ILLUSTRIOUS AND UNKNOWN: this was what Degas aspired to be, and what Cy Twombly has become. His imposing reputation has an aura of myth and ambiguity, for reasons that have partly to do with the elusiveness of the artist himself (residing abroad and protective of his privacy), but more to do with the singularity of his art. Twombly first came to prominence in the later 1950s, when his graffiti like pencilwork appeared to subvert Abstract Expressionism. Yet he then sustained painterly abstraction through a time in the 1960s when the imagery of mass culture and the certainties of geometry seemed destined to kill it off. While linked by generational ties and friendship to Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, he has suffered from the fact that unlike theirs, his work – with no bold graphic or photographic imagery – tells little in reproduction, and provides no convenient entrance into Pop art. The elements of ironic realism in their art have been considered progressive and in tune with postmodern sensibilities, but Twombly’s unique combination of bare astringency and sensual indulgence has proved harder to confine within such tidy generalizations. He has further distanced himself from his contemporaries by embracing the classical past and reaching for epic narrative in an era when such models appeared wholly derelict. In addition, his work has often sought its own poetics by invoking the heritage of literature, during a long period in which “literary” was a term of condemnation. These commitments, and their author, have never found a ready niche in accounts of the progress of art since 1950. The countless paperbacks and catalogues that have canonized the line of artists from Pollock to Warhol as the mainstream of American art’s postwar ascendancy have typically neglected Twombly rather than contend with the ways his inclusion might disrupt that story’s flow. A fellow artist already saw the problem in 1955: “[Twombly’s] originality,” he said, “is being himself. He seems to be born out of our time, rather than into it.”
That assessment cannot satisfy: no person has such autonomy, and clearly Twombly’s art is specifically contemporary. Efforts to link him to the art of his time have left us, though, with an oddly piecemeal fabric of interpretations – one which only now, in the mid 1990s, appears to be assuming enough breadth and density to wrap the complex achievements of the work itself Over almost three decades, Twombly has been repeatedly “rediscovered” by American critics, in various ways. The white on grey paintings he made in the late 1960s were welcomed as having an anti-sensual, cerebral spareness that related them to Minimalism and Conceptual art; and the fascination with linguistic models of criticism focused special attention on the play of marking, writing, and schematic figuration in his work. Then, more important, American awareness of European contemporary art expanded: in the 1970s a sharpened focus on the art of JosephBeuys concerned with grand myth and history, but also esoterically personal and tied to a bodily animism began a reorientation that favored Twombly in other ways; and the advent of a new painterly expressionism in the 1980s, in artists as diverse as Anselm Kiefer and Francesco Clemente, further catalyzed a fresh assessment of his importance.
More recently a fraught concern with sexuality has appeared among contemporary artists whose anti-formal expressivity and candor about the body has opened still another avenue into Twombly’s complex achievement. As did the earlier frames of reference (Abstract Expressionism, Neo Dada, Minimal and Conceptual art, Neo Expressionism, and so on), this one can help us see valid aspects of the work. Taken in sequence, however, each of these terms has tended to exclude or ignore the others, and none accounts for the presence within Twombly’s art of all these, and more, contradictory climates of feeling. Offhand impulsiveness and obsessive systems; the defiling urge toward what is base and the complementary love for lyric poetry and the grand legacy of high Western culture; written words, counting systems, geometry, ideographic signs, and abstract fingerwork with paint all ask to be understood in concert.
In that complexity, this art has proved influential among artists, discomfiting to many critics, and truculently difficult not just for a broad public, but for sophisticated initiates of postwar art as well. It will almost certainly continue to defy ready acceptance by a wide audience, as its particular impact depends so strongly on the kind of direct response to physical presence that is resistant to verbalization and uncongenial to analysis. In the extensive literature on Twombly, many sensitive writers and acute theoreticians have already grappled with that difficulty, in efforts to capture poetically the seductive force of his work, and to analyze its singular aesthetic structure