The apex of 20th century abstract art

Unraveling Cy Twombly's scribbles: It's a Houston mystery


News_Twombly_photo essay_Cy Twombly_Dominique de Menil
Courtesy of Photo courtesy of Hickey-Robertson, Houston/The Menil Collection
News_Twombly_photo essay_The Menil
Photo by Cameron Blaylock
News_Twombly_photo essay_The Cy Twombly Gallery_The Menil
Photo by Keith Ewing
News_Twombly_photo essay_The Cy Twombly Gallery_The Menil
Photo by Amber Vickery
News_Twombly_photo essay_The Cy Twombly Gallery_The Menil
Photo by Keith Ewing
News_Twombly_photo essay_The Cy Twombly Gallery_The Menil
Photo by Cameron Blaylock
News_Twombly_photo essay_The Cy Twombly Gallery_The Menil
Photo by Cameron Blaylock
News_Twombly_photo essay_The Cy Twombly Gallery_The Menil
Photo by Cameron Blaylock
News_Twombly_photo essay_The Cy Twombly Gallery_The Menil
Photo by Cameron Blaylock
News_Twombly_photo essay_The Cy Twombly Gallery_The Menil
Photo by Cameron Blaylock
News_Twombly_photo essay_The Cy Twombly Gallery_The Menil
Courtesy of Photo courtesy of Hickey-Robertson, Houston

Editor's Note: We've combed through the CultureMap archives to highlight some of our timeless stories. Here's a look at one of Houston's hidden jewels.

--------------

Cy Twombly, one of the 20th century’s most influential artists, died last week in Rome. The Virginia-born abstract painter was 83.

With its scribbled poetry references and lush colors juxtaposed with repetitive abstract minimalism, his work represents the apex of 20th century abstract art. Embedded within are themes of psychology, states of consciousness, ancient history, mythology and literature. Twombly’s status was crystallized in 2010, when the Louvre invited him to paint a ceiling — an honor that has not been granted to any other artist since George Braque in 1953.

It was not until 1979 that French art collector and humanitarian Dominique de Menil bought her first two paintings by Twombly. By 1995, in collaboration with Cy Twombly and the Dia Foundation, the Menil Foundation constructed the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston. Beautifully designed to reflect the artist’s own philosophies, the Cy Twombly Gallery is one of the largest and most important permanent collections of the artist’s work.

Admission is free, and without explanatory wall texts, the gallery represents the de Menils’ philosophy of allowing unmediated and direct contact with the artwork on view, not conditioned by curators’ thoughts and opinions. "Perhaps only silence and love do justice to a great work of art," Dominique de Menil once said.

Cy Twombly and Dominique de Menil in the Cy Twombly Gallery in 1995

When it opened in 1987, the Menil Collection, right, was the first building constructed by Italian architect Renzo Piano in North America. Today the museum houses one of America’s most celebrated private art collections, including approximately 17,000 paintings, sculptures, decorative objects, prints, drawings, photographs, and rare books of ancient, modern and contemporary art.

The Cy Twombly Gallery, left, was inaugurated in 1995 and permanently exhibits a priceless collection of Twombly’s work from 1953 to 1994. Twombly worked with Renzo Piano and The Menil Foundation on the concept and layout of the gallery.

Twombly’s work speaks of the ancient, with history and world cultures informing the concept. The gallery’s façade is constructed of scored concrete, evoking Roman architecture. The layout is based on the Farnese Palace in Rome. With its air of permanence and deep history, the space contradicts and complements Twombly’s fleeting, tentative marks.

The Cy Twombly Gallery is composed of eight separate rooms, each exhibiting a different style from the artist's continually transforming work. Each room is 26 by 26 feet and 15 feet in height, except for one double room that houses a 53-foot-long painting. The gallery walls are two feet nine inches thick white plaster, suggesting permanence. Wide plank, white oak hardwoods illuminate the rooms and provide a neutral viewing setting.

Natural light permeates the building through the skylights, which passes through and is muted by the white sailcloth ceiling. On a bright summer day, the ceiling lets in about one percent of outdoor sunlight. The gallery is a muted statement of light and architecture, exuding an atmosphere of clarity, simplicity, and lightness. 

“Untitled (A Painting in 9 Parts)” was commissioned for the American Pavilion at the 1988 Venice Biennale. Twombly painted these nine paintings in one-and-a-half days, using his fingers as painting utensils. A mixture of abstraction and landscape, the series was strongly influenced by Monet’s paintings of water lilies. The works were a gift of the artist to the gallery.

“Untitled (A Painting in 9 Parts)” (1988). Oil, water-based paint, graphite and metallic paint on panel.

Ekphrasis, a term typically used to denote a rhetorical work of art that describes a visual work of art, (Keat’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” being the most popular example), is frequently inversed in Twombly’s work. For example, “Untitled (A Painting in Nine Parts), Part I,” illustrates the last two lines of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Moving Forward:"

The deep parts of my life pour onward,
as if the river shores were opening out.
It seems that things are more like me now,
that I can see farther into paintings.
I feel closer to what language can’t reach.
With my sense, as with birds, I climb
into the windy heaven, out of the oak,
and in the ponds broken off from the sky
my feeling sinks, as if standing on fishes.

(Translated by Robert Bly)

“Untitled (A Painting in Nine Parts), Part I” (1988).
Oil, water-based paint, graphite, and metallic paint on panel.


 

The triptych, “Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor),” inhabits the double room in the Cy Twombly Gallery. Given to the gallery by the artist, the painting took Twombly 22 years to create between the ages of 44 to 66. The monumental canvases were first exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City in 1994, and subsequently traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1995, moving six months later to the Cy Twombly Gallery.

The painting represents an epic narrative of life, and like Chinese painting, is meant to read from right to left. To the far right of the painting are colorful, explosive forms that symbolize the energy and vitality of youth. Darker forms inhabit the middle sections of the canvas, and large stretches of the far left side remain blank.

“Untitled (Say Goodbye to Catullus, to the Shoes of Asia Minor” (1994). Oil, acrylic, oil/wax crayon, and graphite on three canvases.

What may appear at first glance to be scribbles are in fact forms that embody complex historical narratives and symbolism. “My line is childlike but not childish,” stated Twombly. The black wax and oil crayon circles in “Untitled” inhabit the middle of the 53-foot-long canvas, symbolizing the turmoil of middle age.

Detail of “Untitled (Say Goodbye to Catullus, to the Shoes of Asia Minor” (1994). Oil, acrylic, oil/wax crayon, and graphite on three canvases.

“Untitled (Say Goodbye to Catullus, to the Shoes of Asia Minor)” features lines from poems by Keats, Catullus, Archilochos and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as Robert Burton’s 1621 medical book Anatomy of Melancholy. Twombly only wrote on the canvas lines of poetry he knew by heart, as well as some of his own poetry. The titles and poems add to the content and composition of the artwork.

Detail of “Untitled (Say Goodbye to Catullus, to the Shoes of Asia Minor” (1994). Oil, acrylic, oil/wax crayon and graphite on three canvases.

Since his infancy, Twombly was a voracious reader and grew into an erudite historian. Like Picasso, many of his works are a homage to his favorite works of art and literature, but are made anew in his own, personal style. “The Triumph of Galatea” is also a fresco masterpiece by Italian painter Raphael, completed in 1512 in the Villa Farnesina in Rome. 

Detail of “The Triumph of Galatea” (1961). Oil, oil/wax crayon and pencil on canvas.

Twombly’s method of borrowing themes from mythology and art history serves as a journal of his personal life. For example, “The Age of Alexander” was his first large-scale work of his career, painted in his tiny apartment in Rome. Amid enigmatic symbols are the words “FLOODS,” “Roma,” “Valley” and “Why cry anymore?” The final words can either be interpreted as a reference to Alexander the Great or his one-year-old son, Cyrus Alessandro Twombly, who lived with him at the time.
 

“The Age of Alexander” (1959-1960). Oil, oil/wax crayon and pencil on canvas. 

Sculpture also forms large part of Twombly’s body of work, and many examples are on display in the Cy Twombly Gallery. Similar to his painting, the sculptures reference landscape, ancient history and plant life. Many of the sculptures are covered in white paint to evoke ethereality and to unite disparate materials.

“Thermopylae [Gaeta]” refers to the battle of Thermoplyae in 480 B.C., where an outnumbered Greek force of 7,000 soldiers made a three-day stand against tens of thousands of Persian soldiers. The Greeks were defeated and completely annihilated, and the battle became an important symbolic gesture of resistance. Twombly once compared the significance of Thermoplyea to the Battle of the Alamo.

Detail of “Thermopylae [Gaeta]” (1991). Plaster, wicker, coarsely woven cloth, graphite, wood sticks, plaster-coated cloth with flower on plastic stems.

Every line in Twombly’s paintings is preceded by meticulous thought, just as the careful design of the Cy Twombly Gallery. Twombly once said about “Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asian Minor)”: “You would think that you could get away with placing a mark on such a big painting that wasn’t quite right, but it’s not possible; it affects everything.” This week, with the passing of Cy Twombly, a brilliant flame has been extinguished.

"Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asian Minor) (A Painting in Three Parts)," (1994). Oil, acrylic, oil/wax crayon, and graphite on three canvases.

 -------

About the author: Cameron Blaylock is a native Houstonian and freelance photographer. He received a European Diploma in Free Art from Bauhaus-University in Weimar, Germany. Since moving back to Houston from Weimar in 2010, he has worked in circulation and development for Art Lies.