In Praise of: Cy Twombly

“It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning.”

Born in Lexington, Virginia in 1928, albeit to parents from Massachusetts and Maine, Twombly embraces his southern upbringing with gourmandise. “The traditional elements that thickened the “atmosphere” of Southern life – a honeyed ease with spoken language and a rich literary tradition, a certain sensual languor, and the lingering romance of fallen grandeur” *1

With Kurt Schwitters as an early reference, Twombly is affected by European modern art as an ideal of uncompromising self-expression, and a feel for the poetry in the most humble substances.

In 1950 he moves to New York and shares a studio with his new friend, Robert Rauschenberg. Together they enroll in Black Mountain College in North Carolina where their teachers are Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and John Cage. In 1953, Rauschenberg and Twombly travel through Europe and North Africa absorbing, from the primitive to the sophisticated, the bases of western culture. Rome, the chic decaying city and its inhabitants will have a life changing effect on Twombly.

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‘Panorama’ 1955 © Cy Twombly Foundation

During the summer of 1957, while staying with Alvise and Betty di Robilant, the colors, the light, the heat, the food of Grottaferrata, liberate a libidinal fluidity of draftsmanship that find their best expression in a series of drawings done at night with the lights out. With Jean Dubuffet in mind we discover an esoteric elegance of deconstructed, dancing calligraphy.

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‘Untitled’ (Grottaferrata) 1957 ©Cy Twombly Foundation

Establishing a bridge between the US and Italy, Twombly will exhibit with Rauschenberg at the Stable Gallery in New York, and find early patrons in the Franchetti family in Rome. 1959 is a pivotal year, marrying Tatiana Franchetti in April in New York, moving to Rome in June, where their son, Cyrus Alessandro is born in December. From then on, a most prolific and glorious period of production begins, be it in photographs, sculpture or paintings.

“I sit for two or three hours and then in 15 minutes I can do a painting, but that’s part of it. You have to get ready and decide to jump up and do it; you build yourself up psychologically, and so painting has no time for brush. Brush is boring, you give it and all of a sudden it’s dry, you have to go. Before you cut the thought”

Vigorous yet ethereal Bach sonatas as played by Glenn Gould come to mind, when in 1961 Twombly; directly from oil paint tubes to canvas with his fingers and hands, produced “The Triumph of Galatea”. For Twombly, using his hands as the main instrument of picture making had a symbolic and pragmatic purpose. Attracted by the prehistoric, primal applications of paint by humankind (he had visited the Lascaux grottoes with Rauschenberg in 1952), it gave him a more physical, sensual approach to the canvas, rhythmically clawing, dabbing or caressing it.

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Alessandro Twombly in front of ‘The Triumph of Galatea’ Rome, 1963. Photographed by Horst for Vogue

With an uplifting, nervous and elegant choreography, Twombly mixes irregular motifs and organic movement, with intuitional and cerebral expression. The paintings of this era are perhaps a perfect example of what Twombly terms his “irresponsibility to gravity”

In December 1963, soon after the assassination of President Kennedy, Twombly created “Nine Discourses on Commodus“. With Francis Bacon in mind (a painter he much admired) we are ravished by a powerful ensemble of energetic emanations, “From cloud like lightness to agitated bloody violence – a reflection on leaders, disasters and the fate of empires” *2

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‘Nine Discourses on Commodus’ 1963, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao © Cy Twombly Foundation

More than any modern artist, Cy Twombly embodies Cennino Cennini‘s theory. The 14th century Florentine painter asked two of his students to draw an identical circle. Looking at the results, he found that even with the utmost care, no two circles could be exactly identical; because, Cennini concluded, the hand is lead not by the brain, but by the ‘anima’: the soul.

At the end of the 19th century, psychoanalysis developed the idea that our actions are the result of our conscious and the unconscious. Creativity is its proudest emanation. Balanced or unbalanced, artists are the luckiest humans. With their art they can express their inner soul, and we, bewitched, bothered, bewildered, nauseated or elevated, thank them for it.

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‘Untitled’ 1972, MoMA, New York © CY Twombly Foundation

Constantin Brancusi said ” it is not difficult to work; it is difficult to get in the mood to work” Twombly usually found inspiration during periods of parallel activity such as travel or extensive reading. Literature and poetry are a fundamental sparkle throughout the prolific, enlightened oeuvre given to us by Twombly’s generous soul.

Looking at art is primarily a physical experience. Books and computers cannot render scale, texture, depth or nuances of color. Nothing can replace the thrill of standing in front of a cherished image. The Twombly retrospective at Musée Pompidou in Paris is a beautiful and thorough exhibition that should not be missed.

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‘Apollo and the Artist’ 1975 © Cy Twombly Foundation

*1 *2  Kirk Varnedoe, ‘Cy Twombly: A Retrospective’, MoMA, New York, 1994

Centre Pompidou, ‘Cy Twombly’, until April 24, 2017

All images © Cy Twombly Foundation

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

With this quotation by Ansel Adams, I want to propose a little historic perspective and some contextualisation. Quoting extensively from Art Historians and photographers, I would like to take the opportunity to share my admiration and love for them.

“The invention of photography provided a radical new picture making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection … But he (the photographer) learned also that the factuality of his pictures no matter how convincing and unarguable, was a different thing than the reality itself. Much of the reality was filtered out in the static little black-and-white image and some of it was exhibited with an unknown natural clarity and exaggerated importance. The subject and the picture were not the same thing, although they would afterwards seem so. This was an artistic problem not a scientific one…”

John Szarkowski The Photographer’s Eye The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966

“Embracing the vernacular as a model, Walker Evans dispensed with the sophisticated markers of craft that distinguished the artistic photograph from all others and swept away the barrier that had encircled modernist photography’s privileged subjects. For the first time, the photograph as-a-work-of-art could look exactly like any other photograph – and it could show us anything, from a torn movie poster to a graveyard overlooking a steel mill. The photograph’s claim of artistic distinction relied solely upon the clarity, intelligence, and originality of the photographer’s perception.

This profoundly radical idea more than the example of Evans’s work itself is the wellspring from which later flowed the very different work of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. For them, neither the choice of what to look at, nor the way in which to look at it, nor the sense of what it might mean to look at such a thing in such a way was dictated by a pre-ordained rule.”

Peter Galassi American Photography 1890–1965. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995

“… Szarkowski called them “documentary photographers” and believed them motivated by “more personal ends” than those of the preceding generation, sharing “the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorising” (qualities that also suggest William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, and Nicholas Nixon, among others)

At the time when the practice and history of photography were making their way into academia, Szarkowski stubbornly defended an anti theoretical and non academic approach, which he described – betraying a taste for provocation – as “the easiest of the arts”: “Putting aside for today the not very mysterious mysteries of the craft, a photographer finally does nothing but stand in the right place, at the right time, and decide what should fall within and what is outside the rectangle of the frame. That is what it comes down to.”

Quentin Bajac. In Photography at MoMA: 1960–Now. The Museum of Modern Art, 2015

And, if I may add my own “pinch of salt”as the French would say, I will venture that the reason why these choices made by photographers (moment, light, framing), are interesting for us to discover and admire, is that they are guided not only by their brain, but by their soul. And some people have been graced with the talent to let the direct link to their soul express itself by producing, what we commonly call, Art.