Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper
The Menil Collection
Diana Lyn Roberts
Retrospective exhibitions, when sensitively cur-ated, demand a certain level of respect. Revisiting the well-known works of an artist’s opus can be gratifying. However, deeper lessons sometimes lie in examining the lesser-known, more personal pieces that quietly informed and shaped a larger body of work over the years. Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper is successful not only in providing overwhelming evidence of the artist’s aesthetic consistency and invention, but also provides access into the inner workings, aesthetic preoccupations and archetypal meanderings of Twombly’s compelling but often troublesome oeuvre.
Cy Twombly, Proteus, 1984
Synthetic polymer, colored pencil, graphite on paper
29 15/16 x 22 1/4 inches
© Cy Twombly
Courtesty Gagosian Gallery
I use the word troublesome because, like many people, I’ve always had somewhat mixed feelings about Twombly. It’s as if part of my brain—the rational, formal, analytical side—wasn’t quite sure what to think of the work, despite its appeal to the intuitive, visceral, enigmatic regions of my psyche. On frequent visits to the Menil’s permanent collection in the Twombly Galleries, oversized, over-colored, cryptic paintings and clumsy sculptures were almost annoying to me in their insistence to be looked at, decoded, accommodated. Consequently, I took my time with Fifty Years of Works on Paper, intent on resolving my vacillation, examining both the formal elements present and my responses to them. It ended up being a very satisfying day at the museum.
The exhibition combines the cool, detached, analytic environment of a pristine gallery installation exhibited under ideal viewing conditions—eighty-five full-scale works spanning fifty years—with the personal, almost voyeuristic sense of analyzing an artist’s sketchbook. Twombly’s work is full of subliminal and tangential references, barely decipherable scribbles and seemingly random, vaguely sexual images, scrawled lines of poetry and mysterious numeric calculations and measurements that do not correspond to anything apparent. In some cases, whole passages have been painted over, rubbed out or scribbled on top of something else. Despite this offhand displacement of linear thought, there is a committed attention to the surfaces of things (both concealed and revealed); to texture and intuitive response; a conscientious distinction between spontaneous doodles and calculated diagrams; classical references and personal associations. In short, all of the things that should not work in a “finished” piece somehow, inexorably, come together in an oddly satisfactory trailing-off of logic and poetry.
It’s not difficult to find formal analyses of Twombly’s works. (and there is an excellent catalogue for this exhibition that includes exquisite reproductions of each piece). Intellectual engagement is one thing, but what finally crystallized for me was the essential physicality of Twombly’s gestures and surfaces. From small, spare, scrawled drawings to large, formal, fully realized paintings, his blatant, unpretentious gesture is imminently satisfying, like the honesty of a child’s hand guided by an informed intellect. Twombly distills gesture to its essence.
Cy Twombly, Apollo, 1975
Oil stick and graphite on paper
59 1/16 x 53 15/16 inches
© Cy Twombly
Courtesty Gagosian Gallery
Before we even know what or how to write, we have the impulse to make a mark. I remember practicing cursive capital L’s when I was six, not just because it was my middle initial but because I could loop them together all over the page, which was just plain gratifying. As an adult, writing something down that one wants to remember is more than having a note to refer back to. There is a process involved: the physical memory of watching your hand move across a sheet of paper, the color of the ink, the quality of the line, the feel of the paper, the shape of the text block, the direction relative to everything else on the page. While digital tools are practical, there are still certain types of things I choose to write by hand: poetry, notes, personal realizations—things I want to remember. Life is not a yes or no, 1 or 0 digital computation; it is referential, sensual and physical. It is possible that the focus and gesture of mark-making affects the means, method and very syntax of reason. Does removing that impulse shift the rational ordering of our thoughts or their essential quality?
Roland Barthes, in a classic essay included in the catalogue, writes, “TW [Twombly] tells us that the essence of writing is neither form nor usage but simply gesture—the gesture that produces it by allowing it to happen…”(p.24) Twombly deals in essentials: essential marks, references, archetypes and forms. The exhibition’s curator describes the work as “fundamentally subjective, truthful and uncompromising.” Essentials are both binding and liberating. The dilemma of whether to like it or not, therefore, may be precisely the point.