awesome palimpsest, with a broader vocabulary of mark-making than Mitchell, and less forcefully calligraphic. In Mitchell's paintings, which Perl claims to be chromatically superior to Twombly's, there is a kind of trumpeted bravura: wrist-flicking, looping swirls of virtuoso paint handling abounds. In Twombly's more painterly moments, there is – undeniably –virtuosity, but, like his handicapped pencil-doodling, it is inflected, concealed, veiled. In Mitchell's Bracket, the writhing paint is riotous, covering most of the picture's field. Moreover, the colours seem facile and gaudy. Twombly's 'liability' is a daring abandon that he constantly revises, using his great eraser to hold the proceedings in check. In place of a blaring overstatement, we have restraint, room to breathe.
Twombly himself has referred to his room of barges, the ten-part Coronation of Sesostris (2000) as Waterlilies. These Egyptian boats, in a state of a gorgeous dissolution, illuminated by Turner's 'catastrophic sunlight' (Shapiro) have much in common with Monet's near-abstractions, which were praised, on exhibition in New York in 1960, for 'the flatness of the canvas surface, the nervous tangles that will not retreat into illusion, and the few furtive stabs of white, yellow, pink or lilac that we recognize as blossom'. In the fifth panel, strokes of alizarin refuse to retreat into illusion, maintaining a plurality of nuance, and able to become 'a wild colour for a stalk, a person, an oar, or a blossoming mast' (Shapiro). The colours suggest Turner's dying ships, and specifically the 'Fighting Temeraire', after which Twombly painted three canvases (Study from the 'Temeraire' 1998-1999) for the English National Gallery's 'Encounters' show. In fact, the Coronation of Sesostris began life as a first attempt at a study from the 'Temeraire' ('there is an impetus…whether the subject is stuck to or not'), revealing an enjambment between two cycles that is similar to the enjambment within the cycles themselves: in the Coronation, first a sun shape, then solar barges bloom and extinguish themselves in a magnificent procession. The minor variations in the boats of the Study from the 'Temeraire' show different stages of non-finito. Twombly describes this as the state of a 'sketch…or a working drawing, (setting) the tone without developing…like seeing broken roman statues'. Rather like the drawings of Joseph Beuys, they have the electric, unfinished quality of something in flux.
Just as Leonardo obsessed over recurring themes - the intricate, the curled, the apocalyptic, vortex compositions, effete Leonardesque male types – Cy Twombly is drawn repeatedly to, as he put it in discussions of some abstract books he had been working on, 'certain mannerisms, phrases, tendencies and patterns of things, with different emphases'.
Battles (Ilium, Lepanto), classical figures (Achilles, Venus, Commodus, Hero and Leander), flowers, boats and the sea, and bastardisations of handwriting are united, however, by an overriding aim that joins him with Leonardo more convincingly than anything else: a sense of relentless human activity.
I hope this has been of some interest as an introduction to my favourite painter. It was an honour to meet him and I devote a lot of my time to reflecting on his work.