Cy Twombly retrospective at the Centre Pompidou is undoubtedly one of the most incredible exhibitions of the year presenting 140 artworks, from the NYC beginnings to the Italian days.
The exhibition starts with the artworks made in NYC, there are monochromatic canvases exhibited in 1964 at the legendary Leo Castelli gallery. It then goes through the Italian period, showing a sudden rediscovery of the color and an expressive violence.There are monumental canvases produced in Italy, the country where the artist will live until the end of his days.
Roland Barthes wrote an essay for a catalogue raisonné of Twombly’s drawing in 1979. His words really captured the essence of his art, so I’ve decided to let them describe the images of the show, hoping they will inspire you as much as they’ve inspired me.
All quotes by Roland Barthes derive from this essay, for Cy Twombly: Works on Paper, 1979.
….TW’s work is a kind of writing; it has some relation with calligraphy. Yet this relation is one neither of imitation nor of inspiration; a canvas by TW is only what we might call the allusive field of writing. TW alludes to writing ( as he often does, as well, to culture, through words: Virgil, Sesostris), and then goes off somewhere else. Where? Specifically, far away from calligraphy, i.e., from that formed, drawn, deliberate, shapely writing, which in the eighteen century was called a fine hand.
TW has his own way of saying that the essence of writing is neither a form nor a usage but only a gesture, the gesture which produces it by permitting it to linger: a blur, almost a blotch, a negligence…..
On certain surface of TW’s there is nothing written, and yet these surfaces seem to be the repository of all writing. Just as Chinese writing was born, we are told, from the tiny cracks of an overheated tortoiseshell, so what appears to be writing in TW’s work is born from the surface itself. No surface, wherever we consider it, is a virgin surface: everything is always, already, rough, discontinuous, unequal, set in motion by some accident: there is the texture of the paper, then the stains, the hatchings, the tracery of strokes, the diagrams, the words. At the end of this chain, writing loses its violence; what is imposed is not this writing or that, not even the Being of writing, it is the idea of a graphic texture: “for writing”, says TW’s work, as we might say elsewhere: “for talking”, “for eating”…...
..What is a gesture? Something like the surplus of an action.
The action is transitive,it seeks only to provoke an object, a result, the gesture is an indeterminate an inexhaustible total of reasons, pulsions, indolences which surround the action with an atmosphere ( in the astronomical sense of the word) .
Hence let us distinguish the message, which seeks to produce information, and the sign, which seeks to produce an intellection, from the gesture, which produces all the rest( the surplus) without necessarily seeking to produce anything…
TW, contrary to the venture of so many present-day painters, shows the gesture. We are not asked to see, to conceive, to savor the product, but to review, to identify, and, so to speak, to enjoy the movement which has ended up here.….
…Many of TW’s compositions suggest, it has been said, the scrawls of children. The child is the infant who does not speak; but the child who conducts TW’s hand already writes- he is a schoolboy: lined paper, colored pencils, ruler, repeated letters, little plumes of cross-hatching, like the smoke that comes out of the locomotive in children’s drawings….
Twombly’s art consists in making things seen- not the things he represents ( that is another problem), but those he manipulates: these few pencil strokes, this graph paper, this patch of pink, that brown smudge. This art has his secret, which is in general not to flaunt substance ( charcoal, ink, oil paint) but to permit it to linger. We might think that in order to express the pencil character it would have to be pressed hard, emphasized, made thick, black, intense. Twombly thinks the opposite: by withholding the pressure of the substance, by letting it come to rest quite casually, so that its texture is somewhat scattered, the matter will reveal its essence, grant us the certainty of its name: this is the pencil. If we were to philosophize ( a little) , we might say that the being of things is not in their heaviness but in their lightness….
..There are paintings which are exciting, possessive, dogmatic; they impose the product, give it the tyranny of a fetish. Twombly’s art- this is his morality, and also its great historical singularity- does not want to take anything; it hangs together, it floats, it drifts between desire, which subtly animates the hand, and polietness, which is the discreet rejection of any desire to capture. If we wanted to situate this ethic, we could only go looking for it very far away, outside painting, outside the West, outside the historical period, at the very limit of meaning; we would have to say, with the Tao Tê Ching:
He produces without taking from himself,
He acts without expectation,
His work done, he is not attached to it,
His work will remain.