“Say goodbye, Catullus, to the shore of Asia Minor”: Cy Twombly (1928–2011)

Jae Emerling
Cy Twombly at the preview of his exhibition “Sensations of the Moment,” 2009.

Cy Twombly at the preview of his exhibition “Sensations of the Moment,” 2009. Photo: Rudi Schmied. © Mumok 2011.

For myself the past is the source
(for all art is vitally contemporary).
–Cy Twombly

The artist Cy Twombly died in Rome on July 5, 2011. With the news of his death many major newspapers and magazines throughout the world offered the standard form of obituary. I would rather not merely repeat these facts because they are facts, not a life. Instead, I would like to attempt to convey something of Twombly’s singularity, which is to say how he harnesses forces and shapes, poetry and mythology, together to create an image as haunting and immense as we have yet to encounter. There has always been a quiet, resolute confidence at work in Twombly that expresses itself in bouts of color and a furtive, violent gestural hand. And then there is the myth—the scrawled irreparable legend—of Twombly: the exile, the graffito, the aesthete, the dandy, the aristocrat, the reader, the painter. More than the myth, however, it is the image of Twombly that I have been after for some time. His singularity lies in the creation of a temporal image, at times desperate and frantic, at others possessing a serene untimeliness so radical that it seems to open a breach between past and present, sensible and intelligible, subject and object. The inversive calligrams of Twombly’s paintings decreate our picture of the past.

In the images Twombly has given us it is not his own life that he worked so hard to actualize in his artwork. As he wrote in the Italian art journal L’Esperienza moderna in 1957: “To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse, or in the process of a painting, run a gamut of states. One must desire the ultimate essence even if it is ‘contaminated.’ Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate—it is the sensation of its own realization…. The idea of falling into obscurities or subjective nihilism is absurd.” Here, in one of a very few written statements about his work, Twombly counters the criticisms that had dogged him since the mid-1950s, that is, that his work falls into “obscurities or subjective nihilism.” Far from it. Nor is it an esoteric formalism run amok, motivated by the antiquated dinge and dirge of the Mediterranean or the scatology of Roman graffiti. Twombly’s work is a sensation. It gives us moments and affects that are intimately related to forces that the work never represents.

Neither subjective nor objective, Twombly’s best works are both at once. His work is artifice, a fabulation, a “contaminated essence,” that does not reproduce some preexisting real; rather Twombly creates sensations that are intimately related to unrepresentable forces (and not states of things), but that cannot and do not represent these forces. Twombly’s line does not illustrate—it is the sensation of its own realization. It con-figures moments (singularities, intensities), that is, unique decisive points that affirm the presence of time as such (the virtual, chaos, the impersonal). Sensation is an ensemble: a “capture of forces” in moments that trigger affects, a becoming-other, a curious form of survival in time. Twombly’s works are condensed events that open us (his emphasis on “ecstasy,” that is, on ek-stasis, decreating stillness and stasis by rendering perception in movement, giving us almost micro- perceptions) in time.

In June 2005, in the midst of research for my dissertation, I found myself, quite by chance, spending the afternoon alone in the Walter Benjamin archive at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. I was reading a handwritten version of Benjamin’s “In the Sun,” a small collection of aphorisms written in 1932: “The Hasidim have a saying about the world to come. Everything there will be arranged just as it is with us. The room we have now will be just the same in the world to come; where our child lies sleeping, it will sleep in the world to come. The clothes we are wearing we shall also wear in the next world. Everything will be the same as it is here—only a little bit different. Thus it is with imagination. It merely draws a veil over the distance. Everything remains just as it is, but the veil flutters and everything changes imperceptibly beneath it.” After reading this passage, I had to leave the archive. The sense that within the actual world there is another one, a virtual one, that repeats our world but with a slight, decisive difference was unbearable. What was unbearable to me—in that moment—was the realization of a fuller, more dislocating and immanent idea of temporality than I previously had. Leaving the archive, I quickly crossed the street, walked along the Charité hospital, and headed to the Hamburger Bahnhof. And there, somewhat beside myself, in a station with no departures, I encountered two Twombly paintings. Standing there hardened against any Stendhal syndrome, critical of the sublime, and yet I was overcome. Despite myself. Despite my studies.

It was not the size of the paintings, School of Fontainebleau (1960) and Thyrsis (1977) that did it. It was the quiet. The references to antiquity (here from Virgil’s Seventh Eclogue) or to the School of Fontainebleau are not nominalist representations. Twombly did not use arbitrary or ostentatiously knowing references to the classical tradition; instead, he labored to decreate that tradition, that stultified, obscure, perhaps sundered, liberal arts tradition in order to render an event, that is, a transformative interaction or opening between the past and the present. Without irony or shame, Twombly painted the words of Thyrsis (“I am Thyrsis of Etna, blessed with a tuneful voice”) on the canvas to rend the composition as a whole. It was as if the words were simultaneously empty signifiers (the remnants of a shattered tradition) and a passage through themselves, a becoming image. The “tuneful voice” of Thyrsis remains silent as the subject of the sentence dissolves, becoming other: becoming Twombly, becoming the expression of the painting as a whole, becoming the disquiet of the past as such. This dissolution, this poetic undoing or decreation of our domesticated picture of the past, in turn offers a relation, a temporal immanence suffused with the force of the past as an event, as a becoming actual. It was Twombly who forced me to recognize that an image is inseparable from its artifice—its essential veiling of things as they are, things as they are imagined. For the “veil flutters and everything changes imperceptibly beneath it.”

Thus it was Twombly’s work that crystallized Benjamin’s passage for me. What Benjamin sought throughout his philosophy is how to open a threshold not between the past and the present conceived as two distinct tenses, but between the what-has-been and the now. This threshold is what he called the proper “space of history.” Opposed to any linear conception of temporality in which the past simply precedes the present, Benjamin’s “space of history” is a threshold between the “what-has-been” (what falls to the side of human experience, what is beyond or absent from what we commonly call the “past”) and the “now.” Within this threshold there is a kind of “total neutrality in regard to the concepts of both subject and object…a unity of experience that can by no means be understood as a sum of experiences,” he wrote. This remains one of Benjamin’s most elusive ideas. But, in the midst of Twombly, with Benjamin’s words resounding in my ears, I began to understand how and why a spatiotemporal fold becomes visible (sensible and intelligible) through an imaginative event (a piece of writing, an artwork, a film, the lines of a dancer).

I began to understand that an image is a duration, an impersonal, asubjective experience that transmits itself through an artwork. For it is only along the line of a spatiotemporal fold that images are ephemeral, alogical, and even amnesiac (as in forgetting oneself). Standing in the midst of Twombly’s triptych Thyrsis, I was compelled not necessarily by what was being presented to me (a composition of painterly marks, blocs of black, and lettery lines) as much as by what deframed this set of signs: an image. An image that seemed to thrive on the framed breaks between the three canvases. An image not of the past, but rather an image as a “space of history” that offered no return to or reappearance of the past as it was. Instead, this image—coexisting with the signs of the painting but not identical to them—engendered a sensation that complicated my body, traversed it, and forced it to think. This sensation is a future- directed becoming, one of survival, one of difference and repetition, one that affirms why we are always already in the midst of time, immersed and excluded from the past, caught in a threshold of actual and virtual.

Twombly died under a seemingly unyielding Roman summer sun and I keep thinking of his remarkable, inexhaustible Quattro Stagioni (A Painting in Four Parts), a cycle of large vertical paintings of the four seasons Twombly completed in acrylic, oil, crayon, and pencil between 1993 and 1995 that is now in the collection of the Tate Modern. In particular, I remember Estate. Each time I stand before Estate I sense the force of summer, the sunlight’s intensity veiling its waning power. Everything hits you at once: the faint pencil lettering, the lines of light, the twittering wax crayon words, the bolt-blossoms of color. A sundrenched yellow renders the entire canvas a yellowing parchment as if it were alive, aging and transforming, becoming the autumn. The lines from the modern Greek poet Giorgos Seferis on the lower righthand side, the barely legible words: “exhausted forever.” The overwritten lines at the top: a palimpsest of “Say goodbye, Catullus, to the shores of Asia Minor” and Baia di Gaeta (the site of Twombly’s residence in Italy) that, as Twombly does time and again, folds the personal and the impersonal into a new life within the painting. Here Twombly gives us a sensation of a moment, an event, whose only essence is to pass on, that is, to endure by folding itself into an image thereby becoming a legend, a cartography. Only an exhausted moment, an essence, as if it were alive, creates an image: an opening, a passage, a relation, sensuous time.

A moment of silence, then, for the passing of Cy Twombly, for the image he gave us, for the time he gave us.

Jae Emerling teaches art history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is the author of Theory for Art History (2005) and Photography: History and Theory (2012). He is currently a visiting professor at VU Amsterdam.