PRINT April 1974

Cy Twombly

UNLIKE HIS GENERATIONAL COMPEERS—Johns and Rauschenberg—Twombly’s work derives more immediately from models of minor art. Even when their model was a regional figure—as in the development of Rauschenberg out of Schwitters—Rauschenberg freed himself from the past in ways that elude Twombly in his attachment to earlier masters, earlier art, and the esthetic notion of art. This toughens matters. There is as yet no helpful means other than stylistic analysis to transform what appears at the outset to be a damning attitude into a receptive view. The mechanic employed here will, I hope, clarify Twombly’s attachments and allegiances while it underscores the irony of a means ill-suited to its subject.

Formalist tools and their lack of existential edge are, at present, in well-earned disrepute. Still the problem remains one of employing formalist methods, if only to demonstrate the paradox that Twombly’s art has gained in its present stature precisely to the degree that it is illuminated by an art—epistemic abstraction—from which formalist analysis has openly and avowedly exempted itself.

Twombly and the Critics

A particular theme stands in relief in Cy Twombly’s work—its intimate connection with the physical act of handwriting, yet one presumably more elevated and esthetic than mere script. He has always been recognized as a painter whose imagery is informed by calligraphy—beautiful writing. When Twombly’s work of 1967 was shown, a new critical voice greeted these balder efforts in a way quite different from earlier discussions that focused on mere calligraphy. Max Kozloff observed that these pictures were

. . . like blackboards, perversely ap[ing] the anarchic scrawls of children—scribbles so unrelated to Surrealist automatism or Expressionist “action,” that they ward off any attempt to think of them as valorous under pressure. Without an inherent tone of struggle, or pretense of evoking the unconscious, his calligraphy assumes that it was nothing other than what it was.1

In the work Kozloff discussed, the drawing and the erasure—the “writing” and the “rewriting”—was delineated by a material that masqueraded as chalk (actually a wax crayon), the binder of which broke down in its fusion with housepainter’s gray paint, and that drily adhered to the grainy surface of the canvas. I was struck by this Johns-like shift to a gray field as well, and referred to these works as “the means of beginning again, of erasing the Baroque culmination of the painting of the early 1960s . . . bluntly, it [the painter’s calligraphy] has been drowned in a schoolmaster’s blackboard.”2

This view persists. Kenneth Baker, writing in 1972, assumed as a matter of course that Twombly’s recent paintings were indeed blackboards. “A Twombly is only a blackboard insofar as it is a painting, but its claim to being a painting, that is to a certain kind of meaning, is based on the illusion it gives of being a marked-up piece of slate.”3

How did this situation come about? Until the mid-1960s, Pierre Restany’s early summation, that Twombly’s pictures were about “poetry, reporting, sexual flaunting, automatic writing, affirmation of self, and self-denial also,” still obtained.4 Twombly’s development from a sensibility-based calligraphy endemic to Abstract Expressionism to a frank matter-of-fact writing and counting is one which covers almost 15 years. This tradition, it seems to me, is born in Paul Klee and persists transformed in Hanne Darboven. Twombly mediates.

Twombly and the Epistemic Abstractionists

Drawing is the means par excellence by which ideas are made manifest. Yet Twombly, always aware that his art is not one of idea but of visual effect, came to resent the very means by which his art exposes him. His art is not about ideas, but mindlessness. Therefore, what Twombly engenders is not drawing, but the drawing away of drawing. It is a kind of hand-hating drawing, one which denies rather than affirms. Its most signal manifestation is the scrawl, born of ennui, self-gratifying, registers of loops which characterize much of the recent work.

The introduction of conceptual schemata—geometrical figures, numbers, cribbings from Leonardo’s notebooks and studies, landscape allusions, the imagery of blackboard and of writing—ironically underscores the conceptual shortfall of Twombly’s work. In a still unresolved dilemma, Twombly lacks—or perfects as a function of his Abstract Expressionist inheritance—the very systemic framework which these new symbols are intended to demonstrate. It is a paradox of contemporary art that the current epistemology grants revived interest to Twombly’s painting even though the nature of his art remains committed to seemingly undermined values of pictorial sensibility.

The advent and ascendancy of an intellectually based abstraction in current painting—one outside of Twombly’s purview—forces Twombly’s work to be seen obliquely. Epistemic abstraction emphasizes diagrams, the graph, modular and serial structure, delineations made against measuring devices and templates; it employs the universals of mathematics and linguistics; it signifies its art-relatedness through studio referents of pencils, chalk, paper, and blackboards.

Suddenly, the Expressionist calligraphic tradition of Twombly’s painting changes meaning—it is viewed as germane to the conceptual. The irony of this is that, while Twombly remains preeminently an artist of Expressionist taste, recent access to his work is fashioned from a public grasp immediately allied to systems of knowledge almost fundamentally opposed to the kinds of awareness occasioned by the central premises of Expressionist painting. Twombly’s career, which might have been superseded with the advent of epistemic abstraction, has in fact been vivified in precisely the degree that his works are liable to be misread and misapprehended.

Ben Shahn, Futurism, and Mural Imagery

On Robert Rauschenberg’s advice, Twombly spent two summers and a winter at Black Mountain College, sojourns that brought him into contact with several artists of note, among others Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and oddly, Ben Shahn, all of whose work, especially the last, is echoed in the blurred and expressive line of Twombly’s early productions.

The Abstract Expressionists—notably Kline and de Kooning—are sensible in Twombly’s preference for black-and-white painting, rhetorical scale, and composition based on gestural structure. Obviously Mark Tobey and Bradley Walker Tomlin, the central calligraphers of Abstract Expressionism, must be remembered in this connection too. But Shahn is especially pertinent, providing the clearest model of painting enamored of linear retentiveness, arid gesture, and a compulsive graphism. Twombly’s commitment to taste as an end in itself fortifies these quaIities.

Shahn’s gouaches of the 1930s frequently depict painstakingly diversified brick slum walls and dreary expanses of handbalI court concrete. These are perhaps the natural models for the gritty plasterlike surfaces of Twombly’s painting through the early ’60s.

Shahn’s urban mural imagery can be traced to an Italian iconographic antecedent. Beginning before the turn of the century, and culminating in his 1902 painting Bankrupt, Giacomo Balla had adopted this subject matter as a function of a proto-Futurist here-and-now actuality as distinct from the escapist idealizations and estheticisms of the Italian Symbolist movement from which Futurism so largely derives. Moreover, this iconography appropriated as an end a sense of solidarity with the working class, While this aspect of Balla was noted in 1961 when The Museum of Modern Art mounted the first broad overview of Futurism in recent times, in all likelihood it did not figure as a conscious source for Twombly’s street pictograms. Nor for that matter could Robert Brassaï’s mid–1930s photographs of the same imagery.

The point however is not to establish precedents for Twombly’s use of graffiti as imagery, but rather to indicate what is compelling about it—namely, its vagrant existence as visual experience, as art (if you like), but as an art devoid of the cultural ratifications conventionally assigned to art, an art then that falls outside of the academic precincts to which art is generally designated, an art akin to Jean Dubuffet’s art autre.

Graffiti occur not in places of art, but in places of private use—in toilets, phone booths, in the subways, and in the grimy stalls of cheap restaurants, Graffiti are sociological referents. When they become the imagery of art—at least to an artist of Mallarmean proclivities—a curious reversal occurs, Instead of the anticipated expression of solidarity with class—as one finds in Balla, Brassaï, and Shahn—in Twombly, the use of graffiti as imagery expresses the artist’s sense of disconnection from class. In this context, such an imagery implies not the déclassé—the un- or disclassed person—but classlessness or a-classness—the art and artist “without place,” Oddly, the actual graffiti of Twombly have, for the most part, no linked place on the surface. They have no specific moorings. They are mannered, nuanced gestures relating to edge rather than to surface.

Twombly’s use of graffiti as imagery does not overtly question the distinctions of Western social and economic theory. Ironically, it underscores only one Marxist idea, namely, that the liberal bourgeois artist is dangerous because freed of class consciousness.

Twombly and Mallarmé

Twombly has drawn and painted graffitilike pictures from the early 1950s on, These works—wall scrawls, scoured indecisions, blotchy penciled-in areas, and evocative surface flakings—are composed and decomposed according to a nice feeling for weight—precarious surfaces contrasted one against the other and/or against blank yet tactile passages.

Twombly admits to “mainly having a feeling for paper rather than for paint,” that is, for surface on ground as distinct from the figure, if any, depicted. Gilio Dorfles rightly perceived that “Vast white spaces which are almost always off-center, are the void s which for Twombly have the power of color and matter and are, actually, the ‘fullest’ part of the picture.”5

This “visuality” stems from Mallarmé, In, for example, Un Coup de dés, the most hermetic poem of Symbolism’s chief poet and theorist, the meaning of the poet’s final work is enlarged by the very blankness of the poem’s sparse typography. For Mallarmé, the unprinted elements and passages of the page specifically elaborate verbal meaning, Mallarmé said, by way of explanation of the work published in a transient review called Cosmopolis, that “the whites of the printed page in fact assume importance, make the first impression; the versification requires this. . . .”6 If “a toss of dice will not abolish chance”—the central premise of Un Coup de dés—then what will? The answer, it appears, is in a life lived as if it were art. The esthetization of life that marks Mallarmé’s circle persists in the manner and sensibility of Twombly.

A pictorial inflection of the weights of voids played against penciled scrawls and heightened by diffident and indecisive strokings covertly reveals a derivation in Paul Klee; overtly it aligns itself with an Abstract Expressionist idiom. Still, the unsublimated aggressiveness germane to that style is in Twombly rendered ambiguous by obscure urges and options, which are, in some evasive sense, literary and Surrealist.

In the early ’50s, Twombly was called into the army and assigned to the study and deciphering of codes, “I was a little too vague for that,” Twombly recalls, but cryptology allowed him to remain stateside within reach of New York City where he maintained valuable artistic associations. Still in the army, Twombly drew at night, without light, sharpening the meandering graphism for which he would shortly be esteemed. After his discharge, Twombly traveled throughout Europe, particularly Italy and North Africa, where he remembers his most placid and happy moments as those when he painted in brilliantly white empty rooms overlooking the sea,

This decor, this Mallarméan nothingness, prefigures the locus of recent epistemic abstraction. The “clean well-lighted” place is the American nirvana. This decor extends a corridor from the perfect cubic space of, say, the Ducal Palace in Urbino through the late paintings of white rooms by Edward Hopper to Robert Irwin’s satorilike environments.

Twombly and the Baroque

In 1957, Twombly had settled definitively in Rome. He married and began to raise a family. His palatial surroundings became a celebrated installation, and his personal collection of Classical artifacts, contemporary art, and esoterica of all kinds was widely illustrated in the fashion-conscious press. He exhibited regularly in leading Italian and American galleries even though his work veered away from an American mainstream then well-committed to a Pop consciousness, and on the verge of the intense abstract reductiveness of Minimalism. While the fascination with an iconography of the commonplace took hold in the United States during the early ’60s, Twombly, working in Rome, altered the Expressionist idiom of his paintings to conform to the Baroque richness of his new environment. His pictures, already large, grew even larger with an intensified awareness of poetry, myth, history—Venus and Mars, Triumph of Galatea—primed in terms of the Italian 17th-century decoration which surrounded him.

The pictogrammatic unraveling of his pictures was profoundly altered by the sweep of the Baroque spatial construct and mythological references. Twombly adopted the poses of the tableaux vivants of, say, Guido Reni and Pietro da Cortona. This pageantry continued until the middle of the 1960s. Its tenacity is significant not only in terms of the momentto-moment evolution of an artist’s work, but because it represented a solution to the abhorrence of vulgarity, a problem I believe central to the artist’s psyche, and posed during the ascendancy of Pop . . . The clearest resolution would have been the adjustment of Abstract Expressionist painterly values to Pop iconography—the conjunction, for example, made in the mid–1950s by Larry Rivers, Rauschenberg, and, to a lesser degree, by Jasper Johns.

Twombly’s position had affiliated itself at the beginning of his career with Rauschenberg. However, by 1967 it became apparent that Twombly’s affiliations more readily attached themselves to Johns. This has been the evolution of Twombly’s work; after capitulating to the Baroque, his art seemingly revives elementary values. The grandiloquento and mock heroic of the 17th century now has been replaced by a leaner and severer understatement.

Twombly and Rauschenberg: Graffiti and the Common Object

Significantly, Twombly had made the acquaintance of Robert Rauschenberg in the early ’50s, the first peer artist Twombly came to know well. Already admired for the so-called white paintings of 1952—bare stretched canvases hung in connection with a Cunningham-Cage dance concert at Black Mountain College—Rauschenberg, too, was at the time experimenting with black-and-white painting, and employing an imagery derived partly from children’s games and numerical configurations. Again this bespeaks the widely unacknowledged influence of Paul Klee in these two artists.

Twombly’s early major exhibition of wall-scale graffiti-covered canvases was held in 1955 at the Stable Gallery. The premises were in New York’s West Side midtown area; a large loftlike space strangely similar to a SoHo gallery today, but one totally unlike the smaller, more fashionable galleries of the period, such as Sam Kootz’s on Madison Avenue, where Twombly had just shown jointly with Rauschenberg in an exhibition arranged through the good offices of Robert Motherwell. In January of 1955, Rauschenberg also had exhibited independently at the Egan Gallery, then on 57th Street, showing works that radically confronted the prevailing Abstract Expressionist mode with a popular iconography suggested by street detritus and common objects.

These revisions point to a new way eventually designated Pop art. Still, the scribblings and wall graffiti which formed the image of Twombly’s large paintings at the Stable show may have played the same role in his paintings that the intrusions of common objects and found material played in Rauschenberg’s earliest Combines. It remains a question of interpretive emphasis.

Graffiti and Abstract Expressionist Allover

By 1955 Twombly was using the wall graffiti as a means of generating Abstract Expressionist allover. However, instead of using informally balanced affairs of linear incisions, smudges, and scoured blank surfaces, that is, compositions retaining points of reference to the perimeter and delineated upon the picture’s surface, the picture became a device for peripheral expansion. The graffiti were dispersed equally over the whole—the Abstract Expressionist allover preserved. A scrawl of mutant writing generated inchoate fragments of line, arcs, and shape sections excised at the perimeters, inducing thereby a sense of movement beyond the arbitrary vertical and horizontal cuts of the edges. There was no reluctance to pass beyond the perimeter, no doubling back of the gesture at the edge, such as one finds in the “heroic” period of Pollock (1947–51) when the allover was first exploited as an end in itself. Such tentative gestures at the edge of the canvas would have occasioned the compromised effect of a “thickened” ground—one that would have created the sense of conventionally accepted “frames” of space such as one finds, for example, in the white paper “collars” retained in watercolor practice. In short, Twombly’s pictures of the mid ’50s nonchalantly “expanded” beyond their edges.

But, despite the sense of a continuous expansion out from the perimeter in all directions, there was little sense of expansion into depth or out from the surface. These latter constrictions derive from the pervasive wall metaphor in Twombly’s painting. Twombly’s graphism can, like palimpsests, scrawl one upon the other but they expand little in or out—they grow but they do not breathe.

Twombly as Anticolorist

The wall metaphor is probably a function of the same metaphor is explored in the work of Kline—his Shenandoah Wall, for example; or possibly even of Hans Hofmann’s paintings after 1950. Hofmann’s “pushed and pulled” scoured works, employing rectangles of brilliant color, have the effect of annihilating space rather than inducing spatial readings. Moreover, such a heightened sense of expansion is impossible to virtually anticoloristic painting such as Twombly’s. This indicates that Twombly—despite his affiliations with Abstract Expressionism in the ’50s—worked outside the stream that fed field painting or “Post-Painterly Abstraction.”

This means that, unlike the issues of optical expansion inherent to color field painting, Twombly’s work rejects the spatial world of late Monet, a consciousness of which enters American painting at that time and which provides the springboard for the very type of formal analysis that I here use to discuss Twombly.

Instead of the formal and spatial concerns derived from late Monet, and the last phase of Pollock’s career, Twombly remains closer to a Surrealist graphic experience, one which tended to superimpose automatic flamelike shapes—that is, closer to the vegetal and organic self-elaborations of de Kooning and Gorky. The latter’s influence particularly cannot be minimized, especially those drawings from the last years of Gorky’s life, circa 1945–47.

The Rejection of Surrealist Automatism

From about 1956–57 on, Twombly began to reject the principle of superimposition, the pileup of grass written transparent words and alphabet fractures. His canvas grew larger and emptier, the automatic gesture replaced by recognizable clues of a regressive imagery related to primitive scrawls and graffiti. Readable phrases, sentences even, were sometimes discernible. Often of a sexual or erotic archaism, like lavatory doodles, such pictograms of male and female sexual organs and whimsical diagrams were scrambled as quickly as they were actualized. The pictures grew like privy walls. These images were once more haphazardly ordered by Twombly’s taste, canceling out weight against image, smudge against crust, patch against peel. A vocabulary of fanciful markings was brought into play: drips, texts, automatic scribbles, patterns, words, allusions, crisscrossing, checkerboards, pencilings-in. The heart of this work was secured in Twombly’s sense of elegance and facile draftsmanship. Fearing slickness, he drew as if with his left hand. To avoid striking the surface face on, his pencils were held in oblique and contorted angles, a method that hopefully disciplined linear seductiveness and facility. Compare when in a public telephone booth or toilet next, those doodles and inscriptions made straight on with those made alongside them in a cramped and lateral space, and perhaps this observation will be clearer. It is still the heart of Twombly’s problem.

Robert Pincus-Witten



1. Artforum, December, 1967.

2. “Learning to Write," Cy Twombly, Paintings and Drawings, Milwaukee Art Center, 1968. The other reference catalogue is Cy Twombly, Bilder, 1953–1972 Kunsthalle, Bern, April–June 1973, with an introduction by Carlo Huber. A handsome picture book, Cy Twombly, Zeichnungen 1953–1972, Propylaën Verlag, Berlin, 1973, has just been published with a prefatory essay by Heiner Bastian.

3. Artforum, April, 1972.

4.“Son graphisme est poésie, reportage, geste furtif, défoulement sexuel, écriture automatique, affirmation de soi, et refus aussi.” Pierre Restany, Exhibition Catalogue, Galerie J., Paris, 15 November, 1961.

5. Gillo Dorfles, “Written Images of Cy Twombly,” Metro 6, 1962, pp. 63–71.

6. Most recently, Heiner Bastian also made passing reference to Mallarmé as a means of gaining access to the spatial properties of Twombly’s work. Mallarmé’s question, “What wing can be held?” is seen by Bastian to be the ambiguous model for Twombly’s “line as distance and time between two spaces” (“ . . . hier sind die Linien Distanz und Zeit zwischen zwei Ra’umen, . . . ”), p. 14.