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Cy Twombly’s Abstract Timelessness / I

Cy Twombly’s Abstract Timelessness Breaking Fresh Ground in Abstract Expressionism

Cy Twombly has often been neglected in the discussion of American Abstract Expressionism, a movement which during the conservative political and cultural ascendancy of the post-WWII era in the United States. Despite sometimes being narrowly defined as “action painting”, the core philosophical tenets of abstract expressionism frequently stress the unconstrained expression of subjective emotions. Twombly’s own artistic maturation coincided with the prevalence of abstract expressionism in the United States.Twombly, as well as other younger artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, valued “not only the freedom of the virtual but the rejection of the language of the mundane urban world as well.”1 As an outgrowth of his deep interest in European classical art and mythology Twombly settled in Rome, making it his home for decades, not least the seminal period during which Abstract Expressionism reached global consciousness. Twombly’s work from this period weaves his American background and identity tightly with his European influences to create a carefully interlaced dialogue of histories and cultural reference. Cy Twombly has finely seamed these two seemingly contradictory influences. This dynamic can be analysed from multiple perspectives: first, in his retention of powerful emotions, actions and gestures at the core of Twombly’s art; secondly in his knowing references to classical mythology which endow his abstract paintings with a cultural lineage and vivid connection to life other Abstract Expressionist painters consciously eschewed.

Hero and Leander/ Hero and Leandro

Since moving to Rome in 1957, references to antiquity can frequently be found in Twombly’s work. Among the subjects he chose is the poem, Hero and Leander, by Christopher Marlowe, Twombly devoted a series of paintings to depicting this tragedy of desire, including the large painting, Hero and Leander in 1962, three paintings of Hero and Leandro in 1984, and a final piece in 1985 dedicated to Marlowe.

The energy and vitality of the act of painting is explicit in the first version of Hero and Leander, similarly in Venus Anadyomene, Birth of Venus and Leda and the Swan, all painted in the same year. The central part of Hero and Leander is seemingly flustered, but it retains traces of legibility and representation. In the painting, the dialogue of colour and movement revamp visual impression into a haptic experience. The most important form on the canvas is “the infinitely varied scale of scriptural articulations”2, which was to be a key element of Twombly’s art throughout his career. Then, a saddening sense overlies the whole large paintings.

Consistent with Twombly’s particular fascination with landscapes, and his profound interest with the sea, the action is set at a coastal region which suggests mythological and historical reference points that extend beyond Marlowe’s poem. Through the analysis of this series of Twombly’s paintings in terms of gesture and classical reference, the painter’s intricate relationship with Abstract Expressionism is revealed.

Gestures as concepts

Gestures and the “presence” of the artist, vital essences of Abstract Expressionism, are never abandoned by Cy Twombly, who has rather conceptualised gestures.

Gestures with emotions

In Hero and Leander (1962), the legible signs and traces of physical mark-making are the evidence of the painter’s gestures. The signs, following the composition, occur in greater density from bottom left to top right. Also, the painting demonstrates Twombly’s language of symbols which represent “erotic allusions, delicate references to Hero’s rose-colored beauty, and her Venus like aspect”3. Meanwhile, the stigma “X” as in exitus, which can be understood to signify death, “is recurrent, nestling in the heart of the events and drifting on the open surface, fatefully present,” in the words of Katharina Schmidt. At the centre of the painting, graphic manifestations converge in a tremendously agitated cluster. As Schmidt writes: “the combination of the black and red lineaments with painted, gray, and green oil paint, spontaneously applied by hand or squeezed out of the tube, endows the dense tangle of fierce emotions with an ephemeral buoyancy. Erupting movement, circling, curling, and zigzagging, outlining, coiling, and rolling, covering blotching and blurring, plays over and also blots out a pure white. These scattered flakes abridge the physical immediacy of the ecstatic events and lay a trail of mourning over the fleeting moment.”4

These linear signs remind spectators of the artist’s presence in the painting, along with his intense energy and passion as the artist himself once remarked, “Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate story … it is an involvement in essence … into a synthesis of feeling, intellect etc. occurring without separation in the impulse of action.”5

Twombly referenced this tragic myth again in 1981 while this time he adopted a purely painterly approach and his attention was diverted to the deaths of the lovers. In Hero and Leandro (1984), the paint, flowing from right to left, is applied in various broad strokes, while soft and glittery white highlights lend transparency and movement. The restive paint flows down in rivulets and the green stirs with the life-force contained in the artist’s gestures. Dark green, purple, and black were spread out, dispersed and wiped with the fingers. The texture swirls “as if the sea were spewing out uncanny, horrific flotsam.”6

Through his “quasi-spontaneous pictorial method”, Twombly succeeds in approaching the origins of myth and attaining a vigorous ferocity of expression. By denoting strong emotions through his spontaneous actions on canvas, Twombly’s connection to Abstract Expressionism becomes clearly visible.


The names of the lovers are inscribed on both Hero and Leander (1962) and Hero and Leandro [Part I] (1984). Actually, the familiar presence of the painter’s own handwriting emphasises the presence of his subjectivity in his paintings. It is said that “in the simultaneous presence of readable sign and ideogrammatic enigma, purposeful illusion and effect multiply one against the other till the sum of this computation becomes a new aesthetic paradigm.”7 When Abstract Expressionists talk about merging an artist’s inner self, thoughts and emotions into the art, Cy Twombly gives birth to a distinguished “thought-image” by superimposing an abundance of textual possibilities into his paintings which become a “thought-painting”, allowing the viewers to experience the thought of the artist. In short, the mind of the artist is displayed through his gestures of scriptural painting; and through inscribing alongside with abstract paint, Twombly, thus, has endowed expressionist gestural painting a new distinctive concept.

Conceptualising gestures

As pointed out by Anna Lovatt, Twombly’s act of inscribing names fundamentally prevents viewers from perceiving his paintings solely in an optical sense and engages the viewer in a conceptual and temporal reading activity.

Treating gestures as an expression of a concept is even more significant and obvious in the series of Ferragosto. Inspired by Pollock’s leaving of his handprint on a canvas, Twombly was fascinated by being contiguous with the surface of the painting. The paintings of Ferragosto underscore the imprint, the trace and the bodily and indexical presence of the artist. However, Twombly was not satisfied with purely gestural presence. In fact, the five Ferragosto paintings were left-handed. It is suggested that through such gesture of painting with the left hand, ‘Twombly injects an abject or aberrational aspect into his art by “deranging the morality of the body”’8. In other words, there is an underlying concept of the artist’s gestures, instead of being purely automatic in the way “action paintings” are claimed to be.

In comparison with Jackson Pollock, whose definitive strands of paint could be said to have sought a sense of authorship9, such recoding of the mark achieved by Twombly’s graffiti-like actions on his paintings eliminates the structure of authorship yet remains anonymous despite leaving traces manifested in the “violation of the unspoiled surface”10 as suggested by Rosalind Krauss. This differentiation from Pollock, the archetypal figure of Abstract Expressionism, should not necessarily be regarded as an ultimate break from Abstract Expressionism as a whole. On the contrary, it could be an innovative interpretation of the very essence of abstract expressionist paintings: the action.

In a nutshell, Twombly has enriched the quality and constitution of gestural painting with emotions, thoughts and concepts.

To be continued in Part II.

1 Heiner Bastian, ed., Cy Twombly: catalogue raisonné of the paintings. Vol. 1. 1948-1960 (Munich: Schirmer/Moser, 1992), 20.
 2 Katharina Schmidt, “Hero and Leander” in Audible Silence: Cy Twombly at Daros (Zurich: Loewenbraeu-Areal, 2002) (accessed 5 March 2015); available from http://www.cytwombly.info/twombly_writings11.htm.
 3 Ibid.
 4 Ibid.
 5 Bastian, Vol. 2. 1961-1965 (Munich: Schirmer/Moser, 1993), 21.
 6 Schmidt.
 7 Bastian, Vol. 2. 1961-1965 (Munich: Schirmer/Moser, 1993), 28.
 8 Nicholas Cullinan, “Abject Expressionism: The Ferragosto Paintings,” in Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, ed. Nicholas Serota (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), 100.
 9 Elizabeth J. Trapp, “Cy Twombly’s ‘Ferragosto’ Series”, A thesis presented to the faculty of the College of Fine Arts of Ohio University, August 2010 (accessed 5 March 2015);
 available from https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=ohiou1276609006&disposition=inline.
 10 “1953: Cage, Rauschenberg and the Index,” in Bois Yve-Alain, Buchloch Benjamin, Foster Hal and Krauss Rosalind, Art Since 1900: Modernism. Antimodernism, Postmodernism,
 Volume 2 (New York: Thames and Hudson Press, 2007), 372.