The Painting That Took 22 Years to Finish

On the Patience of Cy Twombly

By  Joshua Rivkin

The story of CyTwombly’s Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), 1994 is one of persistence and ambition.

Started in 1972 and finished “all sort of one winter,” it was a work he struggled with for over two decades. Twenty-two years is, depending on your perspective, an eternity or the slow and necessary fire in the life of ideas. A flash or a forever. Maybe it takes a lifetime to make a single work of art. It is to my mind, his masterpiece.

For years, the unfinished piece hung on the walls of his Rome stu­dio covering the wood-shuttered windows. “Well the painting went on,” said Twombly, “and finally it was painted and, because I had to pass by it every day, I took it down. And then on that wall the original windows were reopened so that there was no place ever to hang.”  To see him seeing it every day, the work waiting to be completed or abandoned, is to witness his patience as an artist, and his stubbornness.

Twombly’s final campaign to complete the painting occurred in the winter of 1994, in a warehouse in Lexington, Virginia. The three pan­els of the painting, the size of a small airplane, demanded space to be unrolled and seen all at once. A culmination and a breakthrough, it is a show-off of his skills and talents as a painter of form and color, a work that engages the past and present, a work of ambition and scale, but also intimacy—personal as a prayer.

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“It’s a passage through everything,” Twombly claimed about the painting that now lives permanently in the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection.  He’s right; a passage in space and time, a passage of motion from one side of the canvas to the other, a passage through and of texts, a passage from the rich colors, bright explosions of pinks and yellows, blues and reds to the crosshatch marks, like little boats, in the white abyss at the painting’s far left.

To attempt a description of the enormous three panels of Say Goodbye is to fail. For even the most precise or lyric attempts to make the work speak confront the limits of language. It’s always a wonder that language should come so close to meaning, only to fall short. As another poet, Jack Gilbert, writes, “Love, we say, / God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words / Get it wrong.”

“It was impossible to view the work . . . from very far back,” Doro­thea Rockburne wrote of seeing Say Goodbye on her lunch hour at the Wooster Street gallery when it was first publicly displayed. “In fact, the gallery had moved a 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 in Assisi.’”

I, too, have walked along the painting, as if it were a river. Of Giot­to’s corridor, Rockburne writes, “In order to experience the work, the viewer must walk along and by it. If one is visually sensitive, this view­ing position mysteriously causes one’s body to function as part of the painting.” One walks along the painting, and in a way, through it. This doesn’t just happen.

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In the Cy Twombly Gallery, where Say Goodbye is now permanently installed, one is overwhelmed, by its size at first, but then by how much there is to see. One chooses either intimacy and detail or scale and sweep. One must, as Rockburne puts it, be “visually sensitive.” Or, in my case, I simply returned again and again. I wanted to be changed. I sat on the wooden bench opposite the painting, I paced along the paint­ing’s edge, a border, a river, a church; I waited.

When the woman took off her clothes and danced naked before the painting, twirling her body in the sunlight, the wood floor steady and smooth beneath her feet, the guard stepped in and gently said in accented English, “I can admire your beauty, madam, but if you don’t put on your clothes, you’ll be more famous than Cy Twombly himself.” She left a note in the guestbook: The painting makes me want to run naked.

A timeline, as best as I can puzzle it out: In the winter of 1992, Paul Winkler and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro came to Rome to see what works Twombly had in mind for the proposed Cy Twombly Gallery. Packed up and shipped to Houston with all the other works that had been anx­iously stored in his Rome apartment, fire-and water-prone, the panels of Say Goodbye arrived at the Menil in the late summer of 1992.

“They need some more work and I can decide what to do sometime when I’m there,” Twombly wrote in September of 1992 to Carol Man­cusi-Ungaro, “(maybe I was premature in sending them, but with a few good days it might have been worthwhile).”

Only in January 1994, though, would the painting be delivered back to Twombly in Lexington by “two couriers . . . in an ice storm.” For months I read any account I could find of the painting, but the ice storm and these two workers were never mentioned. Some questions lodge their barbed spikes in our minds. It mattered to me to know the story about these two couriers and the unlikely ice storm. Who were they? What was their reaction to seeing the painting for the first time? Was it surprise at its size, or maybe they were unimpressed—overworked and underpaid; the painting offered them nothing for their travels? Or maybe the painting was already rolled when they arrived and so they never saw it?

A few good days—or, to be more accurate, a good space in which to see it all. “He didn’t know how to finish it,” remembered Julian Schnabel. “And then he unrolled the painting in another space that was bigger.” That space, a warehouse in the industrial part of Lexington, once occu­pied by a carpenter, the smell of pine and turpentine, and everywhere wood shavings and sawdust, is where it was finally completed.

From there it went on to New York City, shown from September 24th, 1994 to January 7th, 1995, in the Wooster Street gallery of Larry Gagosian, a satellite show to coincide with the MoMA retrospective organized by Kirk Varnedoe. Installed permanently at the Cy Twombly Gallery for the opening in February of 1995, it seems like fate that a painting about passages would be itself in motion.

Missing, though, from this list of places and dates and methods of transport is the story that, in the early 1990s, Twombly was told by his doctor in Italy that he didn’t have long to live. The doctor’s prognosis proved wrong. And yet, the fear of death gave the artist an urgency to finish Say Goodbye. I can’t prove this. Not exactly. I have only the uncon­firmed words of Twombly’s Lexington friends to support this claim, and the artist’s own stated fears that this painting would be his last, an urgency one feels in its presence. He couldn’t have known at the time there would be other paintings. Other periods. Twombly’s death, still far away, almost two decades, and late periods still to come. But the intensity of this work betrays this feeling. It was as if this one painting had to contain it all. A last will and testament. A passage to be remembered by. All the quotes and passages copied down from books and saved. All the figures and forms part of his imagination and his previous styles. And it does.

At the time of its completion, the very title of the painting was still in flux, as it had been for many years. When it was first shown in New York City, it was simply An Untitled Painting. A work in search of a title, and in that searching a whole history unravels.

For a while he called it Anatomy of Melancholy after Robert Burton’s 1621 “scientific” treatise: encyclopedic, strange, and vast; it’s not a book to read as much as to explore, to dip in and out of its vast gathering of quotes and texts, a never-ending knot of thought and investigation into the “black bile” of our hearts and humors.

Later, he said, it was called On the Mists of Idleness, after Keats. “But actually I suspect that it’s your own conflation of two different lines,” David Sylvester pointed out in his interview with Twombly, “‘Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ and ‘The blissful cloud of summer-in­dolence.’”

Two lines folded into one, a familiar story.

Of the painting’s eventual title, Twombly said, “I had already read Catullus, and the image came that is one of the really beautiful lines. I very much like Catullus and you can just visualize his brother by read­ing that line. You know the line: ‘Say goodbye, Catullus, to the shores of Asia Minor.’ It’s so beautiful. Just all that part of the world I love. The sound of ‘Asia Minor’ is really like a rush to me, like a fantastic ideal.” What matters to the artist, more than sense, is sound: an individual vision of a “fantastic ideal.”

That exact line doesn’t exist in the body of Catullus’s work. Twombly is thinking of Catullus’ Poem 46 in which the poet tells himself,

Say good-bye, Catullus, to the plains of Asia Minor,
leave these spawning farmlands
and heat-sick Nicaea.
We shall sail, shall fly
to our fair Aegean cities.

Though every translation of the poem is slightly different, in each ver­sion the poet leaves for home with a jittery anticipation at the pros­pect of return. In turning “plains” to “shore,” Twombly remakes the line so that it is his own homecoming. The shores of Italy, Rome, or Gaeta become the points of departure, the places he has left, physically and metaphorically again and again.

Then again, Twombly first used that line decades before, in an unti­tled drawing from 1965 in New York City. Say Goodbye Catullus to the PLAINS of ASiA MINOR the artist scribbled onto the drawing. A lifetime of leavings. The note in the catalogue of drawings offers this incorrect gloss: “The line is from a poem by Catullus written upon leaving Asia Minor after visiting the tomb of his brother.” It’s the same conflation of two poems, 46 and 101, the artist made in describing Say Goodbye. The essential story in this other poem—Catullus’ Poem 101—is simple, human, and mournful. A man travels to see his brother in a strange land only to arrive and find his brother turned to ash.

“It was as if this one painting had to contain it all. A last will and testament. A passage to be remembered by. All the quotes and passages copied down from books and saved. All the figures and forms part of his imagination and his previous styles. And it does.”

In another version of completing Say Goodbye, Twombly zeroed in on the boats: “Catullus went to Asia Minor to see his brother, and while he was there his brother died, and he came back in this little boat.” At the core of the painting, then, or at least in Twombly’s description and titling of it, is loss.

Catullus doesn’t begin Poem 101 with his own grief but with his journey home. So many others, he writes, have followed this same route, this same watery landscape, this same pattern of life and death. The poet describes both his brother’s death and his own failures, his own mortal body with its tears and rituals, his own travels, his goodbye. There is an elegiac quality in Say Goodbye, as in many of Twombly’s later paintings, a sadness and nostalgia at the margins. How do we call back the lost world? How do we live after loss?

Who cares if he mixed up the two poems? They’re both poems of travel and return, albeit of very different moods. The imagination isn’t interested in limit. And yet, to question one story unravels the neatness of a single narrative, a simple truth. Or maybe the better question is how much of these poems can we find in Twombly’s painting? All of it. None of it. If Catullus’ name weren’t part of the title, or you’d never read the interview with the artist, one could spend a lifetime looking at the painting and never think of a dead Roman poet.

In the archives of the Menil, on a document tucked into a file unopened since it was labeled, I found this note: “Panels shipped to Lexington Virginia on January 7–8 1994. Jesse Lopez and David Warren delivered panels to Twombly.”

I felt a rush of pleasure. For a brief moment I solved a puzzle.

One critic, on finding a scrap of paper in Twombly’s handwriting, paint splattered, an obscure and previously unknown poetic passage inscribed on Say Goodbye writes that it, “solves a crux at the heart of the painting’s whitened seascape.” I don’t agree, not exactly, that it resolves a “crux,” or really that anything could “solve” Twombly’s work. But I recognize her thrill, that sense of possibility to see some physical proof, note or memo, stolen out of time.

I quickly learned that Jesse Lopez died years ago and David War­ren moved to North Carolina.

“Yes, we were delayed on the road due to winter weather,” War­ren wrote back to my email. “We wondered about the art being sub­ject to sub-freezing temps, but were assured they would be fine by Mr. Twombly and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro.” I sent back my thanks. He wrote that he would keep thinking of other memories of the journey but it had been a long time.

To know the origin of a work is to be in dialogue with it. On the one hand, I understand there’s no one fact, no key or singular detail, that could define the painting, its history or meanings. On the other, I thought, if I could trace its transit across the country, I might claim a knowing insight, an understanding about this particular painting, and, by extension about Twombly. I was grateful for their names, a vision of the two men at work in T-shirts, eight inches of snow covering the ground and the sky bright as they unloaded the art into Twombly’s house. A human story beneath the noise of history.

“I mean, this painting down at Gagosian’s,” remembered Marden, “I haven’t seen a painting this big in this town ever. It is an amazing thing; it’s an event just to walk into the room and see it.” When Twombly is critiqued as being overblown or attempting the too-big idea, I go back to those first days the painting was shown at Gagosian’s Wooster Street gallery. Ambition, restlessness, inclusion—this is what I love in Twombly’s Say Goodbye.

An “event” just to see it, and an event, too, the sit-down dinner to mark the opening. Between courses of that dinner, the two sides of the table switched places so those with their backs to the art could now take bites of chocolate mousse in full view of Twombly’s canvas. John Waters who was there that night wickedly asks, “Was I the only one who noticed the delicious detail that the waiters neglected to switch plates so you were forced to contemplate somebody else’s leftovers? Did anybody but me put two and two together that night? . . . Were poetry, garbage, and genius ever such a holy mix as they were that rare night in artful Manhattan?” A strange admixture—poetry, garbage, and genius—and one that turns art into decoration for “the entitled and distressedly dressed-in-elegance crowd.”

In another account of seeing Say Goodbye in its first Wooster Street home, Brooks Adams, described the painting as “an awesome palimp­sest, a passage through time and space, from pure form to pure color. In order to read it, you literally have to start at the left with the grisai­lle boat forms, which mark a return to the brindly shapes of the early ’50s.” Adams, in his precise and tactile words—“grisaille” and “brin­dly”—captures the primal, animal nature of the markings, like coats of strange beasts.

“It’s an engaging composition—a sort of guide to Twombly’s pre­dilections,” writes Jed Perl after seeing the painting in that same gal­lery. “Moving from left to right we pass through a landscape of choices. There’s the land of no color; there’s a broad plain crossed by thickets of lines and inscribed with the words ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’; and there’s a grand burst of fireworks in orange and violet and yellow. This painting embraces several different moods, yet it’s so large and spare a work that each mood is wrapped in its own aureole of skepticism.”

Right to left, left to right, pure form to pure color, life to death, boats leaving or arriving: it’s cliché but true, so much of Twombly’s work depends on how you approach it.

“The artist roughly thinks of Untitled Painting [Say Goodbye],” writes Robert Pincus-Witten in the catalogue essay for that Gagosian show, “as having passed from an Expressive stage, at the left, through a Roman­tic stage in the middle, culminating in an Impressionistic phase at the right.” No small claim, and purportedly from the artist himself: the eye in motion traces Twombly’s arc as an artist, and the history of art writ large.

Another critic, claiming this to be the way that the artist wanted it, writes “the painting is intended to be read from right to left, like a Chinese scroll, marking the direction of Twombly’s return over the Atlantic as it does the movement of soul boats crossing the Nile, the pri­mary pictorial theme.” This is the way one often sees it at the Menil, facing the far-right panel when entering that vast white room.

Who’s right? Right to left or left to right?

“You can’t trust everything Twombly says,” writes Edmund White. “When I asked him what his parents did, he said that they were Sicilian ceramicists, and that he’d sold their pots in Ogunquit, Maine. When I asked him how many paintings would be in his MoMA show, he said, without a blink, ‘Forty thousand.’”

This obfuscation is an art, a refusal of facts, or at the very least, a desire to throw off the scent of the dogs at his heels.

“You know, Cy is a great trout fisherman,” former Menil director Walter Hopps told Claire Daigle about his series of Green Paintings, “He told me that these paintings come from imagining what a trout would see looking up.” A few days later, Daigle told this to curator Paul Winkler as they stood together in front of those works. His response: “Twombly had never held a fishing pole in his life.”

Daigle, an academic, asks two questions. First, who offered the “red herring,” the artist or Hopps? And, “Does it matter?”

Yes and No. Maybe. Another allegory about trying to write about Twombly, the shifting ground of glimpsed truths, small shards of insight that disappear in the light of facts. “And if there’s something I didn’t say,” Twombly jokes at the end of his Serota interview, “you could make it up.”

Then again, maybe it’s not a question of the right way to read the painting at all. I go back to Eleanor Clark writing of Rome: “[T]he thing now is to find a way into it. You could start anywhere, it doesn’t really matter, you will see so little anyway.” Begin anywhere in the work, any mark or line is its own passage, its own story, its own little poem. A poet’s painter. Critics, art historians, poets—they all say it. It’s said often enough that one can begin to mistake repetition for truth: Twombly is a poet’s painter because he incorporates lines of poems into his canvases. It’s a reputation that goes back to Twombly’s earliest days.

There’s more to the claim, of course, than the simple fact of words or lines being borrowed from the great and dead, though at first, in those early days of my visits to the Twombly Gallery, it’s what I admired and recognized. I wanted to be writing those lines myself, to be conjur­ing phrases so beautiful and memorable that an artist would want to immortalize them on canvas.

A special kinship between poets and Twombly, a shared faith in the power and wonder of the word. A skepticism, too. Twombly claimed he liked the compression that poems achieve, a state or emotion captured in very few words, a narrative submerged in lyric, a story hidden but implied. He is an artist, as one poet put it, of “inverse ekphrasis: litera­ture turned to a painting.”

“I like something to jumpstart me—usually a place or a literary ref­erence or an event that took place, to start me off,” Twombly said of his poetic borrowings. “To give me clarity or energy.” Twombly doesn’t simply make a mark to be seen or read. Instead, these poetic lines mat­ter to the artist. They record a process, they capture a feeling.

About the phrases Twombly selected, there is something that’s hard to quantify or explicate. They share a common DNA, a root in senti­ment and drama and epiphany, an attempt to get at something essential to his own life, and life in general. Loss, desire, regret. These lines are, and are not, about the artist’s life. They are, and are not, about our own lives. They bait and hook. They offer and refuse. They are (mostly) impossible to read in the paintings, but still there, waiting.

If I say Twombly is a poet’s painter, what I mean is that he under­stood that one of the greatest tools of a poet is silence: the white page as a field of composition, a field of play, where what’s missing is what matters. What I mean is that the sidetracks, the alleys, the digressions, are places of discovery and entry. If I say Twombly is a poet’s painter, what I’m describing is a sensibility. The way strangers will silently nod to each other as they pass on the switchbacks of a mountain trail, a gesture of shared recognition; what I recognize in Twombly’s art is a process of association, where what’s seen matters as much as what’s unseen.

In Say Goodbye, as is true so often in Twombly’s work, the beautiful phrase is smudged or erased. Paint is the eraser.

Or if they’re not fully erased, only by intense looking can one deci­pher single words or phrases, fragments of poetry, lines relineated and edited. The painting, like the torn-out page of a commonplace book, is itself a literal passage, overfull with inscriptions, overlapping texts from an Archilochus fragment to lines from Rainer Marie Rilke’s “Tenth Duino Elegy,” George Seferis’s “Three Secret Poems” and “Automo­bile,” and Richard Howard’s “1889: Alassio.”

For almost none of these borrowed lines does Twombly write the name of the poet or poem on the canvas. In none of these does Twom­bly offer a gloss, a description, for example, of the line from Howard’s persona poem, as being a homoerotic scene of Venetian boy bathers. Twombly doesn’t say that the line from Seferis’s poem “recall[s] a clan­destine love affair as two lovers on the highway draw apart indifference or division.” Each word, each line, each poem or poet, each allusion or reference, is a little lost city.

It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of passages, reading or overrea­ding. Clever interpretations of these “literary networks,” based on vir­tually unreadable passages hand-written on the canvas, abound. Once down that burrow it’s easy to get lost. One might, as a critic has done, create a chart that counts every time Twombly quotes a writer or names an artist, an obsessive scorecard: Mallarmé (9), Sappho (20), or Rilke (30), or most revealing of all Twombly (112). An absurd counting, that says as much about critics as it does the art or artist. There’s a saying that splitting wood heats the cutter twice, once in the cutting and again in the burning. In one way, the texts that act as engagements by the artist offer secondary sparks to the critics, who find in this “labyrinth of literature” a lifetime of puzzles.

To write of all these texts in Say Goodbye is to ask, who are these lines for? The answer is, as always, complicated. “The relationship between painting and source text,” write Marjorie Perloff, “is almost always thematic rather than verbal.” Perloff is on the side of Barthes, who describes Twombly’s words and phrases as “semi-parodic signs of displacement,” pointing to nothing beyond themselves.

“Twombly claimed he liked the compression that poems achieve, a state or emotion captured in very few words, a narrative submerged in lyric, a story hidden but implied.”

To read Twombly’s passages as literal or even necessary isn’t quite right. Often they remain nearly invisible to every viewer. A painting is not a palimpsest to decode. A crux to uncover. Which is not say that his texts are not instructive. An incomplete list of themes in the passages above: memory, time, vision, death, erotic life, the past, violence and departures, the sea, the shore, light, endings. As one critic notes, “With handwriting, Twombly could feel his way through a text, that is, a thought.”

“Lines have a great effect on paintings,” said Twombly. “They give great emphasis. There’s a line in Archilocos, who is my favourite poet, a general, a mercenary: ‘Leaving Paphos rimmed with waves, rimmed’ . . . It may not sound interesting to you but it’s central to me.” That “central to me” defines Twombly’s poetic borrowings: the line is always personal, a reminder of place or time, a feeling made present by writing it. Twombly’s poetic borrowings offer both dialogue and silence, “a paradoxical form of concealment and self-outing.” This desire to both say it and hide it.

It’s hard to miss the same-sex desire in the texts and writers Twombly borrows. Gay writers, some open and others closeted, but all writing of desire, its pleasures and complications, its consequences, its longings, its loves, its losses. The erotic life as it appears in these poems, lines that Twombly kept in mind or notebook, is decidedly queer.

When Chekov’s Three Sisters first played in St. Petersburg, the city’s cos­mopolitan theatergoers returned night after night to see how the sisters were doing. Sitting in the dark theater as the pantomime of life, more real than real, played out before them, they could be comforted by the scripted order of things. It wasn’t that they expected the fates of Olga, Masha, and Irina to change, yet they wanted to confirm that nothing, and everything, was different. It was never the same play. And they were never the same in that dark.

I heard this anecdote, maybe untrue, years before I understood it, and years before I saw Say Goodbye, in the fall of 2003. Everything from those years, all my desires and fears, passes through this painting. I felt a kinship with the painting, though I was unable to say exactly why. In time, it became a marker, a line of before and after, a stand-in and nos­talgic placeholder for what’s gone.

“I slumped into an empty corner opposite Say Goodbye, Catullus and wept into my knees for a half hour,” writes the novelist Catherine Lacey on her own encounter. “A guard paced nearby, nonplussed, and though I knew my behavior was ridiculous, it also felt like the only rational response. Perhaps it was taxing to take in an entire lifetime of work in a handful of minutes, or perhaps I was just lonely, or tired, or sim­ply moved by all that broken beauty. But even now, just recalling this moment, my tear ducts flare and prickle.”

For all the smart, academic readings, all the ways of seeing this fig­ure or that text, I love the painting too for that initial starburst of feeling, that collision of rage and hunger and desire and longing I felt before it. That first time, and so many times after. Even after it dulled, the blade of that painting still cut.

Said another way, by a very different kind of artist, David Salle writes of Jeff Koons’s enormous public sculpture Flower Puppy, “I was so grateful for its being there; it was such a gift. I never tired of seeing it; I was just happy that it existed. What more can an artist do?”

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From Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly.Used with the permission of Melville House. Copyright © 2018 by Joshua Rivkin.

Joshua Rivkin
Joshua Rivkin
Joshua Rivkin's poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, the Southern Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and Best New Poets. A former Fulbright Scholar in Italy, as well as a Stegner Fellow in poetry, he has received awards from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Ucross Foundation. He teaches creative writing for Stanford’s Continuing Studies and lives in Salt Lake City.





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