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Cy Twombly

By Dorothea Rockburne

I wrote something but decided not to read it, because I wanted to be very personal. I met Cy when I was 17 with Bob Rauschenberg at Black Mountain, and of course nobody had a big reputation then. Black Mountain had called a meeting to have everybody enter into a work program, and I couldn’t believe it. I’d worked like hell to get there and I certainly didn’t want to enter into a work program.

We were divided into teams, and my team was Rauschenberg and Twombly. I must have looked really dour, because each one put an arm around me, and Bob whispered in my ear, “I have a car.” That meant that we could flee, and we did. We wandered around and that began a long relationship with both Bob and Cy. We studied photography together, although they were never students. At one point, we did this big attempt at spirit photography. We’d been studying the history of it in England, and Bob was convinced that there were spirits in the house he was living in. We vacated the place and set up lights and so on, and cameras. Of course it failed utterly. Another time, Bob and Cy rewrote Hamlet, and I was to play Ophelia. I was on a raft in the middle of Lake Eden. It was supposed to be serious, but Cy was on the shore as the raft left and he was laughing like hell. That made it very difficult for me to be a serious Ophelia.

Until the last fifteen years, I continued to know Cy. He was in New York a lot. We hung out a bit together. The thing that I felt great affinity to, was that everybody at Black Mountain was always rebelling, and he and I were not. We were trying to encompass all of art history, starting with antiquity. I of course very much admired his work, and found it very radical. I can’t believe that he died. It is so awful to lose somebody like that. He was somebody I love very much.

Written Text:

In 1994 the Gagosian gallery (33’ x 62’ x 16’) was located on Wooster Street in Soho. On my lunch hour I walked over to see Cy Twombly’s most recent exhibition, Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor. When I walked into the gallery there was only one painting shown, which covered the entire south wall of the gallery (157 ½” x 624”). It was impossible to get very far back from the painting to view it. In fact, the gallery had moved their wall to separate the street entrance from the exhibition, making the viewing space narrower than it normally was. Therefore, the only possible way to view the work was to begin at one end and walk alongside it. “Hmm!” I thought, “Cy has been studying the Giotto corridor in the church of Saint Francis of Assisi.”

When viewing the Saint Francis panels in that corridor and stopping to study individual panels, the viewer must walk along and by the paintings to see the work. This viewing position causes the viewer’s body to function as part of the painting. Using my peripheral vision I watched out of the corner of my eye while Giotto’s diagonal lines seemingly changed their position as they defined the end of one story and the beginning of another. I, the viewer, had become part of an invisible line constituting the vanishing point. It was as though I were a camera and the work required my viewing of it to understand its own completeness. What an exhilarating idea!

“The painter ‘takes his body with him,’ says Valéry. Indeed we cannot imagine how a mind could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings. To understand these transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body—not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception.

I first met Cy at Black Mountain College in 1950, when he and Rauschenberg were there together. They were both stunningly handsome. Bob had G.I. Bills from the Korean War. They were never students in the strict sense. They were there to grab free time to paint and to partake in the richness of the intellectual community. We three hit it off right away and became very good friends. We fooled around a lot together.

We worked in the photography lab under the direction of Hazel-Frieda Larsen. They were convinced that the house in which they lived was haunted, and once tried to do spirit photography. Naturally they failed. Another time Bob and Cy rewrote a scene from Hamlet, in which I was to star as Ophelia. I remember lying on a raft in the middle of Lake Eden in a long white dress Bob had made for me. My long, blond hair was draped over the side of the raft and into the lake. There must have been more to it, but I don’t remember it. I do remember Cy laughing like hell as he watched me. It was very difficult to keep a straight face under those conditions.

At Black Mountain College everyone was always rebelling—both in their life and in their work—and it struck me at the time that it was only Cy and I who were not rebelling against the history of art. Cy was not trying to create a revolution in art as Duchamp had done. He was trying to make a meal from art and human history, which indeed he did.

Although Cy later lived in Italy, I saw him often when he visited New York. Once, in 1968, I was in Munich and perfectly miserable. I called Cy, and he invited me to hightail it to Rome, which I promptly did. He had invited me to stay with him and his family on the Piazza Navona, where they occupied the top floor of a former palazzo. On ringing the bell his then-young son Alexander, about seven at the time, answered the door, took me to my room, and showed me around. The space seemed drenched in sunlight and was all white marble and sparsely furnished. There were several Picasso sculptures on stands. When I remarked that I hadn’t known that Cy owned so many Picassos, Alexander replied that he didn’t. “My father made them himself,” Alexander said proudly.

“It is as if in the painter’s calling there were some urgency above all other claims on him. Strong or frail in life, he is incontestably sovereign in his own rumination of the world. With no other technique than what his eyes and hands discover in seeing and painting, he persists in drawing from this world, with its din of history’s glories and scandals, canvases which will hardly add to the angers or the hopes of man—and no one complains.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception.

Well, Merleau-Ponty says it all much better than I can. It’s almost as though he were writing a review of Cy’s working method. In spite of himself, he did create a revolution, and I revel in it.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters