The Hand’s Becoming: Recent Art Criticism and Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly: Roman Notes (1970)

Simon Sharma has observed that “I have always thought ‘Twombly’ ought to be (if it isn’t already) a verb.” Roland Barthes claimed that Twombly’s work “does not derive from a concept (mark) but from an activity (marking). . . .” adding that the viewer sees “the hand’s becoming. . . . With each stroke [Twombly] blows up the museum.”

Yet many recent reviews of his exhibition In Beauty It is Finished at Gagosian Gallery describe Twombly’s work in strikingly static, verb-starved language. For instance, in her New York Times review, Roberta Smith describes Twombly’s work this way:

At some point toward the middle of the show oil paint settles in to stay, along with subjects like flowers and buds. Twombly is at his most free. In the largest work in the show, “Untitled (Gaeta)” from 1989, he paints mostly with his fingers, creating a small mountain of blacks and violets mixed with white. Their opulence is gorgeous, funny and not a little scatological.

The verbs are invisible, with Twombly merely “painting” and “creating” and the key terms naming colors and forms. The final sentence features a hazy, adjective-y noun, itself qualified by 3 adjectives. The description is functional, naming what’s there, but certainly does not convey the dynamic quality of the work or its impact on the viewer.

John Yau’s Hyperallergic review comes at the work by engaging the myths and literature referenced by Twombly’s titles or within the works. It’s a compelling angle, as many critics skip over the literary references (which is understandable, given the works’ relative lack of specific imagery). But beyond this extremely helpful decoding, Yau’s work is mostly an index finger, pointing at the specific elements of each work:

In the two drawings “Untitled (Toilet of Venere)” (1988), Twombly turns his attention to the classical subject of Venus gazing into a mirror held by Cupid, thus linking beauty and erotic love. Artists who dealt with this subject include Titian, Diego Velasquez, Peter Paul Rubens, François Boucher, and Twombly’s lifelong friend Robert Rauschenberg in the silkscreen “Persimmon” (1964), which incorporates Rubens’ oil painting “Venus at the Mirror” (1615).

Instead of depicting Venus looking into a mirror, however, Twombly stapled a smaller sheet of drawing paper to a larger one, creating a rectangle within a rectangle, or mirror. Onto this sheet of paper he wrote the work’s title and the date. In the space between the edge of the stapled paper and the larger sheet’s border, Twombly has painted the linear outline of a flower — a flower that in some cases seems to have erased itself, leaving behind a lavish smudge. Don’t the smudges suggest crushed flowers and scent? Along the bottom edge of the stapled sheet, Twombly depicts oversized versions of female sex organs in pinks, magentas, and fuchsias. Has Venus left behind this wet stain on a mirror? It evokes both sight and touch.

Like Smith, Yau’s verbs are functional: “painted,” “creating,” and “depicts.” The rest of the passage inventories the painting, informing us that the painting as a whole rather passively “evokes both sight and touch.” Reduced to these terms, the sum feels less than the whole.

In his review at Vulture, Jerry Saltz takes an entirely different approach. He does not address individual works, but catalogues specific details of many works:

Twombly’s fevered phosphorescent blooms of runny jellyfish chrysanthemums with elongated, pulpy, tentacle-like sacks dripping down; his iridescent storms of inchoate cryptographic scribbles, floral scrawls, jittery jutting lines; pustules rising and falling like raw nerve endings, flying vagina dentata, plaited anuses, priapic phalli spouting involuntarily or drooping defenseless, and what his closest reader, MoMA’s late Kirk Varnedoe, called “anteater tongues” — all of it metamorphosed into my own inner Kama Sutra of urge. Sensory networks lit up; a new barometer fluctuated. It was abstract yet explicitly erotic.

Fascinating: Saltz seems to intuit that naming is not enough: the expansive list sentence keeps trying to outdo itself with imagery that’s “graphic” in every sense of the word (compare Saltz’s “flying vagina dentata” to Yau’s clinical “female sex organs”) as well as assonance and alliteration.  The main verb—“metamorphosed”—is certainly more accurate and compelling than “depict,” but the true verb magic here happens in the present participles, each vivid and vigorous: “dripping . . . jutting . . .  rising and falling . . . flying . . . spouting . . . drooping. . . .” As a result, the sentence becomes the verbal analogue of the work itself.

There are, of course, limitations to Saltz’s approach. It’s impressionistic and perhaps a bit indulgent. But of the three approaches surveyed here, it’s by far the most respectful of Twombly’s own aesthetic exuberance.


Of Verbs and Vision: William Hazlitt’s Art Criticism

hb_24.45.1.jpgNicolas Poussin: Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (1658)

One remarkable aspect of William Hazlitt’s art criticism is how he uses verbs to invigorate  and intensify his description of artworks. Contemporary critics stand to learn a lot from him in this regard. For instance, here’s a bit of his description of Nicolas Poussin’s painting, Blind Orion in Search of the Rising Sun (1658):

He is represented setting out on his journey, with men on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the clouds greeting him. He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, as if just awaked out of sleep, or uncertain of his way; ––you see his blindness, though his back is turned.

Of course, it could be argued that he’s merely describing a figure, which in “real life” would be exerting itself in accordance with these verbs. Yet Hazlitt does not reserve verbs for the self-evidently animate:

Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews, the ‘grey dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,’and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean.  

Mist almost begs to be described in passive terms, yet here mists “rise” and “veil the sides of the green forest” and even the quote from Milton (Paradise Lost, bk VII) animates the sky and stars.

Hazlitt concludes:

Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. It breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles: the whole is, like the principal figure in it, ‘a forerunner of the dawn.’ The same atmosphere tinges and imbues every object, the same dull light ‘shadowy sets off’ the face of nature: one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms pervades the painter’s canvas, and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.

I’m especially interested in Hazlitt’s description of how the painting hits the viewer: “we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.” I’d argue that this serves as an analog for how Hazlitt’s masterful use of verbs works upon the reader. Nouns name and contain; they assign a static identity to things, rendering them somewhat passive. But verbs are dynamic and visceral; we feel them. When applied to a painting, they help it push beyond its frame.

Compare all this to a passage from a recent review of contemporary figurative painting (artist/work/reviewer omitted):

. . . a nearly six-foot-high canvas featuring two young men on a sofa, one with his head in the other’s lap, and a young woman sitting on a patterned carpet on the floor, gazing absently beyond the picture plane. The scene seems almost irradiated, with various components rendered in glowing oranges and pinks, and a T-shirt in blinding white. Looking closely, one notices that the faces are composed of mere suggestions: a few swift strokes add up to a likeness. Despite an atmosphere of relative contentment, things in L_____’s works often feel impermanent. Edges blend and passages are wiped or scraped away to reveal the canvas underneath. Such techniques convey the sense of fading memories.

The description is entirely serviceable, but any capacity the artwork might have to stagger or stun or entice the viewer is blunted by the verb-starved language.  The prepositions mark missed opportunities for compelling verb work; most of the actual verbs are art-review throwaways: “featuring,” ”rendered,” “composed.” The remaining verbs are a matter of the artist’s technique: “blend” and “scraped away.” Perhaps the most telling is the ghost of a viewer, masquerading as an abstract “one” who merely “notices.”—worlds away from  being “thrown back upon the first integrity of things.”

“Along the reaches of my nerve”: On Anne Truitt and Artistic Facility


At first, it may seem strange that facility and facile are cognate, the former connoting technical excellence, the latter, superficiality. But many artists learn the connection the hard way, discovering that that for which they fought—mastery of their medium and its techniques—comes at a cost: that facility tempts one to be facile; to ignore the rough edges of experience and to overlook the irregular and unpredictable; to name or render too tidily that which resists quick categorization.

As a result, many artists renounce their early mastery, and in some cases actively seek ways to hinder it.  For instance, after working for a couple decades in monochromatic, hard-edged minimalism, painter Brice Marden started painting with long sticks, which “destabilized his natural facility,” according to Roberta Smith, and helped him break out of stale habits that he’d fallen into. And critic and theorist Edward Said points out that one of the hallmarks of “the late style” in artists, is its “tears and fissures,” which testify to “finite powerlessness” of the artist. It’s this lack of facility that gives late works their power.

For some time on this blog, I’ve been collecting examples of artists who resist or renounce technique. For instance, Thelonious Monk played with the flats of fingers, to the chagrin of your childhood piano teacher. Fairfield Porter praised Jane Freilicher’s “clumsiness”; James Schuyler, in turn, called it an essential quality of Porter’s work. And Schuyler himself built a poetics out of search and stumble:

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My latest encounter with artistic resistance to technique comes from an unexpected source: Anne Truitt.  I recently went to see her stunning show currently display in the tower of the National Gallery of Art.  In preparation for my visit, I re-read Truitt’s book, Daybook, a collection of journal entries from 1973-1980, and I came across this fascinating passage from June, 1978:  

The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadily along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.  As in any profession, facility develops. In most this is a decided advantage, and so it is with the actual facture of art; I notice with interest that my hand is more deft, lighter, as I grow more experienced.  But I find that I have to resist the temptation to fall into the same kind of pleasurable relaxation I once enjoyed with clay. I have in some subtle sense to fight my hand if I am to grow along the reaches of my nerve. (my emphasis)

Earlier in Daybook, Truitt worries that she’s “not good enough to be an artist,” especially given the seeming certainty with which others use the term to describe themselves. But in this passage, she comes to realize that the “idolatry” involved in such certainty is the opposite of being an artist. It’s not a matter of being “good enough,” but open enough, vulnerable enough to forego technical excellence—to “fight the hand”— let go of self-limiting labels, and embrace uncertainty.


Not Without Purpose: The Double Negative from Chaucer to Present

Though often considered a grammatical faux pas, double negatives are not unexampled in literature. For instance, defending their use in what he calls “the American language,” H. L. Mencken notes that Chaucer “used them with utmost freedom” in The Canterbury Tales, citing these lines:

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde

In al his lyf unto no maner wight


[He never yet no vileness didn’t say

In all his life to no manner of man]

Google tells me that Shakespeare uses double negatives often, for instance in “As You Like It,” where Celia says “I cannot go no further.” And Paradise Lost abounds in double negatives, including this one, coming out of the mouth of the Almighty Himself, instructing Michael on how to boot the “sinful pair” out of paradise:

Without remorse drive out the sinful Pair,

From hallowd ground th’ unholie, and denounce

To them and to thir Progenie from thence

Perpetual banishment. Yet least they faint

At the sad Sentence rigorously urg’d,

For I behold them softn’d and with tears

Bewailing thir excess, all terror hide.

If patiently thy bidding they obey,

Dismiss them not disconsolate; reveale

To Adam what shall come in future dayes,

As I shall thee enlighten, intermix

My Cov’nant in the womans seed renewd;

So send them forth, though sorrowing, yet in peace… (my emphasis)

Allow me to justify God’s grammatical ways to humankind: it’s clear in this context that the double negative is not inappropriate. God is telling Michael to go easy—but not too easy—on the pair; He wants them to be neither “consoled” nor “disconsoled,” but somewhere in between: “not disconsolate.”

Then there’s this symphony of negatives from the opening four lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort”:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

The negatives here culminate in the striking phrase that the speaker can “not choose not to be.” Hamlet seems decisive by comparison. This strikes me as a completely appropriate way to represent spiritual affliction—”pitched past grief,” as Hopkins puts in another of the “Terrible” sonnets—a loss of agency wherein the most one can do is not not exist. Extremity of situation calls for extremity of language.

Bringing things to the present: I recently read Cheryl Merrill’s essay “Wild Life,” included in the anthology Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. Merrill is interested in how we see “the nonhuman” other; her essay attempts to nudge us away from our all-too-human-centered ways of understanding “wild life.” In a brief, prose-poem-like section of the essay, Merrill looks into the face of an elephant.

I look into a face unlike mine, yet a face with a mouth, a nose, two ears and two eyes, recognizable as a face.

Her eyes, like mine, are protected by bony sockets and eyelashes and eyelids and tears.  Her eyes, like mine, sit high on her skull and light the darkness within.

The face that is like mine looks back at me.

Three-inch lashes cast shadows down her cheeks.  She blinks and her lashes sweep against her skin like small brooms.

Each of the more than 200 lashes of my eye is shed every 3 to 6 months.  Has anyone ever done research on the shed rate of elephant eyelashes?

I could. I could stand here forever, peering into an iris that has sun flecks and shadows in it.

The face that is not unlike mine looks back at me.   (my emphasis)

I love the modulation from “unlike mine” to “like mine” to “not unlike mine.” “Unlike mine” makes elephant purely other, unrelated to her human viewer. “Like mine” completely eliminates otherness, reducing the elephant to a human analogue.  “Not unlike mine” masterfully occupies the uneasy but essential space between—neither exoticism nor anthropomorphism, but acknowledgement. 


A Pathless Way: Sappho’s Poetic Bewilderment

I recently came across this insightful and suggestive essay by Emilia Phillips, in which she explores “the poetics of bewilderment” as discussed by Fanny Howe, Rebecca Solnit, and Kaveh Akbar. Building on Solnit’s’s and Akbar’s observations, Phillips comments on the possible poetic virtues of bewilderment:

[T]o be lost is to be fully present. To be bewildered is to have the senses confused so much so that they are fully heightened, alive…

[Bewilderment] allows the poem to have an unknown, but soon discovered, emotional effect on you as either the poet or the reader. It doesn’t set out into the world with set expectations, only a hot, molten glass globe of hope inside one’s chest.

The word itself is resonant, suggesting being lost or led astray, into the wilds/woods, without the guidance of pre-established paths. In a pathless wilderness, one has to find—or more accurately, make—one’s way step by step. Such a situation calls for awareness, care, and risk, all attended by a surrender to unknowing. For the poet, the parallels are clear: this is the fecund yet disorienting space where language becomes estranged from the poet, where each word feels spoken/written as if for the first time. Perhaps Rimbaud’s famous pronouncement is spoken from this place:  “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense and systematic derangement of all the senses.”

Poetic bewilderment is probably as old as poetry’s first word, but an early discussion can be found in “On the Sublime” by Longinus, written around 100 CE. Longinus goes beyond traditional discussion of rhetoric, focusing instead on writing that brings about “not persuasion, but transport” in its audience. “On the Sublime” is the source for the famous long fragment from Sappho, “He seems to me equal to the gods,” and it’s Longinus’s analysis of that fragment that’s relevant to our discussion:

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Longinus comments:

Are you not amazed how at one instant she summons, as though they were all alien from herself and dispersed, soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, color? Uniting contradictions, she is, at one and the same time, hot and cold, in her senses and out of her mind, for she is either terrified or at the point of death.

Here bewilderment knocks the language off its grammatical rails, as the speaker drops articles and pronouns:

no: tongue breaks and thin

fire is racing under skin

and in eyes no sight and drumming

fills ears

The anaphoric “ands” suggest simultaneity, or at least some kind of temporal disturbance—a disturbance that’s enhanced by the tortured inversions and self-correction:

greener than grass

I am and dead — or almost

I seem to me.

The speaker loses herself, as her sense organs become estranged from their function—”in eyes no sight”—and her consciousness splits in two: “I seem to me.” This passage resonates with Rebecca Solnit’s observation, cited in Phillips’s piece: “To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.”

Importantly, Sappho not only portrays bewilderment, but allows the reader to experience it, especially in the jumps and swerves of her language. Which brings me to my own present bewilderment. Reading over what I’ve written, I sense a certain ambiguity:  where to locate bewilderment—the poet, the poem, or the reader? Can we tweak Frost’s saying about tears and surprise: “No bewilderment in the writer, no bewilderment in the reader”?

There’s no such thing as ‘the’ essay: Quotations and conjectures

A good epigraph is an excess, something that sloshed over the rim of the essay.

An essay, like an organism, is a provisional order, defined by its eccentricities and accidents—a node through which matter and energy pass.

“Essay” has a history, and is diverse and adaptable, like any vital genre.

The essay is the only literary form which confesses, in its very name, that the rash act known as writing is really a leap in the dark. —GK Chesterton

Patricia Hampl on Montaigne’s near-fatal fall from his horse: “The personal essay was born from that smack upside the head.”

A lesson?— —I just read a mess of an essay comparing two poems—not one compelling or persuasive point. Was nevertheless enlightened thereby.

Borges revolutionized our conception of both the story and the essay by blending and bewildering them. —William Gass

Whatever passes through [the essay], it is never that. It remains itself and continues so, pure motion.  —William Carlos Williams

Fallibility is the essence of the essay: fallibility fuels the effort and shapes the form.

There’s no such thing as “the” essay. There are only essays. The essay’s essence is its lack of one—its rejection of the definite article.

A Note on Poetry’s Abstract Turn (Part 1)

“Go in fear of abstractions,”  admonished Ezra Pound, and most poets, regardless of school or aesthetic, have heeded his word. It seems almost self-evident: Poetry, we assume, trucks in specifics, in perceptual or emotional realism. When applied to a poem, the descriptor “abstract” (or its synonyms: abstruse, indefinite, or vague) carries with it a judgment, suggesting that it somehow isn’t doing its job, that it’s not really a poem.

Yet so many poets have used abstract language to great effect. Take for instance this passage from Shakespeare’s underappreciated poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” In the poem, the phoenix and the turtle dove have vanished in the fire of their love made literal, having “fled… / In a mutual flame from hence.” The poem does its best to describe the word-resistant fusion of their two essences:

Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason, in personified form, enters the poem and tries to make sense of the scene—and fails:

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded. . . .

As poet J. V. Cunningham has observed, much of what makes this poem successful is the collision of chilly, scholastic dicton with passionate, extra-rational circumstance: love. In a sense, the abstract diction is an ethical choice: it preserves the essential mystery of the subject.

Turning to another poet who’s known for addressing, in poem after poem, the complications of love, passion, and lust, Robert Creeley also employs abstract language to describe intense emotional experience. Consider a few lines from “For Love.” It’s a meta-love poem, talking about talking about love—or the difficulty of speaking of it. It begins:

Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all

that I know derives
from what it teaches me.
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,

different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away.

As the speaker allows himself to be drawn into the tangle of expression, he resorts, surprisingly, to abstract language:

Nothing says anything
but that which it wishes
would come true. . .

The abstraction not only represents the nameless, unaccountable, and subterranean forces of love, but also a loss of agency, the surrendering of self to emotion and, more importantly, to language itself. Where “I” should be, there’s “nothing,” and what “nothing” says somehow evades the specificity that poets are supposed to covet: a wished-for “anything.” Language itself becomes the agent. As Creeley put it in a statement for the Patterson Society,

A poem is a peculiar instance of language’s uses, and goes well beyond the man writing—finally to the anonymity of any song. In this sense it may be that a poet works toward a final obliteration of himself, making that all the song—at last free of his own time and place. . . .

In both cases, the abstract turn indicates an encounter with limits: for Shakespeare, it is the limits of rational language; for Creeley, it is an acknowledgement the subject’s limitations, and its subsequent yielding of the initiative to words, to song.