PRINT May 1979

Cy Twombly: Major Changes in Space, Idea, Line

CY TWOMBLY’S PAINTINGS REVEAL a cultivated, allusive mind and a personality at once lyrical and ironic, anxious and lazy, passionate and laconic. The works range from moods of wit or ennui to the profundity of those in which the content is the death of culture and history. Starting, like Rauschenberg, by “using” cultural material, Twombly comes in his later painting to identify himself with culture.

Twombly was born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1929. A contemporary of Rauschenberg, he studied at Black Mountain College with Motherwell and Kline. Since 1957 he has lived in Rome and traveled extensively throughout Italy and Greece. Exploiting as it does aspects both of modern and past culture, Twombly’s work of the last 20 years shows a complex relation to American as well as European stylistic sources. In his graphic touch there is a psychic freedom and an emotive-expressive quality linking him to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, yet he shares Poussin’s idealization of the classical past as well as Rauschenberg’s casual and positive acceptance of wild diversity. Where Rauschenberg focuses on the jarring disparities of 20th-century reality, Twombly juxtaposes images, themes and values of the past with those of the present. Interlaced with banalities of personal life, schematized penises and breasts are citations of Mallarmé, Keats, Homer. In Virgil and Woodland Glade: To Poussin, 1960, Twombly creates visual metaphors for mourned cultural heroes. On other occasions he treats myth mockingly, as in Leda and the Swan or The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus: the underlying idea is the clash between reality and the poetic ideal. Since Twombly’s permanent move to Rome in 1957, formal and iconographical evidence of inspiration from Leonardo, Italian Futurism and, among contemporaries, Gastone Novelli1 is evident, along with, overall, an intensified dialogue with the classical past.2

Are there any unifying principles, radical or major changes, or styles in Twombly’s work? What are the recurring preoccupations and themes? To many American critics, such as Robert Pincus-Witten, “the theme of the physical act of handwriting”3 is central to Twombly’s work. Bernice Rose wrote: “His art is based on drawing as the generating source of the work of art.” I agree that the most important element in Twombly is his line and graphic touch. However, in some of Twombly’s best works, such as the School of Athens, Leda and the Swan, and the Futurist-inspired and “time-line”4 paintings of the late ’60s, color is as important as line. If 20 years of Twombly’s work shows major changes in the nature of line and its functions, equally important are subtle changes in color and in spatial organization. What begins as a “physical” act of handwriting, tied to Surrealist automatism, gradually acquires cognitive and visionary power, in a way that is similar to Giacometti. The style that Pincus-Witten called “an art without ideas” becomes painterly vocabulary, and a vehicle for expressing ideas about movement or philosophical reflections on time and space. In 1968, in a spirit of seeming torpor, compared with his concurrent energetic depictions of movement, Twombly did a series of white looping spirals on gray-black backgrounds, with the celebrated blackboard effect. Of this type, Pincus-Witten wrote: “Its most signal manifestation is the scrawl, born of ennui.”

One of Twombly’s first remarks to me was to describe Rome as a “luxurious city.” Certainly the vast white paintings executed when the artist first moved to Rome express this feeling. Olympia, for example, dramatizes a voluptuous movement in space that corresponds with the mobile baroque grandeur of the city.

In the paintings from around 1954 to the end of the 1950s, such as Untitled 1954, Twombly’s line and rendering of movement partake of a dreamlike wandering trace. The line seems charged; even when without direction, and with a random, graffiti quality, it conveys a vital impulse.5 The space of works such as Olympia, 1957, View, 1959, and The Italians is dispersed, oneiric, with no external reference but the drawing hand itself in a nebulous white field. This kind of spatial composition is the one most fully represented in the current Whitney Museum show and best exemplifies the “scattered effect” defined and discussed in the catalogue essay by Roland Barthes. Although the Whitney selection includes a few works with more structured spaces—the School of Athens, 1961, Untitled 1969, Synopsis of a Battle, 1968—Barthes ignores this more structured type.

I find these opulent white works psychologically curious but not Twombly’s finest painting. The spatial order (and nonorder) of paintings such as Olympia or School of Fontainebleau recalls what is called in psychological jargon the “part object.” Twombly’s strange effect derives from his treating fractured lines and fragments of shapes as prearticulate sense-data. He disperses forms in space before interpreting them or giving them the status of symbols or metaphors. The resultant spaces give a dual impression of fullness and of emptiness. A statement of Twombly’s of 1957 shows that “the reality of whiteness” was one of his goals: “The reality of whiteness may exist in the duality of sensation (as the multiple anxiety of desire and fear). Whiteness may be the classic state of the intellect or a neo-romantic idea of remembrance, or as the symbolic whiteness of Mallarmé.”6 In Herodiade, 1960, Twombly scribbled on the canvas, “I have known the nakedness of my scattered dreams,” which describes the unresolved quality in works of this period.

In paintings of the mid- and late 1950s, such as Untitled 1954, Criticism and Olympia, Twombly’s line is remarkable for being as much tied to the unconscious as to the conscious mind. A hypersensitive, directionless web of lines that lingers suspended in vast spaces is partly the works’ content: as with Matta’s “inscapes” there is no outside world. These works gain their nebulous power from hints, equivocations, allusions. Even geometrical forms seem to dissolve, like images dissolving in a dream. Also as in a dream, Twombly exploits dislocations in scale. There is a reversal of near and far; architectural fragments are tiny, telephone notations large. When Twombly achieves an impression of unity it is as if he had just tidied up a dream without depriving it of any of its obsessive aura.

Works such as Criticism, introducing Twombly’s recurring interest in speed, in graphic velocity, prefigure a later, more deliberate treatment of movement. The marks, as in The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1962, do not define anything precisely. At times Twombly creates subliminally recognizable shapes resembling an amoeba or paramecium or organic-sexual fragments recalling Gorky or Matta. In Untitled 1954, and Arcadia, 1958, the line is more like a seismograph or oscilloscope, registering tremors in the artist’s mind. The spatial universe is typically one of diagonal movement; fragments of lines and numbers ascend to the upper right of the canvas. Numbers and words only have a “look” of intelligibility: instead of being conceptually integrated into the confrontation, they create a tension between the speed of the automatic gesture and the slower rhythm of the familiar form.

Twombly’s use of classical references alternates between the mocking and the lyrical. In The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, instead of Poussin’s idealized group of poets that the title suggests, a series of crude breasts intrudes from the top of the canvas. A graphlike piazza on the upper right, with, indeed, the scribbled caption “piazza,” is surrounded by agitated numbers, a phallic object, dots of color, mobile, amoebic forms that suggest the anarchy of modern Rome. The piazza is much smaller than the breasts that appear in the same work, a typical Twombly inversion of large and small, near and far. The loci in his visual universe shift continually.

In this period Twombly shows a curious relation and nonrelation to Surrealism. There is a profusion of doodles and graffiti, done with the graphic speed and automatic gesture of Surrealism. Yet triangles, rectangles or words written horizontally appear in most of his works, establishing an up-down, left-right structure of vertical and horizontal axes.

One may speculate that in the ’50s Rauschenberg was inspired by Twombly: one sees in both painters high culture mixed with random detail of daily life, scribbles, a deliberate lack of traditional esthetic unity, and a casual, yet complex, attitude toward art.

In 1961, at the time of these decentered and dispersed works, Twombly painted The School of Athens, a brilliant painting that is unusual in his work for its thorough spatial organization and its inspired use of color. The School of Athens is a pivotal work: it looks back to the inverted scale dislocations of the white paintings, and it prefigures Twombly’s later, more deliberate spatial organization of the late 1960s. Color—mostly red, pinks and flesh tones reminiscent of de Kooning—is used with delicacy and boldness. Passages of color carry the emotional impact of Abstract Expressionism, but there are thin lines of color and pencil that elicit a reflective mood. Linear patterns are no longer directionless, but part of a complex spatial composition. Some intense areas of paint are rapidly applied, directly from the tube, others sketched in lightly, stained or erased with a rag and painted over. In several works of this phase, including the magnificent Untitled 1961, Twombly grants both his linear marks and his color the sensuous Mediterranean beauty of surfacing in the light.

The School of Athens’ hot and carnal colors might at first suggest a sardonic comment on what Raphael’s hallowed summit of civilization had become. Actually, however, Twombly has created an architectural and structural image, radiant with light and color, that shows respect for Raphael’s fresco as well as for himself. A series of curved pencil lines, indicating a curved domed vault and receding perspective, gives the painting a strong centered image. These archlike lines recede upward in the painting and are echoed by Twombly’s visionary depiction of the dome and facade of St. Peter’s at the center top of the work. The brushwork evoking the St. Peter’s part is masterly: layers of misty white and pale blue pigment look smudged and repainted, as if a veiled and distant vision. The pearly whiteness of this seems both to merge with whites in the rest of the painting—confusing the perspective—and, mysteriously, to cohere and focus into the cupola shape, which is repeated in the vault below. Twombly is perhaps nodding at Raphael in his rare use of a vivid, Raphaelesque yellow. Although Twombly’s School of Athens has been emptied of philosophers and architects, it is as if he had opened the school to the air and to the sky. The painting creates a sustained world of serene luminosity, symbolic of the mind. Its light, chromatic perspectives and linear direction make it one of Twombly’s best works.

Untitled 1961 has the same ebullient palette of pinks, reds and yellows as The School of Athens. In the same year Twombly painted one of his many versions of Leda and the Swan, which has the same explosive energy of color, yet with spatial organization as The School of Athens. Twombly’s carnal riot of hearts, buttocks, necks is a far cry from most conventional treatments of the Leda subject. A bizarre window appears in the upper right of the canvas, adding a comic note. In this work one can see what was to become, in Twombly’s art, a consistent color symbolism. Erotic reds and blacks are handled with a violence that appears the next year in Achilles and Patroclus and The Vengeance of Achilles. The reds, pinks and purples that first convey joyous illumination and sensuous vitality become associated with violence. Achilles and Patroclus presents a savage image of two angry red bursts of clotted impasto. In subject matter, color and tone, this work anticipates Twombly’s “Fifty Days at Ilium,” where, as Jeffrey Kress brought to my attention, red characterizes Achilles and blue characterizes Hector.

Blue and green, which are extremely rare in Twombly, occur in paintings where he eulogizes heroes, a god, an artist or a poet, such as Apollo, Virgil or Keats. In Virgil, 1963, the only colors in the landscape are green and blue; the sketchy landscape of this work, and in certain collages and drawings, strongly resembles Leonardo’s landscape studies, particularly the 1508 Study of Rock Formations in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Blue and green also dominate in the two versions of Woodland Glade: To Poussin, 1960. In works of the late 1970s, such as Mars and the Artist and Apollo and the Artist, the lines defining the flower-artist symbol are blue, as are the letters of the name “Apollo” in Apollo and the Artist. Works such as The School of Athens prefigure Twombly’s works of 1967–72, where space is deliberately and forcefully organized. Under the dual influences of Leonardo and Italian Futurism, Twombly’s interest in depicting speed and motion altered his line as well as the space.

Twombly’s linear style is full of seeming contradictions, incisive yet wandering, primitive yet elegant, sensual yet cerebral. In the late 1960s the line became more cognitive, occurring in a space that is sometimes vigorously scanned and defined, at other times seemingly empty but cohesive. The paintings that Twombly did between 1968 and 1972 have a different palette and are more structured; they use a dark palette of grays, greens and occasional blues or—as in the blackboard works—whites and gray-black.

At this time the “mindlessness” cited by Pincus-Witten was replaced by ideas as Twombly explored visual metaphors for infinity, dynamic movement and time-space relations.7

Incongruously, the laconic scrawls of the bored-looking blackboard paintings originally appeared in Twombly’s drawings of 1968 based on Leonardo’s cataclysmic Deluges. In one collage, Untitled 1968,8 Twombly taped a facsimile of Leonardo’s most ferocious deluge at the top of the page, and underneath lined up a series of tired-looking loops. These progressions of loops are multi-evocative, showing varying degrees of materiality, of pressure from the artist’s hand in slower and faster tempos.

Twombly continued these deluge-derived scrawls in the large-scale blackboard paintings for which he is most famous in America. They show a subject matter borrowed from the schoolroom, a huge piece of old slate that is both spatially and associatively enigmatic. The mood in these works is one of lassitude, yet the lasso like scrawls are also full of intention: they give an ambiguous impression of irritation and physical inexhaustibility. And, like the chalky figure-eights of the same year, they operate as symbols of infinity. The picture plane of the blackboard paintings is as far as possible from airy and oneiric; it has become a solid thing, a wall. There is a mysterious flow in the way white lines operate in and out of this solid plane, which is not precisely a frontal plane. Max Kozloff, among others, was inflamed by these works, describing them as “perversely aping the anarchic scrawls of children.”9 If childlike, they suggest the work of a very witty child, and they create an astonishing space.

In the same year as the blackboard scrawls, Twombly did a number of works depicting dynamic movement, with striking similarities to Italian Futurism. Linear restlessness becomes in them an organized graphic and painterly system. Untitled 1971 and Untitled 1972, like Orion 1968 and Synopsis of a Battle, take up the (also Leonardesque) theme of the movement of water, or else were used to express what cannot be controlled. The earlier hesitant and wobbly lines have become forceful curves and diagonals establishing a strong rhythm.

Untitled 1971 and Untitled 1972 represent a moment in Twombly’s work where he achieves an unusually architectural image, combining color and line in a new way. They relate in color and line to the drawing shown at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Drawing Now” exhibition entitled Untitled 1972.10 Untitled 1971 has a washy green-gray background suggesting a tumultuous seascape. The space is structured by vigorous white vertical and diagonal lines. Long curves create a lashlike motion. The background is ambiguous, both solid, like a wall, and, because of the underpainting, fluid and mobile. Besides evoking the sea or rain, this work has an aspect of a graph, and the lines also suggest the regular metric scanning of poetry or music. The 15 vertical lines crossed by diagonal marks end in sketchy triangles, a form which Twombly may have found in a Leonardo drawing.11 Untitled 1972, with its diagonals crossed by half-circles, its highly concentrated energy and its sensuous physical presence, has a marked resemblance to the linear system used by Balla and Boccioni.12 Diagonals intersecting curved lines were used by Twombly in Untitled 1971, exhibited in Philadelphia in 1975. Twombly used the form again, in 1975, in Mars and the Artist, where it seems a symbol not of movement but of struggle. The configuration is central to many of Balla’s works, such as Abstract Speed, 1913.

In other collages of 1968, Twombly taped facsimiles of Leonardo’s drapery studies at the top of the paper, followed underneath by fragile downward-trailing pencil lines with tiny numerical annotations. This strange image must have been associated in Twombly’s mind with Leonardo for a long time, for it first appears in a Twombly canvas of 1960 entitled To Leonardo. Twombly’s mind, like that of Leonardo, seems to have been challenged to depict the indeterminate. Besides Leonardo’s drapery studies, the battle scenes were also a departure for works of the late 1960s. Leonardo’s studies of drapery, moving water and warfare all show, after all, a general fascination with the kinetic: all suggest indeterminate activity. Twombly’s composition in Synopsis of a Battle, 1968, a small trapezoid on top of a large trapezoid, is strongly similar to two of his earlier paintings, from 1962, entitled The Vengeance of Achilles. The central image also bears a remarkable resemblance to Leonardo’s 1513 drawing called Study of the Back View of a Skeleton, Showing the Tendons of the Neck (Windsor, Royal Library, No. 19,075 [verso]). In the 1968 collage the word “veil” is written numerous times next to the small trailing lines. Twombly later referred to these elusive, so-called “veils” as “time-lines.”

In 1968–69, as veils, time-lines or both, they were the subject of a very beautiful group of paintings, including the huge Veil of Orpheus, traversed by slow-moving horizontal lines. Because of Twombly’s subtly modulated underpaintings, the overall effect in both Veil of Orpheus and Untitled 1969 is not of gaps in space or emptiness, but of a dense, almost tactile field. The background suggests modalities of light and movement and evokes the sky and sea. In Untitled 1969, two thin lines extend, dilate and slowly occupy a huge space. Twombly has given this space a sensuous materiality through intricate brushwork. The lines look scratched or etched into the paint, and express a kind of arrested physicality. In the Veil of Orpheus, besides the meaning of veil discussed by Suzanne Delehanty,13 one feels that Twombly associated the word with the notion of layers or levels of materiality: a veil of matter, or a veil separating oneself from matter. This is also suggested by the fact that the word first appears in the collages where the trailing pencil lines are of different pressures or weights. Veil of Orpheus and Untitled 1969 are compelling images of layers or “veils” of light, and of immeasurability.

Byron, in Childe Harold, called Rome the “Niobe of Nations, the lone mother of dead Empires.” While Twombly’s Roman environment appealed, at first, to his notion of luxurious spaces, Rome seems increasingly to have inspired him in her role as “mother of dead empires.” In his work of the 1970s, Twombly has abandoned color except as symbol. While I find these works, on the whole, esthetically inferior, the subject matter or narrative focus is interesting. Twombly turns almost obsessively to the theme of the dead hero. In the intervening years Twombly had done a number of elegiac works—Poussin-Orpheus, Achilles, Virgil—and this consciousness of the heroic past informs “Fifty Days at Ilium.” In many other works of the ’70s Twombly pays homage to, especially, Mediterranean heroes—Apollo, Dionysus, Pan. The only Northern heroes are real men of art—Poussin, Valery and Keats. In Orpheus, 1977, Apollo and the Artist, and The Artist and Mars, 1975, Twombly seems to identify himself with culture and with its mythic creators, Apollo and Orpheus.

The canvases of “Fifty Days at Ilium” no longer resemble oneiric personal diaries or celestial dream-notebooks, as in the 1950s, or Futurist blackboards; instead they propose an epic setting. John Russell wrote of the “Fifty Days at Ilium” paintings: “Fundamentally what we see is not so much the ghost of Achilles as the ghost of history itself.” These works seem pictorially weaker than those of the 1960s. The graphic touch has some superficial similarities to preceding works; Greek and Trojan names are written in and smudged out; and there are lingering marks and erasures. But Twombly’s linear sense of apprehending search is far less intense.

My preference is for Twombly’s paintings and drawings which are either of pure line and delicate color, as Untitled 1954, or those that combine line and color in a structured space. The periods represented by The School of Athens and Untitled 1961, and the work of the late 1960s—both the time-line works with dense cohesive space or the works with forcefully structured spaces—seem strongest. The history paintings, ambitious and powerful in concept, do not for me represent Twombly’s painterly or linear power as well as previous works. Color seems used only as symbol, and the line loses its edge, its cognitive force. What is moving is Twombly’s looking back at culture and history.

Margaret Sheffield


1. Novelli most resembles Twombly (and vice-versa) during Twombly’s paintings of the 1950s. The two painters’ work is installed on the same wall in Rome’s Museum of Modern Art. A review of a show of nine late Novelli, paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, by Joseph Masheck (Artforum, February 1973) noted the uncanny similarity: “the scribbling, jerky calligraphy and distinct clusters of wet-looking paint blobs, suggest works painted in Rome by Cy Twombly, but if there ever was a relation between the two it was a constructive one for Novelli.”

2. The current Whitney retrospective of 45 paintings and 40 drawings, 1954–1977, particularly after the 1978 exhibition at the Heiner Freidrich Gallery, allows an American viewer a rare opportunity to see more than 20 years of Twombly’s work. Unfortunately, the Whitney show omits a chunk of what I find are Twombly’s best paintings, those concerned with expressing movement and time, of 1968–1972. Examples of this period were exhibited in Milan in 1971 and included in the Twombly retrospective in Philadelphia in 1975: Works such as Untitled 1971 I saw in October 1971 at the exhibition at the Ariete Gallery, Milan; another Untitled 1971, also depicting movement, was shown in the Twombly show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, in 1975 (reproduced in Suzanne Delehanty’s catalogue, p.54). The recently published volume by Heiner Bastien, Cy Twombly Bilder, Paintings 1952–1976, vol. I, Frankfurt, 1978, includes two color plates of this period in Twombly’s work: Untitled 1971, also exhibited in the Ariete show, and Untitled 1972. Although both the Delehanty and Bastien texts stress the importance of this period in Twombly’s work the paintings have, to my knowledge, only been rarely seen in America.

3. Robert Pincus-Witten, “Cy Twombly,” Artforum, April, 1974.

4. Suzanne Delehanty, based on a conversation with Twombly, in her catalogue text to the Institute of Contemporary Art show, Philadelphia, 1975, Cy Twombly; Paintings, Drawings, Constructions 1951-1954, wrote: “horizontal line, which Twombly calls a time-line . . .”

5. Robert Pincus Witten’s article “Cy Twombly,” Artforum, April 1974, pp. 60-64, brought to my attention the possible source of Twombly’s use of graffiti as Giacomo Balla’s 1902 painting Bankrupt. Balla depicted a black wall covered with chalky white scrawls and illegible words.

6. In 1957, L’Esperienza Moderna, No. 2 (August-September), Twombly made a rare personal statement about his work.

7. Bastien, Twombly Bilder, Frankfurt, 1978, p. 46: “As soon as Twombly began representing sequences of movement, the relationship between time and space took on increasing importance.”

8. Untitled 1968 is reproduced in the Delehanty catalogue, p.27, and also in the most complete source for Twombly’s collages and drawings, Heiner Bastien, Cy Twombly Zeichnungen 1953–1975. The Leonardo drawing is in the Royal Library, at Windsor Castle, No. 12,382.

9. Quoted by Robert Pincus-Witten, op.cit, p. 60.

10. The painting (on paper) entitled Untitled 1972 (gouache and colored chalk) was reproduced in Bernice Rose’s Museum of Modern Art catalogue Drawing Now, New York, p. 20.

11. Exactly the form of a triangle bisected by a diagonal of Untitled 1971 is found in Leonardo’s work Study for the Last Supper and Mathematical Figures and Calculations, (Windsor, Royal Library. No. 161).

12. Although there is no absolute evidence that Twombly was “influenced” by particular Futurist works, the typically Balla configuration of diagonals and curves becomes a major image in Twombly’s paintings of the late 1960’s. Boccioni also used this— on a different axis, in Charge of the Lancers, 1915.

13. Suzanne Delehanty and Heiner Bastien, in the Institute of Contemporary Art Twombly catalogue. Discussing the Veil of Orpheus, Delehanty wrote (pp. 26-27) “Here, horizontal line, which Twombly calls a time-line, is reconstituted not only from Leonardo’s drapery studies, Muybridge’s photograph of a veiled bridge, but also from Duchamp’s bride and a tune from the twenties about Orpheus.” I questioned the author about her footnote, she said her references to Muybridge, Duchamp and the song of the 20’s came from Franz Meyer’s catalogue essay of 1973, “Cy Twombly—Zeichnungen 1953–1973,” p. 12.