The Veil of Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly was living in Rome when he painted Treatise on the Veil (Second Version), a massive canvas now on view at The Morgan Library & Museum (through January 25, 2015). It was 1970, four years after he’d delved headfirst into a world ruled seemingly absolutely by gray and white. Twombly’s shift in style could be seen as a return to the “blackboard” aesthetic he’d first pioneered in the mid-1950s with three thickly impastoed, staccatoed canvases, only one of which (Panorama, 1955, Daros Collection, Zurich) survives today. But the artist’s gray-ground period, a five-year stint between 1966 and 1971, illustrates an abandonment of the caustic scratches of his earlier work in favor of a line that is less fragmented and more fluid, less automatic and more calculated, less shrill and more lyrical. Indeed, Treatise was inspired by Pierre Henry’s avant-garde musical composition, The Veil of Orpheus, which records the tearing of a piece of cloth. In his translation of aural to visual phenomena, Twombly reduces his subject matter to its simplest parts, distilling and crystallizing its formal components so as to strengthen its visceral effects.

Cy Twombly’s canvases (including Panorama at back) in Robert Rauschenberg’s Fulton Street studio, ca. 1954.  Image courtesy Le temps retrouvé, Cy Twombly photographe & artistes associés, Collection Lambert (Avignon, été-automne 2011) via The Plumebook Café.
Photograph showing Cy Twombly’s canvases (including Panorama at back) in Robert Rauschenberg’s Fulton Street studio, ca. 1954. Image courtesy Le temps retrouvé, Cy Twombly photographe & artistes associés, Collection Lambert (Avignon, été-automne 2011) via The Plumebook Café.

The Morgan’s installation beautifully captures the visual harmony of Twombly’s work. In all its epic grandeur (the canvas stretches more than thirty feet), Treatise sits in the center of a single gallery, a crescendo amidst a twelve-drawing accompaniment. The drawings radiate centrifugally onto the surrounding walls, at once bracketing and barricading their attendant canvas. About twenty-seven by thirty-six inches each, the drawings are supplementary but not preparatory, and they are positioned as such: separate but equal. As the introductory text asserts, rightly, Treatise is “a meditation on time and space.”[1] The curators have done well to bolster these temporal underpinnings by orchestrating the drawings in approximate chronological order. But the sheer scale of Treatise, hubristic in its spatial demands, along with its diaphanous layers of media suggests something deeper stirs beneath the painting’s surface.

Cy Twombly, Nine Discourses on Commodus: Part VIII, 1963. Oil, wax crayon, and pencil on canvas, 204 x 134 cm. Image courtesy Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa.
Cy Twombly, Nine Discourses on Commodus: Part VIII, 1963. Oil, wax crayon, and pencil on canvas, 204 x 134 cm. Image courtesy Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa.

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Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins,[1] the Artist Takes Notes – thoughts on three current, un-visitable London exhibitions [2]

Robert Rauschenberg, Cy + Relics, Rome, 1952. Gelatin silver print. Photo copyright the Rauschenberg Foundation.

“[…] he mistook the curtains of the window of his room for a canvas, and he kept describing what he was painting: the colors, shapes, and shades.”[3]

On broad empty surfaces, marks begin to show—indicative of fragility, a sense of loss? Or expectation? Thought-full? Thought-less? Mannerisms coincide. A type of gestural painting that emerges out of contradictions. Too much, I felt, too much pathos. Yet architectonic enough to let that pathos live, consume, burn out. “The Fire that Consumes All before It” he wrote in a 1978 painting. The type of art that requires more of the viewer, becoming manifest only after the first impatient encounter is past.

In museums I often grow impatient. It happened with Twombly every single time, while secretly I was flirting with those scratches and scribbles and grays, seduced by the casual violence of raw color stacked atop the fibers, the mad mess that verged on spilling onto the clean white gallery walls. That whole magnificent period in the ‘50s during which his life and career intersected with those of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns intrigued me. Likewise, his subsequent move to Italy: rare expat, never to return from a strange form of self-imposed exile. Continue reading “Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins,[1] the Artist Takes Notes – thoughts on three current, un-visitable London exhibitions [2]”