These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
–T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
In the works that made him famous, Jasper Johns realized an ancient dream by painting things that overcame the distinction between reality and representation–numerals, for example, or targets. Thus a painting of the numeral 2 is at once the numeral 2 and its representation; the same is true of a painting of a target, or of the American flag. This was not quite the achievement the sculptor Pygmalion had in mind when he carved a woman in marble that metamorphosed into a woman of flesh and blood. Still, with its mischievous approach to the seemingly intractable divide between reality and representation, Johns’s work acquired a remarkable philosophical interest. Like his friend Robert Rauschenberg, Johns mined what Rauschenberg called “the gap between art and life.” Both Johns and Rauschenberg explored as well the gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop, its cool successor and ostensible antithesis.
Rauschenberg’s friend Cy Twombly was the third member of this remarkable cohort, united by personal bonds and comparable aesthetic ambitions, but his work stands apart from that of his more famous peers. Twombly’s relationship to the New York School was closer; the signature feature of his work is the scribble, which has an affinity with Pollock’s drips. Whereas Johns carefully drew or printed numerals and stencil-like letters, Twombly scrawled lines that were barely legible. Twombly had fewer qualms about being overtly representational, and he didn’t seem to worry much whether his scribbles were read as imitations of scribbling or as the thing itself. Even so, his art was very much in harmony with that of the Pop generation and beyond, based as it was on loosely written texts.
Take, for instance, the painting on the cover of the catalogue for the celebratory exhibition “Cy Twombly: 50 Years of Works on Paper,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 8 (after which it travels to the Menil Collection in Houston). The painting features a variation on the show’s title, “Cy Twombly: 50 Years of Drawing,” in three nearly unreadable lines of script. It has a feeling of urgency and almost looks as if it were written by a finger dipped in blood. Yet it appears to have been first written tentatively and then painstakingly overwritten, as if to make sure the message got through. Which it barely does: The two layers of writing bleed into each other, obscuring the words and suggesting a nearly hopeless struggle to communicate. Twombly’s work draws its power from this struggle with words and inscriptions, not from their meaning, in striking contrast to Johns, who never allows the bravura of his painting to obscure the transparency of his forms. Twombly has turned hermeticism into a strangely stirring form of expression.
The show begins with an arresting pair of nearly matching works, which raise all the questions of Twombly’s art, as well as a certain number of questions all their own. Both paintings are dominated by an array of black and scarlet daubs on white surfaces, but Twombly is not really an abstract painter, and the daubs irresistibly become objects in pictorial space, and convey a sense of floating on water. They could be flowers on the surface of a pond, like Monet’s waterlilies, but another reading is just as possible. In the 2001Venice Biennial, Twombly was awarded the Leone d’Oro prize for twelve panels showing a historic sea battle–the Battle of Lepanto of 1571–and the black-and-scarlet daubs could be ships aflame, seen from a distant shore, which might explain the serenity of the scene. Both works have the same title–Petals of Fire–but we don’t know if this is a poetic image or a botanical designation. There is writing on each sheet, as there often is in Twombly’s work, in a distinctively loose calligraphy, but the writing characteristically fails to clarify what we are looking at. The writing is in pencil, urgently overwritten with red oil stick. In one, in tiny script, there is an almost legible text that seems to say, “Awake a moment/Mind dreams again/Red rose black edged.” This same text seems to appear at the bottom of the other painting, but part of it disappears under a reddish smear. The end of the line is difficult to make out and perhaps was not meant to be read by anyone anyway, since the writer, painting for himself, knew what it said. In one painting there is also writing at the top. It feels like a letter (“As long as you have…”), which then fades out, though the last word is “love.” Part of the text is occluded by the word “Petals” in large script.