SHOULD NOT surprise us that the first major monographic study of the work of Cy
Twombly would come to us from
Steps toward a serious yet belated recognition of the artist’s centrality in American painting of the 1960s (which would finally place him on par with his peers, his former companions and close friends Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) were initiated only a decade ago, when Kirk Varnedoe dedicated a magisterial catalogue with an exhaustive biographical essay to Twombly on the occasion of the artist’s first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1994.
earlier exhibition in
Richard Leeman’s eminent study Cy Twombly (the book is based on the author’s 1999 doctoral dissertation) may stand on Barthes’s shoulders, but the author draws insightfully on his own considerable knowledge of postwar painting, both American and European. While he subscribes to the received wisdom that Twombly’s beginnings must be seen as a dialogue with Jackson Pollock, hovering between the game preserves of automatism and industrialized spectacle, Leeman also recognizes the importance of Pollock’s European counterparts-from Dubuffet to Fautrier, from Burri and Fontana to Manzoni.* *Their fractured, painterly gestures, which reemerged in Europe in the aftermath of World War II, not only laid the groundwork for the relatively early and enthusiastic European reception of Twombly’s work but, more importantly, became integral to the painter’s formation after his arrival in Italy.
has conceived his grand monographic study in the most traditional manner. If we
believe in the feasibility and desirability of such a traditional format (as
undoubtedly the majority of Twombly’s admirers at this time do), we could not
hope for a more accomplished book. It delivers the most detailed accounts of every
tendency and facet of the artist’s poetical and painterly pursuit, of the
subtle and at times sudden transformations that continually punctuated
Twombly’s career, from the time of his extraordinary early work at
height of Beat culture, Twombly’s Italian road trip must have appeared a rather
eccentric project, it now seems perfectly comprehensible as an act of refusal,
a desperate attempt to escape the rise of a monolithic American postwar
consumer culture by searching out
Leeman gives us an astonishingly scrupulous account of Twombly’s painterly and textual maneuvers within that arena of shattered European humanism, and we benefit immensely from the author’s ability to provide elucidations of every mythological and philosophical allusion, of the poetry and literature of antiquity Invoked in Twombly’s abstract neoclassicism. However, Leeman’s learned account at times falls to resolve its Innate contradictions. One such instance concerns Twombly’s graphisms. When Leeman argues that they originate in the Egyptian glyph and later forms of writing and mark-making in antiquity, he does not seem disturbed that this extrapolation situates Twombly’s precarious Darks in a trajectory of universal human desire. This occludes the more recent graphic Impulses of treating-if not debasing—painting as graffito writing (from George Grosz’s celebration of the Berlin public toilets as his “drawing academy’’ to Brassai’s and Dubuffet’s 1940s invocations of the graffito as a mark that simultaneously signals the primitive origin and the apocalyptic end of the primary mark-making process).
can convincingly cite Twombly’s rejection of that Interpretive cliché Inasmuch
as the artist has Indeed become increasingly tired of the misreading of his
drawings as graffiti (ever since his first exhibition in
Having worked one’s way through the book’s wealth of detailed interpretations, one is almost convinced that the traditional art-historical monograph, with its insistence on the primacy and singularity of author and oeuvre, its fusion of biographical account and chronological development, is the most appropriate method and format after all. At times, Leeman’s approach even appears salubrious when compared to some recent work on the period-monographs ranging from Fred Orton’s Figuring Jasper Johns (1994) to Branden W. Joseph’s Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde (2003), to name just two studies that seem driven by a thicket of conflicting theoretical demands (e.g., Marxist social art history, psychoanalysis, poststructuralist theory, gender theory, and queer studies).
But Leeman’s French cure for that dilemma- attempting to form a cohesive traditional artistic identity by integrating biography and intellectual history—fails us when it comes to understanding Twombly’s place in the formation of a post-Greenbergian aesthetic that sprang from the fusion of the legacies of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage (with Rauschenberg and Johns, if not Ellsworth Kelly, as his immediate peers).
all, Twombly was responding as critically to Pollock’s presumed expressively as
Johns’s painted epistemological skepticism was, or as Manzoni’s deconstruction
of painting was. Yet we will never learn from Leeman’s study what, if anything,
Twombly’s mark- making shares with Johns’s molecular deposits of encaustic
paint or with Rauschenberg’s chemically induced dye-transfer imagery, let alone
with Manzoni’s Achrome paintings. Thus, when it comes to answering questions of
context and historical specificity at the moment of postfascist reconstruction
Ultimately, what Leeman’s admirable book forces us to consider is the relative value of the intensely diver- gent methodological approaches available to us in the field of postwar studies. Leeman seems to argue—for the most part splendidly and convincingly—that the significance of Twombly’s work derives from its singularity, its extraordinary refinement, and from the extreme differentiation of its subjectivity. And yet these very qualities are, to Leeman’s thinking, precisely what align it in some kind of transhistorical continuity or elective affinity with nineteenth-century concepts of artistic subjectivity originating in Romanticism, Neoclassicism, and Symbolism.
price we pay for that extrapolation into the spheres of transhistorical
aesthetic experience is, of course, the loss of what was once the almost
aggressive specificity of Twombly’s work in the context of
H. D. BUCHLOH IS THE FRANKLIN D. AND
* In a peculiar gesture of ostentatious omission, the author falls to mention, even in the bibliography, the groundbreaking, if brief, theorization of Twombly’s work in Rosalind E. Krauss’s The Optical Unconscious (1995) nor does he mention Yve-Alain Bois’s important essay on Twombly—”‘Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail Reading Twombly’’—in the Daros Collection catalogue Abstractions, Gesture, Ecriture, ed. Peter Fischer (Zurich: Alesco, 1999), 61-78