PRINT January 2006


Cy Twombly

IT SHOULD NOT surprise us that the first major monographic study of the work of Cy Twombly would come to us from France: After all, Twombly’s reputation was established earlier and more exuberantly in Europe than in the United States (for example, Pierre Restany wrote on the artist as early as 1961). We will never know whether the reason for the fine American disregard was Twombly’s decision to leave the US for the shores of Italy in 1957 or whether it was his provocative synthesis of poetic learning and painterly desublimation that irritated an American audience habituated by the early ’60s to think of the New York School in terms of triumphs and the sublime.

Steps toward a serious yet belated recognition of the artist’s centrality in American painting of the 1960s (which would finally place him on par with his peers, his former companions and close friends Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) were initiated only a decade ago, when Kirk Varnedoe dedicated a magisterial catalogue with an exhaustive biographical essay to Twombly on the occasion of the artist’s first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1994.

An earlier exhibition in New York, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979, had been a critical fiasco. It seems to have cemented the prejudice that an artist’s decision to leave American modernity for Italian antiquity could lead only to his decline (remember the fate of Ezra Pound?). The catalogue of the Whitney retrospective published Roland Barthes’s extraordinary second essay on Twombly, entitled “The Wisdom of Art” (his first essay on the artist, “Non Multa Sed Multum” [1976], first appeared in the sixth volume of Yvon Lambert’s catalogue raisonné of Twombly’s works on paper, which was also published in 1979). (Lambert is another Frenchman to whom Twombly’s reputation is deeply indebted.) As we know, encounters between French philosophers and artists are not always as successful as the one between Barthes and TW, as he called him. But in 1979, Barthes’s essay was probably misread by American audiences as part of an ever-expanding encrustation of European interpretations on the body of Twombly’s paintings (for example, by the German poet/dealer Heiner Bastian).

Richard Leeman’s eminent study Cy Twombly (the book is based on the author’s 1999 doctoral dissertation) may stand on Barthes’s shoulders, but the author draws insightfully on his own considerable knowledge of postwar painting, both American and European. While he subscribes to the received wisdom that Twombly’s beginnings must be seen as a dialogue with Jackson Pollock, hovering between the game preserves of automatism and industrialized spectacle, Leean also recognizes the importance of Pollock’s European counterparts—from Dubuffet to Fautrier, from Burri and Fontana to Manzoni.* Their fractured, painterly gestures, which reemerged in Europe in the aftermath of World War II, not only laid the groundwork for the relatively early and enthusiastic European reception of Twombly’s work but, more importantly, became integral to the painter’s formation after his arrival in Italy.

Leeman has conceived his grand monographic study in the most traditional manner. If we believe in the feasibility and desirability of such a traditional format (as undoubtedly the majority of Twombly’s admirers at this time do), we could not hope for a more accomplished book. It delivers the most detailed accounts of every tendency and facet of the artist’s poetical and painterly pursuit, of the subtle and at times sudden transformations that continually punctuated Twombly’s career, from the time of his extraordinary early work at Black Mountain College to his more recent output exhibited at the Gagosian Galleries.

Twombly emerges, as we have long had reason to assume he would, as an immensely learned and very traditional artist, whose choice of a secondary European identity is perfectly plausible. His road to Rome reverberates with the pilgrimages of generations of artists throughout the nineteenth century, from the German Nazarenes to the English Pre-Raphaelites, and his motivations seem to have been similar to theirs: to rediscover, if not to redeem, the remnants of a transhistorical foundation of culture, situated at the intersection of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. If, at the height of Beat culture, Twombly’s Italian road trip must have appeared a rather eccentric project, it now seems perfectly comprehensible as an act of refusal, a desperate attempt to escape the rise of a monolithic American postwar consumer culture by searching out islands of preindustrial civilization. Twombly moves in reverse, from the brutish primitivity of a rapidly advancing technoindustrial mass culture to the sacred ruins of the Greco-Roman Empire. Yet even with the hindsight of fifty years, it seems inexplicable that this fiction of the classical European foundations of culture would not have become dubious in the aftermath of Italian Fascism and the Holocaust.

Leeman gives us an astonishingly scrupulous account of Twombly’s painterly and textual maneuvers within that arena of shattered European humanism, and we benefit immensely from the author’s ability to provide elucidations of every mythological and philosophical allusion, of the poetry and literature of antiquity invoked in Twombly’s abstract neoclassicism. However, Leeman’s learned account at times fails to resolve its innate contradictions. One such instance concerns Twombly’s graphisms. When Leeman argues that they originate in the Egyptian glyph and later forms of writing and mark-making in antiquity, he does not seem disturbed that this extrapolation situates Twombly’s precarious marks in a trajectory of universal human desire. This occludes the more recent graphic impulses of treating—if not debasing—painting as graffito writing (from George Grosz’s celebration of the Berlin public toilets as his “drawing academy” to Brassaï’s and Dubuffet’s 1940s invocations of the graffito as a mark that simultaneously signals the primitive origin and the apocalyptic end of the primary mark-making process). Leeman can convincingly cite Twombly’s rejection of that interpretive cliché inasmuch as the artist has indeed become increasingly tired of the misreading of his drawings as graffiti (ever since his first exhibition in Rome was compared by one critic to the defaced walls of Roman public toilets). But contradictions remain, as when Leeman’s more complex description of Twombly’s “essential” strategy of painting glyphs as hybrids of icon and logos concludes in a perfectly compelling diagnosis of the anal erotic components of painting in general and of Twombly’s work in particular.

Another rift appears in Leeman’s monographic method when the author discusses Twombly’s painterly supports, associating the whiteness of the early paintings with Mediterranean architecture. This strange lapse into a most conventional model of referential representation is not only incompatible with Twombly’s painterly epistemology but blatantly contradicts Leeman’s theoretical ambition—all the more so since the author positions the monograph within an interpretive framework that is defined by diverse strands of psychoanalytic theory from Freud and Jung to Lacan, and Leeman excels at deploying structural-linguistic and semiological models in his discussion of Twombly’s writerly painting. After all, the white grounds of Twombly’s paintings are the grounds of an emerging scripture that evacuates painting from its seemingly ontological entwinement with natural and mythical forms of depiction. And this historical process of painting’s irreversible tendency toward textuality, a process that leads from Twombly to Robert Ryman, and from Ryman to Lawrence Weiner, disappears in such arguments about the mimetic motivation of Twombly’s “walls.” We suspect that such a lapse is innate to the method of the monograph itself, since it inevitably permeates all structures of representation with an underlying aspiration for causality and motivated meaning. And if the proto-Conceptual tendency toward textuality (as is the case with Johns) is indeed, as we would agree with the author, one of the most important aspects of Twombly’s work, the mere memory of Mallarmé, moving as it may be, will not suffice: We would still have to clarify not only whether Twombly repositioned painting in the 1960s in a manner comparable to the way that Mallarmé repositioned poetry in the 1880s, but whether the redefinition of painting as writing would be comparable to the radicality of Mallarmé’s interventions in poetic textuality.

Having worked one’s way through the book’s wealth of detailed interpretations, one is almost convinced that the traditional art-historical monograph, with its insistence on the primacy and singularity of author and oeuvre, its fusion of biographical account and chronological development, is the most appropriate method and format after all. At times, Leeman’s approach even appears salubrious when compared to some recent work on the period—monographs ranging from Fred Orton’s Figuring Jasper Johns (1994) to Branden W. Joseph’s Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde (2003), to name just two studies that seem driven by a thicket of conflicting theoretical demands (e.g., Marxist social art history, psychoanalysis, poststructuralist theory, gender theory, and queer studies).

But Leeman’s French cure for that dilemma—attempting to form a cohesive traditional artistic identity by integrating biography and intellectual history—fails us when it comes to understanding Twombly’s place in the formation of a post-Greenbergian aesthetic that sprang from the fusion of the legacies of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage (with Rauschenberg and Johns, if not Ellsworth Kelly, as his immediate peers). After all, Twombly was responding as critically to Pollock’s presumed expressivity as Johns’s painted epistemological skepticism was, or as Manzoni’s deconstruction of painting was. Yet we will never learn from Leeman’s study what, if anything, Twombly’s mark-making shares with Johns’s molecular deposits of encaustic paint or with Rauschenberg’s chemically induced dye-transfer imagery, let alone with Manzoni’s Achrome paintings. Thus, when it comes to answering questions of context and historical specificity at the moment of postfascist reconstruction culture in Europe and the Americanization of Italy, at a moment when humanist legacies were disappearing rapidly for Europeans and Americans alike, both the format and the method of the monograph fail us.

Ultimately, what Leeman’s admirable book forces us to consider is the relative value of the intensely divergent methodological approaches available to us in the field of postwar studies. Leeman seems to argue—for the most part splendidly and convincingly—that the significance of Twombly’s work derives from its singularity, its extraordinary refinement, and from the extreme differentiation of its subjectivity. And yet these very qualities are, to Leeman’s thinking, precisely what align it in some kind of transhistorical continuity or elective affinity with nineteenth-century concepts of artistic subjectivity originating in Romanticism, Neoclassicism, and Symbolism.

The price we pay for that extrapolation into the spheres of transhistorical aesthetic experience is, of course, the loss of what was once the almost aggressive specificity of Twombly’s work in the context of New York School painting. Leeman’s account effaces Twombly’s interventionist urgency of the late ’50s, which challenged Pollock’s mythical power of cultic and somatic primacy by shifting from gesture to scripture and by dislodging belated American automatisms with a proto-Lacanian conception of the textuality of the unconscious. And, equally urgent, by transforming painting itself into an allegorical incantation, Twombly mourned both the loss of a disappearing classical world of mythical experience and, ultimately, the loss of painting itself.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University.

*In a peculiar gesture of ostentatious omission, the author fails to mention, even in the bibliography, the groundbreaking, if brief, theorization of Twombly’s work in Rosalind E. Krauss’s The Optical Unconscious (1995), nor does he mention Yve-Alain Bois’s important essay on Twombly—“‘Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail’: Reading Twombly”—in the Daros Collection catalogue Abstraction, Gesture, Ecriture, ed. Peter Fischer (Zurich: Alesco, 1999), 61–78.


Richard Leeman, Cy Twombly: A Monograph, trans. Mary Whittall. Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 328 pages. Distributed in the US by Rizzoli.