There are so many ways you can dissect Cy Twombly’s line. The way his brush seems to drag itself, deplete itself, bring itself near death. The way his marks seem to erupt from behind or under the canvas, disrupting gravity. And I’m sure Twombly, a well-read man who loved poetry and put it into his pictures, was keen on the multivalency of his imagery. Or, rather, non-imagery.
We could hula hoop around the meanings all day long. Just like the loops of white house paint in Twombly’s canvases from the late 1960s.
But Twombly represents something visceral to me. His paintings describe the elemental while cultivating his own distinct style. So maybe Twombly represents nothing at all, and presents, unadorned, the thing he is really getting at: paint smeared onto a surface. A basic violence.
I didn’t get it at first. It was 2015 and I stood in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Twombly room, where the bloody Fifty Days at Iliam hangs amid a solemn air. Everything just felt harsh and messy. I was much more impressed by Elsworth Kelly’s Seine (1951, oil on wood) a room or two over. That one, essentially a grid of pixels, had a familiar logic I readily understood.
But good paintings will teach you their codes, if you’re patient. Two years later, I found myself in Houston, inside the Menil Collection’s Twombly gallery. A lifetime of his work was on view.
The earlier works get to the blood fastest. They speak of carnage, dispossession, disembodiment, failure—and those are just the works with a full palette. In his monochrome pieces, Twombly often employed squiggly or spiral lines to show something repetitive, or lacerative, about drawing. Line and color act as razorblades. A gesture slashes something open and it can never be repaired again. Nor would it want to be: a form beyond injury has been attained. Perseverance and a skid of color are left behind.
The propulsion of any Twombly canvas is independent of the viewer’s perception. When we do manage to grab a hold of something, it whips us around with a slasher’s glee. Cy Twombly is the Jason Voorhees of abstraction. His kills are both brazen and artful.
The most impressive Twombly I’ve seen, however, was not an early one. Twombly started work on it, apparently, in 1972, but it didn’t premiere until 1994 at Gagosian in NYC. The untitled work, sometimes subtitled Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor, consists of three canvases hung together. At 157 inches tall and 624 inches long, it is properly monumental. Don’t convert those dimensions to footage, cuz some of the grandeur might be lost.
That a good chunk of the canvas is more or less blank leaves its power unaffected. It’s a creation narrative, after all: Void becoming shape. Well, unless you read it as Twombly suggested: right-to-left, in which case it’s The Fall. Anyway, I must’ve sat in front of that painting for an hour. Why? I can’t even recall a single thought I had during my silence. Obliteration, I’m thinking, is proof of something.