Cy Twombly. Untitled No. 4 of the series: Carnations, 1989
At the beginning of "Inscriptions in Arcadia," an essay of more than fifty pages, written by Kirk Varnedoe for the
Museum of Modern Art's 1994 retrospective of Cy Twombly, the curator names the artist as wholly uncategorizable.
Indeed, Varnedoe accords Twombly a kind of separatist status, saying that his various modes of production during
the previous five decades have always run somewhat parallel to a number of different historical paradigms, without,
however, being fully immersed by or held accountable to - or even particularly preoccupied with-any of them. The
essay's opening paragraphs are given over, in fact, to explaining how Twombly's reception ought to be seen as having
operated in two seemingly opposed ways: with art historians either unable to attend at all to Twombly's work using
the accepted structures of post-war narratives, or, on the other hand, making anxiously overdetermined attempts
to fit his production into, say, the paradigms of Neo-Dada, Minimalism, Conceptualism, or, later, the "esoterically
personal" (a la Joseph Beuys), and, later still, "the advent of a new painterly expressionism in the 1980s" (a la
Anselm Kiefer and Francesco Clemente).1 Part of Varnedoe's task, as he sees it - and as he lays it out transparently
at the very start of his piece - is to tease out the various reasons for such "oddly piecemeal fabric of interpretations"
marking Twombly's oeuvre while insisting, ultimately, that it is precisely in the artist's discordance with singular
narratives, his command of several seemingly at - odds tactics, that we might best get at his specific - if perversely
so - contributions to advanced art.
The shape of Varnedoe's essay, then, after this initial methodological explication, is that of a patient, rigorously
conducted account of Twombly's life and work, a surprisingly - as Varnedoe himself puts it - "prosaic" examination
of "the art within the context of a fuller account of the basic circumstances of time, place, and biography in which
it has been made."2 If we take Varnedoe at his word, it is, perhaps counterintuitively, only by establishing a more conventional time-line for Twombly that the unconventional ramifications of the artist's unruly practice can be understood or, better, put into productive play with other factors. While Varnedoe inserts a standard disclaimer around
biography ("a creator's work is never reducible to his or her life, and lives are themselves constructs that need interpretation"), he nonetheless goes on to venture that Twombly's work is unusually steeped in the effects and affects of
experience, "so closely - one wants to say so nakedly - tied to the vicissitudes of an individual temperament unfolding in time."3 What follows, as I've suggested, is a close, careful read of the artist's expanded history: his education,
his interlocutors, his exhibitions (and their reception), his interests in art and literature, his various places of residence and ways of living, and presentations of a number of what would seem to be life-defining moments. Largely due to Varnedoe's efforts, such information around Twombly now considered vital - but not so easy to come by just
a little over a decade ago - came to light in detail: Twombly's two "Souths" (Virginia and Italy);
his early interest in Kurt Schwitters and Alberto Giacometti, in "primitive" objects and North
African aesthetics; his formative experience at the Art Students League in New York in the early 1950s,
where he met Robert Rauschenberg; their time
at Black Mountain College during the summer of 1951, where Twombly
also met Charles Olson, John Cage, and
Merce Cunningham, to name only a few; Twombly's appetite for travel
to Europe and elsewhere starting as early as
1952; his army service in Virginia; his so-called expatriation
to Italy in 1957; and so on. Throughout this narrative,
Varnedoe pays close attention to
what kinds of works Twombly is producing when - who he is talking to, what
he is seeing, what he is reading, what he takes in, what he puts out. In
this telling, ample attention is paid to early
work from the mid - 1940s, when Twombly experimented with assemblage and
collage; to the black-and-white works
of the early 1950s; to the fetishistic, organic motifs from a few years later; the move
to pencil and wax crayon in the
mid-fifties; and so on. Holding open the possibility for various interpretations, Varnedoe,
nonetheless, is setting the
record straight, aiming to debunk sloppy assessments that had left Twombly little
more than a sliding signifier, put
to use in narratives that would have him morphologically aligned with contexts he
should be understood to disturb.
The steady flow of Varnedoe's text, marked by careful (nearly obsessive) attention to every
aspect of the
artist's life, thinking, and production, is maintained through the early 1970s, at which
time Twombly was focusing
on his "gray paintings" - among them the dark-grounded works that have been likened
to blackboards, adorned
with marks that hint at language but often refuse to move beyond gesture into actual "readability."
After a section
dedicated to the period of 1966 to I972, however, the tempo abruptly shifts: a nearly twenty-year
Twombly's story is given relatively short treatment under the title "From Epic To
Pastoral: The Later 1970s and the
1980s" (consider that the curator, earlier in the text, devotes nearly six full pages to the
years 1957 and 1958 alone).
There is, of course, a pragmatic reason for this abbreviation, one stated at the very outset
of Varnedoe's text: Twombly
had simply stopped producing as much work, slowed down to only a handful of paintings
and sculptures a year.
And yet there is, I think, more to this modulation in Varnedoe's account, for not only
does his mode of historicizing
change distinctly, but so, too, does his tone. Varnedoe, however subtly, ushers back in
a kind of vagueness, the likes
of which he openly refutes during the methodological prelude of his text. Largely gone
is the precisionist attention
to critical response - how Twombly is being written about in the wake of given
exhibitions, for example - and so it
seems as well that the curator's need to place a lens close to the
artist's immediate social and art historical context has
passed. It is as though, in this account of the "pastoral" moment in
the artist's career, there is an unstated. admission
that Varnedoe has tripped onto complicated territory: at once the "late
work" of an artist and also the "just past" for
the historian.4 If we know that both are famously stubborn terrain,
finding them together here is somewhat revelatory. For if there is a kind of unspoken admission in Varnedoe's shift,
it is not that the kind of careful contextual plotting he advocates so strongly for is no longer possible with regard to Twombly's
closer-at-hand work, but, rather, that not enough time has passed for such a survey to be made.5 Tellingly, for my
own purposes here, the only instance where Varnedoe does consider
Twombly's place in relation to other artists in the late 1970s and early 1980s
arises with the latter's monumental work, Fifty Days at Ilium, comprised of
ten enormous canvases and produced - in Bassano di Teverina - during the
summers of 1977 and 1978. First shown in 1979 at Heiner Friedrich Gallery,
the piece, Varnedoe states, clearly "arrived ahead of its optimum moment,"
and he argues thus that no analytic armature prepared for such work - with
its combination of semiotics and scatology - had yet coalesced. "A certain
strand of bemusement ran through the critical response, as the whole enterprise seemed far away from the larger frame of contemporary artistic concerns," the curator writes, noting, however, that the gap between Twombly's
gesture and an understanding for it would, in his own view be rectified not
too long after:
"Within a few years, the connections would have been more easily
made: Anselm Kiefer's resurrections of both epic battles and ancient myths,
and the specific involvement of younger Italians such as Sandro Chia with
Mediterranean myth, would have shown the immediate 'relevance' of
Twombly's cycle to the art of the 1980s. His influence on painters such as
Kiefer - as on Julian Schnabel's more operatic rephrasings of combined words and abstraction, or on aspects of
Francesco Clemente's erotically elegant draftsmanship, and on other younger artists - would become steadily clearer
throughout the eighties."
With these words, Varnedoe considers the matter more or less closed. "By the time the eighties' concern with
history caught up with Twombly, though, he had already moved on, away from the realm of myths, bards, and battles
toward water, sky, and flowers."6
But perhaps there was more to be said on this matter. More than the analogical relation of Twombly to
Kiefer's battles and Chia's myth, more than the obvious links to Schnabel's operatics or Clemente's draftsmanship.
Without, of course, taking away that such relationships can be plotted, I wonder if, with our own just-earned retrospect, we can see in Varnedoe's operations elements of the hodgepodge mobilization that he himself had detected
erstwhile and elsewhere in Twombly's long and complicated framing within art-historical narratives. After all, while
the years following the artist's Ilium would see the rise of Chia, Clemente, and Kiefer - whose return to expressionism veiled in mythic subjects was seen by many critics as emblematic of a dangerous conservatism in artistic practice7 - they would also see the emergence of, say, Michel Basquiat, whose source material ranged from street graffiti
to ancient icons. Such intermingling of the mythic and vernacular was deeply reminiscent of Twombly's own formal
turns in rendering classical themes, and, indeed, would by itself ask the elder painter's canvases to be seen as operating in a more actively interpretive mode, bringing the stuff of myth into the contemporary sphere rather than taking
up myth as an artistic refuge. For anyone really looking at Twombly's work (rather than investing in the themes it
would seem to claim to represent), this engagement was a return to expressionism ambivalent to heroic sense - more
fascinated with mark-making itself, more akin, as some have argued, to scrawled vandalism with its emphasis on
presentness (and thus, absence) than to some allegiance with the workings of posterity.8 Such interpretations might
only become more complex if one considers the numerous other strands of art-making arising in the wake of - and
simultaneously with - Twombly's work during this time, asking that the artist's production be figured discursively
within the complicated terrain of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Indeed, if that terrain is typically considered in
terms of a simple, unambiguous divide between criticality and complicity among artistic practices, perhaps Twombly,
by virtue of his always being in active dialogue with his surrounding context, provides an artistic model that complicates such readings. In other words, merely by adhering to Varnedoe's original ideation of Twombly's relationship to
the different contexts for art history in the postwar period, one might well set aside a categorization of the artist as
an 1980s antecedent to only Chia, Clemente, Kiefer, and others. Rather, one may well see that his work problematizes
both that context and any "critical" response to such painting conventionally understood to be its antagonist. So, consider what follows not as a corrective but as a return to a moment in Twombly's history that might now be revisited.
In the year 2000, David Sylvester conducted an interview with Twombly.9 About halfway through
the published conversation, a discussion of Fifty Days in Iliam takes place. If you are a sharp reader, you will see that the way the
title of this
work is spelled here - "Iliam" - is different from how it is spelled just above, in the first section of my essay, where it
appears as "Ilium." The former iteration is not a typo, however, or at least it's not a typo in any strict
sense of the term.
In fact, if you travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the work has been installed in its own room for the
past two decades, the wall labels mirror the title as given by Twombly in the space of Sylvester's text. I have
many times to see that work, to swivel in front of its elements, to find myself aghast anew, marveling at a sprawling,
self-declared epic stature that nevertheless undercuts its own proportions with a kind of studied "lowness": sharply
rendered - if sometimes nearly unreadable-words (almost hieroglyphic), alongside swarming, broody, bloody clouds
(almost cartoonish) and scrawls, scribbles, and jabs that are one part alchemical transformation
and another part
pathetic fallacy. I've never really thought to question the title, much less the spelling therein, though I suppose, in retrospect, its ostensible misspelling was a gift, just waiting there, to be discovered, its implications to be pursued.
After telling Sylvester that, much to his dismay, he has recently had to give up smoking because it was too hard
on his lungs, but that he still enjoys taking breaks from painting to listen to music and drink wine, Twombly suddenly asks, without any transition, "What is that painting of mine in Philadelphia?," and then continues:
Twombly: "Is it Fifty Days in Iliam? It's very strange, no one has ever mentioned it. Have you ever seen it? Well,
it's one of a large group of paintings. It's called Fifty Days in Iliam: I spelt it I-L-I-A-M, which is not correct.
It's U-M. But I wanted that, I wanted the A for Achilles; I always think of A as Achilles. I wanted the A there
and no one ever wrote and told me that I had misspelt Ilium. I'm saying anyone in America."
Sylvester: "So what did they do, just change the title or leave it?"
Twombly: "No, they still called it Iliam, but no one ever noticed that."
Sylvester: "They may have noticed it but been too polite to say because they thought you
were making a mistake."
Twombly: Or no one cares..."10
Twombly could be right, of course: who cares? But perhaps the possibility that somebody cares - and just who cares - is of the greatest significance here. Varnedoe cared enough, we might guess, to make the correction within his text, to be sure that Twombly was represented as correctly representing the source to which he was pointing with his epic work: in this case, the Alexander Pope translation of the lliad,which Varnedoe characterizes as a "neoclassical" version of the story - a version, he says, precisely seductive for its infidelity its looseness with regard to the original.11 That Varnedoe locates Twombly's attraction to the Pope text in that author's willful misuse of an original makes his decision to silently correct the title all the more striking, if still understandable (indeed, this might not have been Varnedoe at all but simply the work of an overly conscientious proofreader). Yet, regardless of how it came to be, the correction bespeaks a certain belief in what Varnedoe thinks Twombly stands for: However removed from his sources the artist is, he nevertheless produces work with a kind of perverse allegiance to them. In contrast, the Philadelphia Museum's 1995 Handbook of the Collections includes an entry on Iliam written by Ann Temkin, a curator so utterly acquainted with Twombly's work - and with modern art in general - that it takes little conjecture to imagine that she left the title as is, utterly confident that the artist had thought through the implications of what would in most situations be considered a mistake. One imagines that the museum housing lliam, then, also thinks it knows just what Twombly is doing and underwrites that belief in the subtle gesture of letting the work be as it is: a deviation with definite purpose. (Of course, Twombly may also be correct: no one notices or no one cares, but this seems unlikely given the institutions and individuals involved. And, in any case, not caring is implicitly not an option in considering the work in the present context: there is always the chance that Twombly himself sought to cast doubt on any single meaning for his work, in which case his suggestion that audience might "not care" is, in fact, an utterance whose significance turns on the hope that they do.) One need only look at the lliam cycle itself to see that the artist is after neither "Ilium" nor "Iliam" per se, but rather a flicker between them. If we find on those canvases some reference to the "Achilles" that, Twombly insists, compels the presence of the fugitive "A," we find all manner of other forms that likewise imbue expressionism with self-awareness. It's a self-awareness that doesn't take away from the wildness and spontaneity of his colorful explosions and strokes but, rather, allows expressionism to operate as more than just a sign for itself. Counterintuitively, it is in offering some (conceptual, reflexive) space away from - or better, in addition to - the sign of the expressionist stroke that allows it to not be wholly emptied out of meaning. Twombly doesn't refute the idea of cliche but, rather, embraces its platitudes. It is in the realm of the cliche of the "expressive," he implies, that one might actually find recourse to the expressive at all.
Of course, anyone familiar with one of Twombly's letter "A"s (as they sit on the canvas, that is; so, too, with his "V"s) also knows that his is just barely an alphabetic form and much more a shape-shifting cipher: Hardly able to force itself into behaving as a vowel, it appears much more on the side of action, or, perhaps, landscape. Again, while speaking with Sylvester, Twombly characterizes his "A"s as embodying precisely what he calls "phallic aggression - more like a rocket."12 But what does any of this - Varnedoe's "Ilium," Philadelphia's "Iliam," Twombly's "rocket" have to do with the eighties? Or better, what we might then see in Twombly's work from (and in) the eighties that we couldn't see previously? Might Twombly's wandering - if motivatedly so - "A" be emblematic of other conundrums around signification within the artistic field during that decade?
Notably, for instance, it was in 1977 , the same year that Twombly began working on lliam - and years before Schnabel and Clemente and the crew had become established - that Douglas Crimp curated a small show including only five artists at a small non-profit called Artists Space in New York. In the catalogue for the exhibition, which was titled Pictures, the critic argued that there was a noticeable shift in artists returning to representational modes as a critical model (the likes of which would be seen in definite contrast to neoexpressionist painting). But, he added, the fact that these artists - Sherrie Levine, Jack Goldstein, Troy Brauntuch, Philip Smith, and Robert Longo - were newly invested in images did not mean that images had any new, secure purchase on meaning. Indeed, it was rather the opposite effect they were after. "They subvert the standard signifying function of those pictures, tied to their captions, their commentaries, their narrative sequences - tied, that is, to the illusion that they are directly transparent to a signified.'13 More-over, and what is less noted in Crimp's text, is his emphasis on desire and its relationship to the production of meaning in a viewer when standing in front of one of these so-called "pictures." "The primary issue in this work is, of course, the structure of signification, with that distance that separates us from the world and that constitutes our desire."14 For Crimp, then, the very space between an image and our comprehension of it marks not only the possibility of making alternative (or oppositional) meanings but calls upon a kind of libidinal - or at least passionate - psychological aspect of the intellect in order to do so. Within this context, then, it is tempting to consider Twombly's "A" as a marker of distance, a "mistake" that lends new possibilities for significance to the signs residing on the canvas - and gives new relevance to signs that might be characterized as "expressionistic" in turn.
Markers - "signs" - that could produce both meaning and a kind of productive, disordered space around themselves were of growing interest among critics of this period, who often couched their investigations in terms of allegory. Here again, intriguingly, Twombly makes an appearance in the literature, if fleetingly. Indeed, the artist receives a single mention in the first installation of Craig Owens's important "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism," which was published in the Spring 1980 issue of the journal. October. (Part Two followed immediately after, in the Summer 1980 edition.) In limber texts that take Walter Benjamin's writings as a foundation but range from the Old Testament to Laurie Anderson, Owens here formulates a view of postmodernism's workings that has largely stuck - where images and texts adhere to a kind of dispersive, cumulative logic, referencing one another endlessly while refusing questions of origin or destination. (Such a description nearly describes the relationship between Homer's lliad, Pope's revisionist "take" on it and Twombly's spelling "error.") Owens's is an essay that decisively sides with deconstruction that pins its hopes on the radical potential of moving on. Crucially, he suggests that allegory is invested in "endless confusion of all aesthetic mediums and stylistic categories (hopeless, that is, according to any partitioning of the aesthetic field on essentialist grounds)" and that the allegorical can manifest in strategies as disparate as "appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursively hybridization - these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it - "from its modernist predecessors."15 And it is here that Twombly appears. As Owens writes: "Thus we should also seek allegory in contemporary works which deliberately follow a discursive model: Rauschenberg's Rebus, or Twombly's series after the allegorical poet Spenser."16
Owens's suggestion that Twombly is one of a number of artists then "deliberately" following a "discursive model" is telling; setting aside for the moment the possibility that his is merely a motivated account of Twombly's otherwise ambiguous intentions, perhaps it is worth asking of the artist: Is there some self-conscious use of signs that - in the eighties at least - risks being mistaken as utterly hedonistic in order to turn such expectations upside down? For Twombly has been in this position before, particularly in the mid-1960s, when, after a disastrous critical response to his 1964 exhibition at Castelli Gallery, the artist seemed to move fully away (for well over a decade) from anything resembling Expressionism qua Expressionism. His "return" to a kind of "expressionistic" mode in the late 1970s and early 1980s carries with it not only a reflection on the time in which he is producing but on his own history within the style cycles of contemporary art. It is worth, then, looking not only at Iliam but at a work like Wilder Shores of Love, a canvas produced between 1984 and 1985, as an example of an aesthetic that bears within itself a reserve of its own compiled pleasures and perils - like a mathematics problem "carrying" a number that is never fully accounted for. Here, Twombly's composition is named to evoke a kind of sentimental longing for other places and other times (alluding to the 1954 Lesley Blanch book of the same name, which traces the lives of four women who find love and adventure by traveling to different cities in the "exotic" East). Twombly's own "Wilder Shores" are conveyed in a pile of matter - warmly redolent, it rises from the bottom of the canvas as a pile of fertilizer - composed of past matter and ready to sprout new forms. Like handwriting adorning a love letter, the title makes its way across the top half of the work, neither a caption nor a prediction. If we read the words, understand their semiotic function and even their "reference," they would seem to usher in a kind of analytic impulse that, all the same, grounds itself in something beyond deconstruction alone.
Clearly, then, Twombly proves a difficult figure in histories of the period, at once anticipating neoexpressionism and its critical interlocutors in allegory. But rather than argue that we need some revisionist history (albeit one steeped in Varnedoe's self-stated mission) - and rather than ask whether he prefigures, or eventually bends to, postmodernism - I have been suggesting the following: that we look at the words both in and around his work. That is, perhaps it is less Twombly's work that ought to be wholly categorized (impossible, since it functions always in relation to the context it has help enable and yet nonetheless reflects upon) and more the desire to write around it that should be named, if provisionally. If Twombly, as Varnedoe says, always brings a sense of context to bear on the writer addressing his work, he also, in so doing, creates a slightly dissociative state in the writer. To this end, the word "amphigory" seems particularly well suited: "burlesque nonsense writing or verse," from Fr. amphigouri, of unknown origin, perhaps related to gyros "circle," thus "circle on both sides," and perhaps related to - agoria "speech" (allegory, category). It's less even that twombly's work evokes some madness in everyone who wants to write about his work that I am addressing here and more the sudden proprietary urge, to situate him again and anew that feels "burlesque" to me, even as I attempt to do it myself.17
One author in particular seems to have eloquently addressed this dimension of writing around Twombly: Roland Barthes, the first author to claim for the artist the status of postmodern production. Indeed, for Barthes, Twombly forever speaks to the gap between sign and signified, finding there unexpectedly affective terrain, a place where connections are made only to be undone, placed back into the pot for further reuse (and abuse). If Barthes seems unduly interested in the ways in which pencil, crayon, and pigment mark make their way onto Twombly's pages and canvases, his emphasis is, in fact, on how those marks can be received - on a number of levels: corporeal, sensorial, epistemological - without ever being fully, or at least properly placed. Barthes's two texts on the artist end by invoking the same passage from the Tao Te Ching, a passage which, as Barthes describes it, gets at the artist's singularity and at his work's "morality." One might say that he contextualizes the artist's practice - or, more accurately, offers some sense of its model - only by taking the work out of context altogether (seeming to write about the work when he is, in fact, writing of its reception): He produces without taking for himself; / He acts without expectation; / His work done, he is not attached to it; / And since he is not attached to it, His work will remain.18
Without expectation: a phrase mirrored in Twombly's interjection, in conversation, that his audiences "might not care." And yet his impassiveness only underscores the potential significance of a slip - Ilium to lliam - that likely would have otherwise gone unnoticed, even while circulating in the literature around his work, without comment. With this circumstance in mind, I will conclude here with my own citation, one just as open-ended, but one that I think about every time I look at a Twombly - though it has nothing, ostensibly, to do with him. In 1971, the poet Anne Sexton (born the same year as Twombly, if it matters) produced a book of fairytales, titled Transformations, her own bloody updated (feminist, I'd argue) retellings as it were, of the "classics." She asked Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. to pen a foreword, which he did. it's an amazing introduction to a volume of poetry, one that in not working works very well. He ends his piece with a confession: he stopped teaching at university because he realized he could never explain James Joyce's Dubliners. But earlier in the text, he describes how upon meeting Sexton for the first time, he attempted to impress her by diagramming the story of Cinderella. As Vonnegut explained it, " 'G' was good fortune. 'I' was ill fortune. 'B' was beginning. 'E' was end"; the vicissitudes are obvious and willfully overdetermined, which is just what they should be in a fairytale. But, after proudly presenting the poet with his map, he learned anway that this, the version of Cinderella he knew was perhaps itself just a mistranslation, "the word vair was mistaken for verre so that Cinderella's fur slippers became glass." 19 But for Vonnegut, this was the true moment of delight: "So much for lucky poetry," he writes.