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Cy Twombly, Ferragosto I, 1961, oil paint, wax crayon, and lead pencil on canvas, 65 3⁄8 x 79 3⁄8".

Cy Twombly, Ferragosto I, 1961, oil paint, wax crayon, and lead pencil on canvas, 65 3⁄8 x 79 3⁄8".

Cy Twombly

BY WHAT STANDARD are we to comprehend the career of an artist whose significance to artmaking, while everywhere felt, nonetheless manages to elude critical consensus? Cy Twombly has long been such a figure. Many artists (not just painters), now two generations of them, revere him, although the visual evidence of his impact on their work is in some cases difficult to discern. Yet it is safe to say that, while Twombly likewise commands an intense following in the museum community, he has managed to escape the kind of public interest that, over time, has been heaped on his close contemporaries Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. We sometimes speak of Twombly as the most transgressive of the three, although the terms we use to measure transgression as a value must be carefully weighed. Of course, the work’s violation of decorum is striking: crude sexuality; drawing as a form of scrawl; paint at times applied as if it were a bodily excretion; the recurring oscillation—from one campaign to another—between vacancy (scattered marks across a large surface) and effulgence. But the work’s chief offense may well be the violence it does to critical orthodoxy, so difficult has it been for us to square its radical materiality with its undeniable aestheticism—and to hold both things in a single system of critical values.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has observed that mythological subjects in Twombly’s paintings reflect the artist’s effort to revive the medium’s engagement with cultural and historical memory, but that this compulsion first emerged during the very time when values associated with gestural mark making—“the last mythical site of painting”—were themselves being subjected (by artists such as Robert Ryman and Frank Stella) to a form of demythification. Buchloh’s claim rightly grounds Twombly’s practice in a melancholy dialectic, his formation having occurred under the duress of cultural doubt. If the work is nostalgic, its nostalgia is directed not at antiquity per se but at the belief system represented by painting, one that culminated with Abstract Expressionism, with that generation of painters who, crucially, came of age before the great divide of the war. Jackson Pollock is Twombly’s confessed model among them, and it is surely germane that Pollock explicitly cast out an iconography of psychomythology from his own work, in effect obliterating images from mythology through a technique (drip painting) that aggressively disavowed the iconographic impulse in favor of radical materiality—the ecstatic, barely mediated, gravity-dependent dispersion of paint as a liquid medium that runs and falls. We can even say that Twombly’s significance partly reflects the nature of his work as an interpretative project, with Pollock as his primary referent.

In Twombly’s case, retrospective exhibitions are often unwieldy affairs. “Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons,” organized by Nicholas Serota for Tate Modern, means to tame a prolific, turbulent body of work by abandoning the format of the retrospective. Serota has chosen instead to assemble a career-long representation of groups or sequences of paintings and drawings (attended by sculpture), a sympathetic premise in that it favors the density of the artist’s working process. Genuine gravity can be achieved by showing work in this way, and the proficient catalogue text by Tate curator Nicholas Cullinan maximizes the narrative potential of the scheme (his entries also contain new material and significant new insights). But the organizing principle comes with risks. For one, the exhibition encompasses pairs, series, loose groups, and genuine cycles; in practice, these can be dramatically different things, and each raises separate questions about process. Further, when a programmatic or deliberate sequence of one kind or another is identified but not represented in full or close to it (which is often the case here), the usefulness of the premise breaks down. Serota has accomplished a number of curatorial feats: The entire Ferragasto suite from 1961 is present (five feverish paintings produced during an oppressively hot August in Rome); all but one of the group called “Nini’s Paintings” (memorials to a deceased friend) are shown, albeit severely cramped by their space; both versions of the “Four Seasons” cycle from 1993–95 are installed together in a single gallery, a near-perfect room. Yet early works from the mid-1950s and breakthrough paintings from 1961, which simply represent campaigns from a given moment in the artist’s career, are included in the manner of a standard retrospective; Twombly’s fourteen “Bolsena” paintings from 1969 are represented by only four canvases; and the Treatise on a Veil sequence is far more extensive than the five works on display. In other words, the guiding principle of the show, only variably applied, turns out to be unreliable. It must also be said that the omission of Nine Discourses on Commodus, 1963, is regretful; the paintings are notorious for having been derided in print by Donald Judd (in a fatuously dismissive review) when they were shown at the Castelli Gallery in New York in 1964. Overall negative critical reception apparently hurt the artist deeply. Yet Commodus looks different now. Its inclusion could almost have been described as imperative; as it is, revision and redemption will have to wait—at least until the show travels to Bilbao, Spain, where the nine canvases now reside.

The most striking thing about the Tate exhibition is the representation of work that falls between 1966 and 1971, the period of the so-called gray, or blackboard, paintings. In a conventional show, this would have included a substantial selection of now-familiar paintings composed of cursive script in white crayon on a ground of gray wash—a “perpetual mobilum of tiered lateral ovals,” Max Kozloff once called them. Here such works have been excluded; standing in are the nongray “Nini’s Paintings,” which similarly consist of allover networks of abstract script. But the inclusion of the two gray Treatise on the Veil paintings—dated 1968 and 1970, respectively, and never before shown together—privileges the other side of the gray-period work, a severe style characterized not by scriptural marks but by something akin to mechanical drawing. The distinction between the two kinds of writing was observed by Roland Barthes in a 1976 essay on Twombly, in which Barthes differentiates between the role of ductus—the movements of the hand and the pen that produce writing—and the kind of notation we might expect from a surveyor or engineer.

The spareness of the Veil paintings is startling. The artist has said that they were motivated by a motion-study photograph by Eadweard Muybridge that belonged to Rauschenberg, showing a walking woman vaguely recalled by Twombly as bearing a drape or a bride’s veil. Composed of ruled lines (which describe a repeated plinth form) and numerals, the paintings purport to diagram a trajectory of motion from left to right. They are both exceptionally large (the second version is more than thirty feet long); for this reason, they can be said to derive a kind of functionality from the calibrated backdrops (in actuality a wall or screen) in Muybridge’s photographs, which typically show a white grid against a dark ground with a numerical sequence running along the bottom edge: By conceit, at least, the paintings measure the beholder’s own progress through real as well as imagined space, the numerals in the paintings being variously annotated as inches, feet, and miles. Twombly produced numerous smaller works that incorporate elements from the two Veil paintings, although, again, only a handful of these appear in the show. A third, directly related white-ground painting, The Veil of Orpheus, 1968 (which stimulated its own smaller variants and derivations), has also been excluded. Yet, with its three long, shaky, freehand lines (also annotated with numbers and words—STOP, NONSTOP, TIME), it is a crucial work in this context. Twombly’s Orpheus (imported from Rilke’s sonnets) primarily figures movements of rising and falling, in reference both to the arc of song and to Orpheus’s sojourn through the underworld. But the artist has also explained that the long lines in The Veil of Orpheus specifically allude to a musique concrète work of the same name by Pierre Henry from 1953, which consists of the continual sound of tearing fabric (possibly with reference to a veiled Eurydice).

With the numbers and ruled lines of the Veil group, Twombly has produced diagrams pertaining to space and time, and it is this aspect of the work that brings it close to Conceptual and poststudio practices of the ’60s, a proximity about which historians and critics have had little to say. Marking time and mapping trajectories through actual space were chief fixations of advanced art throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, including that of Carl Andre, Mel Bochner, Walter De Maria, Robert Morris, and Robert Smithson, among others. The space in question possessed a specificity of place, from the loft studio to the desert floor: from, say, Bochner’s No Vantage Point, 1969, a continuous eye-level horizontal line drawn around the walls of a room, to De Maria’s Mile Long Drawing, 1968, two parallel chalk lines in the Mojave Desert. Work of this kind tends to map lines and other forms of demarcation (often derived from the practice of surveying) over real space. Unavoidably recalling the dropped threads of Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages, 1913–14, the irregular lines in The Veil of Orpheus introduce a further post-Minimal theme, the uncertain dependability of quantification. And the diagrammatic mark raises the relevance of another kind of notation, given the presumed equivalency (according to Twombly) of line and sound. In 1967, British composer Cornelius Cardew completed a work called Treatise; it takes the form of a graphic score occupying close to two hundred pages, across which geometric figures are inscribed above and below a single, nearly uninterrupted horizontal line. “Reading” temporality in Twombly’s Veil group would probably benefit from recognizing that graphic notation in music was being reinvented at the time, with radical implications for the application of drawing. In other words, it might be worth addressing The Veil of Orpheus as a kind of score.

It is tempting to claim that the severity of the Veil sequence stands apart from the character of the rest of the artist’s oeuvre, but the paintings actually expose concerns that had preoccupied him for some time. One salient device dating back to 1959 is revealing: the horizon line, which appears in Twombly’s Poems to the Sea (included in the Tate show), a suite of twenty-four small, virtually square-format drawings executed with graphite and white pigment on a white ground. Remarkably, all of the sheets possess a ruled line running just below the upper edge of the support, sometimes annotated with numbers in a simple counting sequence (1 2 3 4 5 . . .). A graphic cipher for remote, ever-retreating distance, Twombly’s horizon shows how, without violating the concrete space of writing (the space of notation), his drawing means to register a separate, metaphorical space—one of extreme reach.

Large and deserted, the second version of Treatise on the Veil asks to be inhabited. The beholder becomes, in a manner of speaking, a surrogate for Muybridge’s walking figure. The painting’s affect is one of anticipation, which corresponds to what might be described as the present-tense nature of Twombly’s work overall. This is to say that the two versions of Treatise on the Veil display through mechanical denotation and actual space a fundamental quality that Twombly’s other work accomplishes by the palpable agency of its material means (means that recall us to the example of Pollock). We recognize, for example, that Twombly’s application of medium across the surface of the support—the blobs, spurts, smears, and graphisms—almost always drifts to the right, much in the manner of his handwriting. This property of drift, uncommon to most forms of picture making, is fundamental evidence demonstrating that individual paintings and drawings first cohere, pictorially, through a bodily engagement with process.

Pollock reimagined painting at the level of its ontology. This turned out to provide a key lesson for Twombly. Twombly’s impulse was allegorical, but meaning would have to issue from the material nature of his work. There exists a distant but useful model for the role of the material in this regard: It lies with the function of the cloud as an image in Baroque ceiling painting. Better, we are speaking, according to Hubert Damisch, of “/cloud/,” the semiotic figure Damisch devised to identify the cloud-image as the signifier of a particular concept of antiperspectival space in painting. That concept recognizes an equivalency between the cloud as a thing in formation and the medium of paint used to depict it: Both are instances of matter “aspiring” to form. There are, of course, no such images in Twombly’s art; he names rather than depicts: Orpheus is less character than dwelling place, identified as if in haste and otherwise serving to induce reflection. So the presentness of Twombly’s work (the support as a field of agency) characterizes pictorial space as a site across which strewn marks represent the residue of corporeal passage, of drift. And the very motility of “drift”—its quality of animation—introduces the notion of process as an index of a particular condition of mind.

For “reflection” let us substitute “reverie,” following a subject of primary interest to Gaston Bachelard. We might say that between Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie and Damisch’s Theory of /Cloud/—published in 1960 and 1972, respectively—there is a historicity of theory that is particularly relevant to the terms of Twombly’s practice. Bachelard’s reverie is a “dilation of psyche,” a kind of extended present that permits its subject access to the inner life of the child. For the child, reverie is conditioned by the “liberating” effects of solitude and boredom; for the adult, it is described as “a radical melancholy.” Bachelard speaks of attaining, through reverie, an “antecedence of being,” the sensation of a world not yet fully formed (even as the dreamer maintains a cogito, a coherent sense of self as dreamer). These terms—of formlessness and duration—are, of course, familiar to the theorization of art; they are, in fact, fundamental to an archetypal trope, cited by Damisch, of reverie as an agent of gradual coalescence: the stained wall, beloved by Leonardo (who acknowledges a class of like entities including glowing embers, stones, and, indeed, clouds) as a source of pictorial invention. For Damisch, the stain as device belongs to the province of painting practice that is infernal—that is possessed of a “secret impulse” to draw from “things that were ‘confused” (the word is Leonardo’s). Just such a paradigm is conjured by the origin of Twombly’s work at midcentury, conditioned, then, by a radical melancholy both private and historical—born of demythification and designated by the scrawled name. Within this frame, process and drift, as material properties of pictorial form, both serve and figure a phenomenology of imagination.

“Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons” travels to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, Oct. 28, 2008–Feb. 8, 2009, and to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome, Mar. 4–May 24, 2009.

Jeffrey Weiss is an independent curator and critic living in New York.