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

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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.

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