Twombly & Me

Nonfiction by Maggie Yuan


Cy Twombly,
Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), 1994. Photo: The Menil Collection.

I have never felt quite so small and so awed in one breath before.

Strewn with swirling scribbles, vivid splashes, and scrawled handwriting, the three-part canvas, ​Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor),​ spans an entire wall in a room of the Cy Twombly Gallery. As I stand in front of this massive painting, I am grateful that the pandemic has (at least) granted art students the space to view art in an empty room, with no tourists and no fanfare.

From left to right, the pale gray canvases bloom with increasing activity. Small graphite marks dapple the lower third of the leftmost panel. Moving into the middle, expressive black and white lines add their voice to the foray, alongside obscured verses and smudges of paint. Small smears of blue drift upward, before bursts of warm colors—soft pinks, yellows, and reds—explode across the right corner of the center panel. The rightmost panel is a cascade of black splotches and scribbles, dotted with blazing yellows and incandescent oranges. The colorful clouds evoke nebulae or little islands, microcosms of euphoria.

In spite of its visual passion, Catullus feels painfully gentle. The constant contrast and cinematic composition invoke the birth of the universe, or the creation of art (a universe in itself): the act of turning silence into noise, noise into symphony.

In Twombly’s words, “the passage of time and travel [leave] their own marks on the canvas,” a representation of “life’s fleetingness.” Standing alone before its vastness, I can’t help but feel that this painting is life itself.

*        *        *

Earlier that afternoon, I grab my sketchbook, fit on a new mask, and head over to the Menil Collection. On the ride over, my Uber driver plays me a country song that he wrote for his brother; he smiles brightly and makes great conversation, which I’ve come to appreciate as common traits among Uber drivers in Houston. Since first arriving in Houston two years ago, I’ve found myself growing fonder and fonder of this sprawling city, with its good people and great opportunities for artists.

From a distance, the building of the Cy Twombly Gallery is a humble gray structure, an unassuming haven in a sea of furiously green (all greens in Houston are starkly bright to my Californian eye) lawns and trees. My phone tells me that it’s about to rain in Houston, but the blue sky, dotted with white clouds, says otherwise. I enter the gallery and it feels like a long-awaited exhale. As I greet the receptionist, glimpses of what’s to come—​Thicket, Catullus,​ sun-filled rooms and glistening hardwood floors, endless greens—conjure memories of my first visit, relics of memory dusted off. It’s good to be back.

*        *        *

As literary scholar Mary Jacobus writes, the poetry that Twombly inscribes onto his canvases and sculptures “constitutes the visible trace of the artist’s having once been somewhere or experienced something, however incommunicable,” and “extends an invitation to enter the private spaces of memory.” These chosen poems serve as an extension of emotion and a function of interiority, calling us back to the deepest recesses of memory. Familiar voices such as Rainer Maria Rilke and John Keats recur throughout Twombly’s work. His inclusion of these poems arises from his love for literary expression, attachment to the meanings we locate in the written word—the same way I find myself clinging to his artwork.

Cy Twombly, Thicket, 1992. Photo: National Gallery of Art.

I first became enthralled with the work of Cy Twombly in high school. It was, like many modern relationships, a virtual romance. While scrolling through Pinterest, I saw an image of his sculpture ​Thicket​ ​(Jupiter Island) p​op up in my feed. With bushels of plastic flowers and leaves, dipped in white plaster and planted atop a white box, the sculpture was both charming and breath-taking in its simplicity. Just like that, it was love at first sight. Over the following months and years, I’d flip back to the photo of ​Thicket​ saved on my phone when I was lost. I’d pore over the tremulous flowers peeking out of a pristine wreckage, the evocative whites and grays spilling outwards, until I was inspired to create again. That a single image of one sculpture could have such a profound emotional impact on me felt like fate. I loved literature and art and found a sense of purpose in combining the two; Twombly’s incorporation of poetry only left me more convinced that I had a sacred bond with his work. ​Thicket​ and Twombly became companions of mine, accompanying me as I set about my tentative pursuit of art in college.

*        *        *

My first stop at the Cy Twombly Gallery is the sculpture in question. Upon entering the gallery, I turn to the side room and see my old friend once again. Like before, I am surprised by the small size of ​Thicket—​it always looms so large in my imagination. I hover close, envisioning the pouring of plaster over the leaves and flowers, before the fluid whiteness pools at the base of the wooden box. Unlike last time, these blobs of plaster entrance me more than the flora; they remind me of marshmallow fluff.

Seeing ​Thicket​ is not quite as wondrous as the first time. Back in January, I had made something mystical out of my conception of the sculpture from online images, so our first meeting felt serendipitous. Still, it is comforting to see the familiar plaster-dipped leaves again.

Twombly made four plaster sculptures titled ​Thicket ​between 1991 and 1992, each successive sculpture more densely laden with foliage and plaster. This rendition, made in 1992, was the final ​Thicket ​of the series. Thematically, the leafy sculptures have little to do with real thickets. As art historian and curator Kate Nesin explains, ​Thicket​ is a reference to the biblical story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Abraham receives instructions from the Lord to sacrifice Isaac; before he completes the act atop a mountain he is stopped by an angel, for his deference to the Lord has been confirmed. Lines from the Book of Genesis—“Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son”—serve as the origin of the “thicket.” ​Thicket​ is both a reflection of how spirituality inspires unimaginable acts of sacrifice and how the literature of antiquity manifests in Twombly’s oeuvre, where certain words become ghosts that guide his work.

Peering at ​Thicket through its glass barrier, ​ I form my own literary extrapolations. The parenthetical title ​Jupiter Island (the town in which the sculpture was made, in Florida) and the sculpture’s small size make me think of the poem “Floating Island,” Dorothy Wordsworth’s ode to the great wonders encapsulated in little pieces of nature. Her meditation on a “slip of earth” floating down the river—“A peopled world​ it is; in size a tiny room”—is as poignant as the still flowers surging out of the plaster-covered box. Would Twombly be pleased to know that his work summons remembered lines for his viewers too?

Portrait of Cy Twombly,
photographed by Annabelle d’Huart, in his home studio in Rome, 1978.

Perhaps Twombly’s work is personal for the viewer because it is personal for the artist. Art historian Richard Leeman explains that Twombly’s sculptural pieces initially did not receive as much critical attention because Twombly preferred to keep them for himself, rather than exhibit them in museums or sell them to dealers. He reportedly liked the majority of the sculptures he made, as he proclaimed, “There’s a certain perfection in most of them.” It warms my heart to know that Twombly enjoyed his own work. I am reminded that art is reciprocal; the energy that Twombly pours into his plaster sculptures transcends time, rippling outwards into the blissful poetic significance I find when looking at ​Thicket​.

*        *        *

My first visit to this gallery back in January was a far cry from the joyous, serene encounter I am experiencing now. Last December, a terrible OCD relapse left me reeling. It was my first relapse in the two years since I left therapy, and I was wholly unprepared to deal with the aftermath. In the face of the severe depressive episode that followed, I found myself bowled over by anxiety and emptiness, greater than anything I had experienced before. I lost weight and struggled to eat and sleep. In conversations, I could hardly grasp onto what other people were saying before their words and faces warped into a dull hum.

For my parents, who thought they had already seen my lowest lows in my lifelong tango with diagnoses, it was agonizing to see me hit a new rock bottom. Once, while I trudged into the house, my dad pulled my mom aside to cry in the garage. We all struggled to make sense of our lives in the wake of my relapse, to pick up the remnants of what I saw as my “failed” recovery. I was unsure about whether or not I’d be able to piece myself together enough to return to college for the semester.

I did return to Houston in January, and I made my first visit to the Menil Collection. After trying a new form of therapy, changing my medication, and relying on an abundance of patience, I was able to rebuild my mental wellness. With the help of my therapist, I worked on reframing my relationship with my mental health and my daily life; I’ve become more resilient in response to my episodes and more open-minded in my approach to art. I’m not the only one who feels the difference. Friends and family inform me that my smile is more confident now, that I’ve grown “prettier.” Happiness is beauty. I can see it too, sometimes.

As an artist enamored with ancient relics, Twombly nurtured a reverent relationship to the past. In an interview with the Louvre following the installation of his ceiling painting, Twombly explained, “The past is a springboard for me … Ancient things are new things. Everything lives in the moment, that’s the only time it can live. But its influence can go on forever.” In Twombly’s world, the past is a vessel of truth that lives on in the eternality of our memory, memory that is immortalized by artwork. The past becomes a “springboard” for who we are today.

My past is what has led me here too. I am here, at the gallery today, because I am searching for answers.

By all definitions, I am “well” today. I have a supportive group of friends that I see regularly. I am taking a full college course load while maintaining my GPA. I shower, eat, and sleep fairly well, and exercise consistently, all while living away from my family in California. Nothing about my external appearance points to mental instability. Still, the crippling fear of relapse is always lurking around the corner. I hear its voice, feel its heaviness in my temples, even when I am happy. On the nights that intrusive thoughts slip back into their mold and leave me doubled over in the bathroom, I am flooded with the reality of my diagnoses.

In my responses to Twombly’s work, I yearn for clarity that I have healed myself, that I can live without the drone of hopeless brain-chatter. I want this visit to be entirely different from that of January. I want proof that I have changed from who I was before.

I want to trace a roadmap for my recovery, for my future, and receive confirmation that I am already walking on the correct path. I want to be seen—by the artwork that first saw me from the glow of my phone in high school, from the dull murmur of depression back in January. I want to draw a tenuous line between the self of my past and who I am today.

I want to find myself. I want to be found.

My memories from January still reverberate with the acrid pang of shame. Guilt hung over me as I walked around the bright rooms of the gallery, as if my low mood were sullying the artwork. Viewing ​Thicket f​or the first time felt like switching on a light for a few seconds, the sudden brightness activating enough neurons to temporarily quell the self-loathing. My emotions were dull, so I responded more to the textures, the imagined feeling of the sculpture behind the glass. I recalled the tactile experience of making plaster sculptures in my previous semester, as I envisioned Twombly’s process of dipping leaves into wet plaster, setting them aside to dry, and placing them painstakingly on the wooden box. Deconstructing ​Thicket into each step of its formation was my disjointed way of appreciating the sculpture. It also slackened the piece’s god-like grip on me by revealing the mundanities of the creative process and the sculpture’s inherent fragility.

Seeing the sculpture from the lens of fragility—small and shrunken, with shriveled leaves and flowers—I am reminded that wellness is a fragile state of being. I think of how frail I was months ago, how another episode could be well on its way to leave me submerged again. My presence at the gallery today is as wrapped in uncertainty as it was before.

*        *        *

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1985. Photo: Kevin Keim.

I say goodbye to ​Thicket​ and move on to ​Untitled ​(1985), a rectangular white canvas with a green painted oval in the center and text below. Once again, the familiar sight is a warm welcome home. My eyes are drawn to the white wash over the paper, muddled with blue and brown splatters and fingerprints. According to the Menil’s book on the gallery, Twombly would rub dirt onto his canvases in order to “subdue the whites,” a testament to his embrace of the imperfect. In the center of this un-white canvas, brilliant, endless green paint spills over the edges of the oval, a “window” into a single moment.

The text in Untitled is taken from Rilke’s “Moving Forward” (1900), a poem that mulls over the impermanence of lingering emotion: “And in the ponds / broken off from the sky / my feeling sinks / as if standing on fishes.” With his inclusion of scribbled poetic quotations and reliance on hand-painted streaks of paint, Twombly employs both wild passion and refined delicacy to create this contemplative, vulnerable painting. His chosen lines are scrawled beneath the oval window, words looping over and around each other. An echo of the word “fishes” rests at the bottom, a call to how specific words in poems catch our eye and flit around our minds. Twombly’s handwriting is messy, nearly as indecipherable as the transient feelings Rilke writes of.

My next stop is Catullus, the wall-long painting with its haphazard scribbles and bursts of color. The room is quiet, save for the whistle of the security guard in the next room over, a comforting sound that sets me at ease. In January, when my brain was so filled with noise that I could hardly decipher my own thoughts, the chaos of the three-part canvas appeared as screams, nonsense in paint form. Today, as I sit on a bench in the room, the painting is different. Fragments pique my interest; I adore a white cloud that rests in the center panel, its soft contours obscuring black lines underneath. Gradually, the warring visual elements—scribbles, streaks, and swirls of black, white, and explosive color—unite into a wave of motion. The longer I look at Catullus, the more the mess coalesces into harmony, like a blurry image coming into focus.

When she was struggling to install paintings at the Menil, Conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro received a memorable piece of advice from Twombly. The artist counseled her “against getting frustrated and warned that I should not be striving for perfection. He told me that years ago in Sicily, when a young girl was deemed too beautiful, the old women would slit her cheek in order to dispel the perfection.” His words read as a salve for the perfectionist mind. A slit on a pristine cheek, a fingerprint on a white canvas, a stain on a molded brain—the longer we sit with flaws, the more readily we can discover their purpose. Imperfection, chaos, is art in the world
of Twombly.

*        *        *

My visit takes me next to ​Untitled (A Painting in Nine Parts), a series of nine abstract paintings reminiscent of lush forests and rushing water. In the room, nine individual canvases are hung around the four walls. Two of the walls house three canvases each: on each wall, a large canvas cut into a decorative rectangular shape, edges curved at the top and bottom, occupies the center; smaller rectangular canvases sit to the left and right. Aligned compositions of green-black strokes and soft blue washes unite the three canvases on each wall, the scenery unfolding across the separate panels. The other two walls, which include entryways, are framed by the remaining three rectangular canvases.

View of three canvases from
Untitled (A Painting in Nine Parts), 1988. Photo: Lonny.

Situated by an entryway, the first panel is the simplest of the series: all white, save for the dark green strokes cascading down the edges and large, handwritten text in the center. It’s the same lines that Twombly previously quoted from Rilke; though words are absent from the other canvases, their significance resonates throughout all the paintings. “In Rilke’s ponds,” Jacobus explains, “fugitive feeling sinks from sight as if in a state of floating submersion … These aqueous surfaces speak to the subtle shifts and movements that make reflections in water stilling yet never quite still.” Rilke’s meditation on impermanence guides Twombly’s expressive painting of these reflective pools and bustling greenery. These panels are marked by Twombly’s fascination with the transitory, as it persists in written memories of antiquity and lived experiences in the present.

I stand in this room of green canvases and allow myself to be immersed in the depth of their surfaces. I observe the sensations and impressions imprinted in each painting: trees, water, waves, tendrils, drips, swashes, blurs—the tension between frothy water and tumultuous greenery. Water crisscrosses about the canvases with slashed strokes, as if droplets are about to splash off the surface. Stormy green frames the rippling pools, horizontal strokes streaking from one canvas to the next, continuity in motion. In the realm of the green paintings, the viewer and nature coalesce into one.

Despite what some critics may say, Twombly is not Monet. His study of nature lacks the tranquility of Monet’s water lilies; these canvases are a flurry of passion and quick paint strokes, arising from Twombly’s hurry to capture the moment before it is gone. I imagine him in Rome, wildly painting these canvases in the span of two days, using only his fingers and acrylic paint. “I use my hands because sometimes there isn’t time to get a brush,” Twombly remarked, a nod to the wide-eyed hunger that belies the reflective surfaces of his green paintings. Twombly’s frenzied paintings reach for Rilke’s representation of a moment, a feeling that passes just as it is realized.

I marvel, too, at how dedicated Twombly is to honoring the creative presence of these remembered lines. “Rilke has always been my great source,” Twombly once said of the poet. As art historian Michael Schreyach writes, these verses from “Moving Forward” serve as “a citation that Twombly had perhaps carried with him for many years, during which it gained in power, depth, and resonance, and that he is now ready to share with us.” Reading about Twombly’s intimate relationship with the poetry of Rilke, I am reminded that poems can possess a certain magic when read at an opportune moment, the words aligning in the right lighting to reveal a truth. Like the pasts that we carry with us, these words can serve as guides. Twombly’s green paintings feel overwhelmingly mournful, as if on the brink of tears, but they also brim with joy—disparate, wondrous emotions that have been relayed to me as a result of these lines Twombly has held within him.

Tears prick at my eyes as I stand in the room, suspended in the moment Twombly has immortalized before me. There is so much to behold in these mirrors that he has erected out of his memory. The longer I look at these canvases, the more I see my own reflection in the maddening greenness.

I know that my past should not weigh on me this much, but it does. I know that severe depressive episodes are common, especially for the chronically mentally ill. That I lived through one should not bother me, and that I continue to experience bouts of un-wellness should not make me feel defective—but it does.

So much of my identity has been forged from the accomplishment of “getting over” my illnesses. When I first began treatment, I thought I would be freed from the incessant buzz that was OCD. Antidepressants, I was convinced, would shut the door on my symptoms and relegate my pain to the past. In my self-proclaimed recovery, I thought—as the mental health platitudes on Twitter go—that I had “made it to the other side.”

Pride, as I discovered, was not a recipe for getting and staying better. Believing that my wellness arose solely from my own fortitude led me to blame myself when I experienced my relapse. If my mental stability could be shattered as easily as a sheet of glass, where would I look to find myself? I didn’t know who I was if my recovery was not set in stone.

Perhaps my search for a concrete identity in the face of mental illness explains why I cling to arbitrary things: a visit to a gallery, a small plaster sculpture, favorite words from a poet. I am still searching for a semblance of the permanent—of myself—from the wreckage of my collapse.

It is a search that I cannot help but feel is futile, but Twombly might argue otherwise. His invocation of ancient relics and the literature of prior generations illuminates the past as a living entity and time as a keeper of eternity. In an essay about the function of antiquity and memory in Twombly’s work, Leeman quotes French poet Théophile Gautier: “For, in fact … nothing dies. Everything continues to exist. No force can annihilate what once was. Every act, every word, every form, every thought that has fallen into the universal ocean of things therein produces circles that grow ever wider until they reach the very confines of eternity.” Leeman further distills Gautier’s words: “Something no longer exists, and yet it is there because it once was.” It is a strange and marvelous revelation, that “what once was” can continue to live on through the imprint it leaves on the world. Something’s existence in a temporal space cannot be disputed—even after it is gone, or after it dies. As Twombly puts it, “Ancient things are new things,” with “influence [that] can go on forever.” The universality of time rests at the heart of Twombly’s approach to art, where remembered lines are repeatedly etched over to create something new and exciting.

Untitled Part VI (A Painting in 9 Parts), 1988. Photo: Cy Twombly Info

In the echo of Twombly’s words on time, I think about acceptance. If each and every moment continues to live on in its reverberations through the universe, then there is no single identity to locate. All of my selves—those shrouded in pain and those aglow in wellness, those residing in the past and those lingering in the present, all those fickle shadows of myself—exist in the same atmosphere. The person who viewed ​Thicket​ with dull eyes in January continues to live on, coexisting with the person contemplating her reflection in the green paintings. There is no line to demarcate the divide between my past and my present. Everyone I have ever been and will be is within me. We—the “me” of the past, present, and future—are all here.

*        *        *

The rush of clarity is gone after I step away from the green paintings. Standing among more scribbled canvases, I find myself desperate to leave. I taste the old guilt, the oppressive cloud that hung over everything in January. It stings, like a hand pressing into a wound; I don’t want to spend a moment seeing but not fully appreciating Twombly’s work.

This time, instead of running, I stay. I force myself to walk around the gallery one more time. Anxiety bubbles up when I approach Thicket again—this time, there is no flood of euphoria, no momentous revelation to be found—but I look anyways.

As I step out of the gallery, the change in weather startles me out of my stupor. No more picturesque blue skies; I look up to see churning gray clouds, wind whirling about and sending the trees into a wild frenzy. I think of Twombly’s furiously green canvases, mad with the desire to transmute a moment into eternity. I remember Rita Dove’s poem about Eve reaching for an apple to satiate her boundless curiosity, what it means to wake up from “the aimless Being There” of repeated life. I imagine where I’ll be tomorrow, wonder if I’ll visit the gallery again next month or next year.

Thunder crackles, and the rain starts up. It’s a new moment—it’s everything, and yet nothing, like before.

Maggie Yuan is a junior at Rice University, where she double majors in English and Visual Arts. She is happiest when reading new poetry, wandering around thrift shops in Houston, or re-watching Conan remotes on Youtube.

Cover image by Juan Nino on Unsplash

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