PRINT November 2011

Jeffrey Weiss

View of “Cy Twombly: The Sculpture,” 2001, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Foreground: Thermopylae, 1991. Background, from left: Untitled, 1984; Thermopylae, 1992; Untitled, 1987.

I WORKED BRIEFLY BUT CLOSELY with Cy Twombly in 2001, during the installation of his exhibition of sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The show (originally organized by Katharina Schmidt and Paul Winkler for the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Menil Collection, Houston) was a leap for the NGA, a largely conservative institution. Initially intended for the East Building, it was ultimately installed in the Mellon galleries of the old West Building, a series of elegant Beaux-Arts rooms that were whitewashed for the occasion. Skylights that are normally covered or strongly filtered were exposed, flooding the space with sunlight. The sculptures, themselves whitewashed, were luminous in this setting. When we finished the installation, Cy said they looked as though they had always been there.

I had spent some time visiting him at his studio in Lexington, Virginia, and we had come to have a certain rapport. But Twombly was his own myth, so to speak, and when he came (with Winkler and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, trusted friends) to install the show, it took some getting used to. In advance of his visit, I had already placed all the works, although, naturally, I expected changes. Over the course of the two days that we spent together in the space, everything got moved. Watching Cy carry sculptures from place to place—and, much to the chagrin of the art hand­lers, he did a good deal of this—was riveting. I often felt as if I were intruding, yet that told me something about the work. I believe that the sculpture was extremely personal for him, almost private. For many years it was barely ever shown (more than once he told me no one cared about it), although he lived with it at home both in Lexington and in Gaeta, Italy. Observing him, I saw that the act of installation was an intimate part of the work’s life. There were other lessons: Cy was adamant that the sculptures have fronts and backs, so he kept pushing them from the center of the room toward the walls. He handled them with far less care than the rest of us. Most of the sculptures still belonged to him, or to friends and family; if something came loose, he would casually (yet with purpose) reattach the offending part and move on. He was gracious but utterly absorbed, and he said very little. During periods of boredom or fatigue, he wandered off to look at old-master paintings.

Cy was plainly honored by the attentions of the National Gallery. This took me by surprise at the time, but it shouldn’t have; given his conflicted relationship to the art community and his Southern upbringing and life abroad, the show was, I think, personally momentous for him. Still, separating the man from his mythic or historical stature can be difficult. And it is, after all, the role of myth and historical narrative in his work—the apparent recuperation of those things—with which writers on this artist so often struggle. What seems to matter more to young artists is that he lived his art. Addressing the work, I try to maintain critical distance, but I find myself inevitably moved. Accounting for that, rather than resisting it, may be necessary. The work’s material identity is inseparable from the privacy of its motivations. It wants to traffic in myth and history, but intimacy is its sublime undoing.

Jeffrey Weiss is curator of the Panza Collection at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and an adjunct professor of fine arts at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.