Cy Twombly–‘white paint is my marble’

 

82 untitled bassano in teverina 1985 wood  plaster nails red pigment white paint 13 x 18 1:4 x 23 3:4 traces of poem (cf w analysis of the rose series of ptgs).jpg

Sometimes I wonder if these works of Twombly’s are really there at all. Maybe I am in similar doubt about some of my favourite poems.   One day I would like to give a kind of police report on Wallace Stevens’ ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction’. At first, I could make almost nothing of it, then I thought it was the most marvellous thing, then I just didn’t get it all over again.

Twombly’s sculptures share something with this troublesome poem. At least Stevens’ poems all have titles. Twombly’s sculptures mostly don’t. All those missing titles are like unwritten poems, which have been allowed to escape unrecorded. And in some way, that is that, a condition there’s no cure for.  Ones that do have titles have inspired some of the most wonderful interpretations ever.  This artist’s so-called sculptures seem to attract philosophers as vinegar does fruit flies. You can’t see why they would, but there’s no denying that they do.

Giorgio Agamben, a formidable Italian thinker, who appeared in Pasolini’s Gospel film (as the disciple Philip) and whom I revere because he discovered two manuscripts of Walter Benjamin’s missing since 1940, produced one of the most beautiful and far-fetched pieces of interpretation that I know, inspired by a particularly messy Twombly which, in lieu of a title, has a few lines of Rilke attached, which are artlessly (ha!) scribbled on a little piece of cardboard at the base of a plaster mound that holds two sticks, one standing straight, the other leaning against it, the two crudely wired together after an earlier accident.

71 untitled wood wire plaster cardboard white paint graphite 1984.jpg

Rilke speaks of happiness sought by laborious ascent or happiness falling unexpectedly.   Agamben makes the two sticks an acting-out of these two motions, and sees in the two of them a picture of the difference between poetry and prose, poetry which can (and even must) always turn back, and prose which carries on. He makes the two sticks carriers of momentous meanings, which you can never un-see after you’ve followed his thoroughly poetic exposition.

15:18 untitled (funerary box for a lime green python) new york 1954 wood palm leaves twine house paint cloth 55 x 26 1:4 x 5.jpg

My other example is the sculpture called Untitled (Funerary box for a lime-green python) which consists of two palm leaves raised on slender sticks which spring from a narrow wooden box not really big enough to hold a large snake. Like Joyce giving Homeric titles to the chapters of Ulysses and then taking them away, Twombly unwished his whimsical title for this work that momentarily connected it with Egypt and animal gods. The Harvard philosopher Arthur Danto made the most serpentine game out of applying and taking away the name to and from the object.

How could I have allowed the critics to usurp the space before the works themselves have spoken?   In a real sense the untitled sculptures are the essential core of Twombly’s work as a sculptor who takes cast-off flotsam from the ordinary world and works magical transformations on them, turning them into something else entirely, without losing any fraction of their embarrassing crudity and imperfection. ‘White paint is my marble’ doesn’t mean as you might suppose that Twombly really sees himself as a rival of the Greeks. As often as not, he doesn’t even hide the underlying textures of his scrap of wood, now accorded a new importance without being allowed to leave its dismal past behind.

11:3 untitled new york 1980:1989 bronze white oil based paint edition of 8.jpgIn a twist that surprises us, Twombly allows a few casts in bronze or resin of some of the most memorable sculptures. The best thing about this is that the bronzes often look more battered or ruined than the original.

10 untitled new york 1953 wood wire twine nails house paint wax on fabric.jpg

The contrast between the wooden pan-pipes and the bronze ones is a clear case of these confusions.   The nails and bits of string sticking out in this sculpture, which are so hard to account for and so unmanageably alive, completely destroy the decorum that is such an important element of this most classical subject, and constitute another subversion of every unambiguous meaning. One of my favourite features of these endlessly baffling works is this final lack of resolution. You could, if you had the energy, go on puzzling at them for ever.

DSC03507 v2:8 batrachomyomachia 1998 wood acrylic paper ink pencil staples.jpg

Why are the actors in the Batrachomycomachia (Battle between the frogs and mice)–an absurd parody of epic which possesses the patina of being taken as a work of Homer’s for so many centuries–why are these low creatures represented by a box of kindling, stacked in ramshackle fashion (like all the battlefields we have known), that rises from its container as if from the lake where it took place, now drenched in the colour of raspberry yoghurt?

140:29 twombly vulci chronicle gaeta 1995 wood white paint 10 x 24 x 12 knuckle bones in wooden block.jpg

Why are their nearest relative in Twombly’s work, the Vulci Chronicle, so abject, sparse like the records of that distant time, only a few vertebrae which stand for (and are, now) whole beings, who formerly stalked the earth spreading terror?

I could never have dreamed up Danto’s wonderful interpretation of another palm-leaf sculpture, but having come across it, I can not now un-think it. Cycnus (whose name means swan) was a hero, sufficiently obscure, who attracted the attention of a great hero (his name forgotten) who failed to reckon with Cycnus’ mother’s powers, who could extract him from his armour like the butterfly from its brittle shell and let him fly away, so the hero finds only the empty husk.  Danto discovers perfect sense in the leaf as the bird and the block of wood as the earthbound prison of the armour.

35:1 cycnus rome 1978 wood palm leaf whte paint 15 7:8 x 9 1:2 x 2 1:8.jpg

In some sense it makes all the difference that Twombly himself became the man who wasn’t there, who left America so early for Rome, the old, universal seat of memory.   All of the sculptures are as much about not being able to remember essential elements as about successful recovery.   There is a whole series of Thickets which show one twig-like tree instead of a tangle, sometimes hung with forlorn tags listing the names of eight Sumerian cities, which survive now in very little but their names.   These thickets are missing most of their elements but have nonetheless been linked with the ram in the thicket which saves Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. I don’t know who first connected this ram and this thicket with the ‘famous Billy Goat of Ur’ (as Panofsky calls him), a deity or a sacrifice (according to your taste) now in the British Museum.   Scholars tell each other these are not the same animal or the same function, but Twombly piles up meanings rather than keeping them apart.   His most austere version of the thicket theme looks like a scaffold and is only a thicket by virtue of two plastic flowers raised four feet in the air through a grotesque inflation, but the evocative title remains all-important.  In some sense it’s all we’ve got.

61 thicket formia-rome 1981 wood plastic flowers nails wire white paint 48 1:4 x 11 3:8 x 16 1:2.jpg

One of the most moving recent realisations of a Theatre of Memory in Rome, William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments, creates a whole series of historical ikons by blowing up small ink drawings to monumental scale while keeping their calligraphic nonchalance, a magical preservation which wouldn’t last, for they were painted on the Tiber walls with washable pigments designed to fade.

34 ptg twombly untitled [say goodbye catullus to the shores of asia minor]1994 room w huge mural menil houston.jpg

Twombly’s largest painting, fifty-two feet long, now displayed in a barn in Houston made specially to contain it, is called Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the shores of Asia Minor (several previous titles, like memories that fail, were combusted on the bonfire of this one). I have come to wonder if Twombly’s sculpture isn’t an extended meditation on remembering and forgetting. He is said to have spent the nights reading and the days in the studio. The work brims over with references to Rilke, Seferis, Archilochus and Cavafy but no Stevens, Hopkins, Eliot.   Verses from more exotic languages are always transcribed in English. The biggest and most perplexing work in the exhibition at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, that got me looking at Twombly in the first place, was called A Time to Remain and a Time to Go Away, a bare-bones description of memory or of a relation to history.

DSC03484.jpgThe work consists of another steep ascent and precipitous fall. A slender frame contains an exuberantly molten platform-mound of plaster heaving with life, but the overall impression is something like a guillotine waiting to descend. The childish quality of Twombly’s inscribings makes me think of a-semic writing, writing that looks like words but isn’t, a mode with which Twombly filled whole canvases in certain phases of his career.

DSC03481.jpg

Not in a literal sense, for he was immensely productive, he is the sculptor of figures missing, voyages cancelled, and settings abandoned by their inhabitants. Alongside the tombs, thickets, and scaffolds is a more mysterious subject to which I am drawn, the lump of plaster of geological character deposited on a cultural form like a brick or a box. What does it mean? Another memorial? Can it be thought, reason, art crushed dwarfed snuffed out by some mindless force?   Why would any viewer particularly like contemplating that? It is history as the energy that takes things away and hides them from view.

117:14 untitled jupiter island 1992 wood plaster 19 x 13 1:4 x 17 1:2.jpg

 

‘White paint is my marble.’ At once dumb and magical. It is impossible to believe in this substitution, metamorphosis, overturning. Yet you want it to be true–the imagination lives in and for such fictions.

Early Paolozzi: Hollow Gods

 

14 paolozzi frog eating a lizard 57 DSC02865 copy.jpg

For a few years in the mid 1950s Eduardo Paolozzi stumbled into a magical zone where he got closer to the roots of sculpture (and of poetry) than any of his contemporaries.

He was a self conscious, but not a particularly intellectual artist. In his collages of the late 1940s he played with references to Hellenistic sculpture in violent activity or tangled groupings. Apparently he wasn’t too interested in archaeology, but he was profoundly drawn to ideas of physical ruin and dreamed of contemporary objects that had been mysteriously buried and then unearthed.

The paper collages can be a lot of fun, but in this thrilling little exhibition at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert in Bury Street they seemed a trivial backdrop to the depths of his sculptures, sculptures whose relations to surrealism were deeper and harder to fathom than the obvious ones of the paper work.

untitled 54 collage w screenprint 1951? DSC02843 copy.jpgPaolozzi himself drew attention to the diversity of his sources, even reading a list during a lecture at the ICA to show the whimsical range of all the various objects which had caught his eye. It’s amusing and deliberately alarming, but it sets us barking up a lot of wrong and non-existent trees.

Here is his full list, of which we can feel Paolozzi getting tired before he has finished:

Dismembered lock/ toy frog/ rubber dragon/ toy camera/ assorted wheels and electrical parts/ clock parts/ broken comb/ bent fork/ various unidentified found objects/ parts of a radio/ old RAF bomb sight/ shaped pieces of wood/ natural objects such as pieces of bark/ gramophone parts/ model automobiles/ reject die castings from factory tip sites/ CAR WRECKING YARDS AS HUNTING GROUNDS.

12 paolozzi figure 57 DSC02830 copy.jpgThe trouble is that none of these things are there any more in the sculpture, only impressions such as you might capture in hot wax or castings in a single material that levels out the variety, as if you had buried them all in the same earth (or metal, for they are now all uniformly a messy, unbeautiful bronze). So they are like the things in Wallace Stevens’ poems, tantalising ghosts of their sisters in ordinary reality or even worse, barely recognisable, partly overlaid by something else, no longer nameless because turned to liquid and run out across the flat background sheet. And many of Paolozzi’s ‘things’ are only parts of things—handles, tubes, eyes (as in hooks and eyes), washers, circuit boards, many of them only vaguely familiar to un-mechanical man.

12 paolozzi figure 57 DSC02837 copy.jpgIn some sense it is a true entry into this hidden realm of Paolozzi’s activity to plunge right into the phantasmagoric textures without allowing an overall orientation to start with, but it is also a misrepresentation because you do recognise the figure before you get swamped by the detail, which may be the essential experience of these works, but isn’t the starting place.

There have been times when I wished all the pieces had nice clear names like the first two do—Bird or Table–only bird in a travesty-sense, or table like a children’s toy, but starting out comfortably at home and not adrift.

2 paolozzi table 49 DSC02823 copy.jpgSo I set about naming the strange beings: limping man, hideous puckered man, triangulated man (or lopsided man, semaphore man, glued-together man, splat-man—all names for one of my favourites, so a good place to start). He is off-centre, deliberately so, and seems to be sliding sideways. I can’t explain why this unworkable geometry is so compelling, or why I love the idea of an uncountable number of pieces so unreliably bound together.

7 paolozzi figure 56 DSC02875 copy.jpg

7 paolozzi figure det feet 56 DSC02881 copy.jpg

When you step to one side and get an end-on view it’s almost incomprehensibly different, an unexpectedness which happens so reliably in walking round these works that it comes to define them.

8 Robot 56 DSC03294 copy.jpg

8 Robot 56 DSC03300 copy.jpgThere’s Robot, whom I know as toga-man or Roman senator, who unfurls a scroll in front view but shocks us from the side and behind where he looks uncannily like Snoopy the cartoon-dog, but then you notice punctures in the dog’s head which allow you to thread the object like a Chinese landscape on a scroll, where you get lost in a series of miniature interiors.

9 paolozzi shattered head 56 DSC02908 copy.jpgThere are sculptures to which accidents seem to have happened, like Shattered Head, for whom I’ve invented a narrative, in which he was intact and harmonious to start with, but was dropped on a hard surface and smashed, after which he was carelessly reassembled, so that the openings in his face are no longer in the right places, but we read them as eyes and nostrils anyway, now grotesquely misplaced as we have sometimes seen with badly wounded veterans.

9a damaged warrior 56 DSC02912 copy.jpgThere’s even one called Damaged Warrior, ambiguous name—is it the sculpture or the man who has suffered? He is Truncated Man, sliced in two by a bomb or by the artist’s decision, but how could you choose to cut this torso in just this way?

Moving around him, you come to a view in which he is a cabbage unfurling at the top, most beautifully and unexpectedly, yet completely shattering the figure’s integrity. One of the greatest joys of sculpture is finding unexpected views, and with the alertest workers it often seems there is almost no end to the metamorphic, kaleidoscopic shiftiness of the unfolding reality.

9a damaged warrior 56 DSC03289 copy.jpgI can’t remember any work by other sculptors which goes further or gets separated more radically from likelihood. Yet Paolozzi soon grew tired of the endless transformations. Perhaps the various discontinuities are too great to go on thinking up new ones forever, and there’s an almost inevitable urge to return to the world of everyday possibility, but while it lasts, Paolozzi’s 5-year excursion into fully three-dimensional surrealism is without equal.

13 paolozzi little king 57 DSC02827 copy.jpg

Go on to 10, 12, 13, 14, 16–more to come, I hope

13 paolozzi little king 57 DSC02829 copy.jpg

16 paolozzi st sebastian iv 57 DSC02893 copy.jpg16 paolozzi st sebastian iv 57 DSC02896 copy.jpg

 

Elisabeth Frink and British sculpture of the 50s

 

DSC00378 copy.jpg

I’ve broken off reading Thomas McEvilley’s Sculpture in the Age of Doubt to write about British sculpture of the 1950s, acutely conscious how timebound those works look now. McEvilley’s book is twenty years old but seems timely to someone freshly drawn to figurative sculpture by Elisabeth Frink, Henry Moore and their contemporaries, who still seem haunted by the experience of war, whose work is perhaps rawer and more deeply undermined than that of McEvilley’s doubters of the 1970s and 80s. He writes about work by Iannis Kounellis, Marina Abramovic, Michael Tracy and two dozen others, which is sometimes only sculpture because it isn’t painting, or just because McEvilley wants to see Happenings and Performance Art as sculpture, which seems an unnerving extension of the territory to me, but might be a commonplace to more up-to-date observers of the current scene.

Has he thought out all that this extension implies? Probably, for he’s a philosopher, which is to say always looking to wider ramifications and perhaps losing sight of the visceral presence of the piece, this in spite of being extremely good at explaining complex works of art. So his preferred instances often involve the participation of the artist, who is cutting herself methodically and bleeding on her immediate surroundings, or incinerating a huge painting which has been carried to a watery location according to a special liturgy. These are works that leave little behind after the scene is washed clean by attendants or the weather, except photos, videos and written descriptions.

How dispiriting after such disruptions to turn to lumps of bronze which raise no doubts about whether they are sculpture or not, just questions about why they aren’t more carefully finished or more complete, which often show plainly that they started life as plaster, and which bear an obvious though mildly obscure relation to the human form. It worries me slightly that I am becoming newly interested in these works of art produced when I was a teenager, worries which really take off when I think of trying to interest anyone else.

The first Frink sculpture I ever saw, knowing it was hers, was an incongruous green Christ mounted high on the front of Liverpool cathedral. It didn’t fit and was too far away, much too high for its welcoming gesture to make any sense. My next Frink was also green but in a gallery, so it wasn’t the weather that had coloured the bronze this time. It showed an oldish man falling backwards, shielding his face with one arm, leaving both his feet sticking awkwardly up. He was on the floor, below eye level. I am not even sure whether he had landed already or was about to. I have seen him many times since, but am still not sure if he has landed. The effect of the figure depends on the feeling of something in the course of happening, and on the extreme vulnerability of the raised arm and flailing feet. He is still in the middle of the violence of his fall.

DSC06274frink dying king.jpg

It didn’t take me long to learn from a label a few feet away that he was the work of Elisabeth Frink, a name I associated with dull public sculpture, and that he was called Dying King, apparently inspired by a scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III, where the great villain dies in the midst of battle, surrounded by his enemies. A bad man at his moment of greatest weakness—but it isn’t certain that this notion enters into our feelings about this sculpture.

What matters more is the rough hewn finish of the work. His shielding arm is a flat slab, like the outline of a form. His torso is eaten away by a natural process like decay, which isn’t decay of course, but a roughness and perforation that the sculptor has allowed to remain, rather than directly causing by a purposeful movement of her hand. The double nature of the material—so we need constantly to remind ourselves that these forms weren’t always metal, but something more malleable, even a runny almost-liquid for brief periods at least—is an endlessly involving feature of any bronze that lets its past as clay or plaster or even wood–Frink sticks on wooden slats to stiffen figures’ legs and doesn’t bother to hide them–show.

DSC06280.jpg

So the shrunken Richard is a tragic figure, participating in the instability of the world and of its various physical components, instability that cooperates with whatever it is in him that brings him down. He is part of a larger natural process and encapsulates more than one moment in the history of matter.

At this point along comes a little display of British sculpture of the 1950s in the big hall at the centre of the old Tate, spaces designed by the most retardaire of American classicists, John Russell Pope, an embarrassing favourite of mine. The first piece I notice is a fragment, a figure without head, arms or feet lying on its side. Its back is the most eaten away part, which is what I come to first. Again, as before, I am enraptured by the way the form is both there and not there, threatening to lose its shape from all the gouging, and intrigued also by the way the legs are broken off, as by a violent rending. The genitals telling you the figure’s sex are indistinct but big enough that you won’t miss them: Frink usually makes sure of that, for this is Frink of course, and called simply Torso.

DSC06227frink torso 2.3.19.jpg

DSC06230torso.jpgNext to it is another fallen figure who raises a little shield as he falls. His legs are pitifully shrunken, his torso misshapen like a rock which won’t bend itself completely to the human form. His head is more rudimentary than other Frinks, a stalk, an eye, a flat disk. I’m trying to take in the unmanageable variety of aspects I find in these forms, the great advantage of sculpture, that it can be a dozen different works in succession, depending on where you’re standing, or not standing but circling.

DSC06270.jpg

DSC06264moore falling.jpg

It’s a long time after, when reading about another piece by a sculptor new to me, that I find the label for the Falling Warrior, for that is his name, and it is important to the sculptor that this is not a corpse stretched on the ground but someone who is still alive.

The sculptor is not Elisabeth Frink, though, but Henry Moore. How could I have made that mistake? in which there’s a lesson, that you tend to see what you’ve come to see. I look at this warrior again and see something different, cooler and more composed, a less immediate rendering of violence. Now I view the two figures, Dying King and Falling Warrior as opposites, several rooms apart, but wonderfully comparable, versions of the same idea seen so differently by two sculptors who enter deeply into their subject and make something unforeseen that grips you too. And I don’t know which to prefer, ‘inflections or innuendoes, the blackbird whistling, or just after.’*

 

Opening image:  In The Infield Was Patty Peccavi by Edward and Nancy Kienholz; metal, resin, cloth, wood, glass, paper, photomechanical reproduction, electric lights, stuffed bird and paint, 1981, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington

 

*Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
i
Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   
ii
I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   
iii
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   
iv
A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   
v
I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   
vi
Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   
vii
O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   
viii
I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   
ix
When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   
x
At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   
xi
He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   
xii
The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   
xiii
It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.
                                                              Wallace Stevens