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Art & artists

Cy Twombly: ‘trash-rooting’ and ‘grand cultural address’

— March 2015

Article read level: Art lover

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Cy Twombly, Lepanto

At last an affordable volume on a painter whose star has been rising over the past few years

The Essential Cy Twombly edited by Nicola del Roscio

Cy Twombly (1928–2011) emerged in the generation after Abstract Expressionism, absorbing its emphasis on the spontaneous expressive side of painting and combining it with an extreme form of graffiti-like primitivism. The latter drew as much from European artists such as Jean Dubuffet (1901–85) and Jean Fautrier (1898–1964) as from Abstract Expressionism’s commitment to  a notion of the ‘primal’. To these aims he added cultural referencing related to history, the classics and poetry in the form of writing within his painting, ranging from letters and words to whole blocks of verse.

Twombly’s work, having dipped in reputation in the mid-1960s, thereafter proved to be highly amenable to postmodernist promotion, to the extent that he is now presented (as are other artists such as Malcolm Morley, Philip Guston  or even Anton Tapiès)   as a key step in a narrative of the development from late modern art to postmodernism. It would take too long here to explain the problems involved with treating such narratives as real history, but that sort of fictional positioning of Twombly contributed to the massive artworld reputation that he now enjoys, especially since the 1994 MoMA and 2008 Tate Modern retrospectives. Indeed, at the British art school where I taught, Twombly was clearly the leading exemplar for painterly abstract artists, staff and students alike, during the 1990s and 2000s. In addition, auction prices for his painting topped £12 million last year.

On the basis of such eventual artworld success, Twombly was able to organize a massive legacy of bequests to various key museums, including his own separate gallery in the Menil Collection at Houston. The Cy Twombly Foundation (the website of which contains extensive writings on the artist plus over 200 artworks) was involved with the establishment of a New York museum devoted to his work and with the publication by Schirmer/Mosel in Munich of multi-volume catalogues raisonnés of Twombly’s drawings, paintings, sculpture, photographs and graphics. My reckoning is that 14 volumes of catalogued works have been produced to date, of which only about 10 are still available at a total cost of just under £2200, while the MoMA and Tate retrospective catalogues sell on the book market for £75–£195 and £98 respectively for even the paperback versions.

In this context, the publication of The Essential Cy Twombly at a relatively modest priceis especially welcome, including as it does an extensive and representative survey of the development of Twombly’s work in all media, together with four substantial texts for three of the media employed. The reason for the absence of a text on the sculpture is not clear, and the division between drawing and painting chapters might be said to obscure the fusion of drawing and painting modes in Twombly’s art. There is also a danger that this media separation works against the creation of an holistic picture of Twombly’s development. But one should not cavil too much when the texts themselves are so interesting and even talk about spontaneous drawing as the basis of the painting.

The main text on Twombly’s painting is an edited version of MoMA director Kirk Varnedoe’s essay for the MoMA 1994 retrospective catalogue and is an excellent study of Twombly’s emergence as an artist. It includes a reprint of a rare statement that Twombly wrote in 1957 for an Italian magazine, in which he emphasizes spontaneity of feeling and thought ‘without separation in the impulse of action’. Varnedoe usefully characterizes Twombly’s work as involving ‘prolix comminglings of painting and drawing, word and sign, disclosure and hermetic self-absorption, obsessively private concern and grand cultural address’.

Simon Schama’s essay on Twombly’s drawing, reprinted from the 2003 catalogue Cy Twombly at the Hermitage, is replete with suggestive impressionistic metaphors such as ‘trash-rooting’, ‘slash and smear’, ‘Pre-Cambrian submarine’ and ‘the irrepressible burgeoning of nature’.

Twombly had engaged with photography early in his career but turned to it more seriously after 1980. Lazlo Glozer’s essay on Twombly’s photography is reprinted from the 2008 catalogue raisonné of the photographs. The mature photographs, which seem to involve Polaroid technology and a now obsolete photocopy method (explaining their generally fuzzy look), are interpreted in terms of distance and subjective evocation within an objective approach, but it is evidently quite difficult to explain the intriguing quality of this side of Twombly’s creativity.

The final text by Thierry Greub is the only previously unpublished one in the catalogue and claims that Twombly’s experience doing an archaeological dig in Morocco in 1952 was fundamental in shaping his notion of painting as involving literally layers of both physical and cultural material. While apparently attractive, this idea is perhaps ultimately too biographical an explanation, considering modern art’s prior exemplars of painterly surface-layering with imagistic hide-and-seek which Twombly as a keen gallery browser would have known. Think only of Willem de Kooning,  for example, who produced a massive painting entitled Excavation in 1950.

There are critical questions to be asked about the power and readability of Twombly’s works, the ‘Ferragosto’ paintings of 1961 being powerful in a way that School of Athens from the same year is not. Twombly too often treats the canvas as an arena to fill with an extensive array of marks, effects and signs, with a pre-Cubist lack of overall punch. The late paintings get around that problem by means of vertical formats, paint-runs that striate and visually hold the surface, or regularization of shapes and markings across the surface. Nonetheless, one can certainly feel an expressive urgency to speak about sensual yearnings and spiritual feelings about the nature of existence.

A second range of critical issues derives not so much from whether form, expression and realism (the urge to embody experience) work coherently together, but from whether postmodern criteria (such as richness of semiotic connotations) actually work either in their own terms or as aesthetic criteria. The last essay tells us blithely that ‘viewers cannot manufacture an analogical relationship between the linear-colouristic pictorial elements and the objective references of the writing’. Thus Twombly’s inscribed words often work in an overly gratuitous way, and some of the most gorgeous works such as Lepanto IX (2001), chosen for the dust-jacket presumably on the basis of its exemplary power, need no words at all to create expressive suggestions.

That some Twombly artworks are foregrounded more than others reminds us that critical considerations are always in play under the surface. Twombly was a variable artist and there are aesthetic debates to be had which you will not find in this volume. Readers may also find the relative lack of cross-referencing between text and images, as well as the references to works in the expensive catalogue raisonnés but not in the book itself, irritating. These minor irritations are, however, far outweighed by the suggestive essays, gorgeous extensive illustration and good-price access to an oeuvre that is still well-deserving of a wider public attention.

The Essential Cy Twombly, edited by Nicola del Roscio, is published by Thames and Hudson, London, 2014. 240pp., 180 colour and 2 mono illus, £32.50. ISBN 978-0-500-09385-6.


Adrian Lewis
Art historian and artist

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