Cy Twombly, Photographer
It’s not easy to picture Cy Twombly with a camera in his hand. Famous for his abstract canvases and found-object sculptures, Twombly’s best-known work seems to eschew the world in favor of its symbolic and conceptual fundamentals. But as a recent show at the American Academy in Rome highlights, had Twombly only taken photos he would have still occupied a place in modern art’s pantheon. The approximately 2000 visitors to the show, from collectors to college students, agreed.
The show, Cy Twombly, Photographer, was curated by Andrew Heiskell Arts Director Peter Benson Miller and featured some 50 photographs lent to the Academy from the Nicola Del Roscio Foundation. Haunting close-ups of a Baroque sculpture from Bassano in Teverina, flowers from Gaeta, bottles from a yard sale - all reveal the same dematerializing eye that sought the symbolic, even romantic, core of mundane objects.
Cy Twombly enjoyed a long association with AAR. A Visiting Artist in 1980, he also served as a Trustee and was awarded the McKim Medal - the Academy’s highest honor - in 2006.
A reading by renowned photographer Sally Mann, longtime friend of Twombly, opened the show. As she observed of his photos, “He made these pictures not with some sharp Proustian vision, but with an eye veiled by the famously thick, characteristically humid southern air. Cy tapped into some flow of ancient memory...he seemed to have been born out of time”. Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, short-listed for the National Book Award, revealed the Southern roots of Twombly's artistry - his classical education, his love for the land, the tragic sense of loss that permeate his work - qualities that shine through those photos taken in Italy, a land that, as Mann noted, provided Twombly with so much inspiration.
The sense of timelessness and memory that permeates all of Twombly’s work was also revealed in the show’s closing event. Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery and a noted Twombly curator/scholar, focused on Twombly’s canvases, finding in his enigmatic graffiti that same embeddedness in the classical past, an embeddedness that Cullinan argued has been overlooked in other members of the NY Abstract Expressionist school. Twombly’s reluctance to jettison the past and his repeated gestures to figuration did not separate him from his expressionist peers, claimed Cullinan, but can also be seen in the work of many of his contemporaries. As Cullinan seemed to suggest, the ”misty eye” of his photos share the same romantic tendencies reflected on his canvases.
During the 6-week run of the show, Twombly’s photos were not just the object of experts’ gaze: some 150 college students from American and Italian universities visited the show. Accompanied by Miller, the students were able to think about their own artistic practice - and the place of photography in it. They were allowed to see Twombly, an artist everyone thinks they know well, in an unknown, and often hazy and otherworldly, light.