September 2011: Cy Twombly: Sculpture @ Museum of Modern Art, New York

September 2011: Cy Twombly: Sculpture @ Museum of Modern Art, New York
Installation view: Cy Twombly: Sculptures, The Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Photo: Jason Mandella. courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Cy Twombly: Sculpture
Museum of Modern Art, New York
May 20, 2011–January 2, 2012


‘Cy Twombly: Sculpture’ is an exhibition of 7 white sculptures on stands. Each sculpture is constructed from found objects such as cardboard tubes, palm leaf fans, and wooden crates. The objects are bound together with string and cloth and covered in a layer of white paint that merges them into a single object.

Twombly’s sculptures offer an interesting counterpoint to his paintings. The painting ‘Leda and The Swan (1962),’ for example, is a chaotic web of smeared paint and crayon scribbles. With daubs of hot color and scribbles that resemble hearts, the piece expresses the Roman myth that it references: the transformation of Jupiter into a swan in order to ravish Leda, the mother of Helen. While Twombly’s paintings are charged with urgent emotion, the sculptures in ‘Cy Tombly: Sculpture’ are meditative. Made between 1954 and 2005, with a 10 year gap between many of the sculptures, one gets the impression that Twombly created them with a more relaxed approach than he did his paintings. A funnel and a paint stirrer, for example, may have sat together in Twombly’s studio for some time before they were added to a buoy and a wooden crate in order to create ‘Untitled (2005).’

Several of the objects used in Twombly’s sculptures were collected during his travels with artist Robert Rauschenberg. The souvenir-like quality of the objects adds to the feeling of the sculptures as collections of things accumulated over time, now arranged and fused together with white paint. The sculptures are small and simple but they possess a concentrated power lent by materials gathered from far-flung places.

‘Untitled (1984-1985)’ consists of a trapezoidal wooden plank of wood mounted atop a wooden box. The piece has the ramshackle quality of something that might be found in an old barn. The sculpture’s quietness, and the fact that it resembles a boat or an open chair, gives it a forlorn quality.

Aquatic travel is further alluded to in ‘By The Ionian Sea (1988)’ a modest pile of wood and flat objects cast in bronze. The words “By the Ionian Sea” are scrawled across a wide slab that slants across the piece like the lid of an open piano. The phrase comes from the title of a travelogue written by George Gissing, a novelist who traveled the Mediterranean by land and by sea. Twombly’s version of ‘By the Ionian Sea’ resembles a stack of firewood ready to be burned. A layer of white paint covers the materials, however, which makes one wonder if the possibility of combustion is sealed inside the sculpture and waiting to be unleashed, or if the possibility is long gone with only a fossil left.

“Untitled (1992)” consists of a lump of plaster cast from a pile of sand, out of which climbs a wooden pole that resembles the body of a coat-rack. A small bouquet of plastic leaves sits innocently at the top. The disparity of the found objects might conjure the cheekiness of Dada if it wasn’t for the frankness in Twombly’s work. There is a wistfulness in his carefully selected objects. His mixture of old and new knickknacks creates a tension that suggests the passage of time.

Several of the works in ‘Cy Twombly: Sculpture’ contain objects that are wrapped in twine, not necessarily to adhere them to anything, simply as a texture. The wrappings enhance the impression that the sculptures have something locked inside. Such textural details lend the sculptures a tactility that stirs the imagination. One’s eyes are invited to wander across the sculptures; one’s mind is invited to wander into Twombly’s studio and through his memories of travel and friends.


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Dan Tarnowski

Dan Tarnowski has published reviews of culture, and several chapbooks of his poetry. He lives in Brooklyn.

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