06 July 2011

Cy Twombly

Here's Charles Olson on Cy Twombly, in full, from 1952. Twombly's art has been super important to me over the years, and each time I read this short article I find something new and alive...

Here's Olson:

There came a man who dealt with whiteness. And with space. He was an American. And perhaps his genius lay most in innocence rather than in the candor now necessary. In any case, he was not understood.

What seems clear is, that two dimensions as surface for plastic attack is once more prime. And with all perspective as aid gone, the whole Renaissance. Even line gone. And maybe color as too easy.

The allure—the light—had better be in any painted, drawn, cut or carved thing without use or reference of any object. Any narrative too, for that matter. And that one it has not been our habit to regard as one, as either an object or a narrative. Say it is not one. But is is surely the way—the tao—that two dimensions is now being given back the job.

Take it flatly, a plane. On it, how can a man throw his shadow, make this the illumination of his experience, how put his weight exactly—there? (In my business it comes out how, by alphabetic letters, such signs and their syllables, how to make them not sounds but my sounds, my—what are not any more sounds than is a painter's objects or a dancer's movements—my "voice"; to say what I got to say, if it says anything; and it can only to the degree that, like a plane, it is not plane at all.) How make that place, the two dimensions, be all—from a point to any dimension?

It was Twombly, and wholly in some other reference, in fact to how a lake we know in common afforded him about what Tao Yuan-Ming's east hedge was, who gave me suddenly, as he talked of contemplation, the sense of what architecture now had to do with. 

That is, I knew sculpture was buried, was become the art underneath us all, had gone down to be our sign—by a sort of inverted archeology—that each of us had now to come up live, like those stone images scholars are digging up in so many places; that only by ourselves can we find out—by no outside medium or means whatsoever—the round all men have been rifled of. And I knew this was, to put it quickly, traction in dance, was Pierre Boulez in music, was a like combination of a man's own documentation and his conjecture in the art of narrative. But I didn't know, until that instant, as the two of us were looking at a new large black-and-white canvas of Twombly's, what use architecture had now to be.

I was taking exception to this particular painting. I thought that here Twombly had been tempted, that he had slipped off the wire any of us in all of the arts walk over space on these days, that he had gone into the whiteness as that other man had—as an American stands especially in danger of, candor is still such a ruthless reality on the other side of despair, or still seems ruthless in the face of humanism and confronted by the will of that reality with which artists can have nothing to do, the will despair breeds and which is, god save us, the will by which most of our fellow men manage to get through. An artist has to cross over.

I knew what Twombly was fighting for, even in this canvas. It is what he is always trying to get down, what he so often does so succeed in getting in to what he is confronted by—into that rectangle—that honor & elegance are here once more present in the act of paint.

I was just then, just when in this particular canvas I didn't see it—or saw more that I needed to see, saw what is death to see, the innocence of it is such a dissolve—when Twombly himself had, by going too far not gone far enough (that is, as a painter, so confined, had not gone far enough) had, in fact, gone outside himself, had, as so many most able men have gone outside the canvas gone to technique—when, in this one case, Twombly had tried to solve it outside the place where he almost every time does battle it out (he is that pure), look at his canvases...

or for that matter his sculptures, which are properly made up from what wire, bone, stone, iron, wood he picks up, and so do respect facts, the accidents of same

(this is the twin methodology, this is documentation, these sculptures of his also show how accurate his penetration of the reality bearing on us is: these are the artifacts he finds surrounding himself in the same diggings out of which he is digging himself

what I live about Twombly is this sense of gets that his apprehension—his tien is buried to the hips, to the neck, if you like

the dug up stone figures, the thrown down glyphs, the old sorells in sheep dirt in caves, the flaking iron—these are his paintings

I underline his paintings to distinguish them from the objects picked up, the sculptures, simply, that all document is not the equal of a man's life, what he bears inside himself and makes speak directly: this is only—it needs now to be underlined—what he is inside himself and nothing outside, no facts, only his own acts make it

Suddenly I understood, as the two of us were there inside that too small room in that too modern building jutting out over that lake which we both had bent our art around, that architecture had no reason any longer at all to confine space, that it was we who were confined, that architecture, like sculpture, had gone elsewhere. And it occurred to me, that a billboard made more sense, That here, too, man had given back his oldest job, that if he was buried, he was also all that came between the light. 

And so, if Twombly does make canvases boldly behave as two dimensions and yet makes forces present which at least have been absent since the mural of the death of Adam was painted at Arezzo, look for cause

look for it in yourself,
in what you have lost

and let this man tell you,
there is nothing to fear, you put your hand up, and by this

other sort of will, you take away any sword that hangs by a hair over you, or any rotted apple

you can do it, because you are the only
round thing left, whatever the dirt
squeezing you, or horses hooves

The writing here reads: we are never as thin as the yellow flower because of the sun.

And the fable? The seed plated with that Adam in his mouth. 

And the wood of the tree which grew? how would you carve it otherwise than in like dimensions, and like candor? 


  1. where is this from ? i'd like to gather a list of all olson's twombly references...

  2. Hi Tom:

    You can find this one in Olson's Collected Prose. And I posted the whole thing, actually, so this is the extent of it. Short and sweet!


  3. Thank you for a terrific article. You have helped me understand more.