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PRINT November 2011

Robert Morris

Cy Twombly, Lepanto VII, 2001, acrylic and wax crayon on canvas, 7' 1 1/4“ x 10' 2 3/4”. From the twelve-panel series “Lepanto,” 2000–2001.

HE TOOK FROM THE DEAD. The long-dead ancients. He was always grabbing for a reference. A real necrophiliac. But a sly one. A shy grave robber. Digging down to mine our heritage, our Western lode as scribbled on the wall of a public toilet. But wasn’t the gesture a little fey, considering the calculated spontaneity of those smears and scribbles? You could say he got there in a studious fashion. Arrived after a suitable apprenticeship, after endless hours of in-school penmanship. Something like the Palmer penmanship method. (What the old ones like me remember—nobody writes by hand anymore.) All those ovals of imitation chalk on imitation dusty blackboards. Swirl after swirl of smoothly connected ovals, all on the line. Whose shoulders was he standing on when he wrote/painted, or was it painted/wrote? The smears came later. Those oh-so-controlled and knowing smears and blobs of studied hesitancy. And blurred notations invoking the muses. Museum muses. Or the gods in cobwebs. And the mythical ladies and their bulls. Apollo maybe got the heaviest workout. But there were others. Catullus was always tracking through the wet paint, whether acknowledged or not. Twentieth-century Hellenism in spades. I think Heraclitus kept his toe out of the rivers of smears, sulking on the bank with dry feet. But don’t we all want, aren’t we all desperate, to anchor what we do to the deep past? Don’t we want to walk with the old boys? Didn’t Poussin (his favorite)? Didn’t Cézanne? Weren’t they all looking back and whining for a golden time? Wasn’t Cy just less shy about footnoting the ancients? Or did a certain impatience with, not to say revulsion at, the abstract finally give way to the gesture of Fuck it? Or did he want to lead us back to a silence interrupted by mumbles that we have forgotten how to hear? Didn’t he want us to catch an echo of that lost time and to hear those reverberations disturb our looking? (No matter that such a time never existed.)

Smears as plaintive murmurs? A little hysterical, maybe, but urgent and pleading. Hellos and good-byes, not to mention a few memorial marks to vanished erections. Was he trying to make ancient works that called the bluff of the cold, hysterical present? Hate the present, dread the future, love the past. Even the pasts we stage? Even the memories we invent? Even the colorful props and the scrawled fictitious signs? Anything that keeps the dried blood of history out of sight.

Edwin Parker Twombly Jr. took the nickname “Cy.” His father, who had pitched briefly for the Chicago White Sox, had appropriated the name in homage to the legendary pitcher Cy Young. As we know, baseball is the game played by young men often referred to as the “boys of summer.” Many an American male can look back to the vanished times of that summer game and to the remembered companions of his youth. Whether or not Edwin Parker ever spent any youthful hours on the diamond, the very assumption of “Cy” is a gesture toward Arcadia. As spoken we hear “sigh,” an appropriate response to the confrontation with the memento mori. But how wide a stage is the memento mori? And what is the right attire in which to appear on it? What gestures are the convincing ones? In Roman times, it was the role of the slave to remind the general parading in his triumphal procession that death rode with him. Cy wanted to turn his lofty celebration of art to face the wall so we could see the fingerprints left behind by the long-dead youth whose fingers once felt the fresh springs of summer and the soft earth of desire. But the problem remains that Cy Twombly was more general than slave in reminding us.

Robert Morris is an artist who lives in New York.