Eros, Weaver of Myth: Image and Text in Cy Twombly
Two Exhibitions of Cy Twombly: Coronation of Sesostris and In Beauty It Is Finished: Drawings 1951-2008 at Gagosian Gallery, New York
Sesostris: March 8 to April 28, 2018
980 Madison Avenue, between 76th and 77th streets
New York City, gagosian.com
Drawings: March 8 to April 25, 2018
522 West 21st Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, gagosian.com.
From the Iliad to Vietnam, Cy Twombly was fascinated by war. His epic, 10-part painting, Coronation of Sesostris (2000), is the singular focus of an exhibition at Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, running concurrently with the same gallery’s landmark survey of drawings downtown. The legend of the conquering pharaoh, whose sanguine trails were recounted by Herodotus, is index linked by Twombly to the most elemental temporal cycle, the sun’s journey across the sky, as mythologized by the sun god Ra in his solar barge. Like Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, Twombly’s Coronation dashes through a landscape of emotional extremes and pounding cadences, with alternating rushes of the funereal, the rhapsodic and the majestic.
With almost puerile glee, the opening panel delivers a blazing sun in cadmium red crayon contoured in Twombly’s signature jittery nonchalance, grandly enclosing a chaotic entanglement of bouncing lines. He then installs the same solar shape onto a schematic chariot, bestowing upon it the spindly inscription “SOLAR BARGE OF SESOSTRIS.” The vessel seems to fly into an immediate barrage, in the next panel, of spermatic deluge on the now febrile effulgence of red and yellow orb. A slanted, knotty inscription, obscured and shadowed in this gravitational rage of aqueous white acrylic paint, cites Sappho in fragments: “Eros weaver (of myth)/ Eros sweet (bitter)/ Eros bringer (of pain).” Eros, son of Aphrodite and Ares, seems to be Twombly’s entry point into the tragic carnality of human violence, union as Eros is of the gods of love and war. Yet this brief orgiastic moment is urgently checked in the fourth panel, where a simmering sun retreats to a wax crayon circle amidst emaciated pencil spirals and diminutive runnels of yellow paint. This is a symphonic tactic, an interlude of momentary calm priming the viewer for the explosive event that will span the next three panels.
The barge, now sprouting stalactite-like oars, reappears in full baroque sensuality. Rapid knots of watery brushstroke, at once floral and bloody, form a gold and roseate cascade. As others have noted of Twombly, his dripping motions are simultaneously temporal and spatial. On the next panel, a Patricia Waters poem about the departure of the gods is cursively inscribed in red pencil, and shrouded in a crimson lace of arrested paint projectiles. Climax is reached in the seventh panel, where the white deluge, sublimely touched with gold, reappears and submerges the now multiplied barges, dismembering and devouring the foreground boat with flaming yellow while pushing its discarnate companions into atmospheric recession. Everything sizzles in the splendid opacity of embodied light. This moment quickly collapses in the next panel into the obscurity of frosty purple and foggy pallor, an almost comic deflation of the preceding grandeur. The barge then morphs back to its own schematic vestige. Finally, lines from Sappho reappear in renewed clarity above a dark, brooding shape.
Image and text in Twombly’s oeuvre are never subservient, one to the other, as mere flourish or illustration. But the viewer often encounters a disorienting, almost vertiginous split between modes of reading and of seeing. Verbal meaning of the script and visceral sensation of the paint—the soaring barges’ dripping flames and Sappho’s lamentations—alternate in focus, hinging upon each other as they dance their tango. Text tunnels through materiality to treasure troves of cultural evocations, while paint hints beyond what can be verbalized. Perhaps Sappho’s words themselves provide a clue. According to poet Anne Carson, Sappho’s notion of the bittersweet (glukupikron) describes the “sensational crisis” of joy and pain coexisting. It reveals the essentially paradoxical nature of eros. Lack, the space between the actual and the possible, activates eros in the way voltage activates electric charge. And like the runner in Zeno’s paradox, Eros reach for his object but never consummates it: “Perfect desire is perfect impasse,” as Carson puts it. The lover’s vision is stereoscopic: reality and potentiality, self and other, what is and what is not, are all projected upon the same mental screen.
Comparably, in Twombly image and text can never have a proper, or literal, correspondence and can only be metaphoric translations of each other. Each medium reaches hopelessly towards what only the other has. The edge between them, like the pressurized contact of opposites in the word “bittersweet”, is pungently defined. The act of subsuming both upon the same picture plane creates a space of incongruence and paradox. Across this space, as Carson puts it, “a spark of eros moves in the lover’s mind to activate delight”. The electrified dance of allusion and sensation is an erotic one. In this light, what Clement Greenberg proposed in his 1940 Towards a Newer Laocoön, that painting should uphold its two-dimensional purity against contamination of other disciplines, reads like a call to chastity, evading the possibility that painting could be strengthened by interaction with another medium.
Strikingly, Twombly achieved the feat of using poetry to elevating painterly expressivity at a time when images were rendered secondary or diagrammatic by the stipulations of textual concepts (minimal art and pop art). This underlines the difficulty faced by Twombly’s innovative enterprise, and thus the importance of recognizing some seemingly instinctive or literary decisions as contemplated formal strategies. His choice of quotation is often painterly in nature, drawing from favored poets like Keats, Rilke, Sappho, Catullus and the haikuist Taigi. When citing these writers he often modifies or omits words. On the canvas or page, the territorial sovereignty of text is, furthermore, frequently violated by painterly marks—and undermined by his inimitable, barely legible handwriting. The Twombly scrawl is something he deliberately cultivated at the outset of his career when, during national service in the early 1950s, he took to drawing in the dark. Line probes with libidinal tremor realms of rhythm, psyche and temporality.
In abundant examples, Gagosian’s drawing exhibition demonstrates the ways in which Twombly’s very particular quality of line undergoes constant metamorphosis. The first career-spanning presentation of its kind, this show covers ground from 1951 to 2008. It is a journey that begins in the early 1950s with angst-ridden gestural line drawings heavily influenced by German Expressionism and bristling with primal forms. The 1960s witness both the somber, incessant, compulsive loops of the blackboard paintings and the first stirrings of mythopoeic imagery rich with quotations sourced from world literature. In the 1970s the sublimated landscapes, with their pastoral reminiscences and flower-lined splendor, an idiom that would come to dominate Twombly’s later years, make their first appearance.
In an untitled drawing from 1969, a swarm of looping white lines surge and plunge atop a uniformly dark-gray ground. The gentle upper-rightward drift of this cluster is typical of Twombly. In the center background, a tangle of translucent pentimenti insinuates itself into atmospheric distance. Gentle, slanting lines traverse the page, not with the calligraphic modulation of a brushstroke, but with the nervous energy of a drypoint needle: mobile rather than corporeal. Indeed, the jolts and swells evoke a disembodied psychic rhythm, one in which a smooth curve never travels far without being disrupted by an obstinate shudder. Somewhere between Surrealist automatism and Abstract Expressionist gesture, this quality of line manages to reconcile Joan Miró’s slick, smooth arabesques and Franz Kline’s muscular thrusts. An uneasy volatility recalls projectiles hitting friction that is distinct at each local point. It is intensely felt, “the sensation of its own realization” as Twombly declared in his 1957 manifesto, yet it’s a particular kind of cathexis realized through sensitized rhythm rather than carnal gesture. At moments when the frail loops close upon themselves, we catch ghostly glimpses of legibility: letters flash, “R,” “O,” “M,” “S”, illuminating a fugitive tunnel between word and drawing. Perhaps there’s another, implicit kind of literariness in Twombly’s art: poetry is about rhythm, a matter of stress and timing, just like the artist’s particular use of line.
White for Twombly is densely impregnated with symbolic meaning. He has a penchant for moments of white on off-white, or for laying white paint on evenly tinted paper. To quote his 1957 manifesto again: “Whiteness can be the classic state of the intellect, or a neo-romantic area of remembrance – or […] the symbolic whiteness of Mallarmé”. And as Mary Jacobus has observed, white also evokes the sun-lit Mediterranean for Twombly,. It also embodies memory through the act of erasure, constitutes intervals and space for painterly marks, and annuls directionality by creating a decentered narrative. In the seven-part panel Untitled, 1981, a frail crayoned arc springs into a flower before a leaping, cresting wave takes over, which then proceeds to narrow out. The center panel with the wave exhibits at its full range Twombly’s masterful use of white. It is achieved by maneuvering the complementary red and green, the main colors of the forceful crayoned undertow. The peak of the wave is a creamy commingling of thick white impasto applied in staccato daubs and red pigment rubbed out from the crayon lines, in which a pink pudgy opacity results. In the middle right, we see the same situation with green, but the emerald twines break through the white paste, creating a partial palimpsest. At the bottom of the wave, the layer of white paint, spottily grayed by the mingling of red and green, clarifies in glassy sedimentation. A stylus then scores back into this diaphanous zone, exposing the crayon beneath in flashes of lucidity. Nietzsche’s statement about dreaming comes to mind: “Even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance”.
The Gagosian show is extensive enough to make clear that the apparent orgiastic chaos of Twombly’s work is buttressed by visual sophistication. In Untitled, 2001, in the culminating room of the exhibition, a furor of yellow and gold hurtles across the image. Large, blazing flowers, in lemon, sap green, purple and crimson—the paint slathered on and fingered to a velvety luster—bloom at the top of the composition. Paint dribbles down in vertical streaks forming a balustrade. Articulated local areas (the blossoms) with their vestiges of naturalism and strong geometric structures (the yellow diagonal passage and the dripping veil) rein in an otherwise sweeping anarchy.
Living for most of his life in different parts of Italy and immersing himself, furthermore, in various forms of classicism, one wonders how Twombly managed to remain conversant with American artistic culture in the second half of the 20th Century? His move to Europe and incorporation of literature into painting at a time when people were rejecting Abstract Expressionism in favor of Minimalism and Pop Art reads like an effort to revive the subjectivity and romanticism of the earlier movement while also extracting moral and emotional nuances from the literature from which he quoted. Untitled (To Sappho), 1976 shows this at play. The center of the picture is the purple stain. It lies above the last stanza of Sappho’s brief epithalathum (marriage song) Lament for a Maidenhead. The stain has itself a scent-like gauziness, and is partly obscured by a white flurry. The text is a pyramidal shape lapsing rightward like a sigh, each line written with larger and more spaced out letters. In Sappho’s poem, loss of virginity is compared to the violent crushing of a flower. Besides Sappho herself, this picture evokes another personage associated with queerness: Hyacinth, Apollo’s young lover and one of Twombly’s literary alter egos. Produced during Twombly’s pastoral period, the picture recalls Adorno’s remark that “the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism”. The first Gay Liberation March was held in New York City in 1970, but how engaged was Twombly, whose sexuality few now question, in 1970s’ sexual politics? The connection is a mere hint, but the eroticism of his allusions is more than a literary ploy.