PRINT November 2011

Rosalind E. Krauss

Cy Twombly, Olympia, 1957, oil-based house paint, lead pencil, colored pencil, and wax crayon on canvas, 78 3/4 x 104".

IN 1994, shortly after “Cy Twombly: A Retrospective” opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I had the honor of being conducted through the show by its curator, Kirk Varnedoe. Tracing the works’ progression from the painterly abstraction of the early ’50s to Twombly’s signature style of aggressive graffiti etched into grounds of cream-colored gesso, we came to the 1957 canvas titled Olympia, the name of its dedicatee prominently scrawled in black. Varnedoe told me he had hung the exhibition with Twombly at his side, and that the artist had pointed out to him the almost invisible verb knifed into Olympia’s surface—FUCK—so that the dedication, despite the painting’s official title, actually reads FUCK OLYMPIA.

The pictorial nominalism that Roland Barthes identified in works with performative titles such as To Valéry, 1973; Virgil, 1973; and To Tatlin, 1974—works in which, he writes in his 1979 essay “The Wisdom of Art,” nothing appears “anywhere except, precisely, in their names”—must also obtain in Olympia, if in a more circuitous way.

Coming at the beginning of Twombly’s sinuous path through a presumed “classicism” signaled by titles such as Arcadia, 1958; School of Athens, 1961; and Leda and the Swan, 1962, Olympia is a name celebrated at the outset of modernist art and severed from classical references. As a sacred touchstone for postwar artists, it is not to be lightly dismissed by a derogatory “fuck.” Is this gesture Twombly’s proleptic refusal of historically sacrosanct names just as he would unleash a flood of celebratory, Latinate ones? What does it mean to refuse Olympia, to reject her so violently?

If what Manet’s Olympia had brought to the history of modernism was the lateral spread and intactness of the pictorial surface (a virginal plane, as it were, an example of what Derrida called the hymen), Twombly’s aggressive transgression of this inviolate matter, through his etching, jabbing, scrawling, marring, stabbing, was a refusal of modernism’s formal coherence as well. Indeed, “fuck” announces the onset of the libidinal drive at the center of this refusal—invincible, ineradicable “form” challenged by the emergence of that figuration associated with the graffiti scratched onto toilet doors and telephone booths: the vulvas, penises, mouths, and scrotum of the obscene imagination. (See, for instance, the Ferragosto canvases or The Italians, all 1961.)

After this robust challenge to form, many of Twombly’s admirers felt betrayed by the kinds of pictures he began making in the late 1970s, with their disappointing return to a pastoral calm and lyricism, their move away from the allover to sparser and more classical compositions: Fifty Days at Iliam,1978; Hero and Leandro, 1981­–84; Wilder Shores of Love, 1985; The Four Seasons, 1993­–94.

This seeming retreat, however, is countered by Twombly’s transgressive sculptural production, marked by the extraordinary Untitled (New York), 1959, a scallop-shelled vulva intimately connected to the libidinal scribbles of the graffiti paintings. Another sculpture worthy of Georgia O’Keeffe is the doubly vaginal Thicket (Formia-Rome), 1981; and the erogenous direction of these two works—which is to say, their surrender to debasement—is further evident in the explicitly phallic Untitled (Bassano in Teverina), 1979, no less than in the celebratory formlessness of By the Ionian Sea (Gaeta), 1987, and Untitled (Jupiter Island), 1992. In this production, performative dedication of the works (as in To Valéry) does not lapse: The thoroughly phallic Untitled (Gaeta), 1984, towers over a plaque inscribed with Rilke’s words, from the Duino Elegies: “And we who have always / thought of happiness / climbing, would feel the emotion that almost / startles / when happiness / falls.”

Indeed, “falls” indicates the direction of the pictorial erotic, in which the elevation of the vertical human body, rising into the sublimatory posture of the visual and the beautiful (as Freud tells us in Civilization and Its Discontents), enables it thus to surmount the horizontal axis of the pawing and sniffing animal. It was this very elevation that had staged the most nakedly erotic of Twombly’s paintings of the early ’60s, such as the five Ferragostos, with their drips and runs descending toward the base of the picture, in what Georges Bataille—with his introduction of l’informe—had called bassesse. In his dictionary definition of the former, opening as it does with the statement that words have no meanings but, rather, jobs, Bataille insisted that the job of l’informe is to “bring things down in the world.”

That job was transferred by Twombly to the sculpture he began to make in the 1950s, after his trip to Italy and North Africa with Robert Rauschenberg. This production itself was, for Twombly, constituted by the found object, by trash, by the readymade. Duchamp, of course, publicly launched the readymade with Fountain, 1917, the urinal deemed so obscene by the hanging committee of that year’s Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York that it was paradoxically refused by the very society that celebrated its own radical bona fides: “no jury, no prizes.” If not in his classicizing painting, Twombly carried on his challenge to form with the sculptural found object, or readymade, bringing art, indeed, “down in the world.”

Cy Twombly, Hero and Leandro (Part I), 1981–84, oil, house paint, and paint stick on canvas, 66 x 787⁄8". From the four-part suite Hero and Leandro, 1981–84.

The paintings of the late 1970s and ’80s, classicized both by their names—Goethe, Iliam, Leandro—and, in some cases, by Twombly’s introduction of polymer paints, which gave the canvases a Renaissance feel of Venetian glazes, seem as far as possible from the fallen status of the readymade. But throughout the ’80s, in sculptures such as Thicket and The Keeper of Sheep, 1980, Twombly imported plastic flowers and kitschy palm fronds to challenge the aura of the artist’s touch, to flee thus from Parnassus and Iliam so as to enter the desublimated halls of commerce.

As are so many other of his sculptures, Untitled (Bassano in Teverina), 1979, is made of wood, covered by plaster. Its phallic shape consists of a vertical spine flanked by the double orbs of scrotum, resembling the kind of military cannon David Smith fashioned throughout the ’50s and named Tanktotems. I make no claims that Twombly would have known these works (or Smith’s drawings of phallic cannon), although the publication of several in the Guggenheim’s 1969 Smith exhibition catalogue makes this possible. Smith’s concentration on the “totem” had resublimated the aggressive look of these tank-top sculptures, distancing and protecting them from the viewer (the very function of the totem). Twombly’s sculpture, however, maintains its bassesse—its challenge to Hero and Leandro.

Rosalind E. Krauss, University professor at Columbia University in New York, teaches twentieth-century Art and Theory.