Rome is my life; it’s my home, my stable dwelling, the place of the consummation of my life.
In 1958, the same year in which Franz Kline showed his work at the gallery La Tartaruga in Rome and Salvatore Scarpitta showed his strips of canvas at the same gallery, Plinio De Martiis introduced an American artist whom, for many years, would turn Rome into his dwelling and favored homeland: Cy Twombly.
What did Rome feel like at the onset of the ’60s fairytale? It was a town with a capital’s culture, an enchanted place where the directors, writers and artists of Piazza del Popolo coexisted with ancient art. Piazza del Popolo was the center at the time: the Caffè Rosati and, in particular, Plinio De Martiis’s La Tartaruga. (The other central location being Gian Tomaso Liverani’s La Salita). Cesare Vivaldi tells us that Rome “was the only European city with serious relations to America from approximately ’56 until ’65. This placed Rome as a true international city within the artistic landscape.” In ’58 the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, under the direction of Palma Bucarelli, presented the first Pollock exhibition in Europe. Appia Antica, the magazine run by Emilio Villa, advised giving more attention to artists from the United States; after Kline and Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg showed some of his New Dadaist “Combines” at La Tartaruga. Toti Sciajola then introduced Rauschenberg to his students at the Accademia di Belle Arti: among the students were Pino Pascali and Jannis Kounellis. For their part, the Americans were happy to come to Rome: Willem de Kooning visited studios, and Twombly, after the first trips with Rauschenberg, moved to Rome in ’57.
At the time, De Martiis defined Italy’s relationship with the United States as “heroic.” De Martiis’s gallery attracted the attention of many artists, as well as others interested in contemporary art. Leo Castelli approached the gallery, together with Ileana Sonnabend who later returned with Michael, her second husband. Ileana Sonnabend provided documentation for the Americans and was interested in some young Italians: she wanted to open a gallery with Martiis.
At the presentation of the first exhibit by Twombly at La Tartaruga, Palma Bucarelli asked: “Who has not left a sign on a wall, inspired by the unstoppable impulse to trace a sign, make a gesture, a pure gesture on a white wall?” Certainly, Twombly’s work comes from the cultural sphere of action painting, but if that is a kind of work that screams, Twombly’s painting is reticent, silent. Like his art, Twombly has kept silent and has almost never discussed his work. In Twombly’s case, one cannot speak of violent gestures, of absolute chance, or of shapeless subject matter. Even if his work presents us with stains, drippings and smears, we never feel like the motion that has produced it is violent. Twombly’s materials translate on the canvas into writing, sublimated into subtle signs. The artist’s hand is so sure that there is no room for mistakes, or for the betrayal of the form.
What is left in these paintings of the poetics of gesture and action? Those poetics were born out of a rib of Surrealism, through the automation brought over to the United States by the surrealist painters who had to escape Nazi persecution. The intellectual surrealists referenced the passionate theory of neoplatonic philosophy. André Breton quotes Agrippa von Nettesheim, who used to distinguish amongst four kinds of furor. The inner drive of this inspiration pushed artists to a kind of automatism that eventually expressed itself among American artists as Action Painting. Twombly’s first attempts might appear similar to the work of action painters such as Kline, and it might be said that Twombly has some traces of what Breton described as a “certain state of furor.” We could, however, call this a furor divinus.
Cy Twombly’s first trip to Europe began with Robert Rauschenberg. The itinerary consisted of France, Spain and Morocco. Twombly was in Italy in ’52 and in North Africa the winter following that. The North African Sketchbook takes place in ’53, an instance in which Twombly proves to think of drawing as an autonomous medium. In Twombly’s light lines and rhythmical system of vertical parallels, some have said to have found similarities to Klee (see Cesare Vivaldi, Robert Pincus-Witten), as well as differences (see Katharina Schmidt, Franz Meyer).
About his work, in 1957 Twombly wrote: “Each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate — it is the sensation of its own realization.” Even during his military service, when Twombly was positioned near New York and put in charge of code breaking, he would draw in the dark, at night, with an “imprecise and serpentine graphology” (Pincus-Witten). In the process of transferring these drawings from paper to canvas, Twombly’s work lost some of its characteristic intimacy. “With his last move to Rome in ’57, Twombly was strongly influenced by the total field of Mediterranean culture, with its mythologies, its history, its art, poets, painters and sculptors. The influence of Mediterranean culture had a significant, long-lasting impact on his life and his work, growing on Twombly over time and becoming a deeply rooted aspect of his work.” (Schmidt, 1984).
Nicola Del Roscio recalls having heard Twombly’s mother telling a story about how Cy, as a small child, would always repeat: “When I grow up I’ll go to Rome!” Twombly fell in love with Rome and its architecture from his first trip with Rauschenberg. One of Rauschenberg’s first conceptual works is made up of a series of photographs in which Twombly descends a large staircase, the parallel lines of which have been placed in relationship with one of Rauschenberg’s drawings. Eventually, Rauschenberg left Rome, while Twombly came back in order to stay. In some ways, Rome defined the split between Twombly and Rauschenberg. As their paths parted, Rauschenberg developed a New Dadaist poetics, while Twombly kept moving forwards, particularly thanks to the encounter with a European and Mediterranean culture.
Here the argument is not that Twombly would not have been the same artist without a trip to Italy. Rather, it is to highlight the lucky encounter between an artist and a location. The first work painted in Rome in the summer of ’57 was Olympia: a painting with a rarefied effect, in which the web of lines has been broken into specific graphics. Towards the bottom of the painting, capital letters spell the word “Olympia,” which alludes to Zeus’s temple. On the top of the painting one can almost distinguish the word “Death.” Further toward the bottom, in smaller letters, we read an indication of place, “Roma.” Many of Twombly’s later works include references to the city. Sometimes the letters R-O-M-A appear scattered in space, as in Untitled (1958) in which, towards the middle of the canvas, we can trace the vague outline of a window. The same window appears in other cases, such as in Leda and the Swan (1962), in which the window seems to take flight from a tangle of signs. (The theme of Zeus’s loves was taken up again by Twombly in one of his large works on paper from 1976).
Breton compared the painting to a window, and wondered what that window looked upon (for the Surrealists, the answer is implicit: the window looks upon an interior reality). Heiner Bastian also compares Twombly’s painting to a wide window. Twombly’s signature and the date are quick scribbles integrated in the composition of the painting. In Untitled (1959), the surface of the painting is covered with a sort of punctuation, small boxes, tiny figures that prelude the next period in Twombly’s work. Many critics have noted that in Twombly’s case, signs cannot be interpreted as independent entities but rather in the context of the whole work. Katharina Schmidt noted that numbers as used by Twombly do not have much in common with those used by Rauschenberg or, later, by Jasper Johns.
The Age of Alexander (1959) presents a complete sampling of Twombly’s conventional elements of writing. Among these, Schmidt identifies: “…clusters of scribbles, dotted lines, rosettes decorated as spirals, concentric circles, small rectangles, cryptic numbers, short dashes of lines…”
Manfred de la Motte maintains that there have rarely been artists as misunderstood as Twombly. According to some, Documenta 5 (1972), together with certain studies, have helped make sense of the real significance of Twombly’s work. According to Del Roscio, the best interpreters of Cy Twombly’s work have been poets, such as Emilio Villa and Cesare Vivaldi during his first Roman years, as well as de la Motte and Davvetas. (After all, Twombly loves poetry and reads a lot, even the work of young poets). In ’61, Vivaldi wrote that “[Twombly’s] lyrical nature is stable and constant, even though it takes many forms. We should not think we are in error if we claim that he is the most genuine and poetic talent of his generation at an international level. The only prediction I feel like making is that Cy might become a great painter.”
As Del Roscio notes, Italians understood Twombly very well from the start. In The first part of the return from Parnassus (1961) a diagonal movement crosses the surface of the painting. In the top right, numbers within a circle reference the nine Muses. Parnassus was the site of the Temple of Apollo Musagete, the top of the mountain — which eventually became sacred to poetry — was so high it was above clouds. While the signs on the painting come together in messy clusters, Twombly’s work from the time deals directly with ancient art and classical themes. For instance, Empire of Flora (1961) references the well-known painting in which Poussin reinterpreted the myth of Ovidio through the sensibility of Cavalier Marino. In Poussin’s work, the event of death is tied to the idea of metamorphosis. (In the 17th century, Bellori described Poussin’s painting as “The metamorphosis of the flowers.”) In Twombly’s interpretation, the whole dissolves itself in multiple sprays. Twombly’s reinterpretation turns the mythological figures into bodies of color.
In Bay of Naples (1961), through a style of painting vibrant with sensuality and tenderness, Twombly presents allusions to the landscape, the light of the gulf, and the coast. In The School of Athens (1961), Twombly goes back to Raphael Sanzio’s work in the Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Signature) in the Vatican. Raphael’s fresco represents Western philosophical thought with Plato lifting his index towards the sky (transcendence) and Aristotle opening his hand towards the Earth (immanence). In his work, Twombly traces the consequences of the motion of the two gestures towards the sky and the Earth, to a point where the two philosophical approaches become indistinguishable.
Throughout Twombly’s work on paper from the ’70s, we can find mythological themes tied to beauty, such as the birth of Venus and Apollo. Similar to other works of the same kind, Apollo and the Artist (1975) is divided into two sections. The top one is covered by a large light blue inscription “Apollo.” The bottom section contains a floral design framed by a painting within a painting (maybe a development of the window and box elements from earlier works?) Roland Barthes speaks of “written events, Names.” According to Barthes, “graphism is a little childlike, irregular, clumsy; nothing to do with the typography of conceptual art.”
Twombly crosses the border of literature. As de la Motte writes: “Does Twombly use a kind of writing? Certainly, but a kind of writing that has hardly anything in common with other genres, if not the name of writing. There is no preventive understanding of the 26 letters, no conventional calligraphy. No poème-object, that almost imperfect permeation of painting and writing. There is no decorative element as in common abstract drawings. And yet it is a kind of writing, a transcription, or a mere psychogram that demands: Read! Yet there is no sense of meaning in his writing: it is the autopresentation of reading and a demand to read. Twombly’s theme is reading, not legibility.” Writing became a central aspect of Twombly’s work. In regard to this subject Barthes writes: “this scriptory clumsiness (though inimitable; try to imitate it) has a plastic function in Twombly’s work.” In poet Catullus’s own words, Twombly’s words seem to be written “in the wind and in water.”
For Twombly, who has lived in Italy, in Northern Africa and in Spain, the Mediterranean is a theater for artistic experience. Concerning Twombly, Roland Barthes speaks of a Mediterranean-effect, noting that the artist’s global visual impression is reached from a point of departure that has nothing to do with a Mediterranean tradition. What makes Twombly’s visual impression possible is the artist’s own sense of form.
The origin of the work lies in the discrete inspiration of the artist that supports the hand of the artist without virulence. The result is always balanced: the signs diffuse themselves throughout the canvas, which becomes a sensitive and delicate surface where emptiness (the absence of matter) and points of greater chromatic intensity find a natural harmony. It is as though for Twombly inspiration were not a dark thrust that surges from beneath and disarranges all. Rather, for him inspiration has the aerial blow of an Apollonian god that drives the artist. The most casual gesture produces an effect that has nothing unseemly about it, and in fact seems to respond to that divine inspiration and the beauty of form. Barthes says that inspiration is “the happiness of chance,” arguing for the notion of “gap” in Twombly’s work, the Japanese ma that “is after all the Latin rarus, and Twombly’s own art.” An analogy to Twombly’s paintings may be that of feeble, precarious sculptures, nonetheless well calibrated.
The ’84 exhibition at Sperone, in Rome, offered five monochrome sculptures, three color paintings and a large painting dedicated to Victory. This work is placed in relationship with a small white sculpture: the common theme is the idea of sailing. Like the sculpture, the painting is a plastic object, and the two images appear to hover in the air taking on that condition of lightness typical of Twombly’s art. That lightness also comes across in a sculpture held up by fans: fragile and impalpable objects. Similarly, the wheels upon which some of the sculptures are mounted might allude to the potential for agile and light motion. As a whole, the exhibition is a thin, mobile and aerial body of works, ready to travel across space like Victory’s sail filled by the wind. David Sylvester writes about Twombly citing one of his few declarations: “‘I truly love sculpting. Maybe it’s because of construction.’ Twombly has created several pieces between 1946 and 1959, most of which have been lost. He no longer sculpted until 1976, and since then he has never stopped.”
Some of Twombly’s first sculptures from ’46 and ’47 were exhibited at MoMA’s retrospective in New York in 1994. Those were minute assemblages of wood and metals. Untitled (Funerary box for a lime green python) (New York, 1954) presents two candidly light fans that come out like flowers on tall stems (the work was also shown at Lucio Amelio’s gallery in Naples in ’79 and in ’81 at the Museum Haus Lange of Krefeld, where in ’65 the artist had had his first large public exhibition). The whiteness of the work accentuates the lightness of the sculpture, which appears to walk on “dove’s feet.” Sometimes a color appears, such as the azure in Untitled (Rome, 1977). A plastic rose, an iron wire are the elements of this sculpture, built like a verse of poetry, like a song (Aurora, Rome, 1981). An actual verse of Konstantinos Kavafis’s poetry is written on Thermopylae (Gaeta, 1991).
According to Sylvester, while Twombly’s sculpture has been admired, it has always been considered marginal in his work. In part, this is because the sculptures have not been seen much, particularly in the United States. Today, after the catalogue raisonné on the artist’s sculpture, curated by Del Roscio, this is no longer the case. In fact, sculpture increasingly appears as a central part of the artist’s work. Sylvester writes that “sculpture is something active. Sculpture breathes light. Truly, even his paintings often induce the feeling that they might be breathing light.” Giorgio Agamben defines Twombly’s art as “beauty that falls,” comparing the artist to the poet Hölderlin, in whose writing “the word, as though arrested halfway through its impetus, for a moment shows us not what it says, but what it is.” Similarly, Twombly’s signs don’t tell, don’t signify something else, but simply show themselves. “It is the point of decreation, when, in his supreme way, the artist no longer creates but decreates the messianic moment. Without a possible title, the art remains miraculously still, almost astonished: every second fallen and reborn.” (Agamben at the American Academy in Rome, 1998).
Similarly, the materials of Twombly’s work are exposed: the graphite, the pastel, the oil all show themselves. Without referencing to something else, they have their own strength and intrinsic lyricism. There is, however, something that changes it all, a transformative energy that operates the miracle of metamorphosis. Demosthenes Davvetas wrote: “Made of disparate and even conflicting elements, with materials that are usually insignificant, poor or ordinary, and that often look like they have been discarded or forgotten, Cy Twombly’s sculptures have, since the beginning, presented the signs of plastic thinking that tends towards metamorphosis. Deployed across these materials, the color white unifies them in a creative fusion that changes the materials, breathing new life into them, like a ritualistic baptism. This is a visual touch that shapes a new plastic anatomy and gives birth to sculptures without a sense of completeness.”
In fact, white descends upon the sculptures like a snow blanket. White simultaneously uniforms the disparate collection of materials while transposing them into precarious apparitions, unstable figurations. Emilio Villa had already written: “Cy is / white talent… in alphabet / between syllabic and ideographic… limbs of white phonetics under time… in the secret eulogy / of iteration and pause.”
For her presentation of Cy Twombly’s exhibition “Three Notes from Salalah,” which inaugurated the Gagosian Gallery in Rome in December 2007, Julie Sylvester wrote: “Salalah is an oasis by the sea. In this oasis, all sorts of plants prosper. At one time, it was known as Zafar, the land of incense, which for centuries was used as exchange currency and which queen Sheba would order by the ton for her palace nearby.”
The three large paintings in the exhibition have been created between 2005-07. The works are cut through by strong vertical lines, but they also present the circular lines characteristic of the artist’s earlier work. In the triptych, entitled Salalah, we can observe the crescendo of a contained, gentle violence. The exhibition has marked a temporary return of Twombly to Rome, a city which has greatly changed and which the artist abandoned more than twenty years ago in order to go back to his hometown, Lexington, Virginia. Meanwhile, Twombly has maintained an Italian studio in Gaeta (and before that in Bassano and in Teverina).
Twombly keeps painting with the great discipline with which he has always worked. After a collective exhibition in May at the Villa Medici in Rome, with works from the Yvon Lambert of Avignon collection, last June Tate Modern in London held a Twombly retrospective that moves to the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao this October. The same exhibition will be at GNAM in Rome in 2009. “Salalah… cha cha cha…” writes Sylvester, referencing the fact that Twombly sang this title to himself while painting. Twombly is one of the artists to have often inspired musicians: about ten concerts have been dedicated to him by contemporary musicians, among whom Morton Feldman. “Salalah” is a chorus, an oasis that the painter has never visited, a place of the soul evoked through the musicality of painting. And yet, all of Twombly’s work possesses an intrinsic musicality.
(Translated from Italian by Beatrice Barbareschi)
Laura Cherubini is an art critic and curator. She lives and works in Rome and Milan.
Cy Twombly was born in Lexington, USA, in 1928. He lives and works in Lexington and Gaeta, Italy.