Writing on the Wall: Cy Twombly Has Been Described as a Graffiti Artist, but That Is to Belittle His Intuitive Exploration of Intellectual and Emotional Experience

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In a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement, Terry Eagleton wrote about the linguistic similarity between Samuel Beckett and Theodor Adorno. "What is most drastically impoverished in Beckett is language itself," he wrote. "Adorno's style reveals a similar austerity as each phrase is forced to work overtime to earn its keep ... Like Beckett's, Adorno's is a language rammed up against silence, a set of guerrilla raids on the inar-ticulable." For both these writers, the deficiencies and untruths of language had been revealed in the "crazed assurances of fascism and Stalinism". Language itself had become discredited. Only what was indeterminate could in any way approach the truth. It was this that led to Beckett's much-quoted remark about trying to fail better. His favourite word, apparently, was "perhaps".


"Perhaps" might also be the favourite word of the American painter Cy Twombly, whose marks and expletives, handwritten quotations and dissolving textural pencil lines stutter across the surface of his paintings like signs in search of meaning. A form of visual poetry, reminicent in its arcane mark-making of that of the Franco-Belgian artist Henri Michaux, his appropriation of calligraphy--a point where art and writing become indivisible--creates something new in the interstices between both. Twombly never asserts; rather, his paintings are an intuitive exploration. He is frequently described as a "graffiti" artist, but that is too narrow and speaks simply of a style rather than philosophical content. Language, and its inherent inability to articulate, are what concern him, as much as experiments in the application of paint.


For Twombly, just as for Beckett, there is a great compulsion to find a means of expression, but an awareness of the near impossibility of doing so. He once said of his work: "It's not described, it's happening ... The line is the feeling." Twombly's paintings are essentially about process, investigation and discovery, hesitant diagrams that attempt to chart intellectual and emotional experience.

"And what is it you do?" Jackson Pollock asked the younger painter on each of the four occasions that they met in 1956, when Pollock was considered to be the high priest of modern American painting. Twombly's enormous body of work, with its scratches, scribbles and frenetic lines, can now be seen as a subversion of the dominance of abstract expressionism and Pollock's macholoops and swirls of paint. Here was the artist not so much as hero, but as errant schoolboy, scribbling in lessons and writing "fuck" on the schoolyard wall. Twombly understood that in the modern world there can be no dogmatic certainty, just as Adorno had asserted the impossibility of lyrical poetry after the Holocaust.

Born in Lexington, Virginia in 1928, Twombly studied in Boston, Washington, Lexington and then New York. It was there that he met Robert Rauschenberg at the Art Students League in 1950. Later he attended the influential Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he studied under Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. A number of things led to his interest in calligraphy: the influence of Motherwell, and that of the surrealists, with their investigations into automatic writing and the nature of chance, along with his conscription as a cryptographer into the US army, where he studied and deciphered code.


Influenced by his travels in North Africa, the early paintings in this major retrospective of Twombly's work at Tate Modern, such as Min-Oe, emphasise a fascination with architectonic forms as well as classical, archaeological and tribal art acts. They recall the work of artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti. His untitled sculptures--makeshift bits of wood lashed together with strips of dirty cloth and string--look like African festishes, but show the influence of Rauschenberg, that guru of detritus, with whom he travelled during 1952- 53. …