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Thursday
Jan282010

« In Which We Explore The Forms of Cy Twombly »

Eight Sculptures

by AMANDA MCCLEOD

Cy Twombly's Eight Sculptures invites viewers into a network of confusion. Upon entering the Gagosian gallery, the viewer finds themselves displaced in a room filled with eight very unique and somewhat ominous sculptures. To pass around and through these works collectively is quite an experience, somber and almost meditative. However, just as one might begin to feel at ease, the inherent mystery of their forms impedes upon tranquility.

With white gesso concealing their origins and mass, these works seem informed by another time, if not another world. The viewer is disoriented, unaware of the origins of the forms, their supposed contemporary nature, and the dual nature informed by Twombly’s process of replicating previous works.

The bronze casts of assemblage sculptures created by Twombly in the past decade appear at first to be a collection of old relics. They look as if they have spent some time at the bottom of the ocean floor, much like recovered Greek sculptures pulled from the sea. Upon inspection recognizable forms reveal themselves, wood grain, a bit of twine, a paddle, or the edge of a piece of cardboard. The viewer is hard pressed to discern whether the label is correct, "are these really solid bronze?", as there is an unmistakeable lightness that appears prevalent all throughout Twombly’s career. In fact, upon encountering these works it might baffle unknowing patrons to find that Twombly is in fact a renowned painter.

These sculptures do not appear to have come out of the same vision that Twombly’s paintings do. The sculptures are solid and erect as opposed to the familiar soft and scrawly marks of Twombly’s canvases. Even when these marks are bold, there is not a usual feeling of linear form. Many artists have worked as both painters and sculptures, a few examples being; Michelangelo, Degas, Matisse, Giacometti, Marcel Duchamp, Louise Bourgeois and Tracy Emin. Most successfully, beyond Twombly, one would certainly consider Twombly’s peer and friend Robert Rauschenberg. Twombly’s sculptural works seem to investigate age, identity, history, and materiality in a way his paintings do not. "I really enjoy doing sculpture," Twombly expresses, "maybe it’s because of the construction thing."

Twombly, who had been sculpting seriously for as long as he had been painting seriously, first began making bronze casts of his earlier work in 1979. Twombly explains his interest in bronze by saying that "bronze unifies the thing. It abstracts the forms from the material. People want to know about what the material constituents are; it helps them to identify the work with something. But I want each sculpture to be seen as a whole, as a sculpture." Twombly began making his very first works in sculpture in 1946  and worked in the format until 1959. The artist then took a hiatus from sculpture in 1959, but began working again in 1976, and since has consistently produced three dimensional works.

Twombly’s sculpture has always involved the use of found objects, usually consisting of items which he may have procured from his own studio or garden. Twombly's friend David Sylvester defined the elements of his sculptures as such: "The works are usually made up of two antithetical elements: found objects which are complete forms; and clay and plaster objects which have not yet started to take form."

These found objects may at times be organic in origin, such as a branch or leaves, or at other times of industrial sources, such as crates or tools. The plaster and clay elements serve as unifiers, elements which solidify Twombly’s visions into a unique and oftentimes monumental whole. Through these common place materials and structuring motifs something new and whole is born, a work which incorporates origin, contemplates history, and flirts with antiquity. In paintings as recent as 2007 and as early as the mid 1950s Twombly has utilized collage in a minor way, sometimes incorporating leaves or other bits of cut out canvas.

Frank O’Hara, who had seen one of the first showings of Twombly’s sculptural work in 1955 described the early works as “Witty and Funeral." Twombly has inspired a great deal of authors and poets, even from the early stages of his artistic career, and he has been referred to as the more poetic of abstract expressionist artists. He often seeks literary phrases for his paintings and sculptures such as in the case of Poems to the Sea 1959, Untitled (“In Memory of Alvaro de Campos”) 2002, and Untitled (“To Sappho”) 1976, which utilizes a verse written by the ancient poet herself. Twombly scrawls it across a canvas that alludes to Olympian pleasures.

Kate Nesin, who authored the official text for the Eight Sculptures show catalogue, reveals that Twombly is “commonly described in irreconcilable pairs. Epic and intimate, transgressive and classical, aggressive and refined, literal and metaphorical." The dual nature of these bronze works does in fact require the viewer to acknowledge a critical conflict inherent in the bronze medium. Duality is not lost on Twombly himself either, who appears almost as two separate artists, one a incredibly poetic painter, and the other a sculptor born of another time. Nesin is quick to point out, however, that “these oppositions operate not in order to provide tension but in order to suspend it, without likewise suspending either term."

The sculptures, which retain drips and smears, appear as both fixed and unfixed. The notion of fixed and unfixed seems to evoke the very nature of existence, in which the present is impossibly static but ever informed by history. Twombly seems constantly aware of these conflicting elements, and it is his reconciliation through sculpture that makes these works so undeniably appealing.

robert rauschenbergThe earliest known decorative bronzes are said to be from ancient burial sites in Irans’s Zagros Mountains. Twombly would be well aware of this, as he has a tremendous love for sculpture and ancient artifacts. Upon his initial trip to Rome with Robert Rauschenberg, after studying together at Black Mountain in 1951, Twombly became enthralled with the sculpture artifacts he encountered in Italy. That Twombly decided to make copies in bronze should not come as a surprise, as this practice was utilized both by the Greeks and Romans, both cultures that Twombly reveres greatly. That Twombly began casting bronze in the same year of his retrospective is also a curious matter. Casting in bronze might be a way of making permanent works which previously appeared to be in flux in their assembled nature. Twombly, who is 82 years old at present, possibly began casting in bronze to explore the relationship between the permanent and impermanent, the soul and the physical self, in relationship to his own place towards the end of a long and brilliant career. 

Bronze cannot avoid the inherent connotations of being a material which takes the form of other materials. Untitled is a casting of a sculpture from 2004. The original sculpture itself involved casts done in plaster of boxes, to create a new form. Thus the bronze incarnation appears as a cast of a cast. The paddles used in the original are read as wood grain in their bronze incarnation, only revealing themselves to be metal upon intense inspection. To compare the casting to the original is an extraordinary experience, as one most discern where likenesses and differences confront one another and begin to fade away. The assembled work appears stark, almost harsh, in comparison to its gesso coated bronze realization. The original work began as something which utilized the cast mode, and was already coated in paint and bound together. The bronze casting serves to further unify the work through abstraction, which then appears reincarnated in a placid and ethereal copper tone. To coat this exact casting in paint and gesso further conceals it from its original form, and converts the cast into an almost created artifact of its original.   

Upon further investigating the sculptures, Untitled 2009 appears as a primordial stack of rocks. This sculpture barely suggests its bronze nature, and instead leaves the viewer curious how these forms was created. In fact the rock-like shapes began as globs of plaster which Twombly had then cast into sand. This revealed a very earthly and natural form, one which, in the bronze casting performs a sort of trompe l’oeil. It is astounding to consider the process of casting a form, assembling it, and casting it yet again. The materials are removed once and then once again, and yet the bronze does not deny the viewer any detail of the original work from which it was copied. Another work, Untitled 2009, was cast from a sculpture assembled in 2002. The original work is starkly white and towering, a form which almost recalls the shape a wedding cake. The original work appears ghostly, whereas the bronze interpretation feels as though it was previously buried deep in the earth. Edward Albee, a biographer of Twombly, explains that "Twombly’s sculpture looks as though it has always existed and is, at the same time, totally new."

This play between old and new, contemporary and ancient concepts, is important to note. The forms which populate Twombly’s sculpture are remarkably architectural, evoking old Egyptian and Mesopotamian design. These cultures surely would have informed Twombly’s understanding of monument, icon, linear form, and structure. Untitled 2009 evokes an ancient staircase or column form, solemn and reaching towards infinity or heaven. 

Twombly, heavily influenced by his time in Greece and Italy, has always involved the mythological in his work. He has recently completed a series of paintings devoted to topic of Bacchus, and in the past touched upon mythologies of Leda and the Swan, Nike, Apollo, Sappho, and Pan. "People make too much of the mythological titles," Twombly claims that "for me they are just a springboard. They're especially alive here in Italy and in Greece. But it’s simply about human beings. Human emotions haven’t changed much."

In these new works Twombly seems to claim that the work is about the material itself, and this discourages any notion of duplicates or copies which would imply the works themselves to be void of significance. Nesin explains, “Twombly would seem to encourage the attention to the materiality of these most recent bronze surfaces - to what is their own and what is taken or adheres from elsewhere - for he has long finished his sculptures, whether by shrouding his assemblages in white gesso or by casting some of those assemblages in bronze, as a way of unfinishing them, a way not of fixing, but of opening their surfaces (and the things of literal or imagined beneath those surfaces)...to take materiality as meaning is to allow for the careful differentiation of “as” from “is”.”

The solid nature of these new sculptures should be considered equally as with the materials the forms were originated in. These sculptures suggest that Twombly is on an exploratory path, something incredible to consider when you take into account the age and tremendously lengthy career. Through the recasting of old works, Twombly appears to be investigating forms he once spent time perfecting, as if to either celebrate their meaning personally or to reconsider them again in a new light.

Consider closely the unifying aspect of the bronze casting, which negates the original found object and assembled nature of the original eight sculptural works Twombly chose to cast. There is an inherent conflict present in the process of irrevocably unifying those works which, in their first incarnations, were crudely assembled in a manner which informed the viewer easily of the materials used. To disguise them further in gesso after the casting again appears to only offer confusion. As Nesin puts it, "Bronze's truth may lie in its potential for truth to other materials," explaining that perhaps this casting is not so problematic as much as a mode of reaching further into abstraction. This brings us back to the beginning of the identity conflict present in these works, for as they seem to be concealed and obscured, they do not for a moment deny their origins.

This creates an incredibly unique and circular dialogue between the sculptures, their inherent materiality, and their identities as works. They are as much copies as they are separate entities entirely. To confront the bronze sculptures in person is not to feel the same lightness and blinding white that was inherent to the original sculptures, and yet these bronze works are indebted to those forms. Both the original sculptures and the bronze retain a sense of illumination, as David Sylvester commented on Twombly’s sculptural prowess exclaiming that his “sculpture breathes light.”

These newer works appear then as higher tributes, as ethereal reincarnations which were realized in pursuit of abstraction through further reducing the sculptures into a whole form. Simon Schama asserts that "what Twombly draws from archaic mythology is its poetic emphasis on the consolations of metamorphosis," and this seems undeniable in light of his investigation of form through the casting process.

One should note that this sort of intense self-investigation into one's own repertoire of work would be impossible in painting. Though Twombly is know to have reinterpreted various themes throughout his career, each painting remains a unique moment in the artists working on flat surface in the vein of mark making.  Eight Sculptures present us with a challenge, perhaps one that brings Twombly himself some valuable lessons. To be an artist is to be in the supreme position of creation, and so the self exploratory practice of recasting one's own creation only to view it as a completely solid and weighted form must be enlightening. For the viewer it is an opportunity to confront the dual nature that always persists in Twombly's work. The contemporary alongside the ancient, the childlike paired with the informed, the coexistence between the solid and the fluid, impulsive and harmonious, the weighted and the weightless, the ephemeral and the infinite.  

Amanda McCleod is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here.

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