Cy Twombly, it's been my experience, was always at a distance. Most of his life, he lived across the world in whitewashed ancient cities. I never met the man, but all accounts point to a dignified august presence. To me, he’s a fantasy of a Roman poet with a bearing full of nature and wind but also philosophy and silence. His paintings, at least institutionally, have at the moment a certified “you have to like this” air that often makes it exponentially more difficult to see them.
I remember being in a collector’s home in Chicago once. The painting was a muddled one from the mid-1950s, clumps of white built up on a white ground and totally abstract. Twombly had not yet started to explore texts on his canvases, not yet moved to Rome in 1958 only to move back home to Virginia a few years later. He was always torn between places.
What I remember clearly was a lady, on the tour of that exquisite Lakeshore Drive penthouse, found the admirable courage to say to the collector that “she never really got Cy Twombly.” To this point, the collector said, “It's like James Joyce. Twombly paints like Joyce writes.”
The lady leaned back and lit up into a sort of Ah Ha! moment that turned her honest question back into the shell-game of the cocktail hour, where the collector was affirmed for his savvy and art again affirmed for its capacity to astonish. I learned nothing.
Of course, the astonishment had only happened in a cheap way, a kind of daily inspirational quote sent to your smartphone sort of way. Also, the collector was not affirmed as savvy for his understanding of art, but more for his maneuverability inside a world of hard-edged pleasantries. I admit that even though I was early in the game and had studied little about Twombly, the experience turned me off to the work for a long time. Such was the shallowness I felt. I didn't want to have anything to do with it.
This distance is important because it is systemic and deadly to Twombly's work. You really don't have to like anything and you really have the freedom to love anything you want. This sounds good, but it is hard to live up to.
On one hand, we need heroes and certification. I have heroes and like that I have them. The fact that they become punch-lines and simple symbols may decrease our understanding, but it does not diminish their greatness. On the other hand, liberalism asks that we test these anchors and understand why exactly we affirm the things we affirm and deny the things we deny.
Is Twombly really great?
Or has the cocktail hour spread its thin-lipped opinions on such wide scale, that the beliefs which are promulgated somehow arrange shoddy information into making sense?
Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills currently has Twombly's last paintings on their tour across numerous of the art dealer’s various international locations. They are vibrant panels of shocked green with large loops of orangey red running through them. If one were to compare these works to Twombly's last show in Paris in late 2010—roughly seven months before his death in July 2011—all the colors are the same yet the loops have coalesced together into a muddy melange. The show in Paris, titled Camino Real, featured various rows of the loops, strident across the green like a confident, flourishing signature. These last paintings by contrast are denser, a bit of a mess, not quite writing, not quite the taut energy of coiled wire.
These particular loops started, as far as I can tell, in 1966. I am sure there are earlier drawings that show its genesis, but the first real example of the loops appear in a painting called Cold Stream. The painting is one of the first of the so called blackboard works, six rows of undulating scrawls of paint on top of the ashen, slate color that our parents stared at in school before chalkboards became green. The school-lesson effect that these works have also lend them the nickname the “Palmer Method Works,” which expresses their kinship with the drills used in the mid- 20th century to teach children cursive.
Cold Stream feels like its title—the loops have a destabilized, shaky feel that run frigidly in tributaries across the surface. To maintain this shaky line in the larger versions of these blackboard works, as exampled in the magisterial works owned by the Menil collection in Houston, it is said that Twombly rode the shoulders of a friend in his studio, to guarantee that the loops never got too tight, never flirted with handwriting champion nerve.
There are various interpretations for the Blackboard/Palmer Method works, and perhaps one of the cleverest deals with the art climate of the time. It has been said that the repetitive, rote feel of the loops add a sort of clumsy humanity to the repetitions of Minimalism, as if using the from-gut madness of Pollock against the movement critiquing the very expression that made him famous.
In the blackboard works, Twombly is a child that is running over the lines of his lesson. He doesn't care in the slightest whether he gets smacked on the knuckles with a ruler. Donald Judd, who called Twombly's work at a show at Leo Castelli a “fiasco” in 1963 and was amongst a New York climate of criticism which caused Twombly literally to choke up for years and paint very little in the middle part of the 60s, was getting a lesson in the irrational, in the purgative ritual of chaos.
The chaos has its roots in the ancient, in edges where the facts of life become uncertain in sensual delight, in the Bacchanalian impulses to dissolve momentarily the rigors of form and the grip of convention. I know a guy who calls Twombly “the scribbler,” and I couldn't agree more. Twombly is quite off the page, in a territory where text becomes image becomes text. He is willing to let the moment between our body and our minds stay in flux, where words are clumsy and not yet closed in their truth, where the sensual moment is not yet over and transformed into rhetoric.
The looping appeared again almost exactly forty years later in 2006 at Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York where Twombly based a number of works on the ravings of the god Bacchus and dedicated himself again to insanity. The nature of the loops in that show were that of a raucous mess of bloody red. The handwriting metaphor gets scary here, and this is remarkable in a seventy-seven-year-old man. These works are impressive, downright beautiful.
You can ignore them in a twisted heap of postures about who buys them or how they are quickly entombed in museums, but I think there is more than a little bad faith involved in this. The Bacchus works club you in the head, an ancient voice returns in a single man in history, the full crazy lunacy of it. You don't have to look and you probably didn't, but it is better if you did.
And now the last works at Gagosian in 2012. The last we are ever going to see from Twombly, the closing of the book.
The loops continue. They've been going since Twombly's last show, Camino Real. They get their instability not from the artist's awkward physical gravity atop someone's shoulders, but now from the buttery give of the paint, the sort of soapy wash a wet rag makes on the surface of a car. Again, the handwriting lessons, the necessity to go forward writing about things hard to describe, life welling up and uncontainable by any systems. This time, however, Twombly stands right before his death, in the twilight of a sensualist.
Camino Real is a 1948 play by Tennessee Williams. I admit I spent yesterday reading it, and when it comes to entering into a dialogue with the works at Gagosian, reading the text can be illuminating.
The play is considered Williams' most bizarre play. In the hindsight of history, we see a playwright grappling with death in the wake of World War II. The play is set in a mysterious Latin American town, where a number of figures from literature have been collected—Don Quixote, Casanova, Baron de Charlus, and Marguerite Gautier.
On the set, there is a wall and a gate that separates the town from what is simply out there—an unknown wasteland, a place where no one ever comes back from, Terra Incognita. All characters are aware of and afraid of going there, even though all want to escape from the madness of the Camino Real. Central to the text is a lost, boyish American named Kilroy, who at a point says, “This place is confusing to me. I think it must be the aftereffects of fever. Nothing seems real.”
Camino Real has no answer for what is over the wall, only delineates various responses to it. Like the end of Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal, how each character attempts to evade or accept Terra Incognita is a window into how they've lived their lives. It is dangerous to make assumptions like this, but to find Twombly engaging this play at the end of his life is simply breathtaking.
I think about Twombly at the end of a long journey, which has taken him to places in the old world and the texts of our Western culture that I would like to visit. To find him in the end in Camino Real, in that uncertain and horrible territory, dizzy with fever and crime and impossible dreaming, where one can peek over the wall but cannot see it, is chilling.
We find the paintings now at Gagosian Beverly Hills in this territory, and I could not help but wonder what type of response these shaky wet loops tell us about death. Twombly was a lost American in the world, dividing his time between his hometown of Lexington, Virginia and some of the most exotic locals: Gaeta, Cortina, Bassano in Teverina, Procida, and Ischia. However, he's no Kilroy, he's no boy anymore.
So where in the play do I locate Twombly? Do I locate his loops in Quixote's blue ribbon, blue the color of distance, which “reminds an old knight of that green country he lived in which was the youth of his heart, before such singing words as truth!”? That burst of green in Twombly's paintings, that green country. The loops dancing on top of and obscuring the green.
This is not where Twombly is. I don't know where he is, though I miss him. I do, however, think of a point in the play and it gives me comfort. Perhaps it even gives me a shy place to go, a monologue where I can hear Twombly, that Roman poet, speaking the same words as his fellow sensualist Lord Byron, as written by Tennessee. It is Byron's wish, his dream for Terra Incognita, which he acts upon in the play. And by way of conclusion, I'm going to quote it all:
I wrote many cantos in Venice and Constantinople and in Ravenna and Rome, on all of those Latin and Levantine excursions that my twisted foot led me into – but I wonder about them a little. They seem to improve as the wine in the bottle --- dwindles . . . There is a passion for declivity in the world! And lately I've found myself listening to hired musicians behind a row of artificial palm trees – instead of the single – pure stringed instrument of my heart . . . Well, then, it's time to leave (he turns his back to the stage) – There is a time for departure even when there's no certain place to go! I'm going to look for one, now. I'm sailing to Athens. As least I can look up at the Acropolis, I can stand at the foot of it and look up at broken columns on the crest of a hill – if not purity, at least its recollection . . . I can sit quietly looking for a long, long time in absolute silence, and possibly, yes, still possibly – The old pure music will come to me again. Of course on the other hand I may hear only a little noise of insects in the grass . . . but I am sailing to Athens! Make voyages! – Attempt them! – there's nothing else . . .
(All images: Cy Twombly, "The Last Paintings" Installation view; Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery - Beverly Hills / Photo by Douglas M. Parker Studio)