Cy Twombly’s Remarkable Treatise

1. Twombly Treatise on the Veil Second Version
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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