Cy Twombly | Multiple Dimensions

Ideas…are not metallic and shiny figures, in conceptual corsets, but rather faint shaky stains, on a vague background.’
Roland Barthes[i]

In the summer of 1968 Cy Twombly painted a sequence of five diagrammatic paintings to which he gave the name Synopsis of a Battle. This somewhat unusual title is one that speaks of an ability to analyse and make sense of what must, in reality, be one of the most complex and difficult to rationalise of all historical occurrences. Indeed, in some respects, the very idea of even attempting to ‘synopsise’ something as chaotic, confused and lost to the mists of time as a battle is, of course, a largely futile one. And the notion of trying to paint such a thing even more so. Twombly was evidently well aware of this when, in Rome, in 1960, he first gave this title to one of his paintings, and. in the summer of 1968, he must have been even more so.

Twombly’s 1968 Synopsis of a Battle paintings were created during a crucial and defining period in the artist’s career. This was the time of his so-called ‘Blackboards’ – a series of austere graphic paintings, made predominantly using a white crayon scrawled, written and inscribed over vague, fluid and uncertain, shifting, fields of grey-ground colour. These are works that marked a clear and distinct shift from the wild, colourful, Dionysian exuberance of his previous ‘Baroque’ paintings of 1962-4. Indeed, it is often thought that Twombly’s sudden return to a predominantly reductive, monochrome, graphic language in the latter part of the 1960s was in part a response to the bitter criticism he had received for his last, Baroque, cycle of paintings in 1964 and, in particular, to the damning review that had been given to these works by the great champion of American Minimalism, Donald Judd. Judd had called Twombly’s 1964 exhibition ‘a fiasco’ and claimed the paintings had ‘nothing to them’.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1967. Image © Private Collection / Bridgeman Images. Art © Cy Twombly Foundation

In May 1968, Twombly who, for the last ten years had been living mainly in Italy, hired a large studio in the Bowery district of New York. It was there, during a period of increasing political turbulence in America and in the heart of an international art world then dominated by the austere, rational, geometry and predominantly monochrome aesthetics of Minimalism and Conceptual art, that his Synopsis pictures were painted. It is this same, minimalist, language of geometry, calculation and precision that all of Twombly’s paintings from this late-1960s period also adopted; even though he, perhaps more than that of any other artist of his generation, was uniquely aware of the inherent limitations of such a language. Indeed, it is, to a certain extent, precisely the ultimate futility of trying to define any moment in history through the grid of a fixed set of categories, measurements and diagrams that paintings such as his Synopsis of a Battle pictures address.

The title ‘Synopsis of a Battle’ is believed to derive from the writings of a military historian and ‘theoretician of battles’, Major General J.F.C. Fuller who, in 1958, had written a popular study called The Generalship of Alexander the Great and who liked to preface some of his ‘battle’ chapters with ‘synopses’. At least some of Twombly’s Synopsis of a Battle pictures are thought to refer to the Battle of Issus - an epic turning point of history where the Greeks had decisively defeated the Persians and which, like Alexander’s campaign as a whole, had once stood as a symbol of the triumph of Western reason. Knowledge of such a source, however, in the case of Twombly can also be misleading. This is because, as the artist himself once warned, such things often only served him as prompts that enabled him to act. ‘I like something to jumpstart me,’ he said, ‘usually a place or a literary reference or an event that took place, to start me off. To give me clarity and energy’. [ii] In his Synopsis of a Battle paintings it is not a summary of the actual battle that Twombly has painted so much as a graphic re-enacting of such rationalising attempts to summarise the event as well as, perhaps, a portrait of the impossibility of attempting to produce any fixed and static image of such a thing.

Cy Twombly, Treatise on the Veil (Second Version), 1970. Image © Thomas R. DuBrock / The Menil Collection, Houston. Art © Cy Twombly Foundation

General Fuller’s own written attempts to pin down, define or accurately summarise major events from history in words, documents, recorded facts and diagrams may, of course, have been fascinating to an artist who, like Twombly, had once served as a cryptographer in the army during his military service. But, they are also part of a reductive, analytical enterprise that was wholly anathema to Twombly’s own painterly methods and aesthetic sensibility. Despite the apparent language of precision and measurement that Twombly repeatedly uses in his pictures of the late-1960s, he was an artist whose work revelled in all the vagueries, fragments, uncertainties and accidents of history and one who always made a virtue of keeping everything fluid, open and ambiguously suggestive. He was also an artist who had once made a point of describing his pictures as articulating a ‘deeply aesthetic sense of eroded or ancient surfaces of time.’ Any attempt therefore, to channel or codify such a fluid sense of history and time into the singularity and fixed clarity of a diagram or something similar to what Donald Judd was proclaiming at this time to be the virtues of the ‘specific object’ was, for Twombly, one doomed to failure. It was an impossible task. But, so too, in the summer of 1968, must have seemed the idea of putting a man on the moon, and yet, amazingly, this also was an enterprise that, in the midst of the increasing chaos of a politically polarized U.S. was also then being attempted. Moreover, it was taking place under the wholly appropriate name of the ancient Greek god of order, logic, precision and reason: Apollo.

Something of all of these concepts - of Apollonian order versus Dionysian chaos, of planning and design, stasis and motion, measurement and calculation, space-time, ambition and error, as well as mankind’s attempt at the moon - is frequently registered in the ‘Blackboard’ and Bolsena paintings that Twombly made in the last years of the 1960s. All of this is also conveyed primarily through the fluid, ambiguous, shifting, indistinct, veiled, dripped, splashed and semi-decipherable surfaces of these paintings and through the schematic, half-formed, graphic notations, numbers, corrections and measurements that are discernible both within and upon the surfaces of these works. Rendered in the formal, graphic, blackboard, language of a mathematician, a physicist or strategian constantly wrestling with, correcting and revising their plans and equations, these pictures are multidimensional, open-field works that, through the lilting and lyrical rise and fall of the crayon in Twombly’s hand, address an entirely fluid concept of the inter-related nature of space and time as both an arena of activity and as a site of history.

Simultaneously both fixed and open, both vague and precise, the multidimensional space set up by these paintings creates a field where apparent opposites can be seen to co-exist. Indeed, such is perhaps their aim. Twombly’s title, ‘Synopsis of a Battle’ is, for instance, one of several that the artist gave to works that directly reference written and analytical approaches to vast, unfathomable or impossible subjects. Others include his Poems to the Sea of 1959, the Discourse on Commodus pictures of 1963, Letter of Resignation, 1967 and his Treatise on the Veil paintings of 1968 and 1970. These are titles that not only suggest the close inter-relationship between drawing and writing so central to Twombly’s art but also imply dichotomy. With the possible exception of the ‘letter of resignation’, each of these painted ‘poems’, ‘discourses’, ‘letters’, ‘synopses’ and ‘treatises’ deals with ineffable, ultimately unknowable phenomena such as the sea, the madness of the emperor Commodus, a battle and a mysterious veil.

Such polarising is a recurring characteristic in Twombly’s work which itself often openly articulates a struggle between diametrically opposing forces. In addition to the ever-present play between a rational, Apollonian ‘will to form’ and a Dionysian frenzy of sensation, for example, it can also be seen in the play between the primal drives of Eros and Thanatos that course through the sensuality and violence of his Baroque paintings. It is also apparent in the not-unrelated, endless cycles of simultaneously rising and falling forms, that run like a constant in his oeuvre. First surfacing in his early scribbles, made blindly in the dark when Twombly, as a young man, was consciously training/untraining his hand to draw intuitively and spontaneously during his military service, these looping, Dionysian rhythms of feeling and sensation occur again in his later emulations of Leonardo’s Deluge drawings. In the late-1960s, they then take on an apparently colder, more Apollonian and procedural logic in the meandering lasso-loops of the artist’s early ‘Blackboards’, there pioneering the graphic possibility of a single, continuously-drawn line to convey, through layering and repetition, a multidimensional sense of space as a continuous, wave-like, field of energy. Later, in the late-‘70s and early 1980s, a more impassioned and spiritually-orientated, vermillion line, simulating the trance-like delirium of whirling dervishes then resurfaces, now appearing to wrap itself around a void. Becoming even more bloody, these same rolling lines, subsequently manifested themselves in poured-out sweeps of wine-coloured paint that rise and fall in a perpetual cycle of climbing loops and cascading drips in the monumental paintings that Twombly dedicated to Bacchus in 2005.

Nowhere, however, is this tendency to evoke such a polarised sense of simultaneous rising and falling more clearly defined than in Twombly’s vertical-standing sculptures; many of which take the form of ‘looping’ or broken columns. Distinguishing some of the artist’s very earliest sculptural works from the 1940s, this rising/falling theme was one that the artist would later reinforce with reference to the poet Rilke’s Duino Elegies by appending handwritten plaques to some of these sculptures inscribed with such lines as:

‘And we who have always thought of happiness climbing, would feel the emotion that almost startles when happiness falls’.

Like the lasso-loops of his first Blackboard pictures which were themselves presaged by an invocation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies in the 1967 painting Duino, such simultaneously rising and falling sculptures are expressive of an ecstatic, almost orgasmic, pinnacle of attainment, of the becoming of a definable, solid, singular form that blooms before subsiding back into formless, organic dissolution. Related to the eternal rhythms of life and the passing of time, they speak of the innate relationship between art and life through the emergence, and then eventual dissolution or decay, of form. Singular and strongly linear structures, evocative of the erotic drive towards creation and an Apollonian ‘will to form’ or order, they emulate ancient artifacts from some unknown, Arcadian civilization and in so doing, also seem to point at art’s ability to transcend its own time.

With its similarly singular linear column of metal rising out of a soft, amorphous and organic base, crowned, at its pinnacle, by a small, transient, black flower, the Macklowe Collection’s sculpture, first made by Twombly on Jupiter’s Island in 1992, also articulates this tendency. Although far from being a broken column, this sculpture is also an evolving form that has risen like a plant from of an essentially formless base to become a powerful, singular, self-assertive, entity which, at its peak, has flowered and in the process, fanned out into an exquisite, multifaceted form. It is, however, at this point of transformation from the single into the many that it has reached its zenith and within this moment too, therefore, that the seeds of its subsequent dissolution and collapse will also lie.

A physical metaphor of Twombly’s oft-quoted description of his own hand-drawn line as being the ‘sensation of its own realisation’, this formal expression of the becoming and then fanning-out of a single, vertical line into a multiple is a recurrent feature of much of Twombly’s sculpture and his painting. It has perhaps been best defined by Roland Barthes in his appropriately-entitled essay Non multa sed Multum (‘not many but much’). It also finds one of its simplest and most poetic expressions in the ‘fanned’ motif of palm-leaf sculptures such as Untitled of 1954 and Cycnus of 1978 which comprise solely of single, vertically rising forms transforming into wing-like fans. Inspired by a Stephan Mallarmé poem that evokes the impossibility of the ideal of ‘holding a wing’ as it flutters, this concentration on a single form becoming multiple through a fanning out also appears to underpin Twombly’s approach to many of his Blackboard paintings in the late’60s. It is there in his looping-line drawings that transform themselves into wave-like fields of graphic energy and it also underpins the space-time shudder of precision geometry that appears in his Treatise on the Veil paintings, for instance, or his otherwise absurdly simplistic hand-drawn rectangles of Night Watch and Problem I, II, III in1966. Rendering simple geometric forms as shimmering, uncertain and perhaps motional entities within the mysteriously fluid space of his grey-ground paintings, these are pictures where, as Kirk Varnedoe, perhaps the most eloquent of all writers on Twombly, pointed out, ‘fluctuating energies take precedence over rigorously systematic ideas’. [iii]

It is also this same concept of ‘fluctuating’, motional energy ‘taking precedence over systematic ideas’ that lies at the heart of Twombly’s Synopsis of a Battle pictures. These are, after all, works that articulate not only the rapid descent of logical, arithmetical or alphabetical progressions such as ‘1,2,3...’ and ‘A,B,C ...’ into apparent meaninglessness, they also chart the motional fusing of geometric clarity into diagrammatic confusion. What is more, they appear to do this in a wing-like wave of form that also fans out from a single, central axis.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude (Study), Sad Young Man on a Train, 1911-12. Image © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice / Bridgeman Images. Art © 2022 Succession Marcel Duchamp / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Like most of his paintings from the late 1960s, therefore, Twombly’s Synopsis of a Battle pictures are works primarily concerned with the articulating of new languages and dimensions of movement, thought and feeling. Minimal in form and deliberately ambiguous in meaning, they reflect not just the complex chatter about space-time, gyratory movement, orbits and vectors that accompanied much of the progress of the Apollo program throughout this period, they also addresses earlier, modernist, studies of images and forms in motion. In particular, works such as Marcel Duchamp’s Young Man on a Train and Umberto Boccioni’s triptych States of Mind. These are pictures that, similar to Rilke, had been among the first attempts at correlating ideas about energy, motion and human feeling into linear form. They, along with the motion studies of Edweard Muybridge and the seemingly ever-present figure of Leonardo da Vinci, whose, codices, flying machines and studies of wings as simultaneously singular but also multiple forms capable of flight are works that are regularly cited as having inspired the artist at this time.

Twombly once said that what he like most about making sculpture was the ‘singularity’ of the sculptural form. ‘It’s a building thing’, he said, ‘whereas... painting is more [a] fusing—fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere.’[iv] It is this same element of fusing ideas, emotion and indications of motion, through intent and/or action and of the fanning out of a form from a central singular point into multiple directions that is the key component of his Synopsis of a Battle paintings. Although it is possible that the lines, geometry and indications of motion in these paintings are to some extent representative of troop divisions and their planned movement throughout the course of a battle, these graphic representations are, in the main, ones that are shown to be all part of another single, wing-like sweep of form once more fanning out from a central, single, axis. Twombly scholar Mary Jacobus has suggested that this semi-cohesive, fan-like image draws upon a wide range of gyrating forms, from cyanotype blueprints of the Apollo space-capsule to Leonardo’s designs for a tank, but such comparisons, though intriguing will no doubt always remain open to conjecture. In the end, everything with Twombly ultimately remains intentionally vague, partial, fragmentary and uncertain. Implication or suggestion is more powerful than statement. Like Mallarmé’s vain attempt to hold a fluttering wing, Twombly’s paintings are poetic conceits. They are arenas of action, movement and occurrence, not sites of record. Like a wing fluttering in motion, there is no single entity, no ‘specific object’, that one can grasp. Twombly’s art, like that of Mallarmé’s before him, attempts to make use of ‘a quite new conception of poetry’. It is, as Mallarmé said, a poetry that aims ‘to paint, not the thing, but the effect which it produces.’ [v]

[i] Roland Barthes ‘The Wisdom of Art’ in Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954-77, exh. cat, New York, 1977)

[ii] Cy Twombly, ‘History Behind the Thought’ Interview with Nicholas Serota, 2007, Cy Twombly. Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat. Tate, London, 2008, p. 50

[iii] Kirk Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective New York, 1994, p. 41

[iv] Cy Twombly, Interview with David Sylvester, 2000, quoted in David Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2001, p. 181

[v] The full quotation reads: ‘I have finally begun my Hérodiade. With terror, for I am inventing a language which must necessarily spring from a very new poetics, which I could define in these few words: To paint, not the thing itself, but the effect it produces. On this principle, verse should be composed not out of words but out of intention, and every utterance should be effaced before its corresponding sensation.’ Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Letter to Cazalis’, October, 1864 quoted in Stéphane Mallarmé: Collected Poems, Berkeley, 1996, p. 169

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