Cy Twombly

At the ICA in Philadelphia, Cy Twombly showed paintings, drawings, and constructions from 1951–1974. One problem with the criticism of his work is that it tends to be poetically effusive and not to the point. (Heiner Bastian’s Parnassian evocation in the catalogue is particularly impertinent.) On the other hand, more iconographically minded writers, myself included, tend to convey the impression that Twombly is little more than a fashionable eclectic—which he is not. Thus this review, which I regard as a postscript to the iconographic issues addressed in my article on Twombly in the April, 1974, Artforum, is spurred by direct and urgent responses to the sheerly beautiful passages in Twombly’s painting. The following connections then should be considered with my enthusiasm in mind—not just niggling detail.

The oddest bibliographic curiosity, in hindsight, is the review by Don Judd in Arts, May, 1964, in which he noted that “there isn’t anything to the paintings.” This formulation is funny now, insofar as Judd is revealed in the present superb installation as the owner of one of Twombly’s homages to Leonardo, a drawing based on the linear repertory of one of the greatest of Leonardo’s Deluge drawings, a reproduction of which is collaged like a capstone upon the Twombly in question.

In Artforum (April, 1974), I proposed that Twombly’s elegant linearity was rooted in American drawing of the 1930s and 1940s, in the graphic flourish of certain social commentators of the period, notably Ben Shahn, whose work the artist knew well, as he had studied with him at Black Mountain College. Similar linear concerns in the work of Philip Evergood—rejecting of course Evergood’s imagery—may be added to this legacy.

To this tradition Twombly added a discursive automatism that once was so engaging in Dubuffet’s work of the ’40s and ’50s, an inflection retained in Twombly’s early fascination with the flaky character of gritty walls. In the ’50s, Twombly took the scabrous walls of East Side tenements as both a metaphor for painting as well as its literal support. Twombly extends the metaphor to subsume landscape. He achieves this either by painting through graphic markings with a stroke that demarcates horizon or through leaving the ground unscored by mark at that place in the image where the horizon would naturally spread. Can Adolph Gottlieb have suggested this solution since his work provides a terse wall/landscape metaphor from the ’50s on? (And what of Gottlieb’s Pictograms that precede this work? Are they preserved as graffiti in Twombly?) Twombly’s use of the vestigial memory of landscape renders ambiguous the pictorial directives “normal” to painting (e.g., up and down, surface and flatness).

I wish to stress Twombly’s affiliations with Italian art, especially to the disegno of the Renaissance, which viewed drawing, among other possibilities, as both an elegant and a scientific occupation. This is ironically maintained in Twombly’s parascientific diagrams that function less as systems-reference and more as expressive imagery and, as such, derive from de Chirico’s metaphysical blackboards of 1917. The Italian models are preserved in Twombly’s drawing, particularly Futurist models, without the maintenance of Futurism’s class activism. Twombly’s art is preeminently one of socioeconomic detachment (except insofar as a Twombly in itself has become a symbol of “High Class” in contemporary culture). I have pointed to Balla’s studies for Bankrupt of 1902. Similarly, the Twombly owned by Gian Enzo Sperone appears to derive from Boccioni’s pencil studies of “depressed” lines that symbolize Those Who Stay, made in preparation for his great triptych, States of Mind: the Farewells (1911). The rain-streaked, morose note of those drawings are present in Twombly’s grayish color as well.

In part, Twombly’s ambiguous gray space comes from Giacometti, from those surfaces that mark the seams and grooves, those deepest points that incise a form, as if to erode or attack it. Giacometti attempts to metamorphose inert space into an active agent through a marking process that is, whatever else, that much more the gesture of denial and erasure. Twombly’s surfaces, like those of Giacometti, his greatest forebear in this, do not depict forms so much as deny them, stomp them out, erase and cancel them. Twombly throws over our legacy of Impressionist empiricism whereby the stroke served as a surrogate for the colored beam of light. Instead, Twombly’s stroke becomes something idly and perversely trenchant, defacing and form-scarring, as if the artist were attempting to extract gray neutrality from an ever-diminishing residue of the illusion of form in space.

Robert Pincus-Witten