|Cy Twombly, Veil of Orpheus, 1968|
Gagosian’s exhibition of a selection of Cy Twombly’s works on paper and canvas that focus on the figure of Orpheus is difficult to write about. It’s difficult because the works evoke a sense of mystery and awe in the visitor that doesn’t adequately translate into words. These paintings are about space and silence, about the fullness of white, and cream, and the places on the canvas where paint or markings don’t appear. In them we see thinking and painting come together, to create space, to create a canvas or an image that is no more than space and colour rethought. We might be tempted to assert that the void of death—or maybe separation—as it is told by the myth of Orpheus is everywhere here, not in the markings on the background, but in the white, cream and off-colour background as foreground, as the substance and meaning of the image. And then I am reminded that to isolate meaning is not the point of Twombly’s paintings.
|Cy Twombly, Orpheus, 1979|
The colour of the ground is like a stain on the canvas, so subtle it could even be mistaken for the dye of aging. Off- white weeps over this canvas, tears falling across the face of the stone-like surface. Again and again, the moment on a painted canvas that appears to be when Twombly changed his mind, and he painted over the blue, or the green, or the red, with white, creates density, texture, history and intrigue in the image. And through these apparent changes of mind we suspect a layering of stories, of time, of space, coming together on every level of the canvas. Then again, the most significant moment of all, that which becomes the pivot around which everything turns is what might be a mistake or a smudge, made by the left over paint on the artist’s hand as he brushes it across the image. History would then be an accident. And then there are the paper images on which Twombly has written in pencil, words, like “NONSTOP,” “set time” or perhaps it is something else, I cannot read. A line is drawn, its measurements taken, though we know from Twombly’s other very famous Treatise on the Veil paintings, that measurements mean nothing, there is no scientific understanding of anything in these images.
|Cy Twombly, Orpheus, 1968|
Orpheus, the mythical archetype representing the artist and the creative process, must be important for his name is the title or the cycle. The cycle of paintings is, we suppose, a portrait of Orpheus, though there is nothing that represents his story in the substance of the image. We see an “O,” sometimes completed and at others still open, and we can discern the name spelled out sometimes, but that’s as far as it goes.
|Cy Twombly, Orpheus, Installation View|
Works on Paper @ Gagosian, Paris
The works on paper are exquisite; little drops of paint, their oily constitution staining the paper in a way that looks random, but we know from a familiarity with Twombly’s oeuvre must be extremely precise. A red, uneven letter “E” floats above the drops of paint, separated from its friend, a few soft red lines, falling faintly across the bottom of the picture. On another work on paper, a brown line that might once have been an arrow has been erased, and then reinscribed, on top of the layers of lines that didn’t get resurrected. Orpheus is written above it as if in another change of mind, a decision to name him afterall.
Orpheus, Installation View @ Gagosian, Paris
Rilke must also be important because his 55 sonnets devoted to Orpheus were the apparent inspiration for Twombly’s cycle. And the same myth inspired the French composer Pierre Henry’s The Veil of Orpheus. The music represents the tearing of the veil, in turn a representation of Orpheus’ loss of Eurydice. The tearing of the cloth is so easily transposed by our minds looking for meaning, for something to hold onto, even when it isn’t there. We see the torn veil in the form of Twombly, the artist’s presence on the surface of the canvas in the working and reworking of the paint. The line that falls, more deliberate than the tears, must be from Rilke. But it is not; Twombly might be inspired by Rilke, but he would never translate his poetry.
|Cy Twombly, Orpheus, 1968|
Twombly’s cycle of paintings is also about landscape. This is a recent revelation, had only when I saw the paintings in the retrospective at the Pompidou. The quietness, the everyday, the infinity of the vision, the ephemerality and the ethereality of the colour and representation are qualities that can really only ever be found in nature. The delicacy of touch that is the brush or the pencil of Cy Twombly must surely speak to the mystery of nature. The colour on the canvas can be so delicate that when in search of a resemblance, only air could come close. There is nothing man made about them. And I want to connect them back to that mysterious Virginia landscape that was all around him, that surrounded his life in the American South as it is so spectacularly captured in the photographs of his friend Sally Mann. Ultimately, though, I don’t know how to interpret the lines, or the joins in the canvas, or even the ground that interrupts and interferes with their trajectory. Maybe they are the tears again, the colour of a painting as it weeps for its unending unknown journey?
All Images Copyright Twombly Foundation