PRINT November 2011

Dorothea Rockburne

Cy Twombly at Black Mountain College, Black Mountain, NC, 1951. Photo: Jonathan Williams/Jargon Collection, Buffalo, SUNY.

IN 1994 THE GAGOSIAN GALLERY, now located in Chelsea, was located on Wooster Street in SoHo. Its dimensions were sixteen by thirty-three by sixty-two feet. On my lunch hour I walked over to see Cy Twombly’s most recent exhibition. When I walked into the gallery, strikingly, there was only one painting, which covered the entire south wall. It was impossible to view the work—Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor—from very far back. In fact, the gallery had moved a wall to separate the street entrance from the exhibition, making the viewing space narrower than it normally was. Therefore, the only possible way to view the work was to begin at one end and walk alongside it. “Hmm!” I thought. “Cy has been studying the Giotto corridor in the church of Saint Francis in Assisi.”

When I first viewed the Saint Francis fresco panels, on either side of that long corridor leading to the main altar in the back of the church, I stopped to study the individual panels depicting the life of the saint. Giotto was a master at using visual devices that subtly control the viewer’s bodily movements. In order to experience the work, the viewer must walk along and by it. If one is visually sensitive, this viewing position mysteriously causes one’s body to function as part of the painting. As I walked down that corridor, using my peripheral vision I watched out of the corner of my eye while Giotto’s diagonal lines within the panels seemingly changed their position as they defined the end of one Saint Francis story and the beginning of another. I, the viewer, had become part of an invisible line constituting the vanishing point. It was almost as though I were a camera and the work required my viewing of it, as I walked along that corridor, to understand its own completeness. What an exhilarating idea!

The painter “takes his body with him,” says Valéry. Indeed we cannot imagine how a mind could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings. To understand these transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body—not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” from The Primacy of Perception (1964)

I first met Cy at Black Mountain College in the fall of 1950, when he and Rauschenberg were there together. They were both stunningly handsome. They were never students in the strict sense. They were there to grab free time to paint and to partake in the vast richness of that intellectual community. We three hit it off right away and became very good friends and fooled around a lot together.

We worked in the photography lab under the direction of Hazel-Frieda Larsen. Bob and Cy were convinced that the house in which they lived was haunted, and so once, at night, we tried to do spirit photography there, and naturally failed. Another time, Bob and Cy rewrote a scene from Hamlet, in which I was to play Ophelia. I remember lying on a raft in the middle of Lake Eden in a long white dress Bob had made for me. My long hair was draped over the side of the raft, falling into the lake, which wasn’t particularly clean. There must have been more to it, but I don’t remember it. I do remember Cy laughing like hell as he watched me. It was very difficult to keep a straight face under those conditions.

At Black Mountain College everyone was always rebelling, both in their lives and in their work, and it struck me at the time that it was only Cy and I who were not rebelling against the history of art. We both shared a love for ancient history, ancient art, and the poet Rilke. (It was impossible to come out of Black Mountain College and not love Rilke.)

Cy, in his painting, was not trying to create a revolution in art as Duchamp had. He was trying to make a meal from art and the human history it contains, which indeed he did.

Cy Twombly, Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor, 1994, triptych, oil, acrylic, crayon, and graphite on canvas, left panel 13' 1 1/2“ x 9' 9”; central panel 13' 1 1/2“ x 32' 6”; right panel 13' 1 1/2“ x 9' 9”.

Although later Cy lived in Italy, I saw him often when he visited New York. Then, once, in 1967, I was in Munich. I was perfectly miserable and so I called Cy and he invited me to hightail it to Rome, which I promptly did. He had invited me to stay with him and his family on the Piazza Navona. They occupied the top floor of a former palazzo. When I rang the bell, his son, Alessandro, eight at the time, answered the door, took me to my room, and showed me around. The space was drenched in sunlight on white marble and was sparsely furnished. There were several Picasso sculptures on stands. When I remarked that I hadn’t known that Cy owned so many Picassos, he replied that he didn’t. “My father made them himself,” he said proudly.

It is as if in the painter’s calling there were some urgency above all other claims on him. Strong or frail in life, he is incontestably sovereign in his own rumination of the world. With no other technique than what his eyes and hands discover in seeing and painting, he persists in drawing from this world, with its din of history’s glories and scandals, canvases which will hardly add to the angers or the hopes of man—and no one complains.

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind”

Well, Merleau-Ponty says it all much better than I can. It’s almost as though he were writing a review of Cy’s working method. In spite of himself, Cy did create a revolution, and I revel in it.

Dorothea Rockburne is a working artist living in New York City.