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Cy Twombly, Poems to the Sea (1959). Dia Art Foundation Collection.

Cy Twombly at Tate Modern

by Anna Leung

For myself the past is the source. . .  I’m drawn to the primitive. . . 
- Cy Twombly, 1952

It must have seemed perverse. At the very point when America was securing for itself hegemony over the visual arts and as the centre of the art world moved from Paris to New York, Twombly married well and chose Europe. In 1957 he moved to Rome where he still lives. While most American artists looked for inspiration in contemporary popular culture Twombly looked to the ancient world, its poetry and its mythology as the focus for his cryptic calligraphic canvases. When most self-respecting ambitious avant-gardist artists were turning away from the high rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, Twombly was perhaps revealing its concealed narrative impulse. 

Twombly was born in 1929 in Lexington, Virginia though his parents originally came from the North. Cy was his father’s nickname. In 1951, after studying at the Boston Museum School and at the Arts Students League in New York, Twombly studied under Robert Motherwell, the most erudite and cultured of the Abstract Expressionists, at the Black Mountain College, North Carolina. His experience at Black Mountain --which he shares with his contemporaries, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns who initially persuaded him to join them there--may be one of the clues to his paintings, for the college represented a unique communal project in which artists, writers, poets and music makers all working in various experimental media came together to share and build on their innovative ideas. It was in addition an important centre for the transmission of Bauhaus theories and practices. Josef Albers, a key figure at the Bauhaus who had fled Nazi Germany to take up a professorship at Black Mountain, emphasized exploration of basic materials and making by doing that placed less emphasis on assertive individualism or self actualising gesture than on chance’s randomness. Equally significant then was the willingness to preserve trial and error as part of an accumulation of traces or palimpsest of marks that generated the completed work. All these factors both relate Twombly to, but also differentiate him from, Pollock. For whereas Pollock’s gesture or energy field paintings are made up of an all over lattice of marks, scrawls and loops Twombly’s canvases are more formal in that that empty space is critical to his sense of composition. Indeed he sees himself as a formalist rather than a colourist and this is upheld by his sculptures.

Twombly may at first sight seem out of synch with his contemporaries. He is not part of the Pop and Minimalist mainstream. He may seem elusive and difficult to categorise and yet, as we begin to study and analyse his canvases, we see enacted again and again a major and not unfamiliar painterly aim of expressing abstract ideas through the juxtaposition of figurative elements on the canvas. We see too that his artistic forebears are the Fauvists and Surrealists; not in terms of colour (though the Ferragosto Series, from the 1960s, especially the last one in the series, deserves the designation as fauve = wild painting and is heavy with actual colour pigments) nor in terms of surrealist dreams of psychic and political freedom. Rather, Twombly is fascinated by language and its beginnings when writing and imaging are not differentiated. He explores the territory of children’s calligraphy, the primordial dis/order of expression which is the equivalent of pre-linguistic babble, mark making that consists of primitive scribbling, repetitive sign making as well as vehement stabbing and marking the paper or support. This is a language of marks that is haptic rather than optical and which represents a search for the primal beginnings of both visual and verbal impulses. It is impure and cack handed, often favouring the smear over the fluent brush stroke. It is this that relates him to the Fauves who insisted on deskilling the artist, sacrificing artistic competence for expressive vitality, and to the Surrealist method of automatism by which the operations of the conscious mind are purposely aborted. Indeed Twombly resorted to drawing with his left hand in order to slough off his artistic sophistication and regain a degree of authenticity and innocence. All this alerts us that Twombly belongs to the primitivist impulse that characterised so much of twentieth century modernism, including Klee who from the beginning exerted a strong influence on Twombly: Min-oe (1951), painted at Black Mountain College, is an example.

Twombly’s early compositions begin with this exploration of a childlike scrawl that constitutes the foundational unit of pictorial meaning. In addition, these wandering lines represent the search for a meaning that cannot be visually defined. They relate not to resemblance but to deeper symbolic needs. This series of paintings, made up with pencil, crayon and white paint, which have been incised with varying degrees of pressure in a zero degree of drawing-cum-writing often yield a strange and compelling beauty. This said, it must also be pointed out that their content is often vulgar, crass and gross in its sexual explicitness, its vernacular excremental and bloody, and this is what tempts critics to describe such works as The Italians and The Empire of Flora (both 1961) as synonymous with graffiti. Graffiti has a potentially violent subtext; it is a form of action, and it is for this reason that Arthur Danto argues (in The Madonna of the Future) that these compositions have a “demotic” (colloquial) quality. There is, then, despite a certain beauty, nothing purist about them and it has been suggested that it was Clement Greenberg’s doctrinaire aesthetic politics, which allowed only the purely optical abstract colour field painting to dominate the art world, that persuaded Twombly to move to Italy. For Twombly’s compositions that retain vestiges of symbolic figuration represent something inconclusive and vulnerable, as the mark’s expressive potential seems to oscillate between the made and unmade, the destructive and the creative.


The inclusion of the written word adds both complexity and confusion, as do the titles, if taken literally. For instance, where are “the Italians”? On the other hand, it’s almost impossible not to engage with the written word; names especially are porous with meaning. Apollo, for instance, immediately evokes a poetic dimension summoning up vestiges of a lost classical past that has a melancholic resonance but which at the same time is both sensuous and highly charged sexually. And it not just the name or text but the way the letters are loosely scrawled over the canvas that evokes memory and history. The letters are crooked or crowded, the lines of poetry taken from Mallarmé or Baudelaire, Rilke or the Greek poet Seferis, tend to be uneven. This strong humanist focus on the great works of literature, poetry and myth reengage Twombly with the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. But rather than sequestering his painting within Abstract Expressionism’s metaphysical sublime, Twombly’s calligraphic marks come closest to de Kooning’s graffiti-like notations and to Motherwell’s collages. When Twombly celebrates the classical and the “Mediterranean effect” it is not the effete Victorian worship of the antique but is closer to a much darker Nietzschean interpretation of the barbaric vitality of the classical spirit. For Twombly, the historical cycle of empires with their recurrent narratives of victors and vanquished is ever present to remind us of hubris and the ultimate ephemerality of life; in 1977-8, he produced Fifty Days at Iliam a series of ten collages that constitutes a single work based on the sacking of Troy. Bacchus, Psilax, Mianomenos (2005) looks once again to Homer’s Iliad as America continued to be entrenched in Iraq.

In the late 1960s Twombly abandoned colour and went in a completely different direction, This move towards minimalism was probably prompted by a disastrous show at Leo Castelli’s gallery in 1964. At a time when a minimalist puritanism reigned in America his exuberant, luscious Roman scribble was not considered to be in good taste. It all seemed too elegant, too European. His two versions of the Treatise on the Veil (1968 and 1970) represent an attempt to redress the balance and move into the minimalist sphere. Like many other artists, including Jasper Johns and Gerhardt Richter, he produced a series of (funereal) gray paintings. His were reminiscent of blackboards annotated with rectangles that seem to focus on the function of the line to measure. This however was the only time Twombly attempted to make himself accountable to fashionable and critical opinion. He returned to his wavering calligraphic script, and to his the sculptures on which he has worked sporadically throughout his career. Made of humble bits and pieces, cardboard boxes and tubes, plastic flowers, and other bricoleur elements, these are almost invariably subjected to white paint or plaster making for extremely elegant, spare pieces that carry much symbolic freight. They often seem to convey a language of mourning making them testimonials to the passing of time and the vulnerability of our existence.

Possibly Twombly’s best known paintings are his two series of Four Seasons (1993-4). Each season represents a different stage of life but as a unity they represent the primordial cycle of life and death, recreation and destruction that is reinvested with an almost overblown, overripe richness through the pungency of his symbolic figural imagery. The canvases are mostly white but with flower splotches of colour, red and yellow Egyptian boats for spring, harvesting of the wine for the autumn. 

Not all of Twombly’s paintings are successful and it’s sometimes tempting to ask how much credence to give to the poetic text wandering drunkenly over the canvas, or to the lettering that looks more like a doodle, or a recalcitrant child’s attempt to master joined up script. In all this furore of strokes and marks one cannot help seeing what one is predisposed to see and his drawings revert to mere notations which, if found elsewhere, would have little more than anthropological value. But by some strange magic Twombly is able, more often than not, to generate a highly differentiated pictorial language of condensed form that captures within the space of one canvas a multitude of seemingly opposed forces, rational and sensuous, elegant and crass, restrained and intemperate. Moreover, despite his openness to random procedures this calligraphic style of marks, fleeting images, accretions and erasures is based on prior formal organisation. The palimpsest this creates is made up of ambiguous layers of meaning that resist closure and in this way provoke or precipitate a distinctive meaning that alerts each of us simultaneously to the pleasure of life and to the passing of time. 

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions. 

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