“My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals.”
—Frank O’Hara, “In Memory of My Feelings”
“Twombly’s art—this is its morality, and also its great historical singularity—does not want to take anything; it hangs together, it floats, it drifts between desire, which subtly animates the hand, and politeness, which is the discreet rejection of any desire to capture.”
—Roland Barthes, “The Wisdom of Art”
After a long stretch of years, I found myself drawn to re-visit the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston this past spring. It felt like a homecoming. I stood in the room containing the polyptych in five parts, “Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair” (1985), for hours, observing the subtle shifts of light and shadow with tears streaming down my cheeks. Twombly’s inimitable handwriting was so familiar, although the colors—burgeoning wine-drunk purples and devastating orange-reds—had been so hard to hold in the mind and the realization that they would slip away from me again was heartbreaking. This has been the one group of works about which I’ve been unable to write. These tender pink blushes and bruised blooms always struck me as too achingly beautiful, almost embarrassingly so, to put into words. They contain all that they need in phrases drawn from Leopardi, Rilke, and Rumi (“In drawing and drawing you, his pains are delectable. His flames are like water.”). More text, it would seem, could only serve diminish them.
Cy Twombly died on Tuesday, July 5, 2011. This shook me with an odd, complicated breed of mourning—for someone I have only met once or twice, but with whose work I have had a long series of intense, extensive encounters: looking, reading, thinking, writing. A curious form of intimacy dwells in this rarely acknowledged space, the scholar’s sharing of love with a stranger. This is the peculiar power that art possesses in Walter Hopps’s summation.
Twombly was generous in his propensity toward unabashed artistic freedom. He gave it all away, a rocking horse winner to the finish. He possessed fear of neither ugliness nor unbridled beauty, neither shoddiness nor riches. Twombly died in Rome, having said 18 years ago that he had come back to Lexington, Virginia (his birthplace), “like an old dog to die.”
At that time in 1994, he completed the largest work he had made to date. His anxiety about finishing it, as expressed to Paul Winkler, suggested that he thought it might be his last. Spanning a large wall in the Menil Collection’s Twombly Gallery, that tri-partite painting measuring 157.5 by 624 inches, “Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor,” is meant to be read from right to left. Along the right shore, the intense scumbled suns of noon flame yellow, blood red, and stark orange. The figurative theme of the work involves a flotilla of Maat’s boats carrying their dead across the Nile to the Western shore of the setting sun, characterized by matte solemnity and a flat gray sea. Inscribed upon the canvas is Twombly’s slightly altered memory of Rilke’s Ninth Duino Elegy: “This floating world which in some way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too just once and never again. But to have been this once completely even if only once, high and light. How the dizziness slipped away like a fish in the sea.” The repeated and layered name of Orpheus cuts across the vertical quotation as palimpsest—Orpheus, the one who paused for a glance, and lost so much upon turning away. Myth and poetry for Twombly, like drawing, painting, and sculpture, constituted mediums of their own. Through the scrims of time and memory, he offers scattered glimpses of innumerable literary and classical worlds.
“Say Goodbye Catullus” was not his last work by any means, but it did seem to afford him release from anxiety and melancholy. Color arrived in Turneresque bursts, year after year thereafter, with sheer redemptive abandon so different than the spare, bristling graphite claw marks and chalky, looping swirls for which he is best known. The final works, in a sense, classic late style, offer relaxed, exuberant blossomings of jubilant chroma. Witness the palette of cobalt and ultramarine blues, cadmium yellows, and oranges of the celestial orbs in Twombly’s recent elegiac and enormous painting (2010), singularly site specific, for the Salle des Bronzes’s ceiling at the Louvre.
It has become something of a cliché to call Twombly a painters’ painter, but with his charmed bookishness, he is foremost, in my mind, a writers’ painter. His gestures move between those of writing and drawing, between drawing and painting. Signs perch on the verge of manifest expression, often evading, occasionally gratifying legibility. His partakes of Hermes’s signs, gathering in force as they range from mark to word to quotation through redaction and negation to clamor and quietude. The chromatic incidents—from tiny gem gleams to full blown detonations—and the extraordinary range of types of mark are felt only by the body, Dionysian. They remind us of all in art that escapes the verbal clutch that would hope to seize that which exists only in moments when the attentive gaze is fully present.
His name, his quavering signature, holds all this possibility: the awkward wobble of the “W” like an off-handed pencil scrawl, the womb and the tomb (ripe for proliferation and stained by the melancholy of mortality). The meandering loop of the “Y” drifts away lightly without definitive finality. Released, it beckons to be resumed by other brushes, other pens. Herein lies the gift: Cy Twombly died as he lived, letting go without fuss. He left behind a formidable body of work, at once so painterly and so writerly (in Barthes’s adjectival sense of describing a difficult Text, one demanding the investment of true grappling) for the rest of us to carry forth.
CLAIRE DAIGLE, Director of MA programs at the San Francisco Art Institute, is a writer and art historian who lives in Oakland, CA. Her Ph.D. thesis, Reading Barthes/Writing Twombly, was completed in 2004.