Refusing to look: On not seeing Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 2007. Acrylic and pencil on wood panel, in artist’s frame, 104 3/4 x 79 x 2 1/2 inches. Collection of Bill Bell. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Courtesy Gagosian.

Cy Twombly: Making Past Present
The Getty Museum, August 2–October 30, 2022 / MFA Boston, January 14–May 7, 2023
Cy Twombly
Gagosian, Beverly Hills, September 15—December 17, 2022

There are two ways of thinking about what “making past present” means in the context of Cy Twombly’s half-century as a major figure in the history of modern and contemporary art. The first is how the MFA Boston and Getty Museum mean it, which is that Twombly’s fascination with classical antiquity is what informed and energized his artistic practice from start to finish. To understand Twombly is to understand how his immersion in the fragments and fascinations of Greek and Roman culture made his work a living conduit to the “enduring” forms, figures, and stories of the ancient world. If Twombly is “about” something, this is what it is.

The second way of thinking about it may seem more banal but is nevertheless inescapable if one cares to look closely. It is this: What makes a Twombly a Twombly, and not something else, is the presence of specific kinds of repetitions and returns. One might take that as a dismissal, but it is not. Twombly was not the first artist to hit upon a “style” and then to stick with it. But Twombly’s great feat was to acknowledge this condition, accept it sincerely, and embrace it strategically—which ultimately looked a lot like disavowing it (one could be forgiven for thinking that Twombly eschewed style itself). Nevertheless, if the great rallying cry of modernism was “Make it new!” Twombly replied more humbly, in the decadent yet waning days of the modernist moment, “Yes. Let’s make it new. Again.”

Just consider one of the artist’s late “Gaeta” works: Untitled (2007, on view at Gagosian). It’s a “signature” Twombly to be sure. One’s first impression is of eight massive and overlapping crimson loops, painted in a backhanded motion (for a righthander, from left to right) against a cadmium yellow field. These are the same gestures that Twombly had isolated and began using systematically in the so-called “blackboard” works of the mid-1960s. In the “Gaeta” there appear to be at least two “starts,” both beginning in the lower third of the painting at the left edge, and two “ends,” one that stops against the right edge of the canvas just above the picture’s lower-right corner, and the other that travels that edge and stops just before entering the top quadrant of the painting. These pairs attest to the fact that there are two sets of strokes. Which one follows the other doesn’t matter. What matters is that there are two.

Now look past those strokes, and what one finds is in fact two paintings, two episodes of charging the brush with crimson paint and going in for those big signature gestures that announce that this (to echo Richard Wollheim) is “painting as an art.” That first episode is painted over but not out. Even the roughly cursived “Gaeta” that signs the piece is written twice, once on top of the yellow wash (at top, just off center) and once below it (closer to the left edge, and lower). And note how certain strokes of that cursive lettering are themselves repeated: the cross of the “t”, the body and tail of the “a.” This is a work that is about temporal repetition: one could say it “thematizes” the act of doing something again, like making a mark, or painting. In more colloquial terms, it’s a rep, not a copy.

The exhibition at Gagosian is dedicated to this second way of thinking about “making past present.” Of course, it helps that a healthy majority of the works are dated between 2002 and 2006, and thus are from the last decade of the artist’s career (Twombly died in 2011). But it is only from this vantage point that one can begin to see how repetition and returns remain conscious formal strategies rather than accidental elements of a style, or worse, cringe confirmation of an artist becoming his own cover band by endlessly repeating the old catalogue of hits.

The best examples of this come, understandably, out of specific pairings, such as two large crimson-on-beige acrylics from 2006 (both Untitled), in which the loops from the “blackboard” and later “Gaeta” paintings are repeatedly worked out across three distinct horizontal bands. That the repetitions and returns could be separated by long stretches of time is made clear by a pair of collage-drawings made of shredded paper, acrylic, wax, crayon, and pencil which are formally and structurally similar yet separated by more than a decade (both Untitled, but 1992 and 2003).

The campaign of red and blue crayon drawings on handmade paper from 2003 (all Untitled) could be offered up to belabor the point, as could Untitled I-VI (Green Painting) from 2002–2003, a suite of six large canvases of billiard green and thick, almost thrown-on white. But these works hazard a different read, which it is important to head off. By mid 1966, when Twombly’s repeating loops first appear as both form and content in his work, to call them examples of “seriality” would have been one way of gathering them into the avant-garde of that moment. But seriality—either via Donald Judd’s “one thing after another,” or Sol Lewitt’s “systems,” or Steve Reich’s scores—was a strategy designed to overcome time, to break it open and expand it, to make it spatial. Seriality was the dialectical backside of modernism’s desire for simultaneity, for the “all-at-once.” This is not what Twombly’s art was about, not in 1966 and not in 2006.

To put it probably too plainly, then, time mattered to Twombly. Every drip, every scrawl, every script is a mark that embeds and encodes time, that indicates a start and a finish, and often in Twombly’s case, a start again. Furthermore, on the evidence of the work, Twombly painted and drew this way self-consciously, even self-awarely. No other painters made time the medium of their practice in the way that Twombly did.

Time is also the reason Twombly’s sculptures don’t quite measure up. The time that he could see embedded in the antiquities he collected could not be made again, or made anew in three dimensions in quite the way that time could be embedded in his paintings and drawings. The sculptures cannot embody a “then” and “now” (and an “again”) except by way of representation or analogy. They work via the implication of certain forms or shapes or objects with particular histories. Too much of Twombly’s sculpture models, in the simplistic, scaled-down sense used in architecture, the built forms of the ancient Mediterranean world.

In contrast, time is definitely inscribed in the fragments Twombly collected. The “fragment” itself is a temporal idea, an artifact of an event that speaks to a “whole” that is no longer. This is why the photographs of Twombly’s collections, with his arrangements of these objects in the enfilade of his apartment in Rome, are so much more satisfying than seeing the objects themselves, or at least similar ones from the Getty’s collections, juxtaposed with Twombly’s work. Every photograph is itself also a fragment, and as I have been arguing, the repetition, the fragment of a fragment in this case, is what makes a Twombly a Twombly, and so made his collecting and selecting of artifacts an integral part of his practice.

Now, there is a more well-known story about Twombly that goes something like this: after Jackson Pollock, artists (but not all) were challenged by what it meant to wield a brush in the act of putting paint to canvas. By translating the Surrealists’ automatic writing into so many dripped and dribbled rivulets of paint, Pollock had once and for all (or once again?) freed the artist’s gesture from the work of picturing, or “representing,” and made it supposedly a direct link to the artist’s unencumbered, expressive self.

Some artists, such as Allan Kaprow, drew the conclusion from this that all art going forward would be nothing but gestures, nothing but “happenings” (as his and others’ activities would come to be known). Other artists, Jasper Johns for example, accepted that art could henceforth only be picturing: if there was an act or gesture, it would either be inscrutable, or also, itself, pictured, which is to say taken, or targeted, or cast—an act caught in the act, if you will.

Then there was Twombly, who took the artist’s gesture, newly freed (again) from its service to description, as an opportunity to regress. If you want the unconscious, Twombly seemed to say, if you want pure expression, I’ll give it to you, in the markings of a child, or a vandal. Not so much back to basics, but back to beginnings, to a primordial drive to establish, for oneself as much as for others, that one exists and exerts oneself by making a mark. To start, this will look like a defacement, the outcome of aggression, or a demand for recognition. But it will evolve into other kinds of gestures that bear significance: writing most of all.

It’s a cliché by now to quibble over whether what Twombly was doing was “graffiti.” The crux of that debate has to do not with what Twombly’s marks meant but how they carried their meaning. Were they, on the one hand, referential and reverential, an expression of the artist’s mind and his great and abiding admiration for, say, the feats of Apollo (1975), or the figure of Venus (1975), or her double Aphrodite Anadyomene (1975; again in 1979)? Not really graffiti then, but, as the artist put it to Sir Nicholas Serota in 2007, something “more lyrical” and poetic, an evocation of the Classical past through the names of its players. This is how the organizers of Making Past Present understand how Twombly’s marks mean.

Cy Twombly, Venus, 1975. Oil stick, oil paint, graphite, and paper collage on paper, 59 1/16 × 52 9/16 inches. Collection Cy Twombly Foundation © Cy Twombly Foundation. Photo: Mimmo Capone.

Moments later in that same conversation, however, Twombly says, with regard to an early painting, which he also calls “beautiful,” that, yes, “it’s graffiti, but it’s something else, too.” And so if it is graffiti, that means it’s important to accept what kind of mark that is. Graffiti is performative and invasive (some would say “violent”). One doesn’t “interpret” graffiti, like some lyric poem. One simply gets it, is hit by it. Twombly may have wanted to avoid associations with the toilet—Serota: “So does it irritate you when people talk about graffiti in relation to your work?” Twombly: “Yeah, I don’t think of graffiti and I don’t think of toilets”—but we know Twombly’s kind of mark led precisely in that direction. Witness Olympia (1957) and The Italians (1961) with their commode-appropriate scrawls. Twombly just wanted the “something else, too.”

The point here is that Twombly’s work engages both the lyric and the low. The way to keep these simultaneously in play is never to consider one primary over the other. However, each is already a supplement, additional to the other. The challenge is to find a way of working that instantiates this dualism and makes it an animating factor of the work—a way of working, not merely representing. And this is what Twombly’s signature doubling and defacing marks make possible.

What is more, as Twombly’s most distinguished admirer Roland Barthes put it, “the essence of graffiti is to be found in neither the inscription nor the message. The essence of graffiti is the wall, the background, the tabletop. The background, the support, has a full existence of its own as an object that already has had a life of its own, and this is why whatever is scribbled across it always comes as an enigmatic supplement.” That Twombly showed some self-awareness about this “essence” can be seen in Plato (A Painting in Two Parts) (1977; at The Getty), in which Twombly decomposes the graffiti mark, or “graphism” (to use another term favored by Barthes) by pulling it apart from its ground.

Cy Twombly, Plato (A Painting in Two Parts), 1977. Part 1. Oil paint on canvas. © Cy Twombly Foundation.

One “part” of Plato is pure painted background, cheekily presented as a large panel of what appears to be an ever-so-lightly-clouded blue sky—the cliché of a “backdrop” if ever there was one, like what one might find in a discount photo studio. The other “part” is a white page on which is written, in Twombly’s large clumsy capitals, “PLATO,” followed in smaller lettering by “PhAEDRUS,” “SYMPOSIUM,” and “REPUBLIC”: a short list of the named philosopher’s major works, all of which question, it would seem important to note, whether “truth” can ever arise through rhetoric, poetry, or art—whether it can ever arise, that is, through representation.

Cy Twombly, Plato (A Painting in Two Parts), 1977. Part 2. Oil paint on canvas. © Cy Twombly Foundation.

This is the Twombly that the MFA Boston and Getty Museum cannot admit, the Twombly for whom the past will not be made present without challenging how that presentation is made.

Witness Christine Kondoleon (the George D. and Maro Kehrakis Chair of the Art of Ancient Greece and Rome at the MFA Boston), for whom Plato (A Painting in Two Parts) “sets forth [Twombly’s] own choices as an artist” as, on the one hand, “landscape painter” (now that would be a dismissal!) and on the other hand, as an artist committed to the “enlisting of texts” (as if these were the only options on offer). If he is a landscape painter, according to Kondoleon, then Twombly’s blue sky “recalls” nothing as much as those same skies “in Poussin’s paintings of staged classical myths—and also the color of the sky in Raphael’s frescoes at the Vatican.” If he is a writer, then Twombly’s names “trigger an intellectual exercise” that pose “for us” the “rigors of philosophy.” What Plato (A Painting in Two Parts) “does accomplish,” Kondoleon concludes, “is to suggest the immensity both of the heavens and the world of learning.”

Plato (A Painting in Two Parts) is not a work of “immensity” by any measure; it’s a work of pique. Twombly was capable of the grand gesture, of course. The “Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves” series from 2009 is a testament to this, as are the artist’s massive “Blossom” works from a couple of years earlier. But in 1977, Plato (A Painting in Two Parts) is yet another return on Twombly’s part: an opportunity to get back to beginnings by questioning (again) the rudiments of representation and our philosophies of it. What, after all, could be less referential than a picture of the sky? In seeing the selectively historical precedents of Poussin and Raphael, in seeing the “heavens” and the “world of learning,” one simply fails to see Twombly at all.

If I have returned to this point again it is to do two things. First, it is to keep kinship with the subject at hand, with Twombly’s incessant repetitions and returns, which are the things that most make his art what it is, his “signature” capacity to make the kind of mark that decries authorship in the same measure that it declares it, and to make time the measure of his art. Second, it is to challenge the no doubt well-meaning, but to my mind misguided, attempt to situate Twombly’s importance today in his works’ capacity to transmit the classical past to our present. The last thing we might want for Twombly’s legacy is for it to stand at once as an elegy of itself and of a desire for the “Classics,” which today are regarded by many as irrelevant (at best) and reactionary (at worst), but whose lessons remain a necessary resource for the ills of our polity.

In an age when the capacity for the artist’s mark to carry meaning is in deep need of new thinking, and in which many contemporary artists are doing this thinking in and through “painting,” Twombly would seem to offer a nearly infinite resource, if we care to look. If all we do is see through his work to the ancients, then we lose sight of what makes Twombly necessary for seeing today.

This piece first appeared in the November 2022 issue of The Brooklyn Rail.