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Cy Twombly: Sign, Meta-Sign and Sense

Johanna Malt


Dans un article sur l’œuvre du peintre américain Cy Twombly, publié en 1979, Roland Barthes écrit, “TW [Twombly] fait référence à l’écriture (comme il le fait souvent, aussi, à la culture, à travers des mots), et puis il s’en va ailleurs.” Cet article part de la question, où et quel est cet “ailleurs” vers lequel Cy Twombly se dirige en quittant les significations linguistiques et culturelles? Je propose que Cy Twombly nous oriente vers un fond qui précéderait logiquement, ou serait en quelque sorte “derrière” la signification, et que la phénoménologie nous offre un moyen de penser ce fond. A travers une analyse des effets de juxtaposition et de superposition dans quelques tableaux du début des années soixante, l’article expose la signification linguistique comme étant, pour Cy Twombly, une catégorie d’objet parmi d’autres, ou plutôt comme un des nombreux modes de relation au monde évoqués par une œuvre qui nous offre une métaréflexion sur la relation comme productrice de sens.

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1Cy Twombly, perhaps more than any modern artist, was a painter of writing. Other artists may be more centrally interested in text, but Cy Twombly paints the process, the practice, the feeling of writing by hand. There is a founding narrative, perhaps a founding myth regarding the relation between writing and drawing in Cy Twombly’s work. In 1954, this narrative goes, Cy Twombly was a young army conscript working in cryptology when he produced a series of drawings, made in the dark after lights out, which already incorporated letters into their scribbled forms (Pincus-Witten n.pag). Even before those letters emerged, Cy Twombly’s line already walked the line between drawing and writing. As Démosthènes Dawetas has observed:

Dans ces premières œuvres, on ne voit encore ni lettres, ni mots, ni collages ou autres formes analogues qui rythmeront plus tard le travail de l’artiste. Mais elles dégagent une forte impression de matérialité, de muralité, et on y perçoit cette propension de la grammè/ligne – conçue comme un trait, une trace, une entaille, un sillon – à demeurer agissante, à se faire l’instrument d’une méditation continuelle, le rail d’un incessant aller et retour entre le pré- et le méta- (19).

2As early as 1955, in Academy, however, the isolated letters of Cy Twombly’s blind experiments begin to come together as words, the choice of words (one can make out “fuck” amongst them) chiming with the graffitti aesthetic of the works. The line is a mark, a scratch, between sign and mute trace, between signifying form and gestural expression.

Two Quotations

3Two quotations will serve as my starting point here for an exploration of the relationship between signification and its others in Cy Twombly’s work. The first comes from Roland Barthes’s seminal 1979 essay on Cy Twombly, “Non multa sed multum”, in which he refers to Cy Twombly by the abbreviation “TW”. In the section entitled “Écriture”, Barthes writes, “TW fait référence à l’écriture (comme il le fait souvent, aussi, à la culture, à travers des mots: Virgil, Sesostris), et puis il s’en va ailleurs” (Barthes 1982, 146). But what or where is this “elsewhere” towards which Cy Twombly heads? The text is intriguingly indirect in its answer to its own question. Roland Barthes tells us what it is not—that is, calligraphy, or “ce qu’on appelait au xviiie siècle la belle main” (146). But the positive sense of the “ailleurs” is displaced by a striking analogy. Cy Twombly’s work is to calligraphy as a careless teenager’s discarded trousers, rolled up in the corner of a room, are to trousers as they might appear neatly folded on a hanger in a swish department store. The injection of a narrative vignette into this reflection serves a particular purpose. It emphasizes the trousers as objects of an interaction, as marked by a gesture. Though he does not say so very directly, for Roland Barthes, it is gesture towards which Cy Twombly’s work moves, having made its glancing reference to writing. Indeed, it is gesture to which Roland Barthes’s reading subordinates all signification in the paintings. Roland Barthes’s account turns the act (or action) of painting into a kind of writing, but only insofar as Cy Twombly’s textual figures themselves, occupying as they do the boundaries of legibility and of comprehension, turn writing into painting, highlighting its embodied, temporal and gestural character: “De l’écriture, TW garde le geste, non le produit” (147). Roland Barthes goes on to mention that the gesture is understood here as distinct from the act, which is transitive and goal-orientated, where the gesture is intransitive and open-ended. “Le geste” is “quelque chose comme le supplément d’un acte”:

Distinguons donc le message, qui veut produire une information, le signe, qui veut produire une intellection, et le geste, qui produit tout le reste (le “supplément”), sans forcément vouloir produire quelque chose (148).

4My second quotation is drawn from a 2008 catalogue essay by Richard Shiff, which — inevitably perhaps — refers back to Roland Barthes. Discussing the relations (or absence of relations) that govern the placement of figures within Cy Twombly’s compositions, Shiff writes:

Bound to the same space and yet apart, dispersed, Twombly’s various figures—some destined to be obliterated, then perhaps reinstated in a process without evident direction […]—form relationships by contiguity, not resemblance. (11)

5This notion of contiguity as the specific form of relation in Cy Twombly’s works is useful when applied back to Roland Barthes’s distinction between gesture and sign or message. If Cy Twombly’s work alludes to the signifying elements of language but goes off in a different direction (“ailleurs”), might we think of a relation of contiguity existing between signification itself and that which is not it, which is other to it, which is elsewhere?

6I shall begin by looking more closely at how Cy Twombly’s work locates itself at the limit of signification, notably through the use of handwriting. I shall then examine the nature of the “elsewhere” of signification — specifically its relation to gesture and to affect—before turning to the work of Jean-Luc Nancy as a means of mapping the border, via the role of “sense”, spacing and gesture in his writing.

At The Limit Of Signification

  • 1 Images of works from both these series can be seen on the artist’s website: (...)

7Signification and its non-signifying others might already be said to be contiguous in Cy Twombly’s work, where drawing and writing come close enough to one another to blur the line that divides them. Close enough, one might say, to undo one another. This is particularly the case in the “blackboard” works of the late 1960s, (some of which are on paper, and others on canvas) and the “Nini” series, produced in response to the premature death of Cy Twombly’s friend Nini Pirandello, the wife of his Italian gallerist, in 1971.1 The surfaces of these paintings are covered by rhythmic, looping, continuous lines, filling the frame horizontally or in rows that slope slightly, always from left to right. In the blackboard versions they evoke childhood handwriting exercises; in the Nini series, the obsessive palimpsest of a private journal. Yet in both, handwriting, or something resembling it, can be recognized without being read. We are faced with what John Bird has called “the constant interplay between recognisability and a blockage or failure of signification” (494). In these works where rhythm is as much spatial as temporal, Roland Barthes’s “intransitive gesture” is clearly in evidence. Handwriting is the incorporation of text, its passing through the body, and it is this bodily practice and expression that Cy Twombly retains where signification is discarded, blocked or refused.

8Illegibility of this kind can be seen as a form of social resistance, as well as a confrontation with the limits of signification. It adopts the superficial appearance of conformity to accepted systems of communication and social interaction whilst actually refusing or subverting them. As Martine Reid writes in an essay on visibility and legibility in art:

  • 2 Cole Swensen, writing on Twombly amongst others, extends the claim beyond illegible handwriting, ar (...)

Illegible writing shows things to be what they are not. That is why it is sanctioned by whatever means possible (by various authorities, from school on). It is accused of trying to hide something, of being a disguise. It is "read" (by graphologists and others) as a gesture of refusal, as antisocial. It is at least an indication of the tenuous, fragile nature of this legibility of the most basic kind. It shows the legible to be a category that is forever under threat, forever in danger of disappearing, of becoming lost, despite appearances, in a paradoxical obscurity where writing can be seen and recognized, but can no longer be read. Illegible writing indicates in fact that the sign has been remorsefully eaten away by its own figurative nature, and that it does indeed take almost nothing at all for the figure to resort back to its status as a mere drawing (6).2

9The social dimension of such resistance in Cy Twombly’s case is compounded by the implicit reference (which might have been obvious to contemporary American viewers of his work) to the “Palmer method” popularised in the early twentieth century as a way of teaching children through handwriting — though it was intended to teach them more than just writing, being conceived according to Richard Leeman as a method “variously capable of reforming delinquents, assimilating immigrants and, more generally, giving small children the habit of obedience” (171). Cy Twombly was himself taught by this method, a bodily discipline involving repetitive exercises, with the child using the whole arm to form the letters, rather than just the wrist and hand. Therefore his subversion of it represents a subversion of the values it was intended to inculcate; it is at once a fond revisiting and a parodic refusal of the discipline of “writing lines”.

10Yet Richard Leeman argues, following Robert Pincus-Witten, that this revisiting of his own schoolboy past functioned less as a subversion than as a reinstatement of a certain version of Americanness represented by the Palmer Method. In 1968 some of the blackboard paintings featured in Cy Twombly’s first retrospective at the Milwaukee Art Centre. They were enthusiastically received, the critical response contrasting with the opprobrium that had greeted his so-called “European” paintings from the early 1960s. According to Richard Leeman, the blackboard paintings in the Milwaukee show were seen as a renunciation on Cy Twombly’s part of those elements of his work that American critics associated with “mannerism, elegance, sophistication, in short: Europe” (173). They conformed to an aesthetic of pared-down abstraction and directness to which those American critics were much less hostile. Richard Leeman continues:

  • 3 The quotations are from Leo Castelli in an interview with Paul Cummings on 18 June 1969 (Archives o (...)

The blackboard metaphor expresses […] the mixture of paternalism and puritanism to which Twombly owed his rehabilitation. He returned to the country of his birth with works that renounced his past errors […], which Leo Castelli could describe as “American Type Material” […]. The rediscovered Americanness of Twombly’s painting—simple, rudimentary, elementary, masculine—resembled a return to the Palmer method, with the exercises assuming the appearance of a punishment: “Again and again”, said Robert Pincus-Witten, “Twombly seems to be writing ‘I will not whisper in class anymore’”. (174)3

11But if these works allude to writing while blocking signification, and seem all the more acceptable for that in the context of American minimalism, what of those where signification (or something like it) is apparently preserved? For words often seem to be the vehicle of all that “Europeanness” for which American critics condemned Cy Twombly — words with a particular freight of culture, mythology, poetry; words as agents of the referentiality with which painting investigated its own history. It is where the loops, scribbles and isolated letters are allowed to crystallize into words that their presence becomes more problematic, not just because of the nature of the references they make, but because of the very obvious questions they raise about what words are doing on a painting.

12As many critics, Roland Barthes included, have pointed out, Cy Twombly’s use of words emphasizes the materiality of the signifier in other ways, as well as by drawing attention to the gesture of writing, scribbling or otherwise inscribing. Texts are often written in such a way as to break up individual words, and play with double meanings, puns, anagrams and palindromes (playing with the “womb” in his own name for example in Epitaph of 1960), foregrounding the plasticity of the signifier. Letters sometimes resemble visual symbols or pictograms from Egyptian or Buddhist traditions, enhancing the contiguity of the symbol not just with the index of a gesture, but with its other other, the icon.

13Additionally, of course, the words Cy Twombly uses are often proper names — his own and those of places or figures from mythology. A proper name has a referent, but no meaning, properly speaking, and Cy Twombly’s use of names in the early 1960s in particular emphasizes their status as cultural objects, since, when they appear on the canvas itself, they are frequently enclosed within cartouches or frames, as if quoted as place-holders for an image or an idea. Where names feature as the title of the work, they lay claim to it as labels, but Cy Twombly endlessly plays with the expectations of readability or reference that such labelling invites. These works often mock our attempts to find classical precedents for them, as Richard Leeman observes in a discussion of Leda and the Swan (1962):

As with the Triumph of Galatea, there is something provocative about the picture-title relationship, both in the distance between Twombly’s image and the presumed references Raphael, Leonardo or Michelangelo, models of a craft that Twombly’s versions manifestly lack and in the sense that “provoke” means “call forth”: in the central red patch spattered with white, the picture shows what happens in the primitive myth, an archaic treatment of the myth conforming to the “directness” that Twombly, following in the footsteps of the Mythmakers and the surrealists, strives to put in his painting. (95)

14But the names themselves do nonetheless “call forth”, functioning as vessels of connotative meaning, a kind of shorthand for a network of relations into which the viewer is invited to insert herself.

Leda and the Swan (1963)

Leda and the Swan (1963)

15In this context it is interesting to note what Roland Barthes writes about names elsewhere. Discussing proper names in À la recherche du temps perdu, he writes that what Marcel Proust needs in order to construct a complex web of associations within his vast and sprawling text is a poetical element, “un élément proprement poétique”, something that would constitute connections for the reader just as reminiscence does for the narrator:

Or il est une classe d’unités verbales qui possède au plus haut point ce pouvoir constitutif, c’est celle des noms propres. Le Nom propre dispose des trois propriétés que le narrateur reconnaît à la réminiscence: le pouvoir d’essentialisation (puisqu’il ne désigne qu’un seul référent), le pouvoir de citation (puisqu’on peut appeler à discrétion toute l’essence enfermée dans le nom, en le proférant), le pouvoir d’exploration (puisque l’on “déplie” un nom propre exactement comme on fait d’un souvenir) (“Proust et les noms” 124).

  • 4 This painting is in a private collection. An image can be seen at (...)
  • 5 Emphasis mine. The text appears on the painting as “I have Known The NAKEDNESS of my Scattered Drea (...)

16What is notable in Cy Twombly’s paintings is that these forms of reference are inserted alongside figures and forms which may be said to “call forth” sensations rather than referents or signifiers: child-like scribbles, blood-coloured splatters and finger-prints. The picture-plane thus becomes the site of an encounter between different modes of reference, representation or signification. In the context of painting, this relationality of course relies on spatial organisation, but the presence of language systems within the picture-plane questions the nature and status of pictorial space in the ways that text-image interactions have so often done. Cy Twombly’s paintings of the early 1960s have a sparse, bare quality, and often rely on scattered, distributive, or even centrifugal compositions. The predominance of the white ground on which the marks are littered invites reflection on relationality as we shall shortly see, but it is worth noting in passing that this provocative blank expanse of whiteness is something Cy Twombly inherits from poetry — notably from Stéphane Mallarmé — as well as from modernist abstraction. The original version of the line from Mallarmé which appears in Cy Twombly’s painting Herodiade (1960)4 is “J’ai de mon rêve épars connu la nudité !” (45).5

Herodiade (1960)

Herodiade (1960)

17What is more, what Stéphane Mallarmé wrote about his “Hérodiade” in a letter to Eugène Lefébure creates an intriguing (and intriguingly synthaesthetic) link to the idea of names as evocations, citations or “élément[s] proprement poétique[s]”:

La plus belle page de mon œuvre sera celle qui ne contiendra que ce nom divin Hérodiade. Le peu d'inspiration que j'ai eu, je le dois à ce nom, et je crois que si mon héroïne s'était appelée Salomé, j'eusse inventé ce mot sombre, et rouge comme une grenade ouverte, Hérodiade. Du reste, je tiens à en faire un être purement rêvé et absolument indépendant de l'histoire. (154)

18For Stéphane Mallarmé, as for Marcel Proust and Cy Twombly, it is the material qualities of the name as much as its referential capacities that give it its evocative power.

19But whatever the power of proper names to “call forth” sensation, the introduction of any text into the space of the picture raises questions about the regimes of spatial (and for that matter, temporal) organisation that it might bring with it. Critics seem to divide over whether words or numerals interrupt the free play of relational sensation in Cy Twombly’s work. Suzanne Delehanty, writing in the catalogue of a 1975 exhibition in Philadelphia, remarks that “The relationships among his words, erotic pictographs and globs of luscious paint are alogical and non-sequential, an order which follows our impressions or felt experiences” (16). For her, the words are simply one type of component in a collection of objects that offers itself to us to be formed into an infinite number of constellations, according to the sensations with which we invest it. For Richard Leeman however, words are a particular category of object and thus impose particular forms of relation, if only because of our ingrained (Western) habits of reading from top left to bottom right. Cy Twombly’s use of numerals also invites us to order or hierarchize the objects collected on the picture-plane, since we cannot resist the sequential order they impose, even if we know that with an artist like Cy Twombly, they are likely to be a lure. But is there a way of thinking about spatiality in these works that might take account of both these views?

  • 6 The two parts of The Return from Parnassus are in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago an (...)

20In order to consider this question, I will discuss three paintings in particular, all dating from Cy Twombly’s “European” years: Herodiade and the two parts of The Return from Parnassus,6 produced the following year, in 1961.

Cy Twombly American, 1928–2011 The First Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1961

Cy Twombly American, 1928–2011 The First Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1961

© 1961, Edwin P. Twombly, Jr. Trust.

The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1961

The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1961

Wax crayon, lead pencil, oil paint, colored pencil on canvas 200 x 260.5 cm (78 3/4 x 102 1/2 in.)

Through prior partial gift of the Stenn Family in memory of Marcia Stenn, 2007.64 © 1961, Edwin P. Twombly, Jr. Trust.

  • 7 A vivid description by Kirk Varnedoe of Twombly’s method in this period exemplifies the standard eq (...)

21All three use mixed media, with lead pencil, wax crayon and coloured pencil marks appearing alongside conventional oil paint and oil-based house paint. All three feature handwritten text and/or numerals, sometimes in boxes or cartouches, as well as more abstracted, looping pencil lines like those that come to dominate the later blackboard and Nini paintings. Large expanses of each canvas are left almost blank, but scattered on them are geometric or architectural forms sketched in pencil, sometimes including what seem like vestigial co-ordinates, measurements or “keys”. Colour is introduced either in scribbles of crayon and pencil, or swipes, drips and blobs of paint, often apparently applied with the hand directly onto the canvas.7 All three exemplify the dialogue between spontaneous energy and a certain meticulousness that characterizes many of the paintings of this period.

22When looking at these works up close, what strikes the viewer — as always with Cy Twombly — is the complex, layered quality of the paintings, despite their sparseness. Of course, it is the gestural quality of the marks that draws attention to the layers, but this visible layering, as opposed to the traditional ways in which oil paintings tend to conceal their layered construction, emphasizes exactly the almost collage-like confrontation of minimally related components that Delehanty sees at work in the paintings. Cy Twombly stages a representation made up of fragments, variously processed, many of them cultural (notably in this context the references to Poussin, to genre painting, to poetry, myth and allegory etc.); some of them personal (memories, visual snapshots); some of them gestural or performative, with a strong sense of something happening in the act of applying matter to a surface. Yet at the same time, there is a clear sense of the layers not just as indices of the gestures and processes of the work’s genesis, but as a kind of metaphor for the processes which intervene between the viewer and any object. And in this layering, signification via the presence of text becomes just another category of object to be called forth, or rather, another mode of relation to the world which the painting investigates in its meta-reflection on relationality as meaning (or indeed of meaning as relationality).

23Herodiade is particularly illuminating in this regard. Both the title and the quotation from Stéphane Mallarmé appear in cartouches, as if in a preliminary diagram for a painting yet to be undertaken — as if marking the places where figures might later appear. Mallarmé’s “Hérodiade” is a dramatic poem, written in the form of a short play, and with its references to “scéne” [sic] and “ouverture”, what Cy Twombly’s canvas stages in turn is an undertaking of representation. The painting seems like a set-up or assemblage of elements — preparatory, but not unfinished in itself, as if it were a painting of the moment a representation is about to come into being. Now, this is not to be understood in a psychological sense, as the coming into being of a mental image in the painter’s imagination, still less the coming into being of a reproduction of that image on the canvas. Rather, this seems to be a painting of the structure of seeing or thinking coming into being. For these are paintings about thinking. They are not so much “internal landscapes” of the unconscious, as in surrealism for example, but a transposition of some kind, a depiction of the mental process of organizing ideas in space, or perhaps of a principle of organizing matter itself into something which does not yet emerge. For all the blood-red hand-print immediacy of the marks at the centre of Herodiade, their expressionist gesturality is in itself, by this period, quite heavily coded. These marks are in fact extremely measured and become one layer in the complex process of assemblage that the painting depicts. Though they evoke expressionistic spontaneity, these paintings have a cerebral, strangely non-psychological quality. This gives them an affinity with phenomenology as a way of investigating the very ground against which notions of psychology might come into being, and it is to this affinity with phenomenology that I shall devote the remainder of my discussion.

The “Elsewhere” Of Signification

  • 8 For a useful introduction to these debates, see Nick Huggett and Carl Hoefer, “Absolute and Relatio (...)
  • 9 See Edmund Husserl, especially Chapter 2.

24If we return to the question posed at the beginning: where or what is the “elsewhere” towards which Cy Twombly’s painting heads?, then one answer might be to say that perhaps this elsewhere is in some sense behind signification, in phenomenological terms. From this perspective, the works can be read as an attempt to depict the conditions of possibility of signification—or perhaps of relationality, being or Dasein: what it is to exist in the world. Phenomenology’s thinking about space is in some ways a reformulation of the problem of substantivalist versus relationalist theories of space. Briefly put, the substantivalist view holds that empty space is a substance, an entity which intervenes around and between material objects. Relationalists such as Leibniz deny the existence of space as an entity, arguing instead that space is nothing but the distance between objects in the world and the relation between them. In other words, space is not matter or substance, but a function of the mind’s capacity to relate objects to one another: it is not material but ideal.8 Though it shares some aspects of the relationalist tradition, phenomenology circumvents the problem by refusing (or bracketing out) the distinction between subject and object. For Edmund Husserl, the only kind of being it is possible to posit is the kind of being which is intelligible to consciousness. Thus, consciousness cannot be separated from any notion of being, nor can being be considered in abstraction from consciousness. This means that space is at least relational insofar as it is always relative to consciousness.9 Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and, following them in this regard, the contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, take from this fundamental tenet of phenomenology the idea that there is something which precedes space, which is logically prior to it. This is what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “le sens”, sense, which he describes as “the constitutive sense of the fact that there is a world” (Nancy 1993 55; my translation). In Jean-Luc Nancy’s work sense constitutes, as it does for Martin Heidegger, a kind of ground of existence, or of disclosure, the quality of what Edmund Husserl calls “being intelligible for consciousness”, which precedes language and signification proper, and in fact precedes and exceeds any specific instantiation of being in time and space. It is indeed the very condition of possibility for such instantiated being. Space is thus understood by Jean-Luc Nancy in the following terms:

Il y a ainsi une spatialité originaire du sens, qui est une spatialité ou une spaciosité antérieure à toute distinction d’espace et de temps: et cette archi-spatialité est la forme matricielle ou transcendantale d’un monde (Nancy 1993, 29).

The genealogy of this idea is helpfully traced by Ian James:

Nancy follows Heidegger [...] insofar as he confers an ontological status on the term sens, and thinks the being of a spatial world as an event of disclosure, which is logically prior to time and space as such, and which occurs as an opening or spacing of space. Nancy, like Heidegger, thinks sens as constitutive of the existence of the world, conferring upon this term a fundamental ontological status which, once again, situates it prior to the existence of language. Thus it is not that our human world has a meaning or makes sense, since for Nancy it only ever exists as sense (93).

25For Martin Heidegger, sense is also the ground of space, in that Cartesian space — consistent, measurable and abstractly considered — is secondary to what he calls “equipmental space”, the mode of Dasein in which proximity and distance are not literal, measurable properties, but functions of “readiness to hand”. For in Being and Time, Martin Heidegger considers the primary mode of Dasein as one in which the object is a tool, to be encountered via manipulation towards a particular end, rather than being considered in abstraction. He states, “What is ready-to-hand in our everyday dealings has the character of closeness. […] Every entity that is ‘to hand’ has a different closeness, which is not to be ascertained by measuring distances” (135). In this mode, Dasein does not consciously distinguish between self and thing; it is not a question of the relation between a subject and its object, but of spatiality as an infinitely extensible network of relations which constitute a “world”. This mode of being in space, this “sense” in Nancy’s terms, is the condition of possibility for the coming into being of Cartesian space as well as time, and of all signification.

  • 10 Martin Heidegger himself, in his commentaries on Kant, observes that the very term “ground” is prob (...)

26But what light might such phenomenological considerations shed on Cy Twombly’s paintings of the early 1960s? I am not suggesting, of course, that Cy Twombly’s sparse enactments of inscrutible forms of relationality are attempts at depicting a pre-Cartesian or Heideggerian ground of “equipmental space”. Such a space could clearly not be represented, least of all in the more or less two-dimensional form of a painting.10 Indeed, the nature of phenomenological “finitude” in these accounts means that a “coming-into-being of being”, which is how Nancy understands “sense”, is not (yet) a being, and thus has no presence (Nancy 1993, 35). We can think of the marks on Cy Twombly’s canvases as objects — figural, graphic, linguistic, material, gestural, coloured—which the artist assembles. They are heterogeneous in nature, in that some signify or represent, others evoke, express, or are simply present, but what Cy Twombly does with them tends precisely away from their treatment as “Zeuge”, as tools whose being is not distinguishable from the being of the agent who wields them. On the contrary, in decontextualizing them, placing them in visual equivalents of quotation marks, Cy Twombly brings words in particular into the estranged mode of “presence to hand” rather than unthinking “readiness to hand”, the former being the mode which considers, analyzes and interprets its objects consciously as objects. Yet perhaps it would be more accurate to say that these figures vary and even oscillate in their status between the thingness of “readiness to hand” and the objecthood of “presence to hand”. Indeed, they seem at times like visual explorations of these different modes of being towards the world. The keys, codes, letters, measurements, tables and frames within the frame all gesture towards that Cartesian mode of relation in which the world is considered, contemplated and accounted for. But next to them appear marks that seem incidental, haphazard and meaningless, like the by-products of non-signifying bodily gestures that simply co-opt matter in the service of their accomplishment. To return to Roland Barthes’s analogy, we might say that in Cy Twombly’s paintings of this period, there are trousers both hanging in the shop window to attract attention, and lying discarded and unconsidered on the teenager’s floor. In this way, the paintings become a second-order reflection on the conditions of possibility of all representation, because they oscillate across a boundary between two mutually exclusive modes of relation to the world.

  • 11 Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work has tended to dominate phenomenological accounts of painting, not leas (...)

27Another way of framing such an oscillation in phenomenological terms is via Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s conception of “perceptual faith”.11 Like Martin Heidegger’s “readiness to hand”, perceptual faith expresses a mode of being in the world which is instinctive rather than reflective, and which engages with the perceptual world as (and by virtue of being) an indistinguishable part of it. It is defined in the following terms :

[…] en deçà de l’affirmation et de la négation, en deçà du jugement, – opinions critiques, opérations ultérieures, – notre expérience, plus vieille que toute opinion, d’habiter le monde par notre corps, la vérité par tout nous-même, sans qu’il y ait à choisir ni même à distinguer entre l’assurance de voir et celle de voir le vrai, parce qu’ils sont par principe une même chose, – foi donc, et non pas savoir, puisque le monde n’est pas ici séparé de notre prise sur lui, qu’il est, plutôt qu’affirmé, pris comme allant de soi, plutôt que dévoilé, non dissimulé, non réfuté. (Merleau-Ponty 47-48)

28Perceptual faith is thus distinguished from knowledge, in that it precedes the operations of knowledge, of truth and of judgement, relying only on our most fundamental, pre-reflective experience of being in the world.

29In Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s late work, his pursuit of a way of accounting for such an experience — and overcoming the dualisms of transcendental philosophy — leads him to develop the notion of flesh. Flesh is Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s way of designating the materiality of embodied being and its continuity with the objects of its perceptions. The body perceives, but is at the same time perceived, touches and is touched; it is of the same substance — the same “flesh”—as the world that surrounds it:

S’il [le corps] touche et voit, ce n’est pas qu’il ait les visibles devant lui comme objets: ils sont autour de lui, ils entrent même dans son enceinte, ils sont en lui […]. S’il les touche et les voit, c’est seulement que, étant de leur famille, visible et tangible lui-même, il use de son être comme d’un moyen pour participer au leur, […] que le corps appartient à l’ordre des choses comme le monde est chair universelle. (179)

30The juxtaposition of signifying with non-signifying elements in Cy Twombly’s paintings of the early 60s seems to take account of this way of thinking about the world as flesh. It does so not by attempting to represent something like “universal flesh” — once again, such an undertaking would be impossible, since all representation is necessarily at one remove from the unreflective being of perceptual faith. Yet, by bringing signifying elements into contact with what lies beyond their limits, the works gesture towards the mode of faith upon which knowledge is always layered. The layered texture of the works thus becomes an exploration of being between knowledge and faith, between body (or mind) and flesh. In the blackboard and Nini paintings moreover, the line itself both is and represents; it stands for a non-reflective, gestural bodily presence, but one that always threatens to turn into something else, namely writing. And, while they share many features, it is on this question of presence that Jean-Luc Nancy’s account diverges from that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty in a way that seems particularly pertinent to Cy Twombly’s work.

31Touch is central to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s conception of flesh in Le Visible et l’Invisible, which contains the famous account of one hand touching the other and the intertwining of the sensible and the sensate as chiasmus, or as two sides of the same coin (183-186). But as Jacques Derrida has pointed out, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s use of touch belongs to a long philosophical tradition (notably in France) in which touch or the haptic is co-opted to bolster an account of vision that tends, after Descartes, towards the idealist and the disembodied (Derrida 138-145). Touch in this tradition is taken as an unproblematical index of presence and unmediated contact. Seen in this light, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s recourse to the image of the hands touching turns out to be a way of suggesting the immediacy of all perception (notably vision), and emphasizing its reversibility. For Jean-Luc Nancy on the other hand, touch is a paradigm not of presence but of “spacing” and separation. In his account of touch as illuminated by the tradition of the “Noli me tangere” scene in painting, Jean-Luc Nancy presents it as necessarily accompanied by separation or departure (“la partance”). He notes that in the Biblical account of the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ outside his empty tomb, Christ’s rebuke to her, “do not touch me”, is better translated from the original Greek as “do not try to hold on to me” (Nancy 2003, 29). In this emblematic scene of an encounter with the other, then, touch cannot and must not become grasping, fixing or holding back. As such it would become sameness, identity, foreclosing the possibility of a relation between two bodies which may come together but must always also separate:

Le toucher, le retenir, ce serait adhérer à la présence immédiate, et de même que ce serait croire au toucher (croire à la présence du présent), ce serait manquer la partance selon laquelle la touche et la présence viennent à nous. (Nancy 2003, 29)

32Touch is therefore, for Jean-Luc Nancy, not an index of presence and proximity but a figure for the primary separation on which his notion of “sense” is founded.

Mapping The Border

  • 12 The scenario he imagines is a “primal scene” in both Freudian senses: it is the moment of origin of (...)

33If we return to the notion of sense as spaced, or spacing — in Jean-Luc Nancy’s terms as “archi-spatialité”—, we find a further instance of this way of thinking about touch, and one that takes us back to Cy Twombly. Insofar as this spatial quality of sense is the matrix or transcendental form of a world, “la forme matricielle ou transcendentale d’un monde”, it is the condition of possibility for conceiving of space in the way that a painting might. But the hand prints and finger-smears on paintings such as Herodiade and the two versions of the School of Athens (1961 and 1964) find an echo in Jean-Luc Nancy’s account of the “primal scene” of art.12 In an essay entitled “Peinture dans la grotte”, Jean-Luc Nancy pictures the prehistoric human’s first gesture of image-making as one which paradoxically does not produce an image, only the conditions of possibility of the work of art:

Pour la première fois, il [l’homme] touche la paroi non pas comme un support, ni comme un obstacle ou comme un appui, mais comme un lieu, si l’on peut toucher un lieu. Seulement comme un lieu où laisser advenir quelque chose de l’être interrompu, de son étrangement. La paroi rocheuse se fait seulement spacieuse: événement de la dimension et du trait, de l’écartement et de l’isolement d’une zone qui n’est ni un territoire de vie, ni une région de l’univers, mais un espacement où laisser venir, venant de nulle part et tournée vers nulle part, toute la présence du monde. (Nancy 1994, 128)

34The first image is the negative hand print on the cave wall, but Jean-Luc Nancy sites the origin of art before even this image comes into being. The image is simply a record of this touch that spaces, separates and presents. From this perspective, Cy Twombly’s (quite considered) hand prints are less indices of a spontaneous, expressionist gestural encounter with the painting surface than a kind of measuring of the space opened up for representation. Set alongside the digits and geometrical figures in a painting like Herodiade, they become part of that dialogue between sense and what it makes possible: measurable space, signification, conceptual thinking, representation, art.

  • 13 The quotation reads as follows: “Painting is […] fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projec (...)

35Looked at in this way, the sparseness of Cy Twombly’s canvases takes on a particular significance. Empty space here is not in itself a kind of phenomenological “ground”. Its very dominance of the paintings invites us to consider it as an active element of the composition rather than simply a neutral background against which the various figures can stand out. As such we might see it as standing — perhaps as a kind of allegory—for the primary spatialisation described by Nancy, which is the ground and condition of possibility of meaning, and of art. Citing a comment made by Cy Twombly in an interview with David Sylvester,13 Richard Shiff observes,

Twombly’s rarefied surfaces […] show how ideas and feelings can be projected on “atmosphere”; the various graphic markings do not so much represent as constitute ideas which, newly arrived, belong to the artist. The accommodating ground of a Twombly painting is its atmosphere, the next-to-nothing that becomes an enabling support for ideas and feelings that fuse in a double sense: first, by forming a concentrated bond; then, by igniting […] (24-25).

36And perhaps this idea of ground as “atmosphere” is how Cy Twombly might point us towards a phenomenology of sense, conceived in the way I have suggested. The paintings investigate signification by exploring its boundaries, the places where it comes up against its non-signifying others: movements, energies, sensations, abstractions. This is one way of understanding how they “form relationships by contiguity” (Shiff 11). But in doing so, they take as their object signification itself as a mode of relating to the world, and it is one mode among many others. These paintings investigate thinking alongside feeling, meaning and seeing as secondary modes of a more fundamental being in the world—of something like Dasein in a world of sense.

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Barthes, Roland. “ Twombly ou Non multa sed multum.” [1979] L’Obvie et l’Obtus. Paris: Seuil, 1982. 145-162.

Barthes, Roland. “Proust et les noms.” in Nouveaux Essais critiques. [1953]. repr. in Le Degré zéro de l’écriture suivi de Nouveaux essais critiques. Paris: Seuil, 1972. 121-134.

Bird, John. “Indeterminacy and (Dis)order in the Work of Cy Twombly.” Oxford Art Journal 30.3 (2007): 484-504.

Dawetas, Démosthènes. Ecriture poétique et langage plastique, Tome 3 Cy Twombly. Paris: Au Même Titre, 2000.

Delehanty, Suzanne. “The Alchemy of Mind and Hand.” Cy Twombly: Paintings, Drawings, Constructions, 1951-75. Exh. cat. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Institute of Contemporary Art, 1975: 10-32.

Derrida, Jacques. Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy. Paris: Galilée, 2000.

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Heidegger, Martin. Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Husserl, Edmund. Thing and Space: Lectures of 1907, published as Vol. 7 of Collected Works. Ed. and trans. Richard Rojcewicz. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997.

James, Ian. The Fragmentary Demand: An Introduction to the Thought of Jean-Luc Nancy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Leeman, Richard. Cy Twombly: A Monograph. London: Thames and Hudson, 2005.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. “Hérodiade.” Œuvres complètes. Ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry. Paris: Gallimard, 1945: 41-53.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Letter to Eugène Lefébure.” 18 February 1865. Correspondance, 1862-1871. Ed. Henri Mondor and Jean-Pierre Richard. Paris: Gallimard, 1959: 152-157.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Le Visible et l’Invisible. Paris: Gallimard, 1964.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Le Sens du monde. Paris: Galilée, 1993.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Les Muses. Paris: Galilée, 1994.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Noli me tangere: Essai sur la levée du corps. Paris: Bayard, 2003.

Pincus-Witten, Robert. “Learning to Write.” Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings. Exh. cat. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Center, 1968: n.pag.

Reid, Martine. “Legible/Visible.” Trans. Nigel P. Turner. Yale French Studies 84. Boundaries: Writing & Drawing (1994): 1-12.

Shiff, Richard. “Charm.” Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons. Exh. cat. Ed. Nicholas Serota. London: Tate, 2008: 11-31.

Swensen, Cole. “A Hand Writing.” Noise That Stays Noise: Essays. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011: 82-89.

Varnedoe, Kirk. “Inscriptions in Arcadia.” Cy Twombly: A Retrospective. Exh. cat. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1995): 9-64.

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1 Images of works from both these series can be seen on the artist’s website: Accessed 1 November 2016.

2 Cole Swensen, writing on Twombly amongst others, extends the claim beyond illegible handwriting, arguing that in contemporary society handwriting of all kinds offers valuable lessons about language, ambiguity and authority: “Type tells us that language is clear, uniform, and instantly decipherable, while handwriting functions as a visible metaphor and powerful reminder that language is never monosemantic, but always multivalent” (85).

3 The quotations are from Leo Castelli in an interview with Paul Cummings on 18 June 1969 (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC:, accessed 1 November 2016) and from Robert Pincus-Witten’s catalogue essay cited above.

4 This painting is in a private collection. An image can be seen at Accessed 1 November 2016.

5 Emphasis mine. The text appears on the painting as “I have Known The NAKEDNESS of my Scattered Dreams”.

6 The two parts of The Return from Parnassus are in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and images can be seen on its website: and Accessed 1 November 2016.

7 A vivid description by Kirk Varnedoe of Twombly’s method in this period exemplifies the standard equation of hand-applied paint with spontaneity as well as with a primordial directness and even sincerity: “For Twombly, the application of the hand (a primordial index of direct engagement with art, from prehistory through Miró and Pollock) had a particular set of pragmatic purposes, side effects, and connotations. Clutching gobs of oil pigment let him work more continuously, uninterrupted by the need to ‘reload’ a brush, and it put him, literally , in closer touch with the picture.” (Varnedoe 26)

8 For a useful introduction to these debates, see Nick Huggett and Carl Hoefer, “Absolute and Relational Theories of Space and Motion.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition). Ed. Edward N. Zalta: Accessed 1 November 2016.

9 See Edmund Husserl, especially Chapter 2.

10 Martin Heidegger himself, in his commentaries on Kant, observes that the very term “ground” is problematic because “underlying as a ground cannot mean lying behind or in the background—for this would again be something extant. This is a distinctive term for Kant and means functioning as ground, i.e., making possible that things as such show themselves and appear as extant here, there, now, and then” (Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason 79).

11 Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work has tended to dominate phenomenological accounts of painting, not least because he wrote extensively on the subject himself. The most substantial recent engagement with Twombly in the light of Merleau-Ponty’s work is chapter 5 of Rajiv Kaushik’s Art, Language and Figure in Merleau-Ponty: Excursions in Hyper-Dialectic. (London: Bloomsbury, 201. Kaushik’s analysis focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s theory of language, a topic with which there is not scope to engage here.

12 The scenario he imagines is a “primal scene” in both Freudian senses: it is the moment of origin of art, but one which we can only ever reconstruct retrospectively as a fantasy.

13 The quotation reads as follows: “Painting is […] fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere.” Twombly “Interview” in David Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists. London: Chatto & Windus, 2001; 181, cited in Schiff, 24.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Leda and the Swan (1963)
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Herodiade (1960)
Fichier image/jpeg, 68k
Titre Cy Twombly American, 1928–2011 The First Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1961
Crédits © 1961, Edwin P. Twombly, Jr. Trust.
Fichier image/png, 664k
Titre The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1961
Légende Wax crayon, lead pencil, oil paint, colored pencil on canvas 200 x 260.5 cm (78 3/4 x 102 1/2 in.)
Crédits Through prior partial gift of the Stenn Family in memory of Marcia Stenn, 2007.64 © 1961, Edwin P. Twombly, Jr. Trust.
Fichier image/png, 63k
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Johanna Malt, « Cy Twombly: Sign, Meta-Sign and Sense »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 21 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2016, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Johanna Malt

Johanna Malt is Senior Lecturer in French at King’s College London and author of Obscure Objects of Desire: Surrealism, Fetishism, and Politics (Oxford University Press, 2004) as well as of numerous articles on visual art and French thought. She is currently writing a book about casts, imprints and other forms of contact-image in modern and contemporary visual art.
Johanna Malt est professeur dans le département de français à King’s College London et auteure de Obscure Objects of Desire: Surrealism, Fetishism, and Politics (Oxford University Press, 2004) ainsi que de nombreux articles sur l’art plastique et la pensée française. Elle écrit actuellement un livre sur les moulages, empreintes et autres images par contact dans l’art moderne et contemporain.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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