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June 30, 2006

The Queer Eye of that Slate Guy Revisited

Cy Twombly: Untitled, 1970

Why, what's this little blip in your RSS reader?

Don't mind me, folks. I was just passing through for periodic comment spam maintenance and thought I'd drop a little post on ya while I was here. (And just in time for the certain torrent of holiday blog traffic, too.)

The occasion? The amazing spectacle that is the artblogosphere's best friend, Lee Siegel, who is garnering himself a considerable slice of greater blogosphere notoriety in the wake of his two-post discursus on the rising specter of Blogofascism and the dangerous comment-thread digressions thereof.

It's something that I think can be adequately described as "an angry anti-democratic retort to the nettleseome tides of democratization" (to borrow the cunning linguist's own phrase), and was fired off amidst the escalating controversy over certain shocking allegations that a group of "web loggers" communicate with one another over "electronic mail."

It's the sort of thing that makes surfing the internets at work fun again.

Of course, even before he struck statcounter gold with his unforgettable description of blogs as "hard fascism with a Microsoft face," he had sharpened his provocative edge baiting the blogosphere hoi polloi with a number of anxious and more or less contradictory digs at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (Shorter Siegel: To be honest, I was never a huge fan of Stalin's humor.)

But even before all that, he had the unwavering attention of the art blogs (such that it was).

After all, it was in his capacity as an art critic for Slate that, among various other critical crimes and misdemeanors (opining, for example that Picasso's famous portrait of Gertude Stein sucks because the painter didn't want to jump the lesbian writer's bones—which theory makes me wonder, frankly, how his portrait of Stravinsky can be so damned good), Siegel dropped his now-immortal take on Cy Twombly's scribbles on an unsuspecting world:

You cannot fully understand Twombly's art unless you know that he is gay. It's often fatuous to reduce an artist to his or her sexuality, but Twombly is working in a tradition that associates homosexuality with an ideal human freedom. This tradition strives for an art unfettered by purpose, function, or meaning. You find such a style in Frank O'Hara's casual aimlessness and in John Ashbery's aimless obscurity—both poets think in the strokes of a subtle crayon. Such a sensibility derives from Walter Pater, the gay Victorian aesthetician who prized in art the quality he called "diaphaneite," a crystalline transparency that "crosses rather than follows the main currents of the world's life"—a "happy, unperplexed dexterity." Update Pater's notion with the brash off-handedness of so much postwar American art—think Pop art and cool jazz—and you arrive at the doodle. I have no idea if Twombly knew about Pater's ideas or cared for them if he did. But his art, distractedly crossing rather than following the main currents of the world fits Pater's values to a T.

Many were floored by the sheer fatuousness of this paragraph, but few were surprised at who had written it.

Some cried foul. Some tried to sort out Siegel's vulgar arithmetic. Some responded simply: Cy is gay?

Well, about that last question...

A few months later, Todd Gibson actually rather tactfully dangled a bit of counterevidence regarding this most basic fact of the matter. (That is, what would Cy's wife and kid think of all of this?) Yet, (and maybe it was just all old news to everyone else) no one ever took the opportunity to tease out the evidence to see if they could really drop the hammer on this clown.

For one thing, we genteel artbloggers are a bit less practiced in the ways of blogofascist jujutsu than our political, or even literary, bretheren (well, at least those of our ilk (bloggers) who don't pass off indisputable facts (PDF) as, uh, the facts that they are.)

For another, who honestly cares one way or the other?

But Siegel's recent reemergence into blogospheric consciousness has prompted me to wonder again: is Cy Twombly in fact gay?

Cy Twombly

Lacking any dispositive photo evidence of Twombly in a Hawaiian shirt, I looked to Google to provide some answers. And, even at first blush, it appears that enough people take for granted the romantic nature of Twombly's relationship with Robert Rauschenberg during their Black Mountain years and subsequent European sojourn in the early- to mid-fifties (before Bob got to know Jasper), that it could qualify as a conventional wisdom of sorts. (E.g., his name appears on a number of lists of GLBT artists.)

So let's keep going...

In two separate reviews, David Spiher of Gay City News calls Twombly "deeply closeted" and bemoans the 'whitewashing' of Twombly and Rauschenberg's relationship in the supplemental exhibition materials for the Met's recent Combine show. But in the latter, he goes, shall we say, a smidge over the top:

The wall text and essay writers make a lot of fuss about the "poetical" implications of Rauschenberg’s collage choices, in particular the circular objects—toy parachutes, umbrella skins, light sockets, wheels, hair scrunches, and tires that are seen as metaphors for speed, flight, and modern life. All I saw were sphincters, sphincters everywhere. This queerly testosterone-driven work is right in line with Rauschenberg’s contemporaries, particularly bad boy Twombly, with his cum rag "wipe it on the drapes" paintings, and the leaky sexual repression of Johns.

Chalk that up to critical license.

Along more substantive lines, though, Jonathan Katz, who has a forthcoming book entitled The Homosexualization of American Art: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and the Collective Closet, lays out some of the evidence on Twombly in an essay on Rauschenberg and Johns, including some contemporaneous primary-source gossip:

But there is one image produced during this early period in Rauschenberg's career that breaks this pattern of negation and refusal. Indeed, it seems almost traditionally expressive, although "written" in a kind of code. Called Should Love Come First? and now destroyed, it was painted in 1951 and exhibited at Rauschenberg's first one person show at the Betty Parson's gallery that same year. Should Love Come First? draws its title from a collaged fragment of a magazine that appears in the upper left corner and reads, "my problem: Should love come first." The problematic stated in the title certainly achieves new poignancy considering the fact that the picture was painted shortly after Rauschenberg had met and become involved with Cy Twombly, while still married to his then pregnant wife, Susan Weil. Their son Christopher was born in July that year, while Rauschenberg and Twombly were together at Black Mountain College.

In a letter that winter, Charles Olson, poet and director of the college, wrote to fellow poet Robert Creeley giving us some insight into the situation perhaps inspiring Should Love Come First? and its bittersweet title:

(I had noticed, a few nights ago, Twombly's concern for this boy when we were all talking in the study building entrance, and Rauschenberg was sitting too carelessly on the railings over the wall's edge—that sort of attention, and warning ones takes as feminine, guarding the beloved:) … he is in the black, just now, his marriage smashing, probably over the affair with Twombly, his contract with the gallery not renewed, and—I'd also bet as an added hidden factor—the terrible pressure on him of the clear genius of this lad, Twombly, the success of his year and the total defeat of Bob's.

Rauschenberg and his wife Susan Weil separated almost as soon as she arrived at Black Mountain with their baby. They divorced the following year.

In addition to the charged question asked in the title Should Love Come First? also contains the imprint of Rauschenberg's foot contiguous with a male position Arthur Murray waltz diagram—a male/male dance. When, shortly after meeting Rauschenberg, Johns completed a painting entitled Tango (1955), which featured a music box set into the canvas with the titled stenciled across the upper left, could it have been a tribute to his new lover inspired by the precedent of Rauschenberg's earlier tribute to Twombly? A waltz with Twombly had become a tango with Johns.

And what does it mean that Should Love Come First? was overpainted and transformed into one of the Black Paintings in 1953, following Rauschenberg's break with Twombly in Europe and subsequent return to the U.S.?

(More from Katz here.)

Further, a 1987 interview with New York School composer Morton Feldman offers more first-hand opinion with substance and context:

Cage had a very peculiar reputation. He was very well liked, and was to some degree disturbing to a lot of people. Not that the work was radical. Christian Wolff's mother called John a charlatan. Guston loved him, but referred to his routines as a nightclub act. So, there were problems there. Although everybody cared greatly for him, and they weren't overly critical, I would say there was an anti-homosexual bias.

Against him?

Well, not only against him, but against the younger people who began to be associated with him: Rauschenberg, and Jasper [Johns], and Cy Twombly. Cage never mentioned [Charles] Ives; and I think it had to do with Ives's treatment of Henry Cowell.

After Cowell was busted?

Yeah. Cage never mentioned those composers. He never mentioned [Edgard] Varèse, for example. Again, I think it was the homosexual thing. I'm sure it was.


Since I'm gay myself, I'm very interested in this topic; and it's impossible to find anything written about it. Was there a group of just the homosexuals—where they gathered together as gay people who were also artists, painters, and musicians—that included, maybe, Cunningham and Cage?

Cunningham and Cage associated with homosexuals like Tobey, landed-gentry types. John Ashbery, the young poets, Frank O'Hara—they cruised around. If I went to a party at Frank's, I could have straight friends, or tough Jewish intellectuals like me—Norman Bluhm, Michael Goldberg.

Within the gay culture, O'Hara has an aura about him now. He's very well respected, an ascending star.

Did you read my obituary on him—one of the best pieces of writing I ever did?

Where's that?

It's in Homage to Frank O'Hara, a whole collection. The line was from a poem by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "past times and future hopes." It's one of the best writings I ever did. It's in two anthologies, actually.

So, was there a group, an artists' group, that was predominately homosexual? Or did they just blend in with other groups?

They were with Johnny [John Bernard] Meyers's gallery, the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which had very classy women like June Wilson and [Jane] Freilicher. They also had Larry [Rivers] and John Button. Johnny Meyers was a very important Diaghilev type. He published; he put on plays. He supported all of Frank's plays, and had connections perhaps with the whole literary world at that particular time. A lot of homosexual poets made a living as critics. They worked for Art News. John Ashbery finally became editor of Art News, I think. There was a very pervasive homosexual world in New York in the fifties. I would say that the anti-homosexual atmosphere was not overt. I felt it. There's always, in any environment, a kind of hard-hat aspect. Other than that.... I don't want to exaggerate this point, because John was very sensitive to it. I remember there was a little gathering in a Chinese restaurant, and Jackson Pollock was taunting John.

Oh my.

Jackson was another raving heterosexual. There were some people who created a bad atmosphere. Other than that, everybody lived in love and peace and harmony. Guston certainly had a relationship with the poets. He was very literary. Frank was his very, very close friend, and Bill Berkson, and a whole bunch. Most of the painters who were close to me didn't have those attitudes. But New York had its establishment homosexual community in terms of being a metropolis, and then the world of the dance, and so forth and so on. It was growing, and it was very, very strong. I think to this day the irony is that perhaps three of the most original of that group emerging, in a sense: Jasper Johns, Bob Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly....

I didn't realize Rauschenberg was gay.

Oh yeah; in fact when I first met him he was living with Cy Twombly and something happened. He was married at first. He met—I don't know where—he met Cy Twombly. Then he met Jasper Johns.

(Sorry for the length of quotes, but the context, especially re: Pollock, was too good to snip.)

All of which, I think, is enough to convince me that, at the very least, the notion ought to be considered reasonable.

But what, then, of the other side of Twombly's coin? Where do the wife and kid come into the picture?

Well, going back to the article Todd linked to, we find Ralph Blumenthal leading off a story on a veritable Twombly-fest in Houston last year thusly:

HOUSTON, June 3—On a bench in the Cy Twombly Gallery, in front of a Cy Twombly, sat Cy Twombly.

It was a sweet moment for this often reclusive artist of enigmatic graffiti and white totemic sculptures, who had arrived with his wife and son from Rome, his adopted home.

Artfacts and Jonathan Jones seem to agree. And so, Twombly has a wifey, and the wifey has a name-o: Tatiana Franchetti.

The biographical money quote comes from a 1995 Art in America review of MoMA's Twombly retrospective of that year, picking up virtually on the heels of the story as told thus far, in the mid-1950s:

Nevertheless, we get a sense from Varnedoe's text of how desperate Twombly was to return to Europe all through the mid-'50s, and of the rigmarole he went through to get traveling fellowships from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, none of which came through. Twombly eventually got back to Italy in '57 with Ward's help. He wanted to see his old friend from Virginia, Betty Stokes, who had married a Venetian count, Alvise di Robilant, and had a son. Through these connections, Twombly met Baron Giorgio Franchetti, who was a backer of the Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome (where Twombly would begin showing in the spring of 1958), and his sister, the Baroness Tatiana Franchetti, who, we learn from the catalogue, was a flourishing portraitist at the time and came to New York once a year to do commissions (I do wish Varnedoe had included at least one documentary photo of Tatiana Franchetti's work). Twombly and Tatiana married in April 1959 in New York City, honeymooned in Cuba and Mexico, and had a son, Alessandro (now himself an artist) in December of that year. Twombly marked the passing of a decade and the birth of his child in a huge painting, The Age of Alexander (1959-60), which was shown for the first time outside Italy (it debuted at the Venice Biennale in 1993) in Varnedoe's show.

A gay or bisexual man married with children, then? I can certainly imagine that such a thing was not altogether uncommon in that era, but I don't care to speculate much beyond than that.

I do find it curious, though, that none of my admitedly Google-centric searches have landed on anything that makes explicit mention of both the Rauschenberg trysts and Twombly's consummated (and ultimately long-lasting) marriage a matter of a few years later. Indeed, Twombly's sexuality seems, for the most part, to only come up in discussions of Rauschenberg (whose homosexuality seems a bit more widely acknowledged). This could certainly be a matter of the tenacious repression or "propriety" that characterizes The Closet rearing its head, or perhaps simply a reflection of Twombly's own personal discretion. Perhaps, too, most people just don't see the connection to his art.

Nevertheless, the long and short of this evidence is:

a) It seems fairly well accepted that Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly were lovers for a period of a few years in the early fifties.

b) It appears indisputable that Twombly got married and had a kid a mere half-decade later, and has been in a committed heterosexual marriage for the nearly half-century since.

But the question remains: so what?

Which brings us back around to Mr. Siegel...

Lee, if you're reading this and you've made it this far (and I'd like to think you are and have), I feel obliged to help you out.

I realize you'd probably rather be discussing Walter Pater or Frank O'Hara or John Ashbery or even Cervantes' crippled left arm any day over some mere dauber, scribbler or colorist. As your Slate slide shows consistently demonstrate, you clearly feel far more comfortable directly addressing such literary lights than any number of the artists who are the nominal subjects of your Slate pieces (and who you so often seem to describe as impossible to theorize or otherwise reckon with—as universally "unassimilable").

Still, if you're going to insist on using Twombly's sexuality as the pretense for your little literary flights of fancy, you owe it to yourself to get your facts straight. (I mean, you don't want to look foolish, do you?) And if so, it might be advisable to revisit your notorious statement (well, this notorious statement anyways) and moderate it a bit.

I've actually put some work into trying to do so myself (while also trying to capture the spirit of the thing, as they say), and I'd like to share what I've come up with:

You cannot fully understand Twombly's art unless you know that he got gay with Bob Rauschenberg in New York in the fifties. Just like Walter Pater may have gotten gay with William Money Hardinge at Oxford in Victorian England. L'art pour l'art!!

That works, no?

I think you'll agree that this formulation adds a necessary dash of precision and economy, while still maintaining the rigorous critical standards that are your calling card. And it's pretty pithy, too, I tell you what.

Feel free to use it yourself, Lee; no attribution necessary.

Or... maybe, just maybe, you might wish seek out a stronger hook on which to hang your proposed link between Twombly's corpus and a Paterian aestheticism—something other than Cy's choice in lovers 50 years ago (a connection that is, let's face it, fairly tenuous and mostly irrelevant).

Perhaps you'd like to consider a substantive argument (or at least something closely resembling it).

If that's the case, you might want to start by revisiting this:

Update Pater's notion with the brash off-handedness of so much postwar American art—think Pop art and cool jazz—and you arrive at the doodle. I have no idea if Twombly knew about Pater's ideas or cared for them if he did. But his art, distractedly crossing rather than following the main currents of the world fits Pater's values to a T.

Walter Pater + Pop Art + jazz = doodles?

Fits to a T?

I frankly don't see it, myself.

In fact (and no disrespect directed at Twombly), I kind of feel that offering forth the great platonic doodle as somehow the be-all and end-all of 'purposeless beauty' betrays a fairly stark failure of aesthetic imagination on your part.

But that's just little old blogofascist me.

Cy Twombly: Untitled, 1968

(Now, with all of that out of the way, shall we move on to your contention that Robin Williams is an aloof comic genius? Now that's the stuff of scandal.)

"The Queer Eye of that Slate Guy Revisited"
Posted by Dan at 11:53 PM | Referenced URL's | Comments (2)