“Soft and Full of Patience”: Cy Twombly at the Morgan
Cy Twombly: Treatise on the Veil at The Morgan Library & Museum
September 26, 2014 to January 25, 2015
225 Madison Avenue, between 35th and 36th streets
New York City, 212-685-0008
The testing of limitations is a recurring characteristic of modernist painting, notwithstanding the distracting idea of “medium specificity.” How, then, to express duration in a single still image, which sight and sense readily accept as manifesting simultaneity? Systems of musical notation have been developed to indicate (aural) events in time, and to the extent that a musical score is also a drawing, it suggests a solution to that problem.
On loan to The Morgan Library from the Menil Collection through January 25, Cy Twombly’s Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) offers a different solution—one that is immersive, sensuous and pictorial. Roughly ten by 33 feet, it was painted in Rome in 1970 and features the reductive gray-and-white palette Twombly had by that time been working with for several years. Photographs of these paintings often accentuate the gray’s bluish undertone, making it appear denser than it is; the Menil canvas’s enormous expanse of translucent, brushy paint evokes not a chalkboard but thick smoke or deep shadow.
In white wax crayon, a loosely rectilinear diagram and accompanying semi-legible notations span the length of the canvas near its bottom edge. These convey a sense of intervals—of thresholds, shifts or transitions—along a left-to-right reading of the work.
The painting refers, we are told, to Le Voile d’Orphée (The Veil of Orpheus), a 1953 work by Pierre Henry,a pioneer of musique concrète. Composed for Pierre Schaeffer’s ballet Orphee 53, the cantata contains as a central motif the sound of tearing fabric, which apparently refers to the moment (found in some versions of the myth) when Orpheus, having led Eurydice from Hades, breaks the taboo imposed by Persephone by turning back to lift his bride’s veil of graveclothes, and gazing upon her. Considering that he is known as “the father of songs,” Orpheus’s timing here is pretty bad: the action would rend them forever asunder, as Hermes (who’s been tagging along)pulls Eurydice back into the Underworld, this time forever.
The first version of Treatise on the Veil dates from 1968, and hangs in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. A photographic reproduction of it is collaged into one of twelve untitled drawings in the Morgan exhibition, which appear to be studies and are presented, with great success, as fully resolved works. Laced even more abundantly than the painting with Twombly’s distinctive, ad-hoc calligraphic scrawl, they incorporate scribbles, smudges, erasures and rubber-stampings, as well as multi-panel collage structures.
Seven drawings feature six panels; four have five. Clearly, Twombly was engaged with the ideas of seriality, modularity, and progression that so enchanted many artists of the 1960s (and not only the Minimalists). The cellophane and masking tapes affixing these vertical, parallel swatches of paper to the larger sheets are showing their age, but that discoloration contributes to the sense of orchestrated scrappiness.
A slightly later drawing, from 1972, pares the structure down to four modules or “stages,” as they are labeled. It reprises the four-panel structure of Twombly’s 1968 canvas Veil of Orpheus (not in this show). Twombly, of course, was hugely influenced by Classical antiquity, and references to Orpheus can be found elsewhere in his oeuvre. The 1972 drawing contributes to the project’s tissue of references a black-and-white photograph of a woman, seen full-figure in profile, resplendent in an elaborate, flowing bridal gown. A flurry of graphite markings nearly obscures her.
In “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes,” Rainer Maria Rilke describes the journey these three figures made from the Underworld, through
…that immense, gray, unreflecting pool
that hung above its so far distant bed
like a gray rainy sky above a landscape.
And between meadows, soft and full of patience,
appeared the pale strip of the single pathway,
like a long line of linen laid to bleach.
I don’t know if Twombly read these lines. But Rilke’s pathway is perhaps a kind of time line, which ends with the lifting of Eurydice’s veil; then time is reversed, as her rescue and thus the newlyweds’ fortunes are reversed.
The exhibition literature states that another source for the painting is by Eadweard Muybridge: a study of “the movements of a veiled bride walking in front of a train.” Though not visually supported in the exhibition, this tantalizing detail implies a photographic component to Twombly’s investigation of duration and the still image. Pictorial space can be elastic, of course, and the same might be true of pictorial time.