Despite the ongoing vogue in rehabilitating “avant-garde” and “experimental” artists within the institutions of art historical orthodoxy, one artist whose work has so far escaped systematic anthologisation is the post-war American painter Cy Twombly.
In Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois’s 1997 study, Formless: A User’s Guide, Twombly is enrolled as an exemplar of certain tendencies (otherwise associated with European artists like Wols and Fautrier) towards the scatalogical and deconstructive in American art.
Or, to put it otherwise, a “Europeanisation” of American art—precisely that against which such critics as Clement Greenberg had so vehemently argued in his canonising of Jackson Pollock.
By enlisting Twombly on the side of a “European” art of laceration, obscenity and lugubriousity, Krauss and Bois attempt to give the lie to Greenberg’s chauvinistic view of the muscular health of “good” American painting—the representatives of which (and we should never forget it) were all immigrants or of immediate immigrant origin: de Kooning, Kline, Rothko and above all Pollock, whose very name seems to make a mockery of Greenberg’s American pie-eyed take on modernist art.
To say so, however, is not to give credence to the opposing view either, particularly if one considers the extent of partisanship within the institutions of art history and criticism.
The October group (Krauss, et al.) have long stood opposed to the likes of Greenberg, Fried, and the “Abstract Expressionists” of the 1950s, looking instead to the influence of Marcel Duchamp and the advent of neo-Dada, Pop Art and Minimalism, through the 60s and 70s.
The line of divide is not only political, but intellectual (versus the physicality of Abstract Expressionism), and to a certain degree literary (one needs to recall here that the type of Jungian psychoanalysis so often associated with Pollock’s earlier “symbolist” canvases largely originated with Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife and former student of Hans Hofmann, the German proto-minimalist: i.e. that grand contradiction of Ab.Ex.—an intellectual woman with “European” artistic training).
But in all the smoke of art historicism, one can always find ironically deflating instances that put things in an even more amusing light: the spectacle, for example, of Duchamp advising Peggy Guggenheim on precisely which 8 inches to cut off a wall-sized canvas she had commissioned from Pollock, so that it would fit in the living room of her New York apartment.
Yet, all jokes aside, while contemporary figures like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg have long been canonised and adopted as figures of transition away from the expressionistic fallacy towards “post-modernism,” Twombly has remained something of an eccentricity—his “graffito” canvases too expressionistic on the one hand (comparable in its most stylised with the work of Mark Toby), too classical and arcanely “literary” on the other, to be easily appropriated to the cause of the Duchampian faction.
That is to say, also, that the literariness and ironic content of Twombly’s work does not yield in the same manner as the tritely recycled puns and sight-gags of Rrose Sélavy and of Duchamp’s later “conceptual” work.
Of course, that is not the measure of Duchamp—rather it is the measure of the sort of pseudo-literary theorising which it has become fashionable to apply to “modernist” and so-called post-modernist art.
For these reasons it is interesting that Twombly, and not, say, Jean-Michel Basquiat (considered a “neo-Expressionist”), is taken up by Krauss and Bois as emblematic of what they term “graffiti.”
Be that as it may, the effect is equivalent to the treatment of Basquiat himself in much of the criticism surrounding his work in the 80s and 90s—that is to say, Twombly is thereby reduced to being a “graffiti artist,” albeit on a somewhat more metaphysical plane.
The reasons for this may be simple enough. Twombly hardly figures at all in the major writings on post-war art history, other than as a name associated with the oddities of Black Mountain College and the experimental work of Charles Olson, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, et al.
Black Mountain itself gives Twombly the sort of pedigree essential for art critics like Krauss, implicitly linking him with the legacy of Joseph Albers and, by association, the Bauhaus.
The fact that Twombly’s art appears to stand as a direct repudiation of this legacy (whether that is the case or not—although compare, for example, Twombly’s 1974 pieces dedicated to Malevitch and Tatlin), is more often considered a difficulty to be overcome rhetorically—as it is in Formless: A User’s Guide, in the handful of instances in which Twombly is mentioned at all.
One series of paintings referred to in Krauss and Bois’s study, in a footnote from page 115, includes several works on paper entitled Petals of Fire , a reprise on a theme which circulates through Twombly’s oeuvre, and included in the recent 50 year retrospective at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich this October (previously at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg).
It is worth considering the actual text of Krauss (the author of this section of Formless: A User’s Guide, entitled “Jeu lugubre”), in which Twombly’s work is linked to a definition of graffiti (“the dirtying of the clean wall … an obscenity, either in the form of a body lowered to nothing but the genitals, or in the form of the dirty word, as the improper name of the sexual organs”), filtered through the philosophical writings of Georges Bataille (the operational quality of graffiti as an expression linking the obscene to the “formless”), posed in light of Duchamp and, by direct declension, opposed to the work of Jackson Pollock.
Thus Krauss writes: “the scatalogical as an operation … appears in the way graffiti has entered the field of modernist art. Whether in the form of Duchamp’s moustaches penned on the Mona Lisa or the lacerations carried out on posters preserved by the affichistes, the destructive, performative character of graffiti is to be felt, as it acts against the high, neutralised, cultural form to lower it.”
Passing over the omission of the Mona Lisa’s beard (the moustache-only version was in fact by Francis Picabia, not Duchamp—the difference is worth noting), there remains this nominalisation of high and low art which, other than being an art historical cliché (which has only ever really existed to prop up the distinctions it otherwise appears to comment upon), simply cannot be posed in relation to Twombly’s work in this way.
For one, the classicism of Twombly—the focus upon classical references and the use of canonical texts within the body of his “graffiti” (Shelley’s Adonais, written on the death of Keats, is a good example, as are works like “Plato” , “Apollo” , “Nimphidia” , and “Anabasis (Xenephon)” )—renders such binary reductions extremely problematic.
Twombly’s work here bears closer comparison to the Athenian ostraka, or to the archaeological assemblage of fragmentary inscriptions, etc., or even to the philological work of restoring textual fragments, such as the work of the Greek comic playwright Menander, much of which survived as papyrus lining in Egyptian sarcophagi.
In a sense, Twombly’s work points to the fact that composition and “deconstruction,” as it were, are integral to one another. For Twombly it is a question of infrastructures of dis/assemblage rather than a (mere) surface effect of sense or aesthetic (even “anti-aesthetic”) spectacle—hence the difficulty with treating this work in terms simply of what Krauss defines to be “graffiti” (the ob-scene).
For Krauss, Twombly’s art can nevertheless be read primarily as a recoding of Jackson Pollock’s “linear skein, to read now as the gouged and scored surface of the graffiti laden wall, thereby lowering its association with the ‘purity’ of abstract art.”
To support the claim of this lowering (one does wonder how such terms come to apply precisely to Pollock’s floor paintings), Krauss engages in some textual analysis, focusing upon another of Twombly’s classical references, the Roman god of war, Mars: “the performative, operational logic of scatology also comes to operate in Twombly’s work upon the clean and proper idea of the whole body [whose?] … and even on the clean and proper idea of the proper name.
Graffiti, indeed, comes to act on the words Twombly writes on his pictures, words which, disembodied by the violence of scatological writing (‘Mars,’ for example, divided into M / ARS—‘art’ in Latin but ‘arse’ in English), begin to yield up the obscenity within them, as the rose petal yields up its stain” [italics added].
In a poetic turn which takes us away from the Duchamp-Pollock axis, Krauss concludes: “The beauty of Twombly’s surfaces … invokes the ‘language of flowers’ as it also initiates the lugubrious game.”
The reason for the poetic turn may simply be, however, that after M / ARS, Krauss had run out of classical references in Twombly’s work that could be turned to the service of school yard obscenity. Sappho? Virgil? The Coronation of Sesostris? The Battle of Lepanto?
It may be, after all, that what Twombly has succeeded in lowering, is the critical guard of certain contemporary art theorists too eager to enlist him to the cause of one critical paradigm or another.
Krauss, often an incisive writer on architecture and photography, stumbles badly when attempting to address “painting,” largely because of a career built upon the exclusion of Abstract Expressionism and “painting” as such from the progressive model of art elaborated as a move towards the post-modern.
That is to say, an art which seems to embody a “technological progress,” from Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism, to the advent of digital and virtual art.
The political foundations of Krauss’s work mean that recognising the technological aspects of Twombly’s “painting” becomes a virtually impossible task, causing it to be reduced instead to an exemplary form of lowness or entropy—in fact, a negative end-point of painting per se.
This seems to be what Krauss and Bois are looking for in their study of the “formless,” a critical paradigm that will at once submit painting to an acceptable theoretical apparatus (Bataille in this case), and to expose it to a form of auto-critique against which no future claims for painting, in a positivistic sense, would be possible.
Far from lending credence to such a project, Twombly’s work fatally problematises it by means of a subtle invasion of technics and discursivity.
These détournements (under the guise of an awkward neo-classicism) affect a counter-appropriation in which the critical “paradigms” of Krauss and Bois are ensnared ahead of time, falling victim to their own bluff.
Above all, however, and in spite of art critical claims one way or the other, Twombly’s work remains a form of painterly, textual, and technological genesis: a generative apparatus of possible readings and renderings, and of painterly possibility itself.
And while we may profitably view Twombly’s expansive body of work in “retrospect,” there is little or no profit to be gained from essaying a last word on the meaning of his art, or even of his ARS.