Cy Twombly, Charles White — Art & the Unspeakable

Charles White, The Trenton Six, 1949 (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth)

By William Eaton
 
I went to New York’s Art Students League to hear Joshua Rivkin, who had written a book about Cy Twombly. If only I could understand Twombly’s work and its appeal, . . . Would I be able to better understand the work and success of many another prominent post-World-War-II American artist?

At the end, during the Q&A, I asked Rivkin: Why, of all artists, did you pick Twombly to write about? What would be lost if his work vanished over night? (A Twombly untitled “blackboard painting, 1970, is imaged below right.)

Cy Twombly, untitled, 1970 [blackboard painting]

I am going to propose that good answers that may have come to Rivkin’s mind could have also seemed unacceptable, things better erased than outspoken. What he said was that in his youth he had worked in Texas at a museum with a lot of Twomblies and curious school children. And he could see that Twombly could make a book, allow him to write about things he wanted to write about. From this response and from some of the defenses of Twombly that my question provoked, I came up with the hypotheses that are this piece.

Clearly much of Twombly’s work—its erasures included—has something to do with not expressing things that an artist or a human being more generally might be expected to express. We have a sense that a lot is not being said about what might be important—history, sex, mythology, language and mark-making, innocence, experience, American grandiosity, . . . “Something essential about line and freedom being discovered,” is something Rivkin said, and he also quoted Twombly on how it turns out that an artist, however willful, cannot make a line just anywhere. There is ever in the background—in the super-ego or unconscious (or with employers, family members, the police)—something that lobbies for one one approach and rejects (or demands the erasure) of another.

“Toeing the line” is a phrase that’s come to my mind. Though I find this in an art-history textbook: “Cy Twombly used a graffiti-like scrawl, in order to effect the indexical registration of neuromotor and psychosexual impulses.”

But what can be the appeal of work described by either of those phrases? Well, for one, work that is wrapped up in the fact of self-censoring or, say, in how language may be used to distance us from others or ourselves, such work is not likely to say much of anything we don’t want to hear about a lot of other subjects—economic exploitation, employers, police, love, death . . . Except insofar as death, too, is an eraser.

But, on the other hand, Twombly’s work could be saying something very central and important about such subjects: we can’t talk about them; or, rather, we can’t say, and thus cannot explore with others’ help, many of our thoughts and feelings about the most pressing issues of our lives. (For fear of endangering our social status, income, restaurants, vacations, self-esteem.) My art history textbook speaks of “the surfacing of [drawing’s] social skeleton of inexorable constraints.” Perhaps obliquely and on some deeper level, a viewer admiring a Twombly piece is feeling that finally someone is, like me, not speaking about I can’t speak about?

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, Rome, 1962, MOMASexual orientations matter less in the bedroom than in the world—than in the extent to which they facilitate or make impossible our attainment of this or that social status and accompanying self-image. Rivkin talked about how, in their youth, Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg (his collage silkscreen Express is imaged below right) were lovers. And how ssubsequently Twombly’s longtime companion was a man named Nicola Del Roscio; and, in between Rauschenberg and Del Roscio, Twombly married the artist sister of his wealthy patron Baron Giorgio Franchetti, and the marriage lasted until the baroness’s death and led to a palazzo in Rome, a seventeenth-century villa north of Rome, and a son. Meanwhile, so many of our thoughts and feelings, be they gay, straight, or quite otherwise, be they concerned with sex, politics, sexual politics or whatever, remain in the closet.

Here—making a transition—I note this comment from the artist Charles White (an image of his 1949 drawing The Trenton Six, 1949, tops this piece): “Art must be an integral part of the struggle. It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place. . . . It must ally itself with the forces of liberation.”

Does Twombly’s work do this? Or does it absolutely—quietly, ever scribbling and erasing—not! (His 1962 Leda and the Swan is imaged above right.)

Robert Rauschenberg, Express, 1963, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, MadridAfter The Election (8/11), various writers and editors, myself included, announced that,for this brave new world now upon us, we needed a whole new approach to writing. Among other things, it was becoming increasingly apparent that—on both the Left and the Right—reading and critical thinking were out the window. Twits, tweets and “the golden age of television” were in. A distinguished editor of a distinguished literary magazine was one of the many who expressed this need for a new approach. Eventually I sent his journal some poems quite unlike any work of mine it had previously published, or that I myself had previously written. For example:

For appearances, ads, conversation—

The sad game has a name—dissimulation.

Should I too honest be,

What will people think of me?

To be Trumped is the fate of the nation.

An e-mail quickly, politely, succinctly informed me that this was not the kind of work such a magazine would consider publishing. A year or so later I sent the journal some quite other poems, which involved word play and experiments with form. The editor wrote back citing his favorite of these, which happened to be the one that was most purely play and form; the one that was furthest from directly “saying” anything.

Charles White, Kitchenette Debutantes, watercolor, 1939The great museum show of last year, and perhaps of the past many decades, was the Charles White show at MoMA. (Above right an image of Kitchen Debutantes, 1939, one of the watercolors from this show.) The drawing was wonderful, but well beyond this was the simple fact of this show. Alfred Barr and others connected to MoMA had known about White (1918–1979) since the 1940s at least, but, as Wikipedia has succinctly put it: White “was a person of color in an industry that unfairly favored white artists and preferred more abstract and conceptual styles in direct opposition to White’s style of figurative art.” And it wasn’t just figurative art! It was art about slavery, prostitution, poverty in the United States of America. It was a protracted, beautiful attempt to bestow dignity on Americans who had been treated, by other Americans, in the most undignified manner. It took MoMA eighty years—or, in a larger sense, it took any number of geo-political-economic changes—to give White’s work a little of its due.

In Robert Cenendella’s phrase, “It’s not what they [museums and galleries] show; it’s what they don’t show.” (Interestingly Cenendella taught at the Art Students League, and White taught at the League, and Twombly met Rauschenberg at the League, though Twombly says he did very little actual studying there, preferring to make the gallery scene. A wag might say that Twombly, like many another successful artist before and since, understood that in the art world, as most everywhere else, good networking ranks above study or competence.)

After the League’s Twombly talk, I’m prepared to tack another idea onto Cenendella’s. It’s not only what the galleries aren’t showing; it’s also how the art they are showing masks the work they don’t want to show.

Matisse, Dance (I), Paris, Boulevard des Invalides, early 1909, MOMAIn my own art practice I have been greatly influenced by Picasso and Matisse (Dance (I), 1909, is imaged at right), and I have been a fan of Miró’s work (if particularly of the less charming and childlike paintings, of work that I have not seen at MoMA). But . . . this work, which took as its subjects art and form and color and women, . . . Among its great virtues: it reaches toward vestigial emotions and takes our minds off many harsher contemporary and more eternal realities. In his 1908 “Notes d’un peintre” Matisse says he dreams of an art “sans sujet inquiétant ou préoccupant”—devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be . . . a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

Such art might also be thought of as a kind of Japanese screen. For decades it shielded our naked selves from art about, say, economic exploitation; art that MoMA and most every other museum did not want to show. (Some of this fits into the history of the Cold War, during which MoMA, the Rockefellers, the CIA, etc., sought to show the world that “we,” with our Modern art, were about freedom of expression, while the Soviets, with their Realist art, were . . . ? More repressive than we were, as we more or less ignored the Realist work of White and many another?)

I am sure there are experts well-equipped to tell me that I have totally misunderstood Twombly! And, in fact, I am glad to learn more. (And, in my own practice, I have in one regard followed in Twombly’s footsteps: doing some drawings in the dark or with a blindfold on, and feeling that in this way I might unearth psychic contents otherwise inaccessible.)

Once upon a time carriages stopped at inns to give riders and horses time to rest and feed. And so I stop here: Twombly’s work is a win-win because it does not force us to think or feel at all, except insofar as the work reminds us that most of what we think and feel we are afraid to speak publicly about. (And this, perhaps, for good reason?)

Alexandra, physical therapist, pen drawing in the dark by William Eaton, July 2017Notes

(from the top of this piece to the bottom)

For more on the Trenton Six case, see 1948: A cry for justice, by Jon Blackwell, The Trentonian. This from a summary provided by the Encyclopæedia Britannica: “the so-called Trenton Six, a group of six black men in Trenton, New Jersey, [were accused of] having murdered an elderly white shopkeeper. Although the men did not fit the descriptions of the killers given by witnesses, they were convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. The Civil Rights Congress entered the case after the sentences were imposed and began a protest that drew national attention. In 1949 the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the sentence and ordered a new trial; two of the six were found guilty, and the others were acquitted.”

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (The University of Chicago Press, 1977).

Joshua Rivkin, Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (Melville House, 2018).

The art-history textbook: Hal Foster, Rosalind Kraus, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (Thames & Hudson, 2004).

According to a post on artnet October 21, 2014, the Twombly “blackboard painting” imaged above was (in 2014) expected to fetch at auction between 35 and 55 million dollars.

William Eaton, Pence, Trump, Comey, Mueller, Capitalism—The Limericks. This is the first series of a “limerick project” which began in May 2017, and which focuses on injustice and other illnesses, as well as on poetry (and Trump). Later series: Part II (Injustice, Trump, Illness, Poetry): July to August; Part III (Animals, Capitalism, the News, First Impressions), August to September; and Part IV (No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals): September, 2017. Some readers may also wish to check out various cousins: Oh, say, can you see . . . ; The only show left in town; or Despondent White House Criminals Should Look Up.

From Art Since 1900:

Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly had of course initiated the process of denaturing drawing in favor of drawing that repeated a more-or-less fixed and contained grapheme or that approached the condition of writing (initiated in the postwar period as a dialectic structure of somatic and libidinal loss and emancipation from myth). Once the features of iconic representation (e.g. figurative line, volume, chiaroscuro) had been completely stripped from the body of drawing’s mimetic relationship to nature, the order of language and iterative enumeration (in Johns) appeared as a perforation of the body of drawing itself, as the surfacing of its social skeleton of inexorable constraints.” [boldface added here]

Earlier in this textbook the authors write:

. . . Twombly’s work in this show [with Rauschenberg at the Stable Gallery in 1953], and what he did in the years afterward, fixated on the drawing of Pollock’s dripped paintings, turning their looped skeins into the violent furrows dug by the sharp point of his pencils and other instruments into the pigment covering his canvases. Thus for Twombly the weapon against Abstract Expressionism’s autographic mark was not the strategy of transforming the spontaneous stroke into a “device” but of recording the mark itself as a form of graffiti, which is to say, the anonymous trace of a kind of criminal violation of the unspoiled surface, like so many declarations of the fact that “Kilroy was here.”

(This may serve, inter alia, as a reminder than when we see pixelated images of art works we may be missing a great deal of the texture and physical depth of the original work.)

There is further discussion of the Rauschenberg collage-silkscreen, Express, at William Eaton, Paris, Madrid, Florence, New York—Novel Collage, The Literary Explorer, Web del sol, 2016.

Robert Cenendella, Yellow Ribbons, 1992Robert Cenendella’s comment is prominently featured in Art Bastard, Victor Kanefsky’s excellent, 2017 documentary about Cenendella’s life and work. His 1992 “Yellow Ribbons” is imaged at right.

Henri Matisse, « Notes d’un peintre, » La Grande Revue, 25 décembre 1908 : « Ce que je rêve, c’est un art d’équilibre, de pureté, de tranquillité, sans sujet inquiétant ou préoccupant, qui soit, pour tout travailleur cérébral, pour l’homme d’affaires aussi bien que pour l’artiste des lettres, par exemple, un lénifiant, un calmant cérébral, quelque chose d’analogue à un bon fauteuil qui délasse ses fatigues physiques. » Translation as given in Jack D. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art (University of California Press, 1995):

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

(The entirety of Matisse’s short text is available, in French, in a publication of le Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2012.)

Charles White’s comment was prominently featured at Charles White: A Retrospective, MoMA, October 7, 2018–January 13, 2019.

Cy Twombly, Vengeance of Achilles, 1978 (Kunsthaus, Zurich)William Eaton, Guston, Shapiro, Rosenberg . . . Dialogue, Zeteo, August 2016. Inter alia, this essay touches on some of the history of MoMA’s, the CIA’s, the Rockefellers’ political interests in Modern art. In this regard, the curious might see Louis Menand, Unpopular Front: American art and the Cold War, The New Yorker, October 17, 2005. And Menand was responding to half a dozen books, including: Taylor Littleton and Maltby Sykes, Advancing American Art: Painting, Politics, and Cultural Confrontation at Mid-Century (The University of Alabama Press, 2005); Michael Krenn, Fall-Out Shelters for the Human Spirit (The University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (The University of Chicago Press, 1983); Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (Granta, 1999), David Caute, The Dancer Defects (Oxford University Press, 2003). See also, among other valuable texts: David and Cecile Shapiro, “Abstract Expressionism: The Politics of Apolitical Painting,” Prospects 3 (October 1978): 175-214; and, last but not least for the moment, the muralist and critic Eve Cockcroft’s Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War, Artforum 12, no. 10 (June 1974): 39-41. Reprinted in Francis Frascina, ed., Pollock and After: The Critical Debate (Harper & Row, 1985).

The pen drawing of the curved-arm woman was done by William Eaton, with a blindfold on and in the dark—and this in the tradition of Twombly’s and the Surrealists’ similar exercises. This and similar drawings were used to decorate Art, Sex, Politics (Serving House Books, 2017).

The image at right of the red-peeked drawing is of Twombly’s Vengeance of Achilles, 1978, in the collection of the Kunsthaus in Zurich.

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