Cy Twombly: painter/sculptor/'artiste'


(information and reputation)

Born Edwin Parker Twombley, Jr. on April 28, 1928 in Lexington, Virginia. Among other places, Twombly studied at Black Mountain College, thus ensuring (hypothetically at least) his place in stardom among other Black Mountain College alumni Rauschenberg, Johns, Cage, Cunningham, Fuller, etc., etc.

Twombly has often been seen as the third wheel of neo-Dada, after Rauschenberg and Johns. Example:

...he is the Third Man, a shadowy figure, beside that vivid duumvirate of his friends Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. XXX

Unlike Rauschenberg and Johns, who became the vanguard of an American avant-garde which quickly led towards Conceptualism and groups like Fluxus, Twombly moved to Italy early on (1957) and has lived and worked somewhat quietly there ever since. As mentioned above, Twombly's work has been largely lost in the super-nova-like light of the brighter stars of the post-Abstract Expressionist American avant-garde (check out the fancy titles). However, in recent years (beginning probably around the early to mid-nineties) Twombly's work has received attention in its own right. A large show at MOMA in 1993 (or 94?) and ridiculously priced paintings have led to the art world's (read: art historians' and art critics'... ) newfound appreciation of Twombly and his work.

Given theoretical attention from philosophical powerhouse Jacques Derrida in his Truth in Painting***, Twombly has also begun to garner theoretical attention (mostly from the postmodernist camp(s), and not camp in the camp-y, kitsch-related way either...) in addition to the attention gained from his more recent exhibitions.


My interest in Twombly lies in his 'anticipation' (a dangerous teleological assignment, but fuck you...) of name- (or at least word-)based graffiti and post-1970's linguistically centered art. I am also interested in Twombly as a continuation of, or elaboration upon, some of the linguistic 'tactics' employed by Marcel Duchamp in (I think) his most interesting works. (L.H.O.O.Q., and The Green Box, for instance).

Twombly's work is, to my eye, both a looking-forward and a looking-back. He is intimately interested in the classical gesture, the Roman period, the painterly. He is, at times, as much a 'painter' as David or Renoir. Nevertheless, he (at the same time) is fascinated with the minimal, the excluded and most importantly: the scrawled. So, though Twombly can be seen as 'painterly' (even in some works as a so-called 'Action Painter') I'd like to approach Twombly's work from a very specific (theoretical/conceptual, whatever word you want there...) basis.

I would like to begin by aligning both his 'textual' (word or letter based) works and his historical attitude towards Roman/Greek mythology/classicism with Derrida's deconstructive 'method' (obviously a poor choice of words...but the choice suits my purposes for the moment). I want to show that Twombly's works and attitude co-exist with Derrida's conception of differance as well as his earlier (i.e. 1968-1973 or so), more systematised approaches to deconstruction.

So... let's begin. Jacques Derrida 'defines' (in his earlier work, it seems more plausible to ascribe the act of 'definition' to Derrida than in his later, crazier, works...) differance in an interview with Henri Ronse:

To risk meaning nothing is to start to play, and first to enter into the play of differance which prevents any word, any concept, any major enunciation from coming to summarize and to govern from the theological presence of a center the movement and the textual spacing of differences. (Positions 14)
This (re)consideration of the peripheral, marginal and exiled is a constant theme throughout a number of contemporary thinkers and disciplines (Edward Said, Bruno Latour, Michel Foucault, post-colonial studies in general...etc., etc.). It is also, I think, a recurrent theme in Twombly's work. He is not satisfied with letting the 'center(s)' ('classical' art history, the firm distinctions between writing, drawing and painting) remain central and untouched. Rather, I think his work can be seen as an attempt to de-center the center, or even to de-stabilize the separation between the center and the peripheral. I will focuse my discussion on two very different works by Twombly. The first is a Bronze (sculpture) entitled "Bronze by the Ionian Sea" (1988). The second work is a drawing/painting/writing, Untitled, from 1960. URL's where these works can currently (June 2002) be seen at are listed in the references at the bottom of this writeup.

The first work (Bronze by the Ionian Sea) embodies precisely the historical deconstruction that I think makes Twombly's historicism interesting. Rather than reproducing art that is (was) central to the traditional art-historical view of the classical Greek and Roman period, Twombly chooses to focus on the decay and collapse of classicism. (Though seeing this piece simply as a commentary upon the emptiness of the classical arts would be too facile.) What is interesting about the piece is that it combines elements central to the dominant classical art tradition (casting bronze, for instance) while utilizing aspects of the peripheral (crumbling, ignored masonry) as well. So rather than simply accepting or rejecting either the center (the dominant art histories) or the peripheral (the wastelands of non-art, the crumbling site, the wrecked, the destroyed), Twombly's work participates in both. His relationship to history is never as simple as accepting a specific, generalised viewpoint, rather he fluctuates between viewpoints, privileging none over another.

The second work, an untitled canvas, reinforces this view of Twombly's work. Rather than allowing one element to dominate the canvas (Twombly's scrawling graffiti-like calligraphy, his incessant scribbles or the brief patches of colour) all elements act both as exterior and interior elements of the work. As per Derridean thought, the 'signified' content of the written word becomes less and less important, or rather, less and less all-important in the relationship between the sign and the viewer/reader/writer, etc. Rather, in Twombly's work, the signifier is equally as important as the signified content. His work does not focus particularly on one aspect of the sign, but rather fluctuates between the two, and attempts to dissolve the 'difference' between the two (one).

The reason I like this fluctuation between signifier and signified, and between a privileging of past-created and a past-destroyed is that it allows me to get away from unidirectional, teleological/eschatological conceptions of history (and meaning) like those provided by Georg Hegel, of whom I am not particularly fond. Hegel tells us that:

The only thought which philosophy brings with it, in regard to history, is the simple thought of Reason-- the thought that Reason rules the world, and that world history has therefore been rational in its course. ... Thus Reason is the substance of of our historic world in the sense that it is that whereby and wherein all reality has its being and subsistence. It is the infinite power... (Introduction to the Philosophy of History, 12)

To me this raises all sorts of alarm bells and, occasionally even danger whistles. If Reason (capital R) rules the world, what about the unreasonable (me for instance, the insane, for further Foucauldian instance...). Well, Georg would say, tough for them and tough for you! I say Balzac to that. The unidirectional account of history is a back-looking one, and one that ends up being both boring, and often-times dangerous. If we see history as guided by capital-Ar Reason, then historical attrocities can be excused away as the within the realm of reason, and hence forgiveable, forgettable even necessary! History as slaughterbench. I would much rather look at history (and meaning, about which I am not talking a whole lot, but its important too...) as multifaceted and not reign-on-able by some fancy concept that allows certain groups and people to control other groups. It's easy to see history as a big movement towards something (its dangerous too) but its a lot more fun to break history up, fragment it, and look at the shiny bits and arrange them just so. Rather than relating merely in a temporal sequence (Good, Better, Best=german) it is, in my view, interesting to allow both the past and the future to work their magic in the present, and even to break down barriers between presence and non-presence...

But... we've gotten a little off topic, Cy Twombly is an interesting artist, whose work is oft-ignored though that is changing, please check him out if you can.

Given that I'm no art cricket (by any means) and that my understanding of Twombly's work is, on the whole, less than complete (clever), I hope that my 'efforts' (poor as they may be) have not been entirely wasted. In any case, there is some biographical information on the top, so don't fret, gentle fact-noder.

All is well.


  • Bronze by the Ionian Sea, 1988, can be viewed at:
  • Untitled (canvas), 1960, can be seen at:
  • Positions, Jacques Derrida. Translated by Alan Bass. (University of Chicago Press, 1981: Chicago) This is three separate interviews with Derrida in the late 60's and early 70's... (when he started becoming famous).
  • Hegel, G.W.F, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch. (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1988).

***NOTE: Apparently, I'm mistaken about this reference. I thought Derrida had a Twombly essay in his "Truth in Painting" but, after re-checking out that book, I find this is not the case. And, unfortunately, I've been having a hard time finding the essay that I thought was in that book. So, until I DO find the reference for that essay, I'll leave the wrong reference, and this disclaimer, for no particular reason. If you know the essay, let me know (I'm actually trying to find it for other, non-E2, reasons!) UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2003