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Cy Twombly, “Treatise on the Veil (Second Version)” (1970) (all photos by Graham S. Haber, 2014. © Cy Twombly Foundation)

A drawing/collage that Cy Twombly made on May 27, 1970, includes three disparate objects: a reproduction of his large, multi-panel painting, “Treatise on the Veil” (1968); a sheet of paper whose dimensions echoed the reproduction, with vertical creases made by folding; and another sheet containing his handwritten signature and the phrase “Study for Veil,” along with the stamped date and the number 3 written inside a stamp containing the artist’s name.

On display in the exhibition, Cy Twombly: Treatise on the Veil at the Morgan Library & Museum (September 26, 2014 – January 25, 2015), are nine more drawings that the artist made on May 27th and 28th, in which he alludes to his multi-panel painting by using scotch tape to attach five or six similarly-sized, vertical strips of paper to a larger sheet. In contrast to the painting, where the panels are abutted together, the strips are spaced apart. The larger sheets come in different colors, including cream, blue and brown. In two additional drawing/collages on the subject of the veil, done at later dates, Twombly revisits the subject.

Together, the ten drawing/collages read as a diary-like sequence, with the tenth being a pencil drawing with no collage or color, dated May 28, 1970, and numbered 11, suggesting that Twombly might not have been satisfied with everything he did. The two additional drawing/collages, which are quite different from the first ten, form a coda. The strips of paper in the dated sequence give the drawing/collages a sculptural feel. The drawings, curiously, led him to make “Treatise on the Veil (Second Version)” (1970), a single painting nearly thirty-five feet in length. It seems as if, in rethinking the spacing of the strips, Twombly decided to do the opposite and make a single painting.

Cy Twombly, “Untitled” (1970)

Between 1966 and 71, Twombly made a number of paintings, which are referred to as the ”blackboard paintings” in which the artist often used gray, oil-based house paint to cover the surface, over which he drew with a white crayon. Done near the end of this period, “Treatise on the Veil (Second Version)” is, because of its size, seldom exhibited.

Presented here with the suite of twelve drawings, I was struck by Twombly’s acute sensitivity to commonplace materials (different kinds of tape, crayon, colored pencil and colored paper) and forms of mark making (illegible scribble, stamping, diagrammatic drawing and measuring). Even in what some observers have described as the artist’s most minimal period, one becomes aware of the hyperawareness informing each decision, whether in the placement of the strips, the density of the marks covering them, or the cluster of continuous, wavering lines traversing the entire length of the canvas, evoking a delicate but incessant musical score.

In a larger, historical context, Twombly rejected the idea that abstract art should aspire to objectivity just as many were constructing a highly persuasive narrative that this was painting’s historically determined goal. He had no interest in pictorial purity, visual accessibility, the correct way to apply paint to a surface, or popular culture, which is to say that he didn’t give a damn about Minimalism, Color Field painting or Pop Art. And in 1955, years before these movements emerged, this is how the poet Frank O’Hara understood what Twombly was up to:

His new paintings are drawn, scratched and crayoned over and under the surface with as much attention to esthetic tremors as to artistic excitement.

Later, in the same review, O’Hara wrote:

His admirably esoteric information, every wash or line struggling for survival, particularizes the sentiment. If drawing is as vital to painting as color, Twombly has an ever ready resource for his remarkable feelings.

When is the last time you heard a critic praise an artist or, for that matter, a poet, for possessing “admirably esoteric information” or suggest that one might have “remarkable feelings.” Of course, O’Hara and the poets he was associated with – John Ashbery, James Schuyler and Barbara Guest – weren’t exactly slouches when it came to using esoteric information in their work.

Cy Twombly, “Untitled” (28 May, 1970)

What Twombly and these poets understood was that timelessness was a sham, that one lived in time and could neither escape its clutches nor step outside of its pull. And yet, despite knowing this, in their best work all of them remained open and, in a deep sense, were simultaneously impulsive and concentrated.

In Twombly’s case, every scribble and scrawl feels absolutely necessary. This is how the drawings in the exhibition came across, and I could only marvel at them. Through the placement of the five or six strips of paper and the density of marks covering them, as well as the folding or tearing of the bottom edge, Twombly was able to evoke a multiplicity of narratives within the framework of the series’ inspiration, which is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice emerging from the underworld.

Attached by tape at the top, the strips suggest veils, plinths and abstract forms. With the marks covering them going from an all-over density to a few scrawls, one could read them as moving from darkness to light, registering the fated journey undertaken by Orpheus and Eurydice as he tries to lead her out of the underworld. In one drawing, the two strips on the far left side touch each other near their top inside edges, so that they slowly spread apart as they descend. They could be a veil torn apart, or two figures leaning on each other, or an opening between two massive slabs. Twombly was never literal and the rich allusiveness of his work resists a reductive approach or any sense there is a one-to-one correspondence, with this meaning that.

Cy Twombly, “Untitled” (28 May, 1970)

According to the press release put out by the Morgan Library & Museum, there were two sources for both versions of “Treatise on the Veil.” This is the first source:

According to Twombly, both versions of Treatise on the Veil were inspired by a musical piece by French composer Pierre Henry (b.1927), a pioneer of musique concrète, a type of music that incorporates non-instrumental sounds recorded on magnetic tape and manipulated. Henry’s 1953 piece, entitled The Veil of Orpheus, features the recording of cloth being torn—a prolonged, seemingly unending sound that impressed Twombly for its embodiment of the concept of duration.

Henry’s composition evoked the journey of Orpheus to the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice. The composer used the recording of tearing fabric to reference the moment at which Orpheus loses his bride forever by transgressing the gods’ command and gazing upon her before leaving Hades.

This is the other source cited in the press release:

Another source mentioned by Twombly is an unidentified photograph of a veiled woman walking by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), an early practitioner of recording human movement through stop-action photography.

The press release put out by the Menil Foundation, when it showed the painting and drawings together for the first time in Cy Twombly: Treatise on the Veil (October 30, 2009 – February 14, 2010), was more explicit about the second source:

The second of two related paintings – the first of which, from 1968, resides at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne – Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) draws its inspiration from the visual mechanics of a late 19th-century photographic study by Eadweard Muybridge. A gift to Twombly from fellow artist and early collaborator Robert Rauschenberg, the photograph records the movements of a veiled bride walking in front of a train.

Rauschenberg’s and Twombly’s interest in stop-action sequences and the recording of time dates back at least to the former’s sequence of five photographs, “Cy + Roman Steps (I-V)” (1952), which shows Twombly entering into the frame from the photograph’s top edge, becoming increasingly larger and closer as he descends the stairs, until the culminating image ends up focusing on his mid-section and crotch.

Cy Twombly, “Untitled” (1972)

How do you get time and sequential movement into a painting? In “Treatise on the Veil (Second Version),” Twombly has written the word “in” near the painting’s left edge and “out” near its right edge, succinctly summing up our time here, as well as suggesting that the painting (or, to be Shakespearean, the world) is a stage one enters and leaves.

A network of crisscrossing, wavering lines traverses the entire painting, starting at the left edge and reaching the right. Twombly periodically frames the tremulous lines within two straight lines, with the first section again starting from the left edge, and the last section seemingly cropped by the right. One both looks at and reads the painting, its changing field of warm gray – like a comforting storm cloud — marked by white lines of different densities, illegible scrawls, numbers, continuities and segments. It is as if there are many lessons to be learned as we enter and exit this work. One lesson is about painting and its capacity to communicate without being literal or spelling everything out.

Cy Twombly: Treatise on the Veil continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Ave, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 25.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian Sonnets (Rain...

9 replies on “Cy Twombly’s Remarkable Treatise”

  1. Here I find myself in an awkward place. Admiring, respecting and often concurring with John Yau’s writing, especially about painting, I feel I cannot agree with much of what was said here on behalf of Cy Twombly’s drawings. Twombly, to me, is the perfect example of sincerity run amok. Two things occur to me whenever I encounter a Twombly and these drawings are no exception: he seems utterly engaged in his thoughts, and yet nothing comes across beyond that cold, blunt fact. The one, clearly unambiguous sense I get from the drawings is that he seems determined to keep his feelings to himself. There are most certainly feelings at work—that much comes across. But the more I study the work, the more I feel I’m on a fool’s errand. Like Kafka’s petitioner before the law, I am told in effect that that I am locked out of what I was led to believe was put there for my edification. And as eloquent and as sensitive John’s reading of the drawings are, I look at the drawings and I remain utterly unconvinced.

  2. If this is what the Art World calls Fine Art and the whole $$$$$$$ Hype you can by it, and be a sucker.I will abstain and Watch it from the side lines, as the Crumbling of all this Non -Sense, called Contemporary Art Fiasco continues…….
    Art MAFIAS controling the market and a few others sold & bought out by special interests groups are running the show….Time will Tell. I think the art that is exemplified from the sixties to the present is a reflection of the american post war mentality that is in Vogue presently as the most powerful empire . So we are suffering from this amnesia of thinking and questioning what is being put on the pedestal of high art.I think the marketing and the Circle that Warhol generated is what was interesting , his art work is to me blaze and does not hold any interest. For me there are more profound Implications and questions regarding the greatness of Warhol’s work .
    ….. but where is the beef…?
    well said Peter Malone. For me a lot of this art work is trash, that the elite finds interesting. You can’t compare to a Picasso,Modigliani, Bacon +++ many others. I would not say that of Stella, Rosenquist,Lichtenstein,Johns, Rauschenberg, Hockney are painters who know how to move paint on a canvas.
    The whole mess…. stems from the DADA joke against the european oligarchy, which back-fired and instead of Dada Art being Rejected by the aristocracy, they liked it, and from that point on e Duchamp and other Dada artists kept applying this formula /philosophy & approach to art making. of this and other artists as well and we have what we have today….. its a long story told in a short phrase….

  3. I see all of Twombly’s work as an attempt at communication but he just doesn’t know how to do that.
    To me,These pieces read as letters.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love his work.

    1. Yes. They are orderly, and as communication their directions and notations are more coherent than his usual randomness. The essay makes this point pretty well. But I still find his work maddeningly obtuse. He shares so little with his viewers, yet not from a minimalist perspective. At least a minimalist shares the phenomenology of the object. To me, Twombly’s work read like footprints that go nowhere. I find him too stingy, though I recognize there are many fellow painters who disagree.

      1. how often in our daily lives does communication fail, with our spouses or parents or boss? every day. but we carry on communicating, sometimes pushing past our failures, often not. if art is sometimes a mirror, twombly’s seems as good an aesthetic, strategy, result as another.

  4. Wow! Tonislav!

    That’s some planet you come from, where a discussion of high art from the late 20th century is a logical moment to hire a house painter. Hmm. Yes–I see the connection now–both situations call for a brush! Sometimes, anyway!

  5. Recently I wrote these notes at the Twombly Collection in Houston.

    “Importance of pre-logical, non-rational impulse, approach to the unknown undriven by order, orthodoxy, or art. Great works in the art museum are not about art. … If there is a difference between intention & accident, what is it? These rough passions of Twombly seem accidental, but then experimental, but then purposeful and imposing; the [wanted] meaning is private, unclear and evanescent. Whatever is not-meaning is also not clear: the edges of the painting seem arbitrary. Meaning is an absence: as though a key was here, then was erased or crossed out poorly, left with traces unreadable and yet not unwritten, and no less intentional or reverent than a Florentine master. … Why do we want coherence from a painting? Why would we trust an artist to provide it?” And two phrases from the paintings themselves: “In despair he drew the colors from his own heart.” And, “in drawing and drawing you his pains are delectable his flames are like water”. [Rumi?].

    Unlike any other artist for me, Twombly is both compelling and opaque. I am so grateful to have found this essay today.

    1. Carr writes of Twombly: “Meaning is an absence: as though a key was here, then was erased or crossed out poorly, left with traces unreadable…”

      This is accurate. This is exactly what I see In Twombly’s work. He creates something, destroys it before it becomes substantial, then leaves the detritus. So here we agree.

      But then Carr continues: “… and yet not unwritten, and no less intentional or reverent than a Florentine master…”

      Here I do not understand what Carr means by “written”. Scrawled, yes…scribbled, undoubtedly, but written implies meaning separate from the scrawl itself. And Twombly’s intentions are nowhere near as clear as Botticelli’s intentions as displayed for example in the madonna currently hanging at the Frick. We may not know all of Botticelli’s intentions, but the ones that live in the image reflect shared human experience, which is what makes it a meaningful work of art.

      Of all Carr’s comments, his use of the word “reverent”, is the most relevant. To appreciate Twombly’s work is to believe in him as a sensitive individual, though a viewer will learn they will never get closer than that one-way recognition. I never met Twombly and his work tells me nothing of him except that there was perhaps something in his soul that was genuine and deep — but something he did not wish to share with anyone but a worshiper. He is a passive aggressive expressionist.

      And finally Carr offers the inevitable Twombly apology, “Why do we want coherence from a painting? Why would we trust an artist to provide it?”

      Well, we want coherence because coherence implies meaning and allows empathy. As to trusting artists, I agree that to trust an artist is to give them too much control over meaning. It is what separates serious art from illustration. Twombly’s work is votive, not communicative. He requires unconditional love, like a child.

      1. Thanks to Peter Malone for responding.

        First, not to be contentious, but “detritus” is not my word, and I don’t agree with it. And I do think that Twombly wants us to see precisely what we are given to see, something in the traces of what was written (actually painted, as incomplete fragments and phrases) and then erased (with a scrawl or overpainting).

        Second, “written” means written, whether you call it a scrawl or a scribble.

        Third, we think we know Botticelli’s intentions because we can see them in an accustomed and familiar form, an artifact of faith that is well documented. Perhaps this is what “shared human experience” means: our aesthetic and religious expectations are met, so we proceed on safer grounds. But Twombly is not safe. He overturns our expectations in his painting, in his erudition, and in the world he mediates to canvas. We really have no template for it.

        Fourth, for me, it is the intellect and solace and open implications I take from a Twombly painting that make his work more meaningful than other paintings. I am led by the unfinished issues in my life, and so this painter, unlike any others, allows me the rarity of consolation.

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