Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Two Personal Heroes: Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly (1928-2011) and Dirck Winser Brown (1928-2002)

On the Occasion of “Cy Twombly: Sculpture” Exhibition
The Museum of Modern Art
May 20 - October 3, 2011

To accompany my review of the exhibition in The Brooklyn Rail: "Cy Twombly: Sculpture."

Late in December, 1998, I visited with Cy Twombly in Lexington, VA. He gave me a tour of his house and studio, where I remember seeing several sculptures. He was gracious, engaging and as I recall, slightly bemused. This summer, I was compelled to write about MoMA’s small, but comprehensive exhibition of Twombly’s sculpture (including one he made in Lexington); sadly he died just after the show opened. As part of reconciling with Twombly’s passing and to prepare for writing the review I wanted to revisit his life’s work.  Also, I wanted to graft my own personal associations onto my reassessment; my familiarity with Lexington, I realized, gave me insight into some key aspects of the artist’s background. What resonated even more, were the circumstances of my encounter with the artist, which had been a personal milestone.

Lexington has a beauty that seems to enchant through its disarming physical attributes, but it is the ghosts from Revolutionary and Civil War times who are doing the heavy lifting. As proof, ruminations about past great generals and bloody battles are still part of everyday conversation at the local coffee shops. The white column studded architecture, resting on hedge-lined green lawns, all of which are floating amidst the low blue-grey Blue Ridge Mountains, have a pull my parents couldn’t resist. In 1993 they moved there, as an exercise in nostalgia; they were looking for a town that resembled their hometown in southern Ohio, also a history-steeped, college town, (but wasn’t actually their hometown – too many familiar ghosts.) Correctly, they felt they could pursue their interests unimpeded in Lexington. They are pioneers, my father in adoption counseling and my mother in ecology education. (I, however, wasn’t for the move.  I prefer ghosts of people I’ve actually known.  Their prior home in Orient Point, NY where my grandparents and their parents has lived, had all the charm I needed and it was seven hours closer to my parent’s grandchildren we were raising in New York City.)

In his interview with David Sylvester, in 2001, Twombly refers to Lexington’s subtle charms “… where I'm from, the central valley of Virginia, is not one of the most exciting landscapes in the world, but it's one of the most beautiful. It's very beautiful because it has everything. It has mountains, there are streams, there are fields, beautiful trees. And architecture sits very well in it.” He had first left Lexington, his birthplace and hometown, when he was in his 20’s gravitating to Rome and establishing a life-long pattern of relocating to different parts of the world for each season of the year.  He had been pulled back to Lexington regularly because the area reminded him of his adopted Mediterranean home across the Atlantic.  Based on the epic myths and ancient tales of war he used in his artwork, I can’t help thinking that it was also Generals Washington and Lee or fallen heroes from the Battle of New Market who were calling Twombly back when he acquired his house and studio in Lexington. Coincidently this was the same year as my parent’s move there.

I was personally familiar with regular relocation. Growing up, as a family we had moved many times throughout the United States.  My father’s first career had taken us to several different cities, but I knew our moves were fueled in part by my father’s personal restlessness. He lived with a taboo.  He had been adopted.  The impact of this fact on his psyche was complete and total.  I trace almost every move he made as reverberating from the circumstances of his birth and his adoption.  He came to understand after a lifetime of soul searching and hard work, the impact that secrets and denial related to adoption have on families.  Watching this process as his daughter, I came to appreciate its difficulty and all the considerable insight and bravery my father had facing it down.  This isn’t to say I didn’t feel the bumps and don’t have the scars of someone who was there. In reviewing Twombly’s biography, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of alarm, as I read of his constant travels reportedly for inspiration and work. The parallels between Twombly’s life and my father’s were coming to the surface. 

I don’t really know why Twombly was always on the move. He was a very discreet and private person, keeping a circle of family, friends and associates closed around him. What I do see, however, is the fruits of fighting the same sort of struggle my father faced down:  the single-minded dedication to and defense of subjectivity. Twombly’s inclination and ability to separate himself from the provincial pull of both his hometown and strong conservative currents in American art led to his accomplishments in the art world.  I have a sense of the depth of his intellectual pursuits – his embrace early in life of the founding premises of modern art  -- “progressive art” it was called – and creative milestones in the companion fields of philosophy, literature, and psychology. This, Twombly’s warm humor, skeptical attitude toward authority, independent thinking, and dedication to his work are all qualities he shared with my father.

I can’t separate my association of Twombly with my father for one other simple reason:  he introduced me to the artist.  Since my father had not always embraced my artwork, this was a gift and show of support.  My father made Twombly’s acquaintance at Lexington’s Virginia Military Institute where popular weekly cadet parades occur. They would meet occasionally and my father asked if he could introduce me when I came for a visit from Manhattan. Most thrilling for me, during my visit to Twombly’s home that day, was the time he spent looking at a group of my small collages and images of  larger works on paper I had just finished.  From my journal notes of the meeting I recount that Twombly said my work was “intelligent and sensitive,” and he “loved” the collages – which I’m sure prompted me to ask if he would like one.  He picked one out, which included a chair cut out from a 1984 House & Garden magazine photo-spread of The Villa Medici in Rome, home to the French Academy, which had been lovingly renovated by the painter Balthus.*  I’m slightly chagrined to note in my journal that the next day I called Twombly to ask if I could borrow the collage back to photograph it. He said he had already sent it to his framer and from there it was going to Rome. 

Twombly was born at the Stonewall Jackson Hospital in Lexington in 1928; the same year as my father. Symbolic of the nature of personal exchanges and intersections my father died in Lexington in December 2002 and is buried in the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery.  Twombly died this summer in Rome, his adopted city and from all accounts a place he associated with all he held dear.  I like to think that now, instead of on the VMI parade grounds, my father and Cy will meet again on the Elysian Fields.

* I found the issue in my studio this week; the article accompanying the photographs reports, "In 1961 Andre Malraux, [French] Minister of Culture, had named as director his friend the painter Balthus, who fulfilled his mission [to restore the Villa] over the course of sixteen years with singular prestige and with results that cannot be too much appreciated. " I recall in my conversation with Twombly during our visit, that he said he knew the building. Twombly, himself restored several Italian villas and perhaps had referred to Balthus' sensitive and well-researched efforts.

House & Garden, January 1984, p. 64 (ghost of chair image cut out and used in my collage)


  1. Anne,
    What a lovely piece. A story I never heard you tell. And all along I thought Jeff was the writer in the family.

  2. The Moma Cup is an exciting piece of art. I love the idea. Is it an ocean at the background? It gives calm to the painting. Lovely!