Monday, August 16, 2010

American Painter... Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly was born 1928 in Lexington, Virginia. From 1948 to 1951, he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Washington and Lee University, Lexington; and the Art Students League, New York, where he met Robert Rauschenberg. At Rauschenberg’s encouragement, he attended Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, in 1951 and 1952, where he studied under Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Ben Shahn. Building on the freedom afforded by the previous generation, the younger artists emphasised libidinal energy integrated through experience.

In 1962, he painted a work that illustrates many of the abiding engagements of his practice. "Untitled" is divided into two zones by a horizontal line about two thirds of the way up. Across the bottom edge of the canvas, Twombly has scribbled a textual fragment gleaned from the poet Sappho: “But their heart turned cold + they dropped their wings.” The phrase, suggesting a hovering between higher and lower realms, conjures up a distant classical realm, even as the grappling, awkward hand renders the words materially present.

In the upper third of the canvas, the artist provides a code for viewing: a white circle swirled with pink is labelled “blood”; an aggressive red “x” reads “flesh”; a glutinous dollop of brown paint, “earth” or possibly “youth”; a delicate disc of wispy white paint, “clouds”; and a shiny coin-shaped form in graphite pencil, “mirror”. Beneath this code, Twombly has rendered, within a drawn frame, an array of possibilities for mark-making per se, as though to set them apart from the more direct references of words.

Although his work resonates strongly with generations of younger artists, ranging from Brice Marden to Richard Prince to Tacita Dean to Patti Smith, it has a general propensity to polarise its audience between perplexity and unbridled admiration. Additionally, the critical and historical reception has seemed to describe two Twomblys – one about form, the other about content.

For eight months spanning 1952–1953 Twombly and Rauschenberg travelled through Europe and north Africa, joined for a while by the writer Paul Bowles. Upon returning to New York, Rauschenberg set up the Fulton Street studio that Twombly sometimes shared. Eleanor Ward invited the two artists to exhibit at her Stable Gallery.

In 1957, having built a bridge of connections with Italian artists showing frequently at the Stable Gallery, Twombly left again for Italy, where he would remain for the most part, though making frequent trips, including many to the States. He established a studio in Rome overlooking the Colosseum and wrote a short statement for the Italian art journal L’Esperienza moderna, which was to remain the sole published reflection on his own work until 2000, when he was interviewed by David Sylvester. In the statement, Twombly describes his process: “Each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate – it is the sensation of its own realisation.”

In 1959 Twombly executed some of the most spare works of his career, among them the 24 drawings that comprise Poems to the Sea, done on the coast of Italy at Sperlonga. What order of poems, punctuated with numerals and question marks, are these? The sea is reduced to horizon line and word, scribblings and veils of paint against the stark white of paper. A persistent compulsion is invoked in the viewer, the desire to read what is there, but not fully manifest in the artist’s scrawled script. Two words in these drawings emerge into legibility, “time”and “Sappho”, as if washed up on the beach alongside sudden, subtle gem-flashes of colour – blue, orange-yellow, pink – gleaming all the more because of their discretion.

In the autumn of 1960 Twombly had his first solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Moving into the 1960s, thick and florid colour comes into his work, along with multiple classical references. During the prolific summer of 1961, he reached a fever pitch, a colouristic crescendo in the Ferragosto paintings. A thickly encrusted palette of brown, pink and red takes on a viscerality paired in the work with a body parcelled into pictograms: pendulous breasts, erupting penises, scatological posteriors. From 1961 to 1963 mythological motifs appear with increasing insistence: Leda and the Swan, Venus, Apollo, Achilles. This line of investigation culminated in 1963 with a series of works called Nine Discourses on Commodus, an obscure portrait of the megalomaniacal Roman emperor conceived while Twombly was reading the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet and looking at the paintings of Francis Bacon. These works were shown at Castelli in 1964, to a New York art world which had by then turned to Pop and Minimalism.

Following this exhibition, Twombly’s American enthusiasm ebbed for a number of years. The situation was quite different in Europe, where his work remained a critical success. Nevertheless, the Commodus exhibition represents a crucial moment of rupture in the artist’s career, for, as he commented, it made him “the happiest painter around for a couple of years: no one gave a damn what I did”.Approaching the end of the 1960s, Twombly employed a monochrome grey ground.

Beginning in 1975 and continuing into the present, Twombly has been working towards increasingly integrated combinations of text and image; of lines – both written and drawn – and colour. The repeated returns to the rich resources of classical mythology have remained the complications of his work. He employs myth as yet another form in conjunction with painting, drawing and writing. He sometimes suggests myth’s first seminal stirring, letting only hermetic fragments come to the surface as names from the past: Hero and Leander, Orpheus, Bacchus. At other times he offers a full-blown line or verse burdened with all of its cultural and poetic associations like a tree overripe with fruit. Roberto Calasso has written of the Greek myths: “All the powers of the cult of gods have migrated into a single, immobile and solitary act: that of reading.” Twombly’s caveat, however, would be that the gods’ powers lie not in a single act, but in the mobilisation of the space between reading and seeing.

To find out more about Cy Twombly or where to view more of his work, please visit

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