When I think of Cy Twombly, two scenes immediately come to mind. The first is from Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Lévi-Strauss. I recall the author describing negotiations between an Indian chief and a white man, which involve a barter. During the conversation the white man takes notes. The chief interprets the white man’s act of writing as a gesture of authority, so he imitates it in order to demonstrate his own competence to his entourage. In pretending to write, he proclaims his leadership, ostensibly negotiated on an equal footing with his interlocutor and qualified by this perspective of writing as a mark of distinction and proof of civilization.
The second scene is from my own childhood. I must have been four or five at the time. My father always kept in his office unused diaries, notepads, and notebooks, and would occasionally give them to me. I loved these little books and scribbled them full, without knowing how to write a single letter or word. One day I gave one of them to my little friend next door, telling him that he must read it because I had written it for him. Now I don’t know whether back then I was pretending, or if I really felt that I had written something for him that he could actually read. I assume that the game seemed so real to me that I had convinced myself. I was simply anticipating my future writing. One day I would know how to write, therefore I was able to write.
Imagine my astonishment the next day when I went to fetch my friend to go out and play. He opened the door just a crack and passed the noteworthy book out to me. With a surly face he told me, first, that he couldn’t play with me, and second, that his mother had told him that there was nothing written in the book that could be read. It wasn’t real writing. And with that he shut the door. I stood there on the spot for a moment, unable to comprehend what had caused this sudden rupture in my negotiations.
In the cases of the Indian chief, me as a child, and Cy Twombly, there is no attempt or preparatory study, no sketch of any kind. Everything is sudden, torn out, resulting in a certain excitation of the senses. Twombly’s act of writing is a kind of direct script. And, contrary to the general idea that his writing resembles that of a child, I would say rather that it is archaic. I even think it precedes the spoken word. It speaks of something that is happening or that will happen yet, and it affects me like spoken language, direct and immediate. What is written there strikes me like a word divested of sound. It is an effect that I also recognize in Simone Martini’s gold-ground paintings from the early Renaissance, such as the Annunciation in which the Virgin hears something that she already knows. In both Martini and Twombly, the actuality of the communication seems so urgent that it is beside the point whether or not I am aware of what is being announced.
Everything Twombly draws can derive sustenance from no matter what: a secret message, a universal text, other pictures and diagrams.Katharina Grosse
For me, Twombly’s paintings are voyages in time that divert a linear understanding of time by doubling back and detouring off the path of our imagination. If, aided by his paintings, one looks from the most distant past back toward the future, writing is both a prescription and a model. Thus, his oeuvre deploys its power precisely out of this fullness of the future, which bears within itself all that is past and present. Yet I can also see how Twombly superimposes these temporal lenses such that I find myself both in the present day and in ancient Greece at the same time. In this way, too, I do not need to align my lived experiences; rather I can follow each in its vital necessity. Twombly does not use ancient poems, mythical texts, and echoes of cave painting to prove the past, but rather to show that a linear sequence of events merely serves to put our own thoughts in order. This is why the references to mythical events are so appropriate, because they represent happenings beyond past and future. Thanks to this ingenious conception of time, he opens the past and the future to each other to create a much more dynamic present.
Contrary to spoken language and music, painting does not follow chronological succession; thus it has no beginning or end. There is no duration of contemplation that can be defined. All of the layers or levels of a picture, including the coats of paint applied at different moments in time, are simultaneously present in the visual result. While viewing the picture, one can constantly exchange or recombine the skeins of paint or the narrative acts. Into this synoptic character of the image Twombly implants cinematographic fragments, for example scenographic instructions, narrative excerpts, lists of characters, and sketches that call to mind choreographic scores. This scenaristic material piles onto the surface of the picture. By thus fusing the temporal strata in the painted image, he intensifies the simultaneity of duration and event, which reaches its climax in the viewer’s here and now.
All that is recounted across the space of myth affects me like breaking news, in direct contrast with the time that it takes to actually make these works. In Twombly’s art I experience this coincidence of long evolution and instantaneous event, without one canceling the other. In Fifty Days of Iliam: Shield of Achilles, these two extremes meet and fuse—in the superimposition of lettering, the scrawls that coil to evoke the shield form, drifting to the left of the picture while giving the impression of standing still. He depicts the shield not by representing it but rather by endowing a colorful scrawl with a verbal aid that forms the defining contour. The shield is born out of action, and vanishes the same way. It flickers only for a brief instant in the thickness of the plot, never transforming into the actual object. Wonderful.
Twombly never loses time. Everything is urgent. He never leaves room for the slightest hesitation in finding the right tool or noting down a fleeting thought, but he puts precisely in play what arises in the moment.Katharina Grosse
Twombly never loses time. Everything is urgent. He never leaves room for the slightest hesitation in finding the right tool or noting down a fleeting thought, but he puts precisely in play what arises in the moment. Numbers, diagrams, word snippets, punctuation marks. Wax crayon on a gray-green ground like a blackboard. The directness of the notation process means that the traces of the painting tools resemble more those of the hand, finger, or body. Everything seems to arise from an emergency. In opposition to this urgency is a disconcerting density of narrative, and the expansion or condensation of numerous strata and temporal forms. It’s hard to reconcile all this: the coexistence of urgency and density, and the assumption that the story stems from a time of which we have no knowledge. Yet it is precisely this seeming incompatibility that creates the level of excitation that marks every Twombly image. First of all, there is their sexual dimension, which is constantly and emphatically present in the form of cunts, breasts, and penises that penetrate the picture from every direction. But besides genitals, the birth of Venus, and little copulation scenes everywhere, in Twombly’s hands even motifs that have no sexual connotations are arousing.
This frisson struck me in my first encounters with Twombly’s drawings. They were the first drawings I ever saw. As a child, my parents took me through the museum at Bochum University, and I ran through the rooms saying to myself, “Here’s a picture with a toothbrush in it. Why would anybody put a toothbrush in a picture?” Yet even this toothbrush was drawn with the same urgency and excitation that does away with all limits of time. Everything Twombly draws can derive sustenance from no matter what: a secret message, a universal text, other pictures and diagrams.
Twombly’s paintings make me extremely alert. In the untitled, fifteen-meter-long painting of 1994 that fills an entire wall in the Menil Collection, Houston, Twombly projects me into an unprotected visual space that opens wide between the painted markings. This pictorial space opens up with such refinement that I cannot exit the painting by falling toward the base in accordance with the laws of gravity; rather I must die in the cottony stuff in free fall, directionless. And what if I didn’t exist, but my death wasn’t fatal? Or take the series devoted to the Battle of Lepanto in the Museum Brandhorst, Munich. Hardly had I seen the paintings than I immediately knew that something atrocious had happened here. The paintings triggered in me such a violent premonition of horror that I felt almost deceived when I read that they represented the attack on Ottoman navy forces by a fleet of the Holy League in the Gulf of Patras in 1571. I sensed the full extent of the horror before even learning that in this battle that lasted just a single day, 40,000 men perished and the entire Turkish fleet was all but destroyed. Harsh and brutal suffering resides in these images, at once clear and encrypted. And Twombly shows it exactly like this so as to rid the emotions of their logical and historical functions and render them to us without bias.
It doesn’t always help to follow the paths that Twombly sets in his paintings, because they are full of false clues or red herrings. They do not lead to any one conclusion, but rather disperse and unravel as one follows them. For sure, he had himself photographed in sites of antiquity, deftly staging his search for traces—there are even photos of him perched on a donkey on a Greek island—but one would be wrong in taking these sites as references. They are, rather, echo chambers intended for his own internal vitality. They are at once theaters where things happen and dividing lines that Twombly casually yet consciously employs to distance himself from contemporary popular culture and his own time.
In the same vein, Twombly does not sign his works in order to authenticate them or accord value. He does so in order to add one more mark to the countless others in the picture. In their interleafing and temporal simultaneity, his images function like blocks of stone carved into incessantly over time—with incidental comments, poems, declarations of love, graffiti, and symbols. They are places both private and public.
The sheer abundance in Twombly’s paintings gives the impression of having been torn from something, as if one would tear from the ground a clump of grass complete with its roots, soil, insects, and microbes and exclaim, “Look at this!” What is produced in this torn-out thing is delivered unflinchingly to the magnifying glass of the blank canvas. Nothing is mediated. Then the battle for survival on this clump of earth begins, growing acute and harsh. Everything teems and swarms; directions change from top to bottom and back again to the sides, along the edges, glancing toward the abyss, grasping for the center. It soon becomes clear that the clump will never return home again. What we see is a flood of transplantations. Things are swallowed to be spewed out again. What would happen if the torn clump were let fall only to gather speed; where would the uprooted script, the breasts, and the echo of myths fly? What rumblings would result! Not to mention the rude awakening that existence does not know history, because life can only be lived as an unrepeatable event. As a child, I experienced this over and over again, in split seconds of insight where I thought I could see everything in the world at once.
All of a sudden I am reminded of the ways in which Brazilian artists dealt with imported European culture. I think of The Anthropophagite Manifesto (1928), where Oswald de Andrade challenged the canonical dominance of Europe. Cannibalize the best of others and reject whatever isn’t useful: for de Andrade, this was the only way that Brazil could achieve growth and affirm its autonomy. Eating and shitting as an anarchic transmission belt of the reversal of forces. Overturning all rituals that promise power.
Tearing and separating. When, for instance, Twombly paints a large patch of color and writes “Aeneas” next to it, he exposes the identity and physical presence of the person in making them enter into two separate fields. And, immediately, I transpose and apply this manner of separation to myself, such that I begin to be able to experience myself as something apart from my own name. In this way, Twombly makes available to me a gigantic space that engulfs everything without a sound.
Artwork © Cy Twombly Foundation. Photo by The Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY. Translation from German by J. W. Gabriel, edited by Louise Neri. First publication of this text for the retrospective on Cy Twombly at Centre Pompidou appeared in French in Cy Twombly, Jonas Storsve (ed.), Paris, Editions du Centre Pompidou, 2016, pp. 111–14.