Trespassing time and place

Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011) is a great painter, but sometimes it seems even more accurate to describe him as a great writer. He writes of many things: his love of other great painting and writing (and sculpture and architecture), his love of nature and history and of the places where all these things intersect most intensely for him.

—Roberta Smith, 1987

Among all the extraordinary wonderful work by Cy Twombly, two print portfolios caught my eye the other day — Natural History Part I, Mushrooms (1974) and Natural History Part II, Some Trees of Italy (1976).

In these series the artist explores the relationship between nature & art, and also investigate the ways in which nature has been, and still is, categorized in scientific renderings.

Cy Twombly: Natural History, Part I, Mushrooms (1974)

No. IV 1974 by Cy Twombly 1928-2011

No. IV, (from “Natural History, Part I, Mushrooms”), 1974. Lithograph and mixed media on paper.

Twombly appropriates and riffs on botanical illustrations of mushroom and tree species from an unidentified specimen book. The artist also makes use of diagrams, graph paper, numbers, charts — all of which suggest the language of science, primarily that of collecting and classifying natural specimens. However, the artist obscures much of this quasi-scientific language with his own scribbles, scrawls, smudges, and not coincidentally, address labels.

No. VI 1974 by Cy Twombly 1928-2011

No. VI, (from “Natural History, Part I, Mushrooms”), 1974. Lithograph and mixed media on paper.

One way of understanding Twombly’s project, is to see it as challenging claims to “label” and know the natural world through empirical means. This is to understand the series as a demonstration of the limitations of the taxonomical systems.

No. X 1974 by Cy Twombly 1928-2011

No. X, (from “Natural History, Part I, Mushrooms”), 1974. Lithograph and mixed media on paper.

I have spent some time recently studying botanical illustrations, even giving it a try myself. And to my surprise, I found that the more the drawings I studied (or made) resembled their subject, the less interesting I found them …

And so to me, this series of Twombly, isn’t primarily interesting as a critique of scientific reason & taxonomy (a la Michel Foucault (actually a contemporary of Twombly)) … For me – today (2018) – it is more challenging to see the “Natural History, Part I, Mushrooms” as a demonstration of art as transgression.

The magical thing about art is that it can (as shown by Twombly in these series) saunter in-between different systems of knowledge and experiences, different ways of understanding, becoming part of them all, but not completely merging with anything but art itself.

And also this (which I have no words for yet): Through his body of work Twombly is creating himself as both a source and a container of all times art & history – becoming one with existence.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. bluebrightly says:

    Thank you so much for showing these – I know Twombly’s work, but only the paintings, I’ve never seen there. Your discussion of these prints is interesting, as is your observation about botanical illustration. I studied it for two years and loved it, but never liked the static presentations favored by so many. Once in a while, botanical illustrators inject life into the work, and then it’s great. Those must be the sauntering ones. 🙂 That’s a terrific paragraph, about art sauntering between different systems and not identifying with any one. Thank you for this!!

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you!
      In a way these works are more like sketches – it’s a bit like watching the artist think …?

  2. I like your observation about “the limitations of the taxonomical systems” that you read into Twombly’s work here (with which I was not familiar, so thanks!). Lately I have been enjoying poems that employ some biological terminology while also stretching or subverting/transforming the categories. Also linguistics & semiotics with their fluid categories that each generation of philosophers twist about…there’s such opportunity for creativity in between the supposedly-rigid lines of categories (and art forms).

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