In 1962 Cy Twombly (born 1928 in Lexington, Virginia) painted a work that illustrates many of the abiding engagements of his practice. Untitled is divided into two zones by a horizontal line about two thirds of the way up. Across the bottom edge of the canvas, Twombly has scribbled a textual fragment gleaned from the poet Sappho: “But their heart turned cold + they dropped their wings.” The phrase, suggesting a hovering between higher and lower realms, conjures up a distant classical realm, even as the grappling, awkward hand renders the words materially present.
In the upper third of the canvas, the artist provides a code for viewing: a white circle swirled with pink is labelled “blood”; an aggressive red “x” reads “flesh”; a glutinous dollop of brown paint, “earth” or possibly “youth”; a delicate disc of wispy white paint, “clouds”; and a shiny coin-shaped form in graphite pencil, “mirror”. Beneath this code, Twombly has rendered, within a drawn frame, an array of possibilities for mark-making per se, as though to set them apart from the more direct references of words.
The elements of the code come from three distinct experiential fields: the elemental (earth and clouds), the somatic (flesh and blood) and the subjective (mirror). And they can be mapped on to three corresponding traditional genres of oil painting, respectively: landscape, figure and self-portraiture. In Untitled we see Twombly’s invocation of myth and poetry, his wavering between high and low and his sustained dwelling on the threshold where writing becomes drawing or painting. Perhaps most importantly, we see in this painting how marks and words – in collaboration and counter-distinction – construct meaning differently. As John Berger has written, Twombly “visualises with living colours the silent space that exists between and around words”.
Although his work resonates strongly with generations of younger artists, ranging from Brice Marden to Richard Prince to Tacita Dean to Patti Smith, it has a general propensity to polarise its audience between perplexity and unbridled admiration. (Remember the incident in summer 2007 of a woman planting a lipstick kiss on a Twombly canvas on show in Lyon?) Additionally, the critical and historical reception has seemed to describe two Twomblys – one about form, the other about content.
Some writers have concentrated on the materiality of the artist’s mark as aggressive, often illegible graffiti; others have followed the classical allusions to ferret out the references. Two elements might serve as metaphors for the predominant interpretations: the floating disc of white paint labelled “clouds” standing for the poetic and mythological aspects, and the scatological heap of brown paint designating “earth”. However, Twombly’s painterly palimpsests trace the progressions through which form and content, text and image are inextricably linked.