PRINT April 1989


CONTRARY TO THE ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST spirit of introversion and self-feeding (Barnett Newman’s “we’ll make it out of ourselves”), which seeks the sources of painting’s energy in painting and painting alone, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol sought to unite art with life by expanding the spaces of art action and expression. Having, as Europeans do, interlocutors in this venture, among them in particular, Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein (two artists who saw painting as more than its material consistency, mainly as idea), the above-mentioned American artists,embodying in their work both writerly and painterly materials, turned their painting into an examination of all representational iconography. Cy Twombly, in particular, suspicious of every “technical”/“materialist”/“technological” solution to artistic questions, sought his answers in poetry, in myths, and in dialogues with various past masters. In effect, poetry,myths, and history became both Twombly’s object of research and his working materials.

For when we look at any of Twombly’s paintings or drawings, it is immediately clear that he is both a producer and user of “graphs” (graph: something written, or the instrument for making or transmitting records, as in a chronograph). But the Greek verb grapho (to write) according to the Liddell-Scott Dictionary, also means xeo (to scratch), and, according to the Stamatakou Dictionary, charasso (to carve); in other words, to take part in or to initiate the transformation of metavliteou (that which will be altered) into metavlithen (that which is already altered). In the case of Twombly, however, that which will be altered is never ultimately transformed into that which is already altered; “graphing” itself seems to be continuous; the graph itself never seems to want to stop being that and that alone. Twombly’s are inscriptions that never want to take on a definite form, that is, to join with the other familiar marks of recognition in our record (text) of culture.

On the contrary, these are inscriptions that only scratch at and harass that text. Examining, for example, Twombly’s blackboardlike paintings of the late ’60s and early ’70s, it is immediately obvious that his inscriptions, scurrying across the surface (and often, seemingly, beyond), always on the move, never take on a specific form, but always remain “graph” itself in its seemingly interminable unfolding. And even in works such as Virgil, 1973, in which an actual word appears, Twombly’s hand will not leave it in peace. The name “Virgil” is half erased; it’s very doubtful whether a viewer would recognize it without the help of the work’s title. Or in another work, Apollo and the Artist, 1975, the phrase “the artist” is not on the same trajectory as the name “Apollo,” but is sprawled sideways above, with the ampersand placed beneath the words, making it difficult for the viewer to obey either conventional written or visual syntax. If the name “Apollo,” on the other hand, exists as something easily recognizable, it is nevertheless “fuzzied” by a shadow inscription beneath, an “earlier” writing that is both a residue and an emanation of a process permanently in progress, of a spirit continually giving birth to itself and simultaneously perishing, like the spirit of Eros that Diotima describes in Plato’s Symposium.

This, then, is the spirit of “erography”—erotic, but also errant and erratic—that informs all of Twombly’s work, always suggesting a language but never allowing it to become reduced to an alphabet, always generating an emanation of character but never becoming a set of individual characters, like those in an alphabet, that would be obliged to take the shape of a word or phrase. Instead, we might say, Twombly’s work is a reification of an erratum, a page on which the artist inscribes his own errors, but simultaneously an erratum demanding that we examine the presumedly “errorless” authority of cultural text.

Twombly’s “erography,” it’s clear then, does not love making pictures; it does not love to re-present. Instead, it seems to act out, in its most radical extreme, the notion from Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, 1807: that those forms that remain and demand greater modification are precisely those forms such as “re-presentations” and “well-knowns.” Twombly, accordingly, does not re-iconize (represent) but rather un-iconizes: he rearticulates the “well known” as the “less well known” and the “even less well known,” etc., to the point where it is barely “known” at all, until it could not possibly become something “known,” even something “recognizable” in the history of civilization.

Such a wish to alter the “well knowns” and the “knowns” requires an examination of the primary element that created them, the “primary dynamic,” as Leibniz calls it; in other words, it requires an examination of the essence of things, demands an examination of the communication between the unalterable, the archetype, and what it creates—the alterable, that is, the icon. Thus, in works such as Venus and Mars, 1962, or Baia di Gaeta (Venere sopra Gaeta) (Bay of Gaeta [Venus over Gaeta], 1988), the gods Ares and Aphrodite are not represented in the forms well known to us, nor is the city of Gaeta in Italy. On the contrary, those icons show up as primary dynamics of color and gesture, as energized powers. They are un-iconized; they serve, in fact, as the embodiment of uniconicity. Similarly, in his Wilder Shores of Love, 1985, Twombly’s rough sea is not a copy of a particular natural phenomenon, but rather a series of brusque gestures and strokes that denote its energy, the energy before something congeals into a phenomenon; the process of creation itself rather than its “graphic” result.

Twombly’s construction of time, then, is not linear, but multiple and metamorphic. As an example, let’s take one of the untitled blackboard paintings from 1968 that features the number 8. The number 8 here, however, is neither fixed nor unique, but is reiterated in a series of loopy, freehanded gestures across the surface. In this way, Twombly’s “erography” plays with the optical (and consequently semantic) rigidity of the sign, stripping it of its familiar mathematical meaning and suggesting it instead as a form infinitely alterable and capable of metamorphosis. Something similar happens in Night Watch, 1966. A perspectival rectangle’s geometric shape, with its multiple repetition and its variation of position on the painting’s surface, loses what, until now, we knew to be its formal meaning, becomes instead a simulacrum in constant metamorphosis.

It is obvious: Cy Twombly disrupts the correspondences between characters (gramma) and their representations (graphs), and the familiar linear trajectory (gramme) on which they occur, and attempts to disrupt them absolutely. For he does not redefine something new in their place, does not get trapped in any self-styled dilemma of old-versus-new. While staying within the powers of writing, of scratching and harassing, he functions as mediator between all such oppositions.

The work of Cy Twombly, then, can be likened to a permanently open door, where the door itself is a passageway, but where the art and artist stand permanently “in between.” In between, the artist is empowered to work outside of mannerisms. In between is what gives priority to extension and tension, and to the organic and harmonic—over the geometric—spirit. In between is what permits, on the pictorial surface, a kind of musical ejaculation of thought, an electric evacuation of color, a drunken celebration of grapho. It is thanks to this in-between that the work of Cy Twombly can never be viewed only as a product of “now.” This is because the passion and the obsession of this American artist’s work is to be eternally present, and to be eternally present, time cannot be cut up into slices of “before,” “now,” and “after.” For “I am present” means: I am in motion, I can travel to different times. It means: I am “here” but simultaneously I can go “there,” I can visit the “once upon a time” and I can visit the “someday.” It means I am next to “being,” that is to say, I am in between “being” and “becoming.” It means I am something transparent that can be inhabited by “being,” something that, because it can communicate with “being,” simultaneously reveals the fruit (experience) of this communication to others. That is to say, it simultaneously embodies expectations and revelations; it is both a presence and a present, it is, in itself, a phenomenon—the product of the artistic subject’s experience in the space of Being. And as phenomenon, it can touch “once,” “now,” and “after,” but belongs to none of them. Consequently, when Twombly uses myths, poetry, and old masters in his work, it is not to fashion a nostalgic hymnology, but to communicate with the past by stripping it of its clothes (its different historical interpretations) and presenting it to us simply as it is: as forces that at any moment could turn into fact.

Demosthenes Davvetas is a writer and critic who lives in Paris. Galilee has just published his Soleil immatériel: chemins dans Part contemporain (Immaterial sun: paths of contemporary art) and his novel, La Chanson de Penelope (The song of Penelope).

Translated from the Greek by Karen Van Dyck.