The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue
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Twombly’s Sophistication

Roland Barthes found so intoxicating Cy Twombly’s “indolent” art of barely legible often obscene scratches and scrawls, scribbled graffiti markings loitering amid often brilliant smears of finger-applied color, that the critic in his last years, his friend and translator Richard Howard tells us, took up drawing and painting (gathered in a book published in Italy). Barthes was inspired by Twombly’s own embrace of “’infantile’ gestures, untethered by any allegiance to gender or to erotic choice,” in Howard’s words.1 If, as Barthes says, his perennial problem is “to outsmart mastery,” in Twombly’s canvases Barthes found ecstatic enactment of the pleasure of outwitting meaning and mastery.2 He calls the painter’s acts of making “entirely free from aggressiveness”—for instance, the painter’s meandering line “has no goal, no model, no exigencies… How could one ‘correct oneself’ when there is no drawing master? It follows that any sort of aggressiveness would be somehow pointless.”3

Barthes’s two essays on Twombly are of course benchmarks in the critical corpus. Their critical vocabulary—“indolence,” ”gauche,” “negligence,” “perversions” and “excesses”—not only celebrates the freedom—perhaps the utopia—enjoyed in the absence of a “drawing master”—but also is redolent of the author’s very French aestheticism. And that is a very un-American stance. Which is to say that Twombly’s career constitutes a chapter in the turbulent history of “American sophistication,” a phrase in quotes to signify its oxymoronic status, its fraught and ambivalent career as a quality craved and feared in Nature’s Nation. Consider Richard Serra’s comments in 1995 during a roundtable on Twombly: “He doesn’t present an image; he evokes a sensuality. … There is nothing in the American grain like that. … Americans are much more heavy-handed, much more flat-footed, much more aggressive…. It is very lyrical, and very open and very delicate.” Serra admits: “You are embarrassed for liking them as much as you like a Watteau & Fragonard.”4

Implicitly ratifying endemic American unease with the sophisticated, Serra relocates Twombly from where he evidently doesn’t fit—the rough US—and deposits him at the delicate drawing rooms of 18th century Europe. This geography makes sense: after all, sophistication is a European, mostly an Italian invention; its epochal invocation is as sprezzatura—behavior at court built upon an oxymoronic logic of diligent negligence, the art of concealing artfulness under the artifice of effortless ease. Coined by Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier of 1528, the word remains current (fashion advisers on the internet love to say the word) and in all but name suffuses Barthes evocation of Twombly’s dandyism. This stance extends, says Barthes, to Twombly’s relation to the Western high culture the famously bookish painter raids for his titles and fragments of quotations. The words he scrawls on canvas, say, “APOLLO” or “OLYMPIA”—“are the fragments of an indolence, and this makes them extremely elegant.”5 Precisely because these titles appear only as clumsily lettered names, Twombly on his canvases is in effect a literal and figurative name-dropper. The latter implication is discernible when Barthes says that “VIRGIL” in a Twombly work functions as a name not simply for classical poetry but also as a “reference” for an aristocratic social class—English school boys at Latin. “This is what culture is for” Twombly: “an indulgence, a memory, an irony, a posture, the gesture of a dandy.”6

At this point, to American ears, this dandy sounds downright decadent, even louche, suspicions that were ignited in response to the notorious 1966 Vogue photo-shoot of Twombly en famille at their palazzo in Rome on via Monserrato. The Vogue episode has been described as a setback for his career (says Nicholas Cullinan), for it confirmed in life unease about his art—“too elegant, too effete, too refined,” to borrow Kirk Varnedoe’s summary of an aspect of his artistic reputation.”7 The Vogue spread (shot by the legendary Horst) may have been “compromising” but it was also a brilliant translation into living space of what one encounters on the canvases—an elegance set free of conventional notions of fastidiousness or refinement, founded instead on untidy insouciance: a white-suited Twombly lounging in patrician poise amid the casual chaos of disordered grandeur, with pieces of Roman statuary scattered on floor and tables, various canvases of his either hanging or propped against walls, to serve as gorgeous wallpaper. A retrospective discussion in Nest sums it up briskly as the “the birth of a new style of interior decoration.” And a recent observer writes:

Simply put, Twombly had taken on a role deemed acceptable for a gay but distasteful for a serious artist; he had come out as a decorator. This was all the more disappointing given the hope that Twombly would take up Pollock’s cocksure legacy cut short.8

The glib art history here is not entirely amiss. Several critics have argued that the Vogue shoot of ’66 and the fiasco of his Castelli show in ’64 helped produce in the late sixties and early seventies the large “blackboard” paintings with their famous manic endless yet exhilarating loops, works allegedly penitent and Puritanical, homespun ‘American.’ The master of anti-mastery was now confined to the classroom, enacting “the errant pupil’s atonement,” remarked Arthur Danto.9

Such is art history under the regime of “American sophistication” at its most anxious. In Twombly’s case this omits the complexity he actually achieved within sophistication: a deliberate awkwardness—he trained himself to draw left-handed to replace art school fluency—that allowed his nonchalance to fashion messy new shapes of elegance: they look “so casually made as to appear virtually by chance,” to borrow a phrase of Richard Shiff’s.10

  1. Howard, Richard, Paper Trail: Selected Prose, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2004, p. 276.
  2. Barthes, Roland, The Neutral. Translated by Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. Columbia University Press, New York, 2005, p. 7.
  3. Barthes, Roland, "Non Multa Sed Multum." Translated by Henry Martin. Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper. Schirmer/Mosel/Whitney, New York, 2016, p. 39.
  4. Varnedoe, Kirk, Francesco Clemente, Brice Marden and Richard Serra. Cy Twombly: An Artist’s Artist." RES:Anthropology and Aesthetics 28 (autumn 1995), p. 174.
  5. Barthes, Roland, "Non Multa Sed Multum," pp. 25, 24.
  6. Barthes, Roland, "Non Multa Sed Multum," p. 28.
  7. Varnedoe, 173.
  8. De Looz, Pierre Alexandre. "Cy Twombly 1966: From Vogue to Nest: 032c Activates the Secret History of Cy Twombly by Horst P. Horst" (online)
  9. Danto, Arthur, "Scenes of an Ideal Friendship," Artforum 50:3 (November, 2011), p. 215.
  10. Shiff, Richard, "Reality by Chance," Ars Semiotica 37:3-4 (2014), p. 206.


Ross Posnock

Ross Posnock teaches American literature and culture at Columbia and is writing a book on American Sophistication in the 1920s and 1950s.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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