A poet in paint

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - The New Mex­i­can Michael Abatemarco

Cy Twombly

Au­thor Mary Ja­cobus be­gins her book Read­ing Cy Twombly with a de­scrip­tion of the po­etry col­lec­tion the artist left be­hind when he died: works by Sap­pho, The­ocri­tus, Ovid, and Vir­gil, along with more mod­ern writ­ers such as Ezra Pound, Ge­orge Se­faris, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Their names and their words — even whole pas­sages of text — be­came a part of his paint­ings, scrawled in his ir­reg­u­lar hand onto can­vas and trans­formed from words to become word-im­ages. “Writ­ing, whether on can­vas or pa­per, raises in­trigu­ing ques­tions about the re­la­tion of the phys­i­cal act of in­scrip­tion or mark-mak­ing to the graphic ges­tures of draw­ing and paint­ing, as well as to the ma­te­rial sur­face of the sup­port,” Ja­cobus writes. “Twombly’s char­ac­ter­is­tic modes of mark-mak­ing in­clude brush, crayon, pen­cil, and fin­gers — scratch­ing, in­cis­ing, smear­ing, and smudg­ing.” In the book, pub­lished last fall by Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, Ja­cobus takes the po­si­tion that Twombly (1928-2011), a reader and lover of po­etry, was shaped by it through­out his ca­reer, and it of­fered him what Ja­cobus calls a “so­lu­tion to the dilem­mas fac­ing twen­ti­eth-cen­tury mod­ern art.”

In the book, eru­dite and de­scrip­tive pas­sages show how po­etry be­came cen­tral to Twombly. Ja­cobus il­lu­mi­nates the im­port of one medium on another, go­ing be­yond draw­ing an affin­ity be­tween art and po­etry to re­veal Twombly as an artist en­gaged in deep study who sought not just cor­re­spon­dences be­tween the medi­ums, but unity.

In the first chap­ter, Ja­cobus looks back to a for­ma­tive trip to Italy and North Africa that Twombly took with artist Robert Rauschen­berg in the early 1950s. In North Africa, Twombly was drawn to fetish and rit­ual im­ple­ments, which, along with the Moroc­can land­scape, in­spired the forms in his paint­ings from the pe­riod, to which he gave for­eign-sound­ing names. His paint­ings from this time show rough-drawn shapes, heav­ily out­lined in black, which were ges­tu­ral and sug­ges­tive rather than representational. His treat­ment of forms in these early works set the stage for his ap­proach to po­etry. “Beau­ti­ful lines of po­etry re­place alien names,” Ja­cobus writes, “in­stead of fetish ob­jects, a palimpsest of quo­ta­tions, date stamped with ob­scurely per­sonal and cul­tural as­so­ci­a­tions. In­stead of the fetish, words.”

The sec­ond chap­ter, “Psy­chogram and Par­nas­sus: How (Not) to Read a Twombly,” fur­ther elu­ci­dates a con­tin­u­ing use of words in a vis­ual lex­i­con which could be, at times, in­de­ci­pher­able, wiped out, smudged, and painted over. The im­pli­ca­tion is that ac­tu­ally read­ing the words in a Twombly in order to “get” the paint­ing is not the way to read a Twombly. It wasn’t the mean­ing of the words he used that ex­plained his paint­ings, but an evo­ca­tion, an emo­tion, or a feel­ing, per­haps first gleaned in words but then trans­mo­gri­fied. Twombly re­lo­cated these scripts from the for­mal struc­ture of a poem to the wild, spon­ta­neous, and dy­namic realm of paint­ing. He found, in the rhythm and flow of lan­guage, an anal­ogy in the artis­tic process. Rather than rid­dles to be de­ci­phered, his text works become like points in a river, where mean­ings and in­ter­pre­ta­tions are fluid. “Twombly’s com­po­si­tion be­comes a kind of ‘open form,’ invit­ing the viewer to par­tic­i­pate in a tem­po­ral ex­pe­ri­ence like that of mod­ern mu­sic — a con­tin­uum in which any start or stop­ping-point can be cho­sen at ran­dom, and the act of lis­ten­ing it­self cre­ates mean­ing,” she writes. The chap­ter fo­cuses on a group of Twombly’s paint­ings made in Rome in the 1960s, where he en­coun­tered the Vat­i­can fres­coes of Raphael, nam­ing some of his own paint­ings for these cel­e­brated Renaissance works. In some of these com­po­si­tions, words ap­pear, and not al­ways from po­etry. In his Birth of Venus from 1962, for in­stance, his sig­na­ture, the date, and the place name (Rome), form a part of the work, scrib­ble-like and stylis­ti­cally the same as the can­vas’s other drawn marks, but given prom­i­nent place­ment. Com­pare the text to the paint­ing’s lin­ear pen­cil and crayon marks, with which they have the most in com­mon, and the treat­ment is the same. Visu­ally, the only thing sep­a­rat­ing them is our own abil­ity to in­ter­pret some marks as words and oth­ers as mean­ing­less scrawl.

One chap­ter is de­voted to the vague­ness of Twombly’s use of lan­guage, which Ja­cobus shows is in ser­vice to his sense of ab­strac­tion. She be­gins the chap­ter dis­cussing his paint­ing Hero­di­ade (1960), which con­tains al­lu­sions to French poet Stéphane Mal­larmé’s verse drama of the same name, as well as the poem’s open­ing lines. The paint­ing, she points out, also bears the trace of Twombly’s own fin­ger­prints. She writes that “Twombly’s Hero­di­ade aims to paint, not the po­etry but the ef­fect it pro­duces: the artist’s crim­son fin­ger marks drawn across the can­vas.” She pro­vides fur­ther analysis of Twombly’s works Po­ems to the Sea and

Let­ter of Res­ig­na­tion, con­tin­u­ing to note com­par­isons be­tween Twombly’s paint­ing and Mal­larmé’s verse. She cites French the­o­rist Roland Barthes, who equated Twombly’s de­con­struc­tion of writ­ing to Mal­larmé’s de­con­struc­tion of the poetic form, a “de­lib­er­ate dis­junc­tion,” she writes of Mal­larmé, “at which he aimed in his po­etry.”

In later chap­ters, we see the im­pact of haiku on Twombly and its use in his work. His Blos­soms se­ries, in­spired by pe­onies, in­clude lines of haiku and re­call the use of blos­soms on Ja­panese screens. The pe­ony has as­so­ci­a­tions in the East with tran­sience, self­less­ness, and is a symbol of the aes­thetic beauty of na­ture. But Ja­cobus men­tions its clas­si­cal roots, too, spec­u­lat­ing on Twombly’s use of the pe­ony as Dionysian. “In the lan­guage of flow­ers, the Apol­lo­nian sub­ject — dreamer, shaper, artist — falls un­der the in­flu­ence, like the drunken bee of Twombly’s liq­uid paint-world.” The paint­ings from this pe­riod (circa 2007), a late one for the artist, are lush, vi­brant, and messy in the way he lets the paint drip as though the flow­ers were bleed­ing white, green, and blood red. Ja­cobus writes that the pe­ony paint­ings are like a haiku, which typ­i­cally fo­cuses on a sin­gle nat­u­ral im­age. “They weren’t about pe­onies,” she quotes him as say­ing, “they’re just about bloom­ing.” That sounds like some­thing you can say of a haiku and the con­clu­sion sug­gested, if not em­phat­i­cally stated, is that a paint­ing can, in fact, be a haiku. The por­trait she cre­ates of Twombly con­firms the po­si­tion, stated in her open­ing pages, that Twombly was in­deed a poet in paint.

“Read­ing Cy Twombly: Po­etry in Paint” by Mary Ja­cobus is pub­lished by Prince­ton Univer­sity Press.

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