“Cy’s death is a blow and quite haunts me. Ceccobelli was here and told me about his funeral at Chiesa Nuova, OUR CHURCH. I wondered why he came to Rome to die. Then it dawned on me that he wanted to be near Keats. It was true. I am writing about all our delicious meetings… Will send it soon.” Pietrasanta, 17 July 2011.*
I didn’t know his name was Edwin. I am in debt to another Edwin, who taught me how to write about sophisticated, complicated things in ordinary every-day language. He, (Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly), taught me about a way of painting, putting down ideas about living and dreaming in gobs and driblets of paint simply out of tubes.
On the Gianicolo hill a little cannon in an ornamental lighthouse used to boom every day at noon. Just before this Lola and I would amble over to Cy and Tatia’s house. Bill Weaver who I had known at Art News in New York had found little Jacob and me some rooms in Lola’s on Via Monserrato. Her poet husband had left for England, and my own also had found other shores. It was a melancholy situation. But we found solace in Cy and Tatia’s apartment across the street. It was said to have been inhabited once by a pope, had great marble floors, rows of gilded baroque chairs and wicked emperors’ busts on marble columns, as well as choice modern artefacts, for instance a Duchamp spinning disk. There were large antique four-poster beds. A ladder climbed up to Tatia’s studio between floors where on shelves she kept her apothecary jars, brimful of dried insects, shells, snails and other nature finds.
A few years before, when I was still an art critic at Art News, Cy Twombly had been something of a sensation in the New York art world. The followers of the conservative Dr Frankfurter, who was responsible for the articles on art history and antiques, objected to a review by some unknown poet, Frank O’Hara, not an art historian, who for his living sold postcards and tickets at MoMA. He had written a rave about some beige dense abstractions. “Cream coloured screams” he had called them. There had even been a special editorial conference at Art News if there was such a thing as creamed coloured screams. Fairfield Porter, Larry Campbell, Jimmy Schuyler and I were on the side of Frank and Tom (note: Hess, the editor). Frankfurter thought Frank’s praise was madly exaggerated and that such absurd stuff should have no place in an art magazine. But Tom’s way was set. He featured a way of art writing he called “parallel poetry”. Under him Art News became a paragon: bright, naughty reviews and bold, brash, fresh, easy-seeming writings and opinions made the magazine outstanding.
At the Castelli Gallery, I saw rows and rows of charcoaly scrawls like keening writing, rows and rows leaning in a sideways crowd, as close as stalks on a wheat field or toilet markings, the loose scrawly technique like writing. I didn’t particularly like or dislike them.
Here in Rome, over us hung huge canvases. I looked at them while I listened to art world gossip. Now the writing was much looser and it was interspersed with feathery squeaky daubs of paint in petal colours, thumbmarks, splotches. After a few noon sittings in the Twomblys’ apartment one day I was caught. These pictures were blazing. They were both about an old world and a new one. I could suddenly see with rapture.
On white woven and smoothed fields all those fresh bits of paint, crumbly, juicy, smeary. Rose pinks, blood reds, larkspur blues, jonquil yellows, bile greens and death and hell black. Athena with wiggling snakes and owl; Europe riding a beast; bubbling birth of Apollo, Leda and billowing swan. Zeus and Bacchus frolicking in earnest; Danae embracing clouds of gold; Hero and Leander sinking in cruel turmoil of purples. All in vast Mediterranean sky. All those creepy needs of gods like everyone else in the grip of domineering, leering flight and tender surrenders. Cy himself sat enthroned under them in smiling appreciation. “I like my last paintings up while I still have a crush on them,” he said.
Early in Rome, when I was stuck with my still lifes in front of Siena or Rome views, Umberto (Bignardi – ed.), who painted a sort of refined pop art, said “I’m going to tell you something Cy showed me.” Bignardi was part of the group later called Scuola di Piazza del Popolo with Franco Angeli, Tano Festa, even early Kounellis who began to show in Plinio De Martiis’ Tartaruga Gallery and Fabio Sargentini’s Attico. He produced big sheets of paper and a bunch of half-greasy, half-chalky crayons (in the 1960s paint sticks made of compressed oil were not yet available). He commenced to draw haphazard phrases and names on the white paper, row of scrawly scrawls. Tattery like the edges of clouds, involved like bumble bee flight. He told me to do the same. We made patterns and patterns and webs. All this was to catch the dabs and dashes of paint and voilà – the beginning, no, also the end of a picture. This was a lesson I never let go and I practise it today.
Giorgio Franchetti and his sister Tatia were thorough snobs. But though arrogant like the rest of their newly aristocratic family, they had the grace to recognise the extraordinary splendour of the young, elegant American traveller they caught. “All this high society collected once were landscapes and sheep grazing in olive groves,” as Cy put it. Franchetti supported Plinio De Martiis’ Tartaruga Gallery, brightly alert to Cy’s and others’ new art, Bill De Kooning, Franz Kline, Philip Guston and Mark Rothko etc long before Bischofberger in Cologne and the French existentialist writers became even faintly aware of them. The Franchetti had a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice, the Ca D’Oro, chockfull of new art. Franchetti wrote about it, not in convoluted Italian art lingo, no earnest impenetrable sentences like the critics with diplomas in art history and years of severe studies. His articles were made of witty sentences, intelligent and direct. I know, as I translated one of them, an introduction to a show of my friend Giulio Turcato, the saturnine Mantuan who on the Rome scene was the only one who acted like a New York Expressionist – rough, grouchy and straightforward. He painted deep glowing truly inventive colour and shapes. Franchetti, brief and bright, did him high honour.
Changing apartments I gave parties myself in Via Giulia, in the Rowdens’ apartment in which Max Frisch had been writing and Ingeborg Bachmann had died. Some Living Theater actors wandered into my cocktail party. I had seen them in “The Connection” by Gelber in their place opposite the A&P at the corner of 14th Street and 6th Avenue in the Village. Throughout “The Connection” there was one actor always worried by a boil on his neck. This was still so vivid in my mind that at the party in Rome I still looked at him searching for that boil.
Next in Via Candia, quite near the walls where the long files of tourists waited daily to get a view of the Vatican Museums Domenico Gnoli had found us an apartment belonging to his wife’s father, a general in the Italian army. It was pleasantly comfortable with good painting light, but it was a seventh floor walk-up.
One Sunday afternoon at a cocktail party a painter’s wife shrieked. She had patted her precious black fur coat into a corner, heaped on top of a stack of canvases covered with fresh white paint. Nearby Cinny Rockwell was trying to keep her new baby quiet. The no-nonsense practical American mother took the baby to her breast. There he nuzzled and slurped happily, in the middle of the sophisticated Dolce Vita cocktail party. The bell rang, there stood Cy breathless after seven flights of stairs, a retinue of handsome Roman acolytes in his wake. They all gulped at the scene. Cy being a puritan American stood still, but his cute boys, being down-to-earth Romans, broke into approving grins.
As a new ploy Galleria Arco di Rab, a gallery run by friends, hosted a series of shows in which a double was featured. One was a well-established artist, the other was less known; the lesser was introduced by the big shot, so to speak. My friend Gina Spengler had an idea. “Hey, Edith,” she said, “you are friends with Cy Twombly so why don’t you ask him to introduce you?”
When I did Cy had a fit on the phone. “Oh baby, I can’t do that,” he wailed. “I have been to these introductions in Germany, so solemn and jabbering. You stand around drink in hand waiting to drink it while someone goes on and on, saying perfectly meaningless stuff.”
“Oh, no,” I interrupted, “not that kind of introduction, not a speech, Cy, all I ask is to lend me some of your pictures, to hang alongside my own, to show you support me.”
“If that is all…” He relaxed at once. “Well, of course,” he said with relief, “just come at once and choose some.”
I went over to Piazza de’ Ricci where I met him at Pierluigi’s, a simple trattoria then, where all the poor writers, composers and painters ate. The apartment was melancholy, the parties gone, the family dispersed. Cy now lived in a farm in Alto Lazio and a palazzo in Gaeta but the pictures had increased, beyond those on the walls. They were stacked and stacked, leaning face to the wall, jammed.
All was shadowy and dusty and no longer gay. There was a small empty room as a kernel, with a bed, some chairs and a table with writing and drawing materials. “My study when I pass through Rome,” he said. It all had a forlorn look and you could hardly find a passage past all that stacked work.
I had to smile. Cy had a dirty secret like the rest of us: a surfeit of unsold work. He turned things over here and there. “Is this alright – that?” Everything is alright I thought gratefully and let him choose. He sighed after that and said ruefully. “All that stuff here, it’s like the Collier brothers, isn’t it?” He meant the two old men in New England who had seemed so poor and starving and when they died their house was found full to the rafters of shoe boxes. When the boxes were opened they were chockfull of dollars.
He carried several of his unwieldy works unwrapped under his arm, trudging across Corso Vittorio Emanuele, past Borromini’s lofty oratorium for St Filippo Neri, past the church of Chiesa Nuova where Rubens and Tiepolo looked down, until he came to my apartment in Via del Corallo.
Looking out of the kitchen window he exclaimed at my glassed-in balcony over the humdrum courtyard with the washing lines criss-crossing and weeds on the roof nodding down. “This reminds me of Istanbul,” but he hardly looked at the paintings, mine and those of the others on the walls.
When he came to show openings he usually smiled around politely, then signed the book. There was one exception, Giancarlino who used to stand in front of his tiny shop-studio in an alley in old Rome where he had a raw duck canvas nailed to the wall, covering it with his crafty signs. Giancarlino’s very bright and knows to be pure and truly instinctive. Cy bought his work.
Now Cy was arrested by my piattiera, an oak antique I had bargained for at the flea market, Porta Portese. It was filled with a row of plates on a yellowish beige clay ground. I bought them from a local potter in Viareggio from a stand not far from the sands on which Shelley’s body had been washed ashore. But the potter had swept green glazes over them. The green wept and ran in fringes and rains and jittery splashes down each one. It was pungent and bad. It is called Hooker’s Green. Cy stared and stared at this green. It was the event of his morning. He had met some sour new being. I saw years later at the Gagosian Gallery that he had absorbed that pungent but thirst-stilling green on a large canvas about an oasis.
A colour assaults a painter like an emotion, like a food. It’s visceral. The shock brings you delight and despair: red, the squeezed blood of murder or sacrifices or ripe grapes. Green like the still pond with moss ferns or worms in its depth, violet in waves violently choking left lovers; yellow, running pus or sinking summer sun. It’s a taste, leaving something new and full inside you. Was I wrong or had Hooker’s Green hooked him in Via Corallo?
New Yorkers didn’t pay much attention to his occasional shows here at all and considered him not really into things, simply not tough enough, envious that he was living in sunny, chockfull-of-ancient-art Italy. The occasional rumours from Rome had it that Cy was running off to Greece and Egypt with Bob (Rauschenberg – ed.) and Jasper (Johns – ed.), otherwise painting in palazzos – not taking into account that in Italian “palazzo” simply meant apartment – supported by his new rich in-laws, lounging in a big studio near popular piazzas. Not facing the dirt and hardships of New York was treachery.
We were sitting in the trattoria at the corner of Via Monserrato and Piazza della Moretta, where once the gallows had stood. I liked the place because they filled a huge vase with fresh flowers from their orchard each morning. Cy liked it because they made desserts from American cake mixes.
“They say you come from the New York Expressionists,” I dared to say. “I haven’t got much to do with them,” he replied. “You know in Black Mountain I had a teacher who showed me older Germans, before even Nolde. There was Max Slevogt and Lovis Corinth. I studied those dirty, crumbly, wild crummy paintings, much terrific loose colour.”
“In New York they think you are too Europeanised,” I ventured politely. I meant the Roman leisurely upper-class-life with Tatia and family, the dregs of Dolce Vita surrounding him had estranged him from New York hardship and roughness. (Not that later his friends Bob and Jasper had ever laboured too much in that respect either). I told him that Rackstraw Downes, the stern realist painter, had said to me: “That Cy is spoilt.” At which my companion grinned sheepishly, a forkful of delicious Aunt Jemima chocolate cream pie poised on his fork. “You mean like this?” he said before gobbling it up with childish delight.
Another day he took Alvin and me to the marvellous Cancelleria palace, smoothed Renaissance and white, before dinner at Piazza Farnese. In the inner courtyard he attentively considered Vasari’s indifferent murals. He aired what he knew about the various sacks of Rome – and he knew a lot – and about Galileo’s prison and naughty Lucullus. He was very much more erudite than most Americans and painters in general and enjoyed teaching the Rhode Island musician and me a thing or two.
Every time I met Cy in the neighbourhood he said something enchanting and so memorable I could not forget. Once he asked me where do you break bread or eat your pasta. Let’s eat at the Pantheon tonight, he said, but he never came. I saw him after at a show in Naples but he never explained. One night, a Twelfth Night, when I was in grouchy mood and had refused several other dinner invitations, the phone rang. It was Nicola (del Roscio – ed.), Cy’s friend. “Come to dinner with us over at our Decimo,” he said. It was an offer I could not refuse. The dinner was amusing and good but for once Cy was not amusing and he and Nicola quibbled over everything like an old married couple.
Cy was wily and savvy and he was still the unbound American. He could demolish a rave of mine in one instance. “Have you been to the School of Athens lately?” he would tease gaily. In those days I still wondered what he saw in Raphael but we agreed on Poussin’s triumphs. I told him how I liked the shepherds at the altar in Arcadia in the exquisitely restrained show Balthus had arranged at the French Academy and he shared my admiration. “You know I met him,” I said, “just an elegant small man who I only recognised from his paint-spattered loafers. He told me Poussin himself ground his lapis lazuli for his blue Roman skies.”
Anybody newer (contemporary – ed.) was not mentioned and he liked to scatter mischief when I raised my modern preferences. I went on about Klee’s “Harbour” I had recently seen at the Kunstmuseum in Basel. “Oh yeah,” he sighed, “I too liked Klee when I was a teenager.” And when I mentioned the shows of Piranesi’s wallowing etchings of Roman archaeological sites. He said: “Every dentist I know has one in his waiting room.” When I talked about a recent Eric Fischl show in New York he nodded. “Oh yes, a porn Fairfield Porter.” That hurt.
Cy had an innate sense of elegance. He wore pale outfits that were so understated they were found extremely elegant. They looked like those clothes featured for a while in “Peterman” ads in the New Yorker of tall, skinny gentlemen wearing fluttering sat-upon coats artfully wrinkled and threadbare. It was weathered chic.
One of the last times I saw him, at a Brice Marden opening at the Calcografia, he wore a watchman’s cap like most of the Expressionists in early times except his was colourless, undyed. “Brice?” I asked. He grinned, to my surprise loving those dry panels. “He is a friend,” he said. That explained it.
When I went to Cy’s solo show at GNAM it was vast and brimming. After my hours under his paintings on the walls of Via Monserrato I was primed. The quivering swirls and clouds and Ledas and Danaes now meant sound and fury. We studied and enjoyed scrawls and quicksand divings and concise signs and portents. Suddenly my friend Lea, an American interior decorator who had been studying a work close up exclaimed: “Hey do you see what I see?” I stepped closer. Some unmistakable scrawls, exclamatory staccato under curvaceous double forms in pink said “Little girl shitting.” Oh Cy you fiend I gurgled. The tales of gods and mortals were around us, spidery traces, excrements, pastel pollen, petal smears, rustling, stirring, sweetly funky, milky or hairy thick, garlands of events screaming and dreaming, funny, daily, wicked or mild, tearing at our innards. Wide open your eyes!
After Cy’s death people sometimes would stop me and ask: “What do you really see in Twombly’s work?” The question itself reveals they don’t want to see anything for themselves. So I only replied as defiantly as I could: “He is the most lyrical painter of our time.” To my sorrow the sophisticated, rich and instructed think so too. But let them.
When I was little we had an art teacher, Herr Brodersen. He was frail and silver haired and wore a frock coat. When he was pensioned he gave us tea in the summer house where he lived, in the park where Goethe had wooed Lili. He came from the Danish border, Schleswig Holstein, and lisped in his high accent. He never taught us drawing or painting but in avantgarde Bauhaus fashion distributed coloured papers among us, telling us to rip them to shape and paste them down for our images. When a collage image was particularly handsome he would hold it and cry “Oh wie gerissen!” (Oh how beautifully torn). But if something struck him as ugly he would shake his head: “I’d rather not meet this one at midnight!” When one of us did something really good he called out “Here! Look! A knight without fear and blemish.”
Cy rides into the night, a knight without fear and blemish. He is with us, both “The horror” and the “Augenblick wie bist du schön!” He is NOW.
* On a postcard from Edith to me. Edith did not complete the article before she died in December 2011 but left a folder with enough material for me to reconstruct what her tribute to Twombly probably would have been. — Mary Wilsey.
As published in the 21 March 2012 of Wanted in Rome magazine.