Magazine article Artforum International

"Cy Twombly: The Sculpture"

Magazine article Artforum International

"Cy Twombly: The Sculpture"

Article excerpt


"One must desire the ultimate essence even if it is 'contaminated,"' Cy Twombly proclaimed in a rare published statement in 1957. The year is significant, for he had just begun a twenty-year leave from sculpture to focus on painting. This shift is mirrored in the aphorism itself, as it slides from "essence," the territory of Twombly's sculpture, to "contamination," which has more to do with his painting. To put it another way, Twombly's sculptures have the purity that his paintings always seem to defile.

Of course, that states the opposition too strongly. Twombly's sculptures are frontal in their address, making pictures in the air. They often share the iconography of his paintings, as the artist's 1994 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York made clear. And they incorporate the secondary hardware of painting--picture wire, eye screws, nails, framing strips, paint buckets, storage crates-- as if admitting their ancillary status.

The virtue of this first major retrospective of Twombly's sculpture, curated by Katharina Schmidt at the Kunstmuseum Basel and now on view at the Menil Collection in Houston, is that the sculptures, sixty-six of them, are on their own and come into their own, emerging as a fundamentally different enterprise from the paintings.

In fact, the sculptures execute a neat reversal on the paintings, one that Christian Klemm pinpoints in an essay for the catalogue. In the paintings, the color white provides a ground for gritty, energetic graffiti; in the sculptures, it coats the object-signs and "transports them into the gravity-free, light-filled space of poetic association." To imagine this space, think of the artificial flower that Mondrian painted white and posted in the foyer of his Paris studio to signal that the visitor was entering another realm. (Does Twombly know Andre Kertesz's photograph of the painted bloom?)

The first works had an interactive complexity that Robert Rauschenberg ran with but Twombly soon abandoned. Untitled, 1954, one of the few early sculptures extant, is all mirrors and swinging parts. Coming first in the exhibition, it made everything that followed seem eerily still--a parade of mute chariots, panpipes, plants, burial mounds, abstract figures, diverse monuments, geometrical theorems. In representing an ancient Mediterranean, Twombly's sculptures make a civilization of their own.

Two caveats: It seems wrong to say "sculptures," for there is no literal sculpting (carving) here, and very little modeling either, but only binding, trussing, nailing, pinning, wedging, balancing, twisting, snapping, and crumpling. And it seems wrong to say "representing," for these objects (when they work) suspend disbelief, putting us in the presence not just of an image but somehow of the thing itself. To borrow the title of Kendall Walton's recent treatise on aesthetics, Twombly's three-dimensional work is "mimesis as make-believe": It partakes of the child's-play impulse to suspend disbelief. What makes the trick work is that the thing itself is often a representation--a figurine, toy, relic, or fossil--so all Twombly needs to provide is the illusion of a model boat, not a real boat. …

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