New York

Cy Twombly

This was Cy Twombly seen at his most extroverted, but, as always, with a touch of the reclusive. The familiar scrawl, with its mix of unconscious touch and conscious script, still exists as the sediment of memory, however panoramic it may become. John Graham once said, “The great mystery is: where ends the stroke and where begins the caress?” In Twombly the mystery is that the caress can never be more than a stroke: one can print "Ovid,” but the poet is dead, and one can’t bring him back with the flick of a pencil. One can make poetry out of death, out of one’s musings and jottings to oneself about the past glory of Rome, but it is not the same as actively embracing that glory, which is now nothing but poetry.

There’s a book of essays on John Ashbery called Beyond Amazement (1980). I’m happy to say that Twombly still creates the amazement of intimate touch, still the most astonishing of intimacies. So there is, after all, a caress in Twombly’s flighty markings, those signs that are also gestures. We can see the body it means to bring into being in the two painted bronzes that were shown here, one resting on and as heavy as the earth, the other a strange creature attached to the earth but “yearning” beyond it. The density of the 1979 piece and the “limberness” of the 1983 one suggest the antipodes of Twombly’s handling, which either breaks off before congestion makes itself felt, or conveys the sense of something long dead beginning to grow again. The archaic—atavistic?—is evident in both.

Twombly sometimes seems to list his gestures as much as he makes lists of his thoughts, as memos to himself. For all their casualness, these works have an insistence on the irrepressibly personal in the midst of the eternal. There are what can be taken as touches of humor, as in the words “flight” and “memory” in Bolsena, 1972; but these seem incidental to the general sense of scavenging relics of the personal from the eternal scene, not only of Rome, but also of the empty canvas. Twombly has lived in Rome since 1957; his gesture seems determined to function as a patina on the past while remaining as vital as the unconscious. But then, the unconscious is as much a realm of the dead as is Rome.

Twombly’s gestures are archaeological in spirit, but they are also contemporary graffiti; or, rather, they are graffiti idealized into memory traces of a time when the prosaic was inherently poetic, when the simplest gesture in time was fraught with timeless meaning, all of which has been forgotten. Time is the subject of Twombly’s gesture, not time recollected in tranquillity but present time spent to recover a sense of what it might have been like to live in a past world that never expected to be superseded. Twombly’s works are full of nostalgia for the inarticulate, as though it were the elixir of escape from an overbearing present.

Donald Kuspit