How to read a Cy Twombly

New book asks if late US artist’s work should be read literally or literarily

Cy Twombly's Untitled (1971) David Owens

Cy Twombly's Untitled (1971) David Owens

Even experienced viewers of modern and contemporary art find themselves challenged to decide whether they ought to steer by enjoyment or interpretation. Mary Jacobus, a professor emirata of English at Cornell and Cambridge universities, takes readers deep into this quandary in her richly demanding book, Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint.

Who has not wondered, studying the many inscriptions in Twombly’s art, how literally, or literarily, to take them? Sometimes they consist of no more than a poet’s name, a fragmentary phrase in translation, abridged or otherwise modified by the painter, all apparently outgrowths of the driven, illegible scrawl typical of the artist’s early abstract work. Jacobus, who evidently never met or corresponded with Twombly (1928-2011), sensibly begins with a posthumous survey of the library left in his house in Gaeta, Italy, which contains a wealth of classical, Romantic and modern poetry, in English or English translation. Sources range from Sappho, Ovid and Virgil to Keats, Shelley, Pound, Cavafy, George Seferis and Octavio Paz.

This point of departure helps ground Jacobus’s many interpretive speculations and rests on the fact that Twombly’s art has appealed to so many writers beyond the art world, from Charles Olson (one of his teachers at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina), Frank O’Hara and Octavio Paz to Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Philippe Sollers.

“What forms of cultural literacy are required in order to ‘read’ a Twombly?,” Jacobus writes. “When [Roland] Barthes ‘read’... Twombly’s art, it spoke directly to his sensibility, prompting the response that can be seen in the heightened eloquence of his writing... Other viewers have felt themselves to be in receipt of an immediate and ravishing communication from the artist, understood as an equivalent subjectivity... a response also known as transference.” Such passages early in the book alert the reader that steep ascents into various systems of understanding—including postmodernism, ancient and modern poetics, iconography, semiotics and psychoanalysis—lie ahead. Digressions in these forensic adventures can be hard to distinguish from destinations, but Jacobus remains a learned and energetic guide throughout.

But the more elaborate that Jacobus’s chains of literary association and autographic inference become—and many span several pages, to varying persuasive effect—the more a reader wonders whether any painter’s intentions, conscious or tacit, could encompass such wide-ranging echoes and linkages.

“First-hand accounts of conversations with Twombly sometimes refer to his hesitant delivery,” she writes, “almost amounting to a stammer, and to his habit of letting sentences trail off, or completing them with his mouth half-covered, as if to guard against inadvertent self-disclosure. A manner of speaking does not necessarily translate into a manner of painting, to be sure, although it may translate visually into hard-to-read handwriting. But hesitation, stammering and reticence are also aspects of poetic expressivity... even when carefully planned and premeditated, his paintings appear swiftly executed, their previous layers at once half-hidden and half-exposed.”

At points, Twombly’s own remarks and Jacobus’s citations and associations dovetail to powerfully convincing effect, as in her extended discussion of what he took, and what she takes, from the thought and practice of Stéphane Mallarmé, with his kinetic sense of voids and interruptions.

Jacobus’s argument—that episodes in Twombly’s supposedly detached and Epicurean manner reflect a fraught mindfulness of his era’s rage for war—comes as a revealing, almost shocking, rereading of important chapters in his art. “Twombly’s work during the 1990s and afterward,” she writes, “alludes to the tide of blood engulfing a region whose ancient history was already marked by military opportunism long before it became known for its oil.”

But Jacobus’s writing, lucid if dense throughout, shines most in summary passages such as this, which connect the painter’s style with his brief, inglorious military service as a cryptographer: “In the final decade of his life... Twombly was still drawing [on] writing as a device for paintings whose cursive loops had become synonymous with his signature since his blackboard paintings of the 1970s. Twombly draws writing, but he also draws the rhythms of pre-verbal thought—the archi-écriture of signifying systems from which verbal thought emerges. Mallarmé’s ‘tacit flight of abstraction’ (signifiers divorced from representation) returns as the physical movement of the body in space, as defined by Twombly’s 1957 manifesto: ‘Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate—it is the sensation of its own realisation.’ Like the cryptographer’s secure ‘one-time pad’ (its key known only to its author), Twombly’s cipher resists the decipherer. It becomes an instance of the unbreakable code: what it ‘realises’ is the history of its own making.”

The question of overinterpretation shadows the prodigious effort of engagement and analysis embodied in Reading Cy Twombly. How much “reading” is too much and, once initiated into the process, how can we decide?

Another issue is Jacobus’s preference for discriminating among other interpreters’ readings of Twombly’s art over discriminating critically among his many accomplishments. Her unwavering appreciation of Twombly’s art brings to mind the quip by a US painter of a previous generation to the effect that it will be future art historians’ task to prove that he never really made his bad paintings.

Some readers may find these problems damagingly subversive of Jacobus’s whole project. But her book proceeds on a very high level—the plane occupied by T. J. Clark’s recent Picasso and Truth, for example. A persuasive critical rejoinder to Reading Cy Twombly would require a commitment as passionate, informed and thorough as her own.

Kenneth Baker retired in 2015 after 30 years as resident art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of Minimalism: Art of Circumstance (1997) and The Lightning Field (2009)

Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, by Mary Jacobus, Princeton University Press, 320pp, £37.95, $45 (hb)