Cy Twombly: Against Interpretation

Writer: Phway Aye

Cy Twombly (1928-2011) was an American artist born out of the Abstract Expressionist, Dadaist, and Surrealist movements. Known for his audacious graffiti-style paintings, Twombly has periodically been cast as a nonconformist and pioneer. His frenetic juxtapositions of text and image, and enigmatic defiance of interpretation have often presented difficulties for viewers. Twombly does not allow his paintings to be reduced to its individual components, and viewers often have little choice but to grapple with their own frustrations on encountering his works. “We don’t really see anything but a certain intelligibility,” claims Jon Bird, Professor of Art and Critical Theory at Middlesex University.

But, large and looming, and inexplicably beautiful, Twombly’s paintings continue to seduce, and are irrevocable examples of the art experience being both emotional and intellectual.

Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair Part I (1985), oil, house paint, acrylic, and crayon on plywood, 64 x 46 inches, Menil Collection. 

Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair Part I (1985), oil, house paint, acrylic, and crayon on plywood, 64 x 46 inches, Menil Collection. 

Let’s observe, for instance, Twombly’s 1985 five-part series Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair. A simple interpretation is that the rose here represents natural beauty – a visual metaphor of sorts for the translation of beauty from the physical world to the canvas. But, the recognition of the rose as a rose is complicated by Twombly’s brusque scripts and the overall graffiti-like presentation, leaving much room for ambiguity. It is this ambiguity that has spurred an array of competing views in Twombly literature. Cause and consequence, symbol and meaning, and signifier and signified all become blurred, and what is left is the overall semblance of the painting – an overwhelming feeling of what the painting should be (rather than is) about.

Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair Part III (1985), oil, acrylic, and crayon on canvas stapled to plywood; acrylic and crayon on plywood, 96 x 63 inches, Menil Collection. 

Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair Part III (1985), oil, acrylic, and crayon on canvas stapled to plywood; acrylic and crayon on plywood, 96 x 63 inches, Menil Collection. 

This is one of the small tortures of language: one can never explain why one finds something beautiful; pleasure generates a kind of laziness of speech. - Roland Barthes.

Barthes’ exclamation emphasizes just how limited the descriptive vocabulary really is. Scholars and viewers alike often have to relapse to complicated metaphorical language to make any sense of artistic sublimity. Yve-Alain Bois, for example, refers to Twombly’s works as traces of the human body - registers of the body’s impulsions and mind’s symptomatic acts. James Rondeau interprets Twombly’s floral motifs as surrogates for love. And, Richard Leeman associates Twombly’s periodic use of white or blank backgrounds to the architecture of Mediterranean houses. In an attempt to rationalize Twombly’s seemingly irrational works, one can rarely depart from metaphor.

Untitled No. 4, from the series Carnations (1989), oil, crayon, and watercolor on paper, 27 x 17 inches.

Untitled No. 4, from the series Carnations (1989), oil, crayon, and watercolor on paper, 27 x 17 inches.

But, Twombly’s philosophy is centered on the very undoing of conventional modes of understanding. By collapsing semiotics, Twombly strikes against tradition, and leaves only the performance to enjoy, and the mark to ponder. Symbols for Twombly are terrains full of illegibility – hidden (and accidental) paths that never fully uncover what they wish to signify. Twombly’s art, in its anti-form, anti-interpretative and anti-singular state, is therefore hardly complete or surmountable without the full consideration of the viewer’s befuddled interpretations and complicated emotional responses.

Eva Keller emphatically describes her own reaction to Twombly’s works as something of a diversion. Twombly’s art allows for an escape from the hectic activities of daily life - it “purges my senses and allows me to discover the aporia(s) of life,” claims Keller. But, what of the paintings elicit this meditative awe? How do our own memories and experiences contribute? And, how can art, in both the formal and informal sense, be made constructively therapeutic for the everyday viewer?

Untitled (Peony Blossom Paintings) (2007), acrylic, wax crayon, pencil on wood, 99 x 217 inches.

Untitled (Peony Blossom Paintings) (2007), acrylic, wax crayon, pencil on wood, 99 x 217 inches.

Aesthetic science is a growing field in art history, and Arthur Shimamura and Stephen Palmer, pioneers in the field, have turned to a multidisciplinary scientific effort to answer some of these questions. Using fundamental tenets of psychology and neuroscience, the two seek to radically uncover trends in perception and preference, and look specifically to the brain’s mechanisms as a tool for understanding art production and reception. In order to lift the veil and parse some of art’s mysteries, an empirical front may be key.

Much of the criticism though with neuroaesthetics is that it can sometimes be a self-defeating endeavor. Some argue that the approach can erode the aesthetic experience by reducing art to purely the senses, stripped of its culturally-defined properties. But works like Twombly’s, and many concept-laden impenetrable contemporary works today, usually require the embrace of audience subjectivity for interpretation. Neuroaesthetics may not offer a complete picture but can put tangible, and possibly quantifiable, thought to the art experience.  As Anjan Chatterjee writes, “I suggest that a drive to beauty and the propensity towards an aesthetic attitude might underlie the universality of making and appreciating art.”

Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair Part V (1985), oil, acrylic, and crayon on canvas stapled to plywood; acrylic and crayon on plywood, 96 x 63 inches, Menil Collection. 

Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair Part V (1985), oil, acrylic, and crayon on canvas stapled to plywood; acrylic and crayon on plywood, 96 x 63 inches, Menil Collection. 

But for now, the obscurity of the art encounter is magic in itself. Susan Wood, for instance, reacts to Twombly’s Analysis of Rose as Sentimental Despair through poetry. “...[A] watery garden where one color flows into another, roses blazing and bleeding, pink, crimson, carmine, scarlet, until the color flames to blood, the colors from his own heart, and the heart, too, blazes and breaks open, beauty giving away to death, the eternal in the ephemeral.” In an effort to come to terms with her own reactions, Wood channels one art form into another; obscurity leading to obscurity in a beautiful unanswerable loop, as Twombly may very well have intended.