"Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor." Excerpts from two interviews with Cy Twombly by Jerry Saltz.

July 6, 2011 at 3:33pm

- "Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor." Musings and Considerations of a Painter/Medicine-Man; Excerpts from two interviews with Cy Twombly excerpted by Jerry Saltz 






CY TWOMBLY: I'm southern and Italy is southern. Actually, it wasn't all that scholarly, my reason for going to Rome. I liked the life. That came first.


I've always lived in the south of Italy, because it's more excitable. It's volcanic. The land affects people naturally, that's part of the characteristics, for me…


A lot of people have no knowledge of plants, trees, botany and things. I knew a poet who was totally ignorant about botany. And I said: you can't be a poet without knowing any botany or plants and things like that; it's impossible, that's the first thing you should know.


I've found when you get old you must return to certain things in the beginning, or things you have a sentiment for or something. Because your life closes up in so many ways or doesn't become as flexible or exciting or whatever you want to call it. You tend to be nostalgic. And I think about my boats. It's more complicated than that, but also it's going out and also there's a lot of references to crossing over.


If you've noticed, the sea is white three quarters of the time, just white - early morning. Only in the fall does it get blue, because the haze is gone. The Mediterranean, at least - the Atlantic is brown - is just always white, white, white. And then, even when the sun comes up, it becomes a lighter white. Only in the fall is the Mediterranean this beautiful blue colour, as in Greece. Not because I paint it white; I'd have painted it white even if it wasn't, but I am always happy that I might have. It's something that has other consciousness behind it.


I decided I had to call it after a Keats poem and I liked it. Sometimes I like a title to give me impetus or a direction or a feel for the way it should go.


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 visualise 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.


Before, I used to smoke and look, because smoking is very conducive to stimulating the mind. Finally I had to stop because it was overstimulating my lungs.


I sort of work off and on and I usually paint eight hours and never eat. And I might have some wine to stimulate a free passage of thought. And I used to have always music playing.


What is that painting of mine in Philadelphia? Is it Fifty Days in Iliam? It's very strange, no one has ever mentioned it. Have you ever seen it? Well it's one of a large group of paintings. It's called Fifty Days in Iliam; I spelt it I-L-I-A-M, which is not correct. It's U-M. But I wanted that, I wanted the A for Achilles; I always think of A as Achilles; I wanted the A there and no one ever wrote and told me that I had misspelt Ilium.


But Iliam was for the A in Achilles, because I did that Vengeance of Achilles with the A shape. Also it's the Achilles thing and the shape of the A has a phallic aggression - more like a rocket. It's pointed. The Vengeance of Achilles is very aggressive. My whole energy will work, and instruments and things will have a very definite male thrust. The male thing is the phallus, and what way to describe the symbol for a man than the phallus, no?


The female is usually the heart or a soft shape, and certainly very painterly.


I'm a painter and my whole balance is not having to think about things. So all I think about is painting. It's the instinct for the placement where all that happens. I don't have to think about it. So I don't think of composition; I don't think of colour here and there.  … all I could think is the rush.


The Four Seasons, those are pretty emotionally done paintings. And I have a hard time now because I can get mentally ill. I usually have to go to bed for a couple of days. Physically I can't handle it, and I can't build myself. You know, my mind goes blank. It's totally blank. I cannot sit and make an image. I cannot make a picture unless everything is working. It's like a state.


It's more like I'm having an experience than making a picture. So I've never had anyone around. I never have. People are different, but I have to really be with no interference. And it takes me hours. Painting a picture is a very short thing if it goes well, but the sitting and thinking...I usually go off on stories that have nothing to do with the painting, and sometimes I sit in the opposite room to where I work.


If I can get a good hot story I can paint better, but sometimes I'm not thinking about the painting, I'm thinking about the subject. Lots of times I'll sit in another room and then I might just go in. It takes a lot of freedom. I'm working for two years on a subject now: ten paintings, and that can carry on for two years. I worked last summer and I started this summer and with just the simplest motif I just can't seem to do it. And everything slowed down. The sculptures: I don't know, because I like the singularity of them. And I might be able to do sculptures, but the painting is less and less.


It's the instinct and the motion and the whole all together. And it functions in different directions. It's not the focus.


It goes beyond. It's something else where everything runs together. If you're in that state all the time you'd be dizzy, you'd fall down.


Painting is more fusing - fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere.


xxx xxx xxx xxx


From Nicolas Serota Interview: Rome 2007.


In New York I lived in galleries ...I hardly ever went to school.


I looked at anything and everything. (Everything then was on 57th Street, you know?)


Other than Bob (Rauschenberg), who was the first painter I really knew, I was always with people more interested in literature or history or cultural things...


NS: And how did you get to Black Mountain College? CT: I once went to Bob's house and he had the registrar of Black Mountain there. I signed up and went for the summer and winter session. It was the first time I'd been in an atmosphere of artsy-ness. I enjoyed it ...it was very nice.


NS: What was the reaction to your first two shows in New York? CT: There was no reaction.


I work in waves, because I'm impatient. Because due to a certain physicality, or lack of breath from standing, so I work in ...an impatient way. It has to be done and I take liberties I wouldn't have taken before.


They all have beautiful passages, such large passages, not like those early paintings. I don't know what excited me with the blossoms. Sometimes it's simplistic. If it's hot I do some cool paintings. Lots of times I like to enjoy myself. Sometimes I have terrible times with painting, like that set in Philadelphia [Fifty Days at Iliam]. I can do it real good now. I mean much easier and better. I think I'm in a good point of working.


Landscape is one of my favourite things in the world. Any kind of landscape stimulates me. I love the train ride from here to Gaeta. In Virginia I love to ride two or three hours every day, up the back valleys, the back roads, the streams of water there. I would have liked to be Poussin, if I'd had a choice, in another time. I had a Poussin period in my head.


I had different crushes on different artists. But I look a lot at Poussin and I have got a whole set of etchings for example.


I've always wanted to do brown paintings, because when I was in school I realised in that great room at The Frick Collection in New York, with all those incredible paintings, that the secret to great paintings is brown. And that is one of my great ambitions, to strive to do a brown painting.


Architecture is also landscape. And that idea stimulated me to do a show, a whole show, because I like the Palladian form. This house is ideal, because you have windows on one side and you have a straight line of doors on the other, and then you have this beautiful shape. I would have liked to be an architect but I'm not good at mathematics, so I don't have the proper background.


I think space is for paintings, for looking at paintings. Paintings 'hold' in that kind of rectilinear space, which contains the energy of the works, more than curved walls with this up here and that down there,


NS: So why is sculpture so important to you? CT: I love my sculptures, and I was lucky I had them for fifty years because no one would look at them, and I really liked having them around.


NS: Most of them are relatively small in size. CT: I did them a certain scale so I could carry them around. Small, because I like to be able to carry them, by myself ... There's a front and a back and it's formal, so the formality is important. You are able to perfect something more than if it's in different directions and so evidently that's why ninety-nine per cent of mine are formal. It satisfies a part of my character, I guess, whereas with paintings, anything goes; you know, get the brush!


I don't do drawings when I paint. It's another state of mind, I think.


NS: So what do you do when you're in the studio? CT: Well, I mainly sit and look.


I don't deliberately make a move for some ulterior reason. I do get carried away sometimes. I mean, painting comes natural, I guess. NS: Well, it doesn't always come natural because there have been quite long periods when you haven't made paintings. CT: I mean when it does come, it's natural. I don't force it, which would be in those periods when it's kind of barren. I'm not a professional painter, since I don't go to the studio and work nine to five like a lot of artists. When something hits me, or I see a painting, or when I see something in nature, it gives me a thing and I go for it. But I don't care if I don't go for three or four months. You know, when it comes it comes.


NS: Do you keep canvas ready in the studio? CT: No I don’t as soon as I get an idea, it determines the shape and size of the canvas.


NS: Do boats have a particular meaning for you? CT: Yes, boats. I like the idea of scratching and biting into the canvas. Certain things appeal to me more. Also pre-historic things, they do the scratching. But I don’t know why it started.


NS: It’s a very basic kind of mark making. CT: Infantile.


I like to work on several paintings simultaneously because you are not bound. You can go from one to another and if you get strength in one you can carry it to the other, they are not isolated. Anyway they are a sequence; they are not individual, isolated images. I always worked a lot in series …. I always did about eight painting a year. Most were series so they were all around the studio and I was jumping from one to the next.


They were done in groups because they come from this group of tapestries in the Doria Pamphilj family. Jonathan Doria Pamphilj gave me some photographs of the tapestries, and those divisions are the borders of the tapestry and it builds up a sort of drama.


It’s not simple but the process feeds this, like these things, I was thinking of something from Mesopotamia. I’m not a pure; I’m not an abstractionist completely. There has to be a history behind the thought.

I don't like jazz at all, too intellectual for me. A lot of people like jazz but I think it's boring, I like more sentimental, emotional music, it gets me high.


NS: So it is more about intuition and feeling than about rational structure? CT: Yes, when I paint it's all about that. You can think of one thing that you're doing and before you get finished you are questioning something else. It often works very quickly. If you see a painting that's always coherent from beginning to end, it's something far away from the main preoccupations or the character of the person, that's all. As much as you'd like to get away from yourself you never do.


NS: So do you paint your own moods, whether they be joy or melancholy?

CT: I tried, you know. I wanted to do… that big painting that is now in Houston [Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor]; I got a couple of volumes of that beautiful treatise on melancholia [Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholia]. It went on for three or four years and I didn’t do anything. Then I rolled it up and it went to Virginia. When all the paintings went to Houston [to the Twombly Pavilion], I unrolled it and got to a friends warehouse and finally completed it because of the boats. Cattalus went to Asia Minor to see his brother, and while he was there his brother died, and he came back in this little boat. I found it very beautiful, the line in the painting is from the Keats poem. I mean something sticks in my mind… and of course I got the line wrong. I said ‘to the shores’, but it’s not that romantic.


A couple of hours of sitting sparks the thing for five or six minutes.


In a painting, the content of what you are feeling can be complete, but it's also a form. Painting is plastic, it's visual in the way it's constructed too. It's the same with sculpture, if you are satisfied with it or happy with it, it reaches that kind of..., as far as you can perfect it. You try to perfect something, either an idea, a feeling or a plastic, a visual object.


I thought a great show would be to have six or eight artists to show what they consider to be five of their best paintings. I'm just curious how they judge their own paintings. NS: Who would be the artists in such a show? CT: Brice Marden, Bob Rauschenburg, Jasper Johns, Richard Serra.


It's what I call a good moment. I had two or three great moments in all these years - one was the period of Poems to the Sea and a series of drawings I never saw again.


NS: So does it irritate you when people talk about graffiti in relation to your work? CT: Yeah, I don't think of graffiti and I don't think of toilets.


NS: Well, you are quite scatological at times.  CT: Yeah, but it doesn't have that rough crudeness about it. But body parts are always just ...The penis makes a direction, and that's used as a direction in the painting to force you one way. But also the scale is so enormous. I use body parts, male or female. The female or male presence in the painting. Those particularly, you can have a whole set of things at the time. You know, painting is very viscous, I don't really like paint. I like tempera or acrylic because it dries. And also at the time I was reading the Olympia Press publications of the Marquis De Sade and then there was a movie, you know. There was something in the air at that moment...


NS: So there's a relationship with graffiti but it's not really the important point... CT: Well graffiti is linear and it's done with a pencil, and it's like writing on walls. But [in my paintings] it's more lyrical. And you know, in those beautiful early paintings like Academy, it's graffiti but it's something else, too.