“WHEN YOU ENTER the Cy Twombly Gallery at The Menil Collection in Houston The Age of Alexander hangs in the room immediately to the left,” Joshua Rivkin explains in Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly, the first biographical study of one of the great 20th-century masters of visual art, published by Melville House. “For years, I always turned right,” Rivkin admits. “The Age of Alexander never called me. Until it did.”
The Age of Alexander is a massive work of oil, crayon, and graphite on canvas — a vast white plane covered with cryptic hieroglyphs, chaotic scribbles, strange shapes, stray words. Each marking somehow appears both casually dashed off and meticulously thought out. Rivkin describes the painting as “both, paradoxically, full and empty,” seeing it as “an act of struggle and questioning” — and we viewers struggle and question as we look at it, too. Does the Alexander of the title refer to Alexander the Great (a reference to the classic Plutarch biography of the famed Macedonian) or to Twombly’s own son, an infant at the time, named Alessandro (Italian for Alexander)? Does the “deployment of graphic ‘troops’ and the occurrence of pictorial skirmishes between paint and pencil suggest a huge battle painting,” as critic Brooks Adams determined? Or is it “a painting for fathers,” as Rivkin claims, “a mostly illegible manual of instruction for fears and worries and wonders”? Is this an example of epic historiography or of personal mythmaking? We can make out some shapes; a few words are discernible. Tension is etched into its surface, but “Twombly’s work resists an easy reading,” Rivkin acknowledges: “There’s always some intention that stays submerged, guarded from interpretation: a personal dictionary in a strange, lost language.”
Twombly’s canvases are palimpsests. Their surfaces catalog, to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, “what was the hand’s becoming,” in their constellations of squiggles and splotches, which speak into the silence of otherwise empty spaces — blank canvases stained with whispers. Traces of forms, words, ideas, and feelings haunt Twombly’s work like specters. Everything that is there seems only half-there — partially scratched out, unwritten, occulted, or erased. Even bold colors, when they appear in Twombly’s paintings, come like cut flowers exchanged between lovers, plucked from their roots, stripped of any context, embodying only the eternal mysteries of desire and meaning. “There is always a mystery, a concealment, at the heart of Twombly’s work and life,” Rivkin writes.
Like Rivkin, when I visited The Menil Collection this summer on a drive through Texas, I turned right instinctively upon entering the Cy Twombly Gallery, whether from the siren call of the refulgent cloudbursts of color in the panels of Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) on the walls of the room to the right or because of some innate programmed preference for rightward movement. What Rivkin leaves out of his passage about his encounter with the painting is that the gallery is set up like a square donut, so by starting to the right, the viewing experience naturally culminates in his beloved room to the left. Rivkin interrogates his infatuation with that room’s The Age of Alexander, but I must admit to being drawn in a different direction, to a painting on an adjoining wall in that final room of the gallery: Hyperion (To Keats).
John Keats, the poet of Grecian urns and nightingales, who knew that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” is a ghost figure that haunts both Twombly’s work and Rivkin’s book on the artist. Rivkin touches upon the Twombly-Keats connection, with scattered mentions of the poet throughout Chalk — references like shards of a shattered Hellenic vase, like the scribbled words on a Twombly canvas, hinting at something more, some profound connection. At one point, Rivkin retells the oft-quoted tale from Twombly’s friend and dealer, Yvon Lambert, of the artist returning to Rome to die because he wanted to be buried near Keats and Shelley. Yet it seems that Rivkin sees Keats as merely one of Twombly’s many “different crushes on different artists.”
One must be careful to avoid overreading Keats into Twombly’s work — Twombly references a handful of other artists too, such as Rilke — as searching for definite and literal meanings in the poetic fragments that emerge from the fogs of his canvases is undoubtedly a perilous endeavor. As Mary Jacobus, in her book Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, explains, Twombly’s use of poetic, cultural, and historical allusions does not “privilege them as repositories of transcendent cultural value.” These fragments he has shored against his ruins become abstracted, subverted, impenetrable. “Twombly’s lifelong habits of repurposing and erasure embrace elements of destruction and negativity that form crucial aspects of his visual aesthetic,” Jacobus argues. “Often his work seems designed to baffle, refusing to reveal what has been obliterated and setting limits on what can be known or retrieved.”
The connection between Twombly and Keats resonates in a way other literary and artistic touchstones do not because Twombly, through both his life and work, by embracing elements of destruction and negativity, and by setting limits on what can be known or retrieved, becomes a perfect exemplar of one of Keats’s main philosophical concepts: negative capability.
Keats discussed negative capability in only one letter, dated December 21, 1817, and addressed to his brothers. He defined the concept as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In the brief description provided in the letter, Keats explained that his appreciation for being capable of “remaining content with half knowledge” emerged from a conversation with writer Charles Wentworth Dilke — or a “disquisition,” as he called it — and a realization that this was a quality “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously.” Amazingly, like the markings on a Twombly canvas, the idea’s single expression in this one letter feels both meticulously thought out and casually dashed off.
Keats died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 25, a little over three years after writing that letter. He died thinking of himself as a failed poet, someone whom history would surely forget. For his epitaph, he wrote: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Yet Keats is remembered, a more than minor ripple. His poetry remains, of course, especially the six great odes, and even without any essay or treatise explaining the concept in detail, indeed without any further mention in his writings, negative capability, as a sort of theoryless-theory, managed to trickle down through the ages, and is still used today to describe the ability to contemplate the world without attempting to reconcile its contradictions or shoehorn its uncertainty, mystery, and doubt into some overly tidy personal ideology.
Though less has been written on negative capability than one might think, writers who have explored the concept over the last two centuries have connected it to concepts of openmindedness, skepticism, nuance, ambivalence, dialogue, ambiguity, multivocality, and romantic irony, but one of the most interesting and least discussed aspects of negative capability is its connection to erasure — thought as palimpsest.
For Keats, the ideal interest of the poet is disinterestedness, for a poet should obliterate all considerations, should have “no identity.” Because Keats believed that a poet shouldn’t have an identity, he saw the poet as “the most unpoetical thing in existence” — a chameleon, ever-changing, ever-open, hacking and hewing the self from itself, obscuring or erasing identity, leaving but a trace.
Zadie Smith, 15 years ago, when discussing E. M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View, called negative capability “one of the creakiest concepts in the literary theory closet.” She added that “it is time it poked its head through the door again” because it offers, in its admission of uncertainty, mystery, doubt, “a serious vision […] of the truth of human relations.” In an era of certainty and tribalism, where the truths and fictions of human relations engender scandal after scandal, headline after headline, hot take after hot take, Smith’s words seem especially relevant: it is time for negative capability to poke its head through the door again.
“Illustrious and unknown: this was what Degas aspired to be, and what Cy Twombly has become,” explained MoMA curator Kirk Varnedoe in Cy Twombly: A Retrospective. Though Twombly’s work is well known to any admirer of 20th-century art, he remained throughout his life something of a mystery to all but his closest friends. His life is one enormous elision.
To Rivkin’s credit, Chalk does not attempt to demystify Twombly. While it does explore events long omitted from his public persona (a love affair with married fellow-artist Robert Rauschenberg, for instance), it avoids using them as cheap revelations. Rather than fill in the gaps of his life as though it were a half-finished puzzle, with the goal of finding the proper place for each piece and offering a complete portrait, each fact introduced becomes just another undecipherable marking surrounded by a sea of white emptiness on an infinite Twomblyesque canvas.
Does an understanding that Twombly was queer help us to better comprehend his work? The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes and no. “Understanding Twombly’s art in no way depends on knowing his sexuality,” writes Rivkin. “The fact of Twombly’s complicated sexuality hardly leads to any easy explanations. And yet, it matters.” Just as each mark on The Age of Alexander matters, while also not necessarily facilitating any concrete understanding in and of itself.
One of the major threads throughout Chalk is that the erasures and omissions in Twombly’s art mirror the erasures and omissions of Twombly’s life. “Life and art are never separate conversations,” Rivkin argues. “It’s easy to read — and overread — the biographical in Twombly’s art. He practically dares you.” While Rivkin succumbs to the dare at times, he is mostly careful not to neatly equate the one with the other. Twombly’s life and art are certainly related and inextricable from one another, but there are not easy one-to-one correlations to be expounded upon at length, merely connections to be hinted at, shadows to be glimpsed in the periphery or else dissolved by the harsh light.
Hyperion (To Keats) is all but erased from the discussion of Twombly’s life and legacy in Rivkin’s book. Though Rivkin waxes poetic on other Twombly pieces in The Menil Collection and elsewhere, Hyperion (To Keats) only gets one mention, and not a single description or detail. In a way, this erasure helps us to stumble upon one of Rivkin’s theses: the idea that that which is erased or elided, in Twombly’s art — and, indeed, in the world at large — can often say as much as that which is prominently placed. Absence may be quieter, more elusive, but it is an equal to presence.
Like The Age of Alexander, Hyperion (To Keats) is a massive work of oil, crayon, and graphite on canvas, a vision of negative capability writ in conspicuous scribbles and glaring omissions — ghostly presences, haunting absences. I stood in front of the painting, marveling at its impenetrable glossolalia — a canvas of “cloven tongues like as of fire.”
After first examining each mark of Hyperion (To Keats) like a dermatologist might study blemishes on a patient’s skin, what haunted me, what impressed me, what fascinated me most were not those blots on the canvas, but the vast emptiness that engulfs them, which confronts the viewer with the only truth: that we cannot know what this painting has to do with the poet or why it is named after that particular poem or how personal this piece was to the painter’s life. Our only knowledge is erasure.
And in the emptiness of that erasure, we fill ourselves, writing our names, our histories, our personalities into the blanks like madlibs. Maybe Rivkin was drawn to The Age of Alexander because, as a father, he could feel, if not exactly express, the ways in which that painting speaks to the “fears and worries and wonders” of fatherhood. Maybe I was drawn to Hyperion (To Keats) because, as a lifelong lover of Keats and negative capability, I could glimpse, if not exactly explain, the ways in which these markings and omissions embody that elusive concept. Or maybe — and this seems as, if not more, likely — we merely discovered exactly what we wanted, expected, or hoped to find. As Mary Jacobus observed, “Viewers are often tempted to find in Twombly’s work a direct address to equivalent parts of their own subjectivities.”
That first painting both Rivkin and I turned to in the rightward room of the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston, Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), also contains a reference to Keats, though one occluded.
Like Rivkin, I believe Say Goodbye is Twombly’s masterpiece. He worked on and struggled with the painting for more than two decades, from 1972 to 1994. Stretched across three canvases, the artist’s pièce de résistance explodes with vibrant color, yet that color remains enveloped in a Twomblian white emptiness, with words and scribbles emerging from those pale mists. “It’s a passage through everything,” Twombly said of the work — and within this one painting, it seems both all and none of Twombly passed.
In its 22 years of production, the piece took on a number of different names. At its first showing in New York City, it was named, innocently enough, An Untitled Painting. It had also at times been known as Anatomy of Melancholy, a reference to Robert Burton’s famous work. It ended up on display in The Menil Collection as Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), which alludes to a line from Catullus’s “Poem 46.” There is in the Twombly title, though, a one-word alteration of the line; the poem uses the word “plains” instead of “shores.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am most fascinated with yet another of this work’s almost-titles, one more title erased. In David Sylvester’s Interviews with American Artists, Twombly explained, “Then I decided I had to call it after a Keats poem […] I thought it had taken so long, it was languid and I wanted to call it On the Mists of Idleness.” Like the Catullus-inspired title, marred with a one-word alteration, this abandoned Keats-influenced title is an almost-Keats-line rather than an actual-Keats-line. Because of this, many have mistakenly connected it to any number of similar Keats phrases. For example, Sylvester responded with: “I don’t remember that there’s a Keats poem with that title, but I could be wrong or perhaps it’s a line or a phrase. But actually I suspect that it’s your own conflation of two different lines of his: ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ and ‘The blissful cloud of summer-indolence.’”
Where the line actually came from, though, is a Keats poem titled “The Human Seasons.” The reason why most commentators, including Sylvester and Rivkin, have overlooked this connection, I imagine, is due to the minor alterations of the line. In “The Human Seasons,” Keats wrote, “contented so to look / On mists in idleness.” Twombly added a “the” and changed the “in” to “of.” This not only made it hard for scholars to pinpoint the reference, but it also completely altered its meaning.
Forest Pyle, one of the few critics to discuss Say Goodbye’s connection to “The Human Seasons,” eloquently explained the importance of Twombly’s switch:
In the actual poem, Keats describes how the autumnal soul is “contented so to look / On mists in idleness — to let fair things / Pass by unheeded” (ll.10-12): he is, in other words, by the time of autumn, sufficiently contented in his idleness that he would look at mists and allow “fair things” to pass by “unheeded.” By cutting out these lines to paste them in his picture, Twombly has removed the “contented” relationship between beholder and beheld and, by the substitution of the [preposition] transformed this act of looking on or at something into a feature of idleness. Twombly has, in other words, abstracted Keats, distilled a permanent condition of being from what is in Keats’s poem a mimetic if transitional act. This is how [Frank] O’Hara would have understood the substitution of prepositions, “on mists of idleness” “representing the greater degree of abstraction, removal, and negative capability.” And it is by this very abstraction that Twombly’s “misreading” of the line in this one poem by Keats crystallize[s] the impulse to abstraction at work throughout Keats’s poetry.
On, in, and through the mists of idleness, Twombly abstracted further the always already abstracted poetry of Keats.
This ideal condition of idleness and indolence was very important to Keats, with references to the passive, disinterested state coming up often in his poetry and his letters, including as the subject of one of Keats’s six great odes, “Ode on Indolence.” Pyle saw that Twombly was “right to identify ‘idleness’ or ‘indolence’ as the vehicle of Keatsian abstraction.” Pyle understood — and Twombly too — that negative capability is not only about a “rigorous capacity for self-negation,” but also the productive potential of laziness, lethargy, languor.
In a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, dated February 19, 1818, Keats suggested: “[L]et us open our leaves like a flower, and be passive and receptive; budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favours us with a visit.” In that same letter, he posited the idea that if a person were to sit with a page of poetry or prose, musing and reflecting upon it, a single grand passage might send him off on a “voyage of conception” in every direction, to all the points of the compass (or, as Keats poetically put it, all “the two-and-thirty Palaces”).
Just as this “delicious diligent indolence” is constitutive of Keats’s poetry, Barthes saw indolence as an integral part of Twombly’s art: “What seems to intervene in [Twombly’s] line and to conduct it to the verge of that very mysterious dysgraphia which constitutes his entire art is a certain indolence.” Barthes claimed of his paintings (or his “writings,” as he called them): “they are the scraps of an indolence.”
Through idleness and indolence, through disinterestedness and passivity, through “voyages of conception,” we glimpse the mystery, uncertainty, doubt of existence. We cannot know the past. We cannot know the present. We cannot know the artist. We cannot know the art. All is but a trace of something larger, more grand. All is an erasure of a marking that we once imagined — hoped — would be more permanent, writ in something other than water. It is in that trace, those ruins, “the scraps of an indolence,” that we get closest to what Keats called “the Penetralium of mystery.”
In Twombly’s paintings, we can sense so much bubbling beneath the surface — in their brushstrokes and splatters, in their stains and ideograms, in their words and, especially, erasures — and we seek to unravel the mystery of their meanings as though these paintings are treasure maps whose markings, if we could only decode them, would lead us to vast riches. We want an explanation — we desire to know the man, the mind, the art — but the objects of our desire are always out of reach, never to be grasped or understood. We would perhaps come closer to understanding them if we could be, as Keats suggested, passive as a flower, rather than the active seekers or conscious strugglers we tend to be, if we could admit to ourselves what Barthes knew: “there is nothing to decipher.” Twombly’s paintings are not the Baedekers of some ruined civilization; they are themselves lost kingdoms, uncharted and unchartable.
Tyler Malone is a writer based in Southern California. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Scofield as well as a contributing editor at Literary Hub. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.