“Cy Twombly: The Sculpture”

Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart

“One must desire the ultimate essence even if it is ‘contaminated’” Cy Twombly proclaimed in a rare published statement; in 1957. The year is significant, for he had just begun a twenty-year leave from sculpture to focus on painting. This shift is mirrored in the aphorism itself, as it slides from “essence,” the territory of Twombly’s sculpture, to “contamination,” which has more to do with his painting. To put it another way, Twombly’s sculptures have the purity that his paintings always seem to defile.

Of course, that states the opposition too strongly. Twombly’s sculptures are frontal in their address, making pictures in the air. They often share the iconography of his paintings, as the artist’s 1994 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York made clear. And they incorporate the secondary hardware of painting—picture wire, eye screws, nails, framing strips, paint buckets, storage crates—as if admitting their ancillary status.

The virtue of this first major retrospective of Twombly’s sculpture, curated by Katharina Schmidt at the Kunstmuseum Basel and now on view at the Menil Collection in Houston, is that the sculptures, sixty-six of them, are on their own and come into their own, emerging as a fundamentally different enterprise from the paintings.

In fact, the sculptures execute a neat reversal on the paintings, one that Christian Klemm pinpoints in an essay for the catalogue. In the paintings, the color white provides a ground for gritty, energetic graffiti; in the sculptures, it coats the object-signs and “transports them into the gravity-free, light-filled space of poetic association.” To imagine this space, think of the artificial flower that Mondrian painted white and posted in the foyer of his Paris studio to signal that the visitor was entering another realm. (Does Twombly know André Kertész’s photograph of the painted bloom?)

The first works had an interactive complexity that Robert Rauschenberg ran with but Twombly soon abandoned. Untitled, 1954, one of the few early sculptures extant, is all mirrors and swinging parts. Coming first in the exhibition, it made everything that followed seem eerily still—a parade of mute chariots, panpipes, plants, burial mounds, abstract figures, diverse monuments, geometrical theorems. In representing an ancient Mediterranean, Twombly’s sculptures make a civilization of their own.

Two caveats: It seems wrong to say “sculptures,” for there is no literal sculpting (carving) here, and very little modeling either, but only binding, trussing, nailing, pinning, wedging, balancing, twisting, snapping, and crumpling. And it seems wrong to say “representing,” for these objects (when they work) suspend disbelief, putting us in the presence not just of an image but somehow of the thing itself. To borrow the title of Kendall Walton’s recent treatise on aesthetics, Twombly’s three-dimensional work is “mimesis as make-believe”: It partakes of the child’s play impulse to suspend disbelief. What makes the trick work is that the thing itself is often a representation—a figurine, toy, relic, or fossil—so all Twombly needs to provide is the illusion of a model boat, not a real boat.

The fun of make-believe is stepping in and out of the game. Take Winter’s Passage: Luxor, 1985, which Schmidt calls “one of Twombly’s most perfect sculptures.” Here, with a little help from the title and a little more from the catalogue, we can envision a bark bearing the sarcophagus of a prince across the Nile to begin his journey of purification. Maybe this model, which comes complete with four presentational chocks, has the magic of those buried with the Egyptian dead. A colder glance reveals Twombly at work, finding the essence of each element: casket, oar, hull, shadow, water, one bit of wood for each, placed just so. But when he pins that happily warped board to its base with a slanted stick, our glance rewarms and we float again, drifting downstream with the illusion. Twombly finds the arc and ache of our mimetic desire within the material itself.

In Basel, Twombly applied the same care to the exhibition, which he designed in close collaboration with Schmidt. The top floor of the Kunstmuseum was a series of rooms arranged in a square track, and because the rooms had central openings, the visitor could look all the way up and down each side of the square to its corners, which glowed with natural light. This layout offered four possible privileged sites, four spots where an object could have been awarded two long views. Twombly used only a single spot, and the choice—one of the few sculptures for which the frontal view is not primary—was perfect: Ambasis, 1980, is a nonflying wedge, a chariot on gummed-up castors whose two rising sides, made of plywood trapezoids, meet at an acute angle. Sited at the first corner one saw upon entering the show, it deflected the gaze the way an Etruscan chariot divided armies.

“At each stroke, TW [Twombly] blows up the Museum,” Roland Barthes wrote in 1979. That may have been true of his paintings once. But his objects seem born for the museum, and they have been practicing for years in Twombly’s Italian homes, where they sit on old end tables or faux-marble capitals like nothing so much as those “whited sepulchres” of the Bible, “which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones.” In the festival atmosphere common in today’s museum, their effect is surprisingly radical: Twombly’s objects stop the carnival and reveal a tomb.