Artist Spotlight: Cy Twombly
When Cy Twombly’s work first emerged in the early 1950s many critics scoffed at the deeply expressive gestures, scribbles, drips, and scratches that have come to firmly secure his place as one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. “My line is childlike but not childish,” the artist once offered in response to criticism pegging his work as simplistic and lacking in clear technique. “It is very difficult to fake … to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child’s line. It has to be felt.” The emotional caliber of Twombly’s elegantly orchestrated compositions is palpable. Chock-full of fluid starts and stops, erasures, and replacements, which all lend a manuscript-like quality to his canvases. And while the same highly animated, lyrical scribbles and gestural scratches might be evocative of graffiti, Twombly himself shied away from such identification. “Graffiti is linear and it’s done with a pencil, and it’s like writing on walls. But in my paintings it’s more lyrical,” he explained.
At their core, Twombly’s “scribble” works point to the subtle tensions between language and its graphic representation. In a short essay penned in an Italian art journal in 1957, incidentally the only written statement the artist ever offered on his work, Twombly noted that each line he made in his work was at its core “the actual experience” of its creation. “It does not illustrate,” he continued, “It is the sensation of its own realization.” Language, especially the written word, are essential to both Twombly’s conceptual and practical approach to painting. A wide variety of literary sources including poems, myths, and historical texts each influenced his work in countless respects. The literature of the Classical world in particular exerted substantial influence on his work as a whole, especially after Twombly moved to Rome in 1957, where he would remain for the rest of his life. While the impact of literature on Twombly’s work is discernible throughout his oeuvre, perhaps even more dominant is the influence that the actual act of writing itself had on the artist’s work.
In emphasizing the inherently visual, graphic nature of the written word, works such as Twombly’s 1967 etching, Note II, blur clear-cut distinctions separating word and image. Twombly’s animated compositions uniquely engage a form of ekphrastic tension that asks the viewer to reconsider the distinctions commonly thought to exist between different registers of communication: the verbal and the visual, the poetic and the plastic, motion and stasis. In these exuberant “scribble” works the visual and the verbal operate in a round of competing proofs effectively producing what Jacques Rancière calls “the pensiveness of the image,” which he identifies as “the latent presence of one regime of expression in another.” Ecstatic works, such as Note II, are ingenious experiments in what happens when both language and images of language take on a life of their own once extracted from their original context. Perhaps this is what lead English Art Historian Simon Schama to conclude: “I have always thought “Twombly” ought to be (if it isn’t already) a verb, as in twombly: (vt.): to hover thoughtfully over a surface, tracing glyphs and graphs of mischievous suggestiveness, periodically touching down amidst discharges of passionate intensity. Or, then again, perhaps a noun, as in twombly (n.): A line with a mind of its own.”
Bradley, Laura. “Top 10 Cy Twombly Facts & Quotes.” AnOther, 19 Sept. 2014.
“Cy Twombly: Scribbles and Masterpieces.” The Telegraph, 2017.
Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London and New York: Verso, 2011), 124. Also: “The pensiveness of the image is the result of this new status of the figure that conjoins two regimes of expression, without homogenizing them,” 122.
Note II, 1967
Etching on Auvergne handmade paper
Unique trial proof aside from the edition of 14
Published and printed by Universal Limited Art Editions, West Islip
Initialed in graphite lower right edge of sheet; edition lower left; retains ULAE blind stamp lower left
Image: 8.75″ x 10.75″; Sheet: 25.5″ x 20″; Frame: 29″ x 24.125″; (Image: 22 x 27 cm)
Together with copy of invoice from Margo Leavin Gallery dated April 25, 2000
Provenance: Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, California; Private Collection, Encino, California (acquired directly from the above, 2000)
Literature: Cy Twombly: The Printed Graphic Work, 1953-1984. H. Bastian. 1984. #7.