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Arthur C. Danto

Cy Twombly, Aurora, 1981, wood, plastic flower, twine, paint, plaster, nails, wire, 54 x 43 1/8 x 8 3/8".

I HAVE BEEN STRUCK by how often those who have written about Cy Twombly expressed regret that they had never met him. Since I had the singular good fortune to have been Cy’s guest in Italy in 1996, two years after the tremendous retrospective organized by Kirk Varnedoe at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it occurred to me that there must be a general interest in knowing how he lived and what he was like. Cy was not an easy man to get to know, but once I made it past the barriers of his somewhat princely personality, he got to be a friend. I have never kept a diary and am at an age to forget things, but I thought that with the aid of my wife, who accompanied me to Gaeta, the ancient Mediterranean port city where Cy lived much of the time, I might construct a sketch of the artist and the man, close up.

I had known relatively little of Twombly’s art when I set out to review his MoMA retrospective for The Nation in 1994, but I was well aware that he had been harshly castigated by the sculptor and critic Donald Judd for his “Nine Discourses on Commodus,” exhibited at Leo Castelli’s gallery thirty years earlier. Indeed, it is one of the more famous put-downs in art history. Judd, who felt that painting was washed up anyway, called the show a “fiasco” and described the works in it as offering “a few drips and splatters and an occasional pencil line,” concluding bluntly: “There isn’t anything to the paintings.”

I was not an art critic at that time and I didn’t see the Castelli show, but I brought up Judd’s devastating formalist attack in my review of the retrospective (I had been appointed art critic of The Nation in 1984), in an attempt to elucidate the “blackboard paintings” that filled a dimly lit gallery at MoMA. Contrary to popular commentary, the childish scribbles those austere canvases bore—row after row of awkwardly traced o’s—must have meant something. And it occurred to me that these pictures were a reaction to Judd’s review. I wrote:

Being sent to the blackboard haunts all our memories as a traumatic occurrence in the schoolroom, where we stand exposed to the ridicule of teacher and classmates as we endeavor to spell the word, add the figures, conjugate the verb, or demonstrate to what degree we have mastered the ordeal of the Palmer method of penmanship.

Twombly had been schooled, so to speak, by Judd, a “teacher” whose authority derived, in turn, from the critical scriptures of Clement Greenberg. The blackboard paintings, I argued, were the errant pupil’s atonement.

I don’t know what Twombly thought of my review—he never said a word about it to me—but I must have hit some nail or other on the head. Two years later, he invited me to Italy. It was all arranged quite formally. One day, his New York dealer, Larry Gagosian, asked whether I planned to be home on a given night, and Nicola Del Roscio, Cy’s partner, lover, critic, administrator, and helper, phoned promptly on the appointed evening: He had compiled a catalogue raisonné of Cy’s sculpture and wondered whether I would contribute an essay on this scarcely known body of work. I said I had seen far too little of it to take this assignment on, to which Nicola replied that virtually all of the sculptures were at his place or Cy’s and that I could stay with them as long as I needed. I thought it would be a marvelous adventure, so I told my wife we were going to Italy. She had her doubts, but when a written invitation arrived, Nicola’s bold handwriting—open, generous, and warm—convinced Barbara that this was an opportunity not to be passed up. We found ourselves in Gaeta a few weeks later.

The town is situated on the western coast of Italy, roughly halfway between Rome and Naples. As it happened, I had been a soldier in that area during the Second World War and remembered the devastation wrought by naval artillery, especially up the coast in Velletri. The walls were still pocked by bullets, but there was an esplanade with dusty palm trees. It all had a deliciously ragged Mediterranean look. Nicola lived high on a steep hill, with a view of the gulf, in an old house once occupied by an ecclesiastical gourmet who would send his servants out to harvest the exhausted birds that had flown in from Africa and were lying prostrate on the grass. There was a chapel, with an ornamental tiled floor that I thought must be late Romanesque. Nicola made his living selling antique picture frames, which were neatly arranged on the walls—and he had the look of a Caravaggio youth who took good care of himself. He became a friend immediately and remained a friend. (On 9/11, he phoned not just to commiserate but to urge us to move to Italy and stay with him. I cannot quite imagine Cy doing this, though he was friendly enough, once he looked you over.) On our arrival, Nicola flapped a towel out the window to signify that we had arrived, and Cy flapped back a greeting. He lived at the bottom of the hill that Nicola lived on top of, and their windows were visible to each other. They were in constant communication by these peculiar means.

Cy Twombly in his studio, Gaeta, Italy, 1995. Photo: François Halard.

Cy had the look of a Roman senator, tall and authoritative, with a generous nose. He wore a light linen or cotton suit on his walks along the esplanade, but he would have looked natural in a toga. His house was a constellation of linked dwellings and had the air of an Arab village, enclosing a garden. (Nicola had a garden of palm trees.) The rooms were full of rare pieces of art he had brought back from his travels. In the surprisingly neat and tidy room he used for painting (his principal studio was in Rome), he was at work on a series of pictures of sea battles. Cy claimed that he applied the paint literally by the handful, which supported my theory of paint and meaning: The canvases’ dripping starbursts were explosions, not mere lumps of pigment. He had based the works on a set of tapestries of the Battle of Lepanto that he had special access to, if memory serves, through a member of the Doria-Pamphilj family. Cy moved comfortably among the elite, as suited the husband of the aristocrat Tatiana Franchetti—the sister of his patron, the baron Giorgio Franchetti, and a portraitist in her own right. They had met on his travels in Italy in 1957 and married two years later, in New York. They no longer lived together, but Cy was in daily contact with her. They had a son, Cyrus Alessandro, himself an artist. Tatiana died only last year.

I really know little about her, or the marriage, beyond what Nicola told us. He and she were not on cordial terms. But many years later—in 2005—I saw the show (“Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper”) at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and one series on display had the poetic title “Scenes from an Ideal Marriage,” 1986. I tried to find a literary origin for the title, but no one knew of a text with exactly that name. Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 film Scenes from a Marriage comes immediately to mind, but the union he depicted was, of course, anything but ideal. So, in the end, I decided that Cy must have been referring to his own marriage, at least at some stage. I borrowed his title for this memoir, changing the term to “friendship.”

Cy was always generous. At restaurants, he would pull a bankroll out of his pocket rather than opening a wallet. It was, he said, safer. One evening, when a student from Cy’s alma mater, Washington and Lee, stopped by our table, Cy peeled off a few bills. The youth, whose name I have forgotten, was attracted by the conversation; he joined our group and stayed as long as the rest of us did, listening to the discussion.

One topic that came up at our meals was the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which had just been completed. Cy was enthusiastic: The frescoes were not so much cleansed as transformed into Mannerist masterpieces. I had been skeptical, but when Barbara and I ended our sojourn with Cy in Gaeta and Rome, we went to the Vatican to see the great frescoes, in which I felt I saw discoveries that could be made. In fact, I wrote a long study of Michelangelo’s vault, which I soon plan to publish.

But I was in Italy to deal with Cy’s sculptures. There was one, in Nicola’s living room, of Aurora, which was the ship that fired on Saint Petersburg in 1917, and that action is thought to have detonated the Russian Revolution. The sculpture, from 1981, was, of course, not a model boat. It was a two-by-four length of pine, surmounted by a crude cabin, and a nail was driven into the deck. It was something that a Soviet schoolboy might have made, with the nail standing for its being homemade and handmade. Afterward it was slathered with white paint, as were most of Cy’s sculptures. They were made of dried flowers, scraps of wood, palm leaves.

One was central to my essay. Dating from 1978, it was named Cycnus—swan—which emblematized a warrior who, like Achilles, had one point of vulnerability: the tendon in the case of Achilles, the neck in that of Cycnus. Achilles pressed his opponent’s helmet back and killed him. Surprisingly, a swan flew out of his body. The swan was the palm leaf, illustrating flight, affixed to a block of wood, illustrating the body.

The sculptures were primitive and simple, but very moving. We saw them in Cy’s Roman studio, an upper floor of an old building near the Palazzo Farnese, just up from the Piazza Navona. We took the train in from Gaeta, Cy talking all the way about who lived in what castle we saw in the landscape. The studio had been given him by his wife, as a wedding gift, I gathered. By this time, Cy was quite comfortable with us—though he did growl at my mention of Marcel Duchamp, who he felt did not belong in my essay. True, the materials he used for his construction were “ready-made.” He hardly touched them, if at all, but took them as they were. Nicola was constantly bringing in weeds and pieces of lumber, asking whether this or that would not make a good sculpture. I know a number of artists whose studio assistants have had that sort of privilege—Motherwell, Mapplethorpe, and several others. They did not have teams of studio workers but counted on a single assistant to help. Apart from Nicola, I think Cy was on his own.

Cy Twombly, Untitled V, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 10' 8" x 16'. From the series “Bacchus,” 2005.

In the winters, Cy lived in Lexington, Virginia, the home of Washington and Lee, where his father had been a baseball coach. Barbara and I next saw Cy in Lexington, where I had been invited to speak by Harry Pemberton, his great friend on the faculty. I had decided to turn my essay on Michelangelo into a lecture on the Sistine vault, and I dedicated it to Cy and Nicola. There was no stipend, but we did get flown on a private plane, rented by Gagosian, with piped-in recordings of the Beatles singing their songs in German. During our stay, we got a pretty good sense of Cy’s life in Lexington, and, more important, it bonded our friendship.

Cy took advantage of Washington and Lee, sitting in on classes in Russian and classical literature. He was an erudite man, a bit like Motherwell—though, until Judd, he never had to pay a price for his cultivation. Cy was close friends with the photographer Sally Mann, with whom we all had dinner one night. She was an original thinker and showed us her current project, which consisted in making large, painterly photographs of Civil War sites. Cy was photographing flowers at the time and gave us a book of his pictures.

Our friendship had settled in. Not long after our trip to Italy, Cy and Nicola had flown to Paris for the opening of Barbara’s show at the Galerie Mantoux-Gignac on the rue des Archives. And Barbara and I attended the large exhibition of his sculptures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2001, as well as the much smaller shows at Gagosian over the years. Cy would call when he was in New York, and now and again we had a meal with him and Nicola.

Oddly, I did not hear from Cy about the great “Bacchus” exhibition at Gagosian in 2005. The paintings could almost have been versions of the “Nine Discourses on Commodus”—an emperor who was, after all, one of Ancient Rome’s more notorious madmen—or, perhaps better, titled “Dialogues with Dionysus,” the god of drunkenness. Closed red loops ran wildly across the surface, spilling drips. I thought of Annibale Carracci’s fresco on the Farnese palace ceiling, which depicted Bacchus in a chariot. I wish I had spoken with Cy about the work: The physical force needed to make these loops of rusty red pigment had to have been great, and knowing that he was in or close to his eighties, I wondered how he could have gathered the strength to lift the brushes—if he even used brushes. Nietzsche would certainly have called these paintings Dionysian. Only a god could have been that drunk!

Shortly after the show, Ophra Shemesh, a friend of the Twomblys’, told me that Cy wondered what I had thought of the new pictures. One cannot imagine him asking indiscriminately what people thought of his work. I knew I had won his respect.

The last show we saw was the billboard-scale paintings of chrysanthemums, in 2007, one of which got into the newspapers because a girl planted a kiss on it in Avignon. That was a gesture Bacchus would have endorsed. Warhol exhibited the Marilyn paintings shot with a bullet by Dorothy Podber, a Bacchic lady. Donald Judd, on the other hand, sent his sheet-metal sculpture to the machine shop to ensure its rectilinear perfection. I guess that was pure Apollonian art, to follow Nietzsche’s thought. Cy was both Apollonian and Dionysian, a Virginia gentleman who painted, when he painted, his fists holding balls of pigment.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.