Cy Twombly. Venus, 1975
After nearly four decades in Italy. Cy Twombly returns with a traveling retrospective that traces his mingled sources - from the New York School to African tribal art to Classical antiquity.
The Cy Twombly retrospective, recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and opening this month in Houston, has a long and rather tortuous prehistory. The artist has not had a retrospective in New York since 1979, when David Whitney mounted a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. All the preview articles about the MOMA exhibition stressed the idea that the Whitney retrospective was a flop, but this does not square with my memory. The show was seen and discussed [see A.i.A., Sept. '91] by a whole generation of emerging artists and critics. It played a catalytic role at a moment between the end of Conceptual art and the coalescence of Neo-Expressionism. The epic sweep of the artist's paintings caught my fancy, because I was then in the throes of doctoral work on Jacques-Louis David's late mythological paintings and saw that Twombly had brought that tradition right up to date in such early '60s works as The Triumph of Galatea and Leda and the Swan. The Whitney show also made it apparent that Twombly's drawings had many affinities with Joseph Beuys's work; the American audience was to see large quantities of the German's drawings for the first time in the large Guggenheim retrospective of 1979-80. Between the so-called "blackboard" paintings that Twombly had made in the late '60s and Beuys's diagrammatic drawings on blackboard, there were inklings of a new International Style that had its sources in the collage drawings that both artists had made since the late '50s. The Whitney and Guggenheim shows also prepared the ground for the appearance of Julian Schnabel, Anselm Kiefer, Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia in New York a year or two later.
One next heard of plans for an American Twombly retrospective in the late '80s, to be modeled after the European show curated by Harald Szeemann for the Zurich Kunsthaus in 1987. (That show traveled to Madrid, London, Dusseldorf and Paris.) The American retrospective was to be organized by Mark Rosenthal, who at the time was curator of 20th-century art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he had done Anselm Kiefer and Jasper Johns shows and had succeeded in getting Twombly's painting cycle "Fifty Days at Ilium" of 1977-78 (this Trojan War epic was not in the MOMA show) installed in its own private gallery. But then Rosenthal moved on to a consultant position at the Guggenheim, and plans for his Twombly retrospective fell apart, ostensibly due to the lack of a strong institutional commitment from either the Guggenheim or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both of which had expressed initial interest in the show. Rosenthal dropped out of the Twombly project and later went on to become curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
According to the MOMA catalogue acknowledgements, Kirk Varnedoe entered the Twombly fray in 1988 when, he says, he was "tremendously moved" by Szeemann's shw in Paris. In 1989 Varnedoe went to see the artist in Rome and secured a strong group of his works for the "Graffiti" section of "High & Low. Modem Art and Popular Culture" in 1990. I first heard news of Varnedoe's Twombly retrospective in 1991 when, coincidentally a great deal of buzz about the artist was going around due to his contribution to the exhibition "Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s," curated by Walter Hopps for the Menil Collection [see A.i.A. Apr. '92]. Twombly, who has been a close friend of Rauschenberg's since 1951, lent many works to that show, and Rauschenberg returned the favor for the MOMA Twombly show. Other events and exhibitions further fed my interest in the MOMA Twombly retrospective. The 1992 show "Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1955-62" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles [see A.i.A., July '93] included a significant group of Twomblys, and the "Hand-Painted Pop" catalogue contained an essay by Linda Norden on Twombly's work as an alternative third route between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Even closer to home, in March '93 I happened to see a dollhouse that Twombly and others had worked on [see "Front Page," May '93] in the house of a Southern friend of Twombly's in Hobe Sound, Fla., the WASP enclave where the artist spent two winters. In the fall of '93, at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, an exhibition of Twombly's photographs offered a selection of large and luxuriously printed blurry color images of tulips, trees and ancient busts, based on the artist's Polaroids. All these Twomblyesque straws in the wind made me wonder if Varnedoe's show would prove to be an occasion for genuine revisionism, embracing disparate media and alternative readings, or whether it would hew to a more essentialist line.
Varnedoe's catalogue essay puts more hard facts about the elusive artist on paper than have ever been gathered before under one cover. The Savannah-born curator is particularly adept at charting Twombly's Southern affinities. Varnedoe effectively evokes Twombly's childhood and early adult years in Lexington, Va., a small college town to which the artist returned in 1993 to set up part-time residence. We learn from Varnedoe's essay that the artist, born Edwin Parker Twombly, Jr., in 1928, was nicknamed Cy after his father, an athletic coach at Washington and Lee University, who had in turn been nicknamed after the famous baseball pitcher Cy Young. Laying to rest any apocryphal stories about Twombly's being a Southern aristocrat, Varnedoe mentions that both of the artist's parents were Northeasterners, and that he often spent his summers with relatives in Massachusetts and Maine. Varnedoe marvelously describes the whole world of Civil War memories in Lexington, where Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried. These military resonances, not to mention the Neo-Classicism of Lexington's columned buildings, would carry over into Twombly's grandly martial paintings. In addition, Varnedoe sees the whole mood of Southern languor and rich literary tradition as having predisposed the artist for life in Rome. As the curator writes: "In Twombly's youth, when local sons and daughters of Confederate soldiers still retained memories of Manassas they had learned at the knee, this association among historical myth, cultural grace and arms would have been especially pervasive. It might seem to have little bearing on art, but on an imagination later fired by Troy and Thermopylae, it left its imprint."
Varnedoe develops a convincing argument for the presence of a Northern strain in Twombly's Mediterranean art. His first formal artistic education took place in Boston, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, from 1947 to '49. There he developed what is perhaps a surprising early taste for Chaim Soutine, Max Beckmann, Oscar Kokoschka, Lovis Corinth and especially Kurt Schwitters, who died in 1948 while Twombly was in school. Schwitters's collages, according to Varnedoe, substantially affected Twombly's scrappy collage approach. All these Northern artists influenced Twombly's mature work, most notably the roiling "Ferragosto" series (1961) which Varnedoe suggestively associates less with Italy than with the earthy fleshiness of the Flemish Baroque, and which I see as particularly reminiscent of James Ensor's art with its scatological overtones. The curator somewhat underplays the vast impact of Twombly's early relationship with Rauschenberg, no doubt because it has been elaborately documented, most recently in Hopps's show. Nevertheless, Varnedoe reminds us that the two artists met in the spring of 1951 after Twombly moved to New York and entered classes at the Art Students league, where the slightly older Rauschenberg (he was born in 1925) was also enrolled. Varnedoe maintains that it was probably Twombly who turned Rauschenberg on to Schwitters, rather than vice versa. But it was clearly Rauschenberg who convinced Twombly to join him at Black Mountain College in North Carolina for the summer of 1951. At Black Mountain the young artist was exposed to the teachings not only of Ben Shahn, whom he emulated in his spindly graphic style, and Robert Motherwell, who was one of his strongest early defenders and wrote the first catalogue essay about him, but John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson and Franz Kline. A certain Cagean sense of flux, together with a kind of I Ching-influenced orientalism, would remain an undercurrent in Twombly's work, distancing it from the more purposeful and willfully heroic strokes of the Abstract Expressionists.
Twombly is one of the last modems to approach not only ancient culture but tribal artifacts in a direct and primary way. The fulcrum of his early fascination with archaic worlds is seen by Varnedoe to have been his six-month trip to Italy, Morocco and Spain with Rauschenberg in 1952-53. In Rome, Twombly went straight for the African artifacts in the Pigorini ethnographic museum; a love of these objects, including ornaments, sacks and fetishes, carries over into his early sculptures, which resemble pipes of Pan, ancient citharas and fans. A revelatory page from Twombly's North African sketchbook (not in the MOMA show) illustrates what look to be mosaic patterns and an arched structure along with lists of materials "rope, fur, sack, velvet, feathers") and colors (most notably, "orange, faded sienna, chalk white" . These notations can be seen as harbingers of Twombly's later '50s field paintings, which are strewn with barely legible words and the vaguest traces of rich color.
The catalogue also includes fascinating documentary photos of lost works made by Rauschenberg and Twombly in Rome; the two artists even had a show of these works in Florence at the Galleria d'Arte Contemporanea in March of '53. Rauschenberg exhibited his Scatole contemplative templative e feticci personali (Contemplative boxes and personal fetishes), which are known from black-and-white photographs taken by the artist, who suggestively draped his fetishes around ancient sculptures in the Pincio. Twombly showed geometrically patterned wall hangings that were made in Tangier, reminiscent of both Josef and Anni Albers's work at Black Mountain. Varnedoe points out that one of these lost hangings, documented in a photo, also looks surprisingly like Rauschenberg's fabric collage Yoicks (1954).'
It always comes as a slight shock to realize that Twombly had to come home from Europe and do his military service in America in 1953. This is quite the reverse of Rauschenberg or Ellsworth Kelly, who went to Paris on the G.I. Bill. From Varnedoe's essay we learn that certain of Twombly's automatist drawings, made with his eyes closed in a hotel room in Augusta, Ga., while on weekend leave from the army, are at the crux of his mature, graffitiesque style. (One of these 1954 drawings was included in the MOMA show and looks vaguely reminiscent of Arshile Gorky.) It is also useful to remember how short of money the young artist was during these years. In the period 1954-56, for instance, he was frequently out of town on teaching stints at a girls' school, Southern Seminary and Junior College in Buena Vista, Va.
The idea of Twombly as a pedagogue may sound unlikely at first. But on longer consideration the artist's role as teacher can be seen as part of his ivory-tower position, a stance of highly selective accessibility that he has cultivated over the years. Since the late ' 50s younger artists have sought him out in Rome, including Jannis Kounellis in the late '50s, Alighiero e Boetti in the late '60s and Francesco Clemente in the '70s. Brice Marden, having worked for Rauschenberg in the '60s, was early drawn into the Twombly circle. In the early '80s, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Donald Baechler, James Brown, Julian Schnabel and Terry Winters all learned much from his art. (Twombly will reportedly appear in the same area as Winters and Marden in the 1995 Whitney Biennial.) Ross Bleckner's signature '80s image of chandeliers doubles back to Twombly's lost chandelier paintings of the early '50s, which Rauschenberg described in an interview with Barbara Rose. Both Philip Taaffe and Michele Zalopany followed Twombly's expatriate steps to Italy, where they became friends of the artist. In the '90s Suzanne McClelland [see A.i.A., Oct. '94] and Pat Steir each defined her stance in relation to his work. Thus at least three generations of very different artists have studied at the "School of Twombly."
As for the artist's early reputation in America, Varnedoe's catalogue tells us that Twombly's four precocious exhibitions at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery in New York from 1953 to '57 fell pretty much flat at the time. Of Twombly and Rauschenberg's joint show in 1953, Ward reminisced in an interview with Calvin Tomkins: "Everyone was hostile, with the exception of a few artists. One well-known critic was so horrified he came out on the street literally clutching his forehead, and then fled down the block." Here, though, we should remember that artists' self-esteem in the ' 50s was not based on either good reviews or sales but rather on word-of-mouth and the respect of colleagues. Of Twombly's one-man show in 1955, Frank O'Hara wrote: " A bird seems to have passed through the impasto with cream-colored screams and bitter claw-marks." In retrospect, who could be sorry for such a line? Most famous of all in the legend of Twombly's "disastrous" press is Donald Judd's review of the "Discourse on Commodus" paintings (not in the MOMA show) exhibited at Leo Castelli in March 1964: "Twombly has not shown in some time, and this adds to the fiasco .... There isn't anything to the paintings." Varnedoe is wise to caution us against Judd's adversarial tone, which the curator characterizes as "an across-the-board hostility to painting, which he considered an outdated art form." Finally, all the criticism of Twombly should be taken with a grain of salt; the point is that he was showing, early and regularly, with the best galleries in New York.(8)
Nevertheless, we get a sense from Varnedoe's text of how desperate Twombly was to return to Europe all through the mid-'50s, and of the rigmarole he went through to get traveling fellowships from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, none of which came through. Twombly eventually got back to Italy in '57 with Ward's help. He wanted to see his old friend from Virginia, Betty Stokes, who had married a Venetian count, Alvise di Robilant, and had a son. Through these connections, Twombly met Baron Giorgio Franchetti, who was a backer of the Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome (where Twombly would begin showing in the spring of 1958), and his sister, the Baroness Tatiana Franchetti, who, we learn from the catalogue, was a flourishing portraitist at the time and came to New York once a year to do commissions (I do wish Varnedoe had included at least one documentary photo of Tatiana Franchetti's work). Twombly and Tatiana married in April 1959 in New York City, honeymooned in Cuba and Mexico, and had a son, Alessandro (now himself an artist) in December of that year. Twombly marked the passing of a decade and the birth of his child in a huge painting, The Age of Alexander (1959-60), which was shown for the first time outside Italy (it debuted at the Venice Biennale in 1993) in Varnedoe's show.
Entering the exhibition, I was surprised at how strong and self-assured the very early work looked. Twombly's intense ambition was apparent in the large size and rich painterly facture of canvases like Tiznit and Volubilus (both 1953). These paintings take the names of ancient cities in Morocco but were made after the artist's return to New York. They were rediscovered by Twombly in his parents' house in Lexington only in the late '80s and exhibited at Sperone Westwater in 1989 [see A.i.A., Oct. '89]. A good five years before his quintessential paeans to Rome and Naples, these abstractions can be seen as strong evocations of place; at the time of Twombly and Rauschenberg's show at Stable Gallery in 1953, the arched forms of Volubilus were even compared by Dore Ashton to a Roman arena. In these works we can see those random effects of pictorial "Weather" that would later characterize the "blackboards": that dry penciled line already appears to be surfing and slogging through the wet paint.
In the second room, Twombly's work seemed more scarily untethered, harder to grasp, more abstract and more deliberately inscrutable. Yet I found the occasional visual clue to hang on to, which made the whole process of "archeological" excavation seem less daunting. In an untitled painting of 1954 we could begin to see Twombly's signature style emerging in pencil marks scrawled over and under globs of yellowing unmixed house paint. In the lower right corner of this grisaille work, I could just make out the penciled forms of one and perhaps two vertical penises shooting lines up into a larger bending shape that suggests the joint of an arm or a leg. This, as far as I can tell, is the first explicit depiction of sex in the oeuvre, and it is still pretty vague. In the mature work, though, pictographs of phalluses, breasts and buttocks expelling excrement will make for a veritable Rabelaisian brew of body parts.
By the time he moved to Italy in 1957, Twombly had achieved a sumptuous cuisine of surface and sgraffito in his white paintings. Looking at Blue Room (1957), done after his arrival in Italy, is like eating an orange flan; the effect is simple, yet you know it took skill to make. There are whorls of orange crayon in the lower part of the painting, and scribbled letters above that seem to spell the word "Sahara." Varnedoe's essay tells us that Twombly started working with a new paint called cementito once he moved to Rome, and this helps explain the new creamy facture of works like Blue Room and Olympia (1957).
Twombly's pictorial effects are anything but random by this time: he goes for a throwaway, blowsy, windswept look in his melting calligraphy. Varnedoe felt impelled (as he said in a lecture and in an article for MoMA Magazine) to counter Twombly's detractors who claim, "My kid could do that." Yet Twombly's process of over- and under-painting, as we have seen from the outset of the exhibition, is mandarin and complex, especially in the way drawing is suspended within the liquid mediums. His particular mix of freshness, rawness and spontaneity owes much, as we learn from Varnedoe's catalogue, to the Impressionists. Twombly's mature work may look as if it had been rained on and partly obliterated by wind and age. But in fact these illusions are accomplished with considerable finesse. Perhaps the artist's recent interest in Monet has to do with some recognition that the painter of water lillies went to great lengths to achieve the effects of pictorial "weather" that Twombly is seeking to attain as well.
The third gallery, devoted to work from 1959, was particularly instructive because it allowed us to see how much the artist's production could change in a 12-month period. Here, as elsewhere in the show, the astute choice of drawings provided explicit clues to what was going on in the paintings. From the drawings, we learn that the expatriate artist, contrary to popular legend, didn't spend all his time in Europe. In fact, he returned to Lexington, Va., for four months at the beginning of the year and produced the sparest, most reductive and perhaps the most difficult works of his career. One of these untitled paintings, all of which can be recognized by their small and dispersed motifs, was included in the MOMA show.
Only on subsequent visits could I take in its bleak vision, which Varnedoe associates with the artist's returning to his hometown after finding a new wife in Europe. Two drawings with the inscription "NY City, April 20, 1959," as we learn from the catalogue, denote the exact day of his wedding; thus they can be seen as both diaristic entries and epithalamia, or wedding poems, a theme Twombly would treat in later drawings. The austerity of the New York works was contrasted with the lushness of two drawings done over the summer in Sperlonga, an ancient resort between Rome and Naples, which make use of gummy bits of paper and globs of white paint deployed in high relief to an especially visceral effect. These works have much in common with the rich facture of Lucio Fontana's impastoed paintings with holes and Piero Manzoni's white paintings of exactly the same time. (One of the best things about the timing of the MOMA show was that you could compare it with works by most of Twombly's Italian contemporaries in the mega-show "The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968" at the Guggenheim.)
The 1959 room was presided over by The Age of Alexander. The whole glamorous world of "Hollywood on the Tiber" is evoked in this huge field painting, which is really more of a drawing on canvas. We can chart a development from dour spareness to exultant, over-the-top richness within a single year and a single work. The roughly 9-by-16-foot painting, the artist's largest at the time, is full of little doodlings that suggest pneumatic boats, clouds and cartoony flying phallus forms; in a way, it's like a proto-Yellow Submarine wallpaper for a little boy's bedroom. On another level, the deployment of graphic "troops" and the occurrence of pictorial skirmishes between paint and pencil suggest a huge battle painting; the painting's title also recalls The Alexander Mosaic, a Hellenistic reflection of an ancient battle scene. On yet another level, Twombly's canvas can be seen as a meditation on his recent paternity. "Sad flight," "Floods," "(Kill) (What)?," "What wing can be held," "Whiskey Anymore?" and "1959 into (1960)" are just a few of the verbal snippets that can be deciphered in this vast field of almost comic, piddling actions.
The exhibition came to a climax for me in the open-plan fourth gallery devoted to the 1961-62 works. We moved from the stark grisaille of The Italians, a mainstay of the MOMA permanent collection, to the fleshy pink, red and brown glory of The Triumph of Galatea, a gigantic field painting which rivals The Age of Alexander in size and scope. The Italians has long struck me as a highly schematic representation of Rome: we come across numerous stepped forms which are numbered from one to seven and suggest to me a hieroglyphic depiction of the Seven Hills of Rome, with the forms of hearts and circled X's suggesting the famous 17th-century Carte du Tendre, or map of the heart, with assignations all over town. Looking at The Triumph of Galatea, the eye is almost overwhelmed by the variety of marks, both raw and nuanced, finger-painted, penciled and squeezed on right from the tube. The artist, who usually tends towards grisaille or black and white in his earlier work, here starts applying yellows, ochers, reds, pinks and bright blues in small amounts that still make an essentially graphic impact. Twombly tries to get a big pictorial movement going in the great pink chain that sweeps across the upper center on the canvas; this attempt reaches fruition in the "blackboards." He also appears to have changed the title of his work midcourse: a scratched-out phrase on the canvas suggests that this composition was originally conceived as a "Triomphe de l'Amour."
The work in this room reached orgiastic extremes in two examples of the "Ferragosto" series from the summer of 1961. Ferragosto V explodes with roiling pink, brown and purple forms that suggest buttocks, feces, blood and genitalia. The painterly relief here is so marked that you can literally chart the trajectory of a bit of black paint squeezed straight from the tube as it descends, suspended in midair, over an incised oval form at the upper center part of the canvas.
After this access of light, heat and flesh, there was an abrupt break in the MOMA exhibition. (Here I was sorry not to find at least one or two of the transitional "Discourse on Commodus" paintings from 1963. Suddenly we were thrust into a large double gallery devoted to the enormous dark canvases known as the gray-ground or "blackboard" paintings of 1966-71, Their mood is altogether cooler and more calculated. Two huge untitled canvases from 1970, the larger one 13 by 21 feet in size, were particularly impressive. But these works don't really look like blackboards with random markings on them: they are, rather, carefully wrought field paintings that reenact the Abstract Sublime on a megalomaniacal scale commensurate with the most bombastic 19th-century Salon machines. We learn from the catalogue that Twombly painted the upper reaches of these canvases while astride the shoulders of his friend Nicola del Roscio. There is an implicit athleticism and an underlying calm to these tenebrous, stormy works, where every crackle of pictorial lightning and each exquisitely wrought drip is perfectly calibrated to give an effect of happenstance.
After these demonstrations of the Sublime, which fully justify Twombly's enshrinement at MOMA, the exhibition tended to break down into an array of smaller paintings, drawings and sculptures from the 1970s and '80s which occupied two galleries. Where you might have expected a whole room of "Bolsena" paintings from 1969, which usually depict a flurry of flying rectangles, there was only one example included, albeit a canvas belonging to del Roscio that was not in the Gagosian exhibition of the "Bolsena" paintings in 1989. For me, the real surprise here was to see one of the artist's drawings made in St. Maarten in January 1969 that adumbrates many of the forms in the "Bolsena" paintings of the following summer. In the drawing we can read inscriptions like "nude," "mirror," "sun fun" and "suck here." This made it easier and more tantalizing to identify the forms of sea shells and slanting mirrors in the "Bolsena" paintings.
The preponderance of smaller works in the last third of the MOMA show is an accurate reflection of changes in the oeuvre. Varnedoe is at pains in the latter part of his catalogue essay to have us understand that the artist was much preoccupied during the 1970s and '80s with the renovation of two houses, one in Bassano, north of Rome, the other in Gaeta, between Rome and Naples. Yet I feel that the piecemeal impression made by the last part of the show could have been more effectively masked by including one or more of the large, Monet-esque green paintings that Twombly showed at the Venice Biennale in 1988.
As it is, the sculptures were a particular revelation. With their distressed white surfaces, they suggest sad little toys. The artist's earliest memories of childhood come back to roost in rickety wood renditions of a chariot (1978), a cart bearing paper-cutout lotuses (made in 1977, as we learn from the catalogue, for his wife when she was seriously ill) and a sailboat on the Nile in Winter's Passage, Luxor (1985).Thermopylae 1991) suggests a beehive burial mound sprouting flowers. It reveals Twombly's expertise with collage materials: it is essentially an inverted wicker basket covered in plaster, with white painted cloth flowers sticking out of the hill-like form on plastic stems. Waking around the sculpture, you can read lines from the poet C.P. Cavafy scrawled in pencil on the back: "Honor to those who in their lives axe committed and guard their Thermopylae." Slowly but surely, this ungainly blob of a sculpture becomes the most elegant and suggestive memorial to ephebes lost in noble battle.
The exhibition ended on a note of resolution in the gallery devoted to "The Four Seasons" (1993-94), which brings us full circle back to the strong graphism of the early '50s paintings, only now inflected through brilliant color. A martial metaphor obtains even in these seemingly pastoral works, especially in Winter, where hieroglyphs of black-oared boats are deployed in what looks to be a dour maritime skirmish, and flashes of yellow animate an otherwise grisaille composition. (The schematic boats crop up in Twombly's paintings as early as 1959. Summer, the last in the series, is awash in long yellow drips and red foliate forms, which suggest a sidelong glance at Pat Steir's recent waterfall paintings. The teacher appears to be learning from his followers. Seen in the light of one large window looking out on the blazing foliage of MOMA's sculpture garden, the four new paintings made Twombly's relation to nature seem more real and his recourse to a seasonal cycle seem like a moving meditation on age. (MOMA has recently announced that "The Four Seasons" will enter the permanent collection as a gift from the artist. Leda and the Swan and a 1970 "blackboard" painting will be purchased.
At Gagosian's Wooster Street space, a colossal three-part painting by Twombly, years in the making and 13 by 52 feet in size, provoked intense debates among artists and writers alike. Was it "too big" or "just right"? Not since "Fifty Days at Ilium" was shown at Heiner Friedrich in 1979 had there been so much pro-and-con talk about a Twombly painting. Once again, the work's status as a kind of school for discussion was reaffirmed, suggesting its lineage in the artist's "School of Athens" series (1960-61). According to Robert Pincus-Witten's essay for the Gagosian catalogue on Untitled Painting, it was begun in Rome perhaps as early as 1969, rolled and shipped to Lexington in 1993, then to Houston in 1994, and finaly to New York where the finishing touches were put on in situ.
I found it to be an awesome palimpsest, a passage through time and space, from pure form to pure color. In order to read it, you literally have to start at the left with the grisaille boat forms, which mark a return to the brindly shapes of the early '50s. You then encounter a pale, swimmy area in the central panel where the canvas has apparently faded, and as you move to the third panel, you witness exploding whorls of burnt yellow, orange and blue, which suggest both flowers and fireworks. Once again, Twombly has changed titles midcourse: the words "Anatomy of Melancholy" are written very small near the center of the middle canvas, but these words no longer name the painting. Letters spelling "Orpheus" form a horizon, and long quotations from Stephane Mallarme and the Greek poet George Seferis make this one of Twombly's most literary paintings to date.
Although there were obvious lacunae in the chronological development of the MOMA retrospective, the show effectively annexed Twombly to the museum's modernist canon. It was good to see the early '50s paintings in close proximity to works by Dubuffet and Giacometti which inspired them, and it was also a relief to have the daunting example of the Abstract Expressionists kept at a safe distance. As for the relationship of Twombly to Rauschenberg and Johns, the collaborative spirit among them is not a topic Varnedoe addresses in depth in the catalogue. He does mention, however, that together they made up the titles of Twombly's 1955 paintings The Geeks, Criticism, Free Wheeler and Academy and applied them more or less randomly. The affinities among the three artists in the mid-'50s are so strong that I have always wondered whether Twombly might not have scribbled on the pillow of Rauschenberg's seminal Bed (1955), just as we know from Roni Feinstein's research that Rauschenberg used one of Twombly's drawings in the assemblage Rebus (1955).13 Furthermore, I see Twombly's early proto-blackboard painting Panorama (1954), which suggests a grisaille map with word fragments strewn through the landscape, as an antecedent for Johns's Map (1961). Even more surprising to me was the realization that Johns's Painted Bronze (Savarin Can) (1960), representing a paint can full of brushes, may have a forebear in Twombly's untitled still-life sculpture of 1955, which depicts a kind of fan or brush wrapped in cloth and string.
Varnedoe is not prepared to discuss Twombly's place among other second-generation Abstract Expressionists. But Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis were two names that came to mind constantly as I walked through the exhibition, and neither is mentioned in the catalogue. This is strange since both were expatriates like Twombly, and both made their peace with Impressionism.
A concurrent show of Mitchell's Black Paintings (1964) at Robert Miller made the connection to Twombly's work of 1962-63 (not in the MOMA show) explicit, while Francis's subliminal presence was felt most clearly in the primary-colored patches of Twombly's recent work.
In the Northern and Southern, Yankee and Rebel, Apollonian and Dionysian polarities of Twombly's art, Varnedoe has found the perfect reflection of his own earlier researches. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Twombly was not included in Varnedoe and Rubin's exhibition "Primitivism' in 20th-Century Art" in 1984.
As much as any American artist alive, Twombly embodies the blithe cultural imperialism that Varnedoe's much-maligned "`Primitivism'" show presented in such an unquestioning manner. Twombly's art and MOMA's modernist canon have in common an a political casualness. In this sense, he is a bit like Picasso, a big paternalistic figure of Mediterranean culture, but with American anxieties. In his discussion of Apollonian and Dionysian forces in Twombly's work, though, Varnedoe's continued recourse to the "High-Low" dichotomy is a bit worrisome. Phrases like "spare austerity is moved higher" and "natural candor is moved lower" begin to sound like buzzwords, and Varnedoe's references to "nether-body life" become inadvertently humorous." The curator also makes no mention of Twombly's frequent adoption of an explicitly female voice in his art, be it Sappho's poetry or Lesley Blanch's The Wilder Shores of Love (referred to in drawings of 1985), a book which treats the theme of Western women who succeeded in living, often en travesti, in the Middle East. Finally Twombly's art argues for a far more slippery, transgressive voice than Varnedoe can comfortably discuss within the confines of an official museum publication. But to see so much of Twombly in one place and at one time, with the added bonus of a show at C&M Arts which included such curiosities as a brown "blackboard" painting (1970), was a luxury and a privilege that will not soon be forgotten
"Cy Twombly. A Retrospective" opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York [Sept. 25, 1994-Jan. 10, 1995]. It travels to the Menil Collection, Houston [Feb. 7-Mar. 19], the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles [Apr 9-June 251 and the National Gallery Berlin [Sept. 1-Nov. 19]. The Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection, a 9,350-square-foot pavilion designed by Renzo Piano at a cost of $4.2 million and containing approximately 35 major works from 1954 to 1994, opens in Houston this month.
Author Brooks Adams is a free-lance writer living in New York.