A Painter’s Focus
The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has recently acquired 29 photographs by Cy Twombly. They reveal a little known aspect of his artistic activity, demonstrating both how the camera informed his work as a painter and how he came to embrace the photograph as an independent art form.
Arpad Kovacs, Friday, 23rd November 2012
Defining the role of photography in the career of an artist for whom it was a secondary medium after painting presents a challenge to scholars seeking to relate such work to the history of the photograph. The recent acquisition by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles of 29 photographs by the American artist Cy Twombly (1928–2011) offers an opportunity to re-examine the relationship between the paintbrush and the lens, and to expand the copious literature charting the painter’s oeuvre. The Getty’s photographs depict both the picturesque and the quotidian, reflecting Twombly’s keen sense of visual curiosity and appreciation of the intrinsic pleasure of the minute detail. While the tradition of a painter or sculptor ‘discovering’ the camera has numerous precedents, Twombly’s photographs are also significant as examples of electrophotography, a practice that involves the manipulation of source prints through the process of scanning on a photocopy machine to create the final work. The results dilute the crisp lines and shapes of a traditional photograph, yet accentuate the rich colours and surface textures of details. Facilitated by his long-time publisher Schirmer/Mosel, Twombly began experimenting with colour photocopy machines in the 1980s.
As early as the 1960s, electrophotography was often employed by conceptual artists, as it permitted the quick production of simple works on paper; essentially disposable, they negated the aura of the fine art object. It is unclear to what extent Twombly was aware of these motivations, since he utilised the process to create prints that are deliberately delicate and beautiful. His technique of making multiple scans and enlargements accentuates the dense colours of the original Polaroid print and capitalises on its grainy texture.
The resulting effects are visually similar to the soft-focus and richly textured carbon and gum bichromate prints produced at the end of the 19th century by pictorialist photographers such as Robert Demachy (1859–1936), Frank Eugene (1865–1936), and Anne Brigman (1869–1950), who enlisted painterly techniques to elevate the medium of photography into the realm of fine art.
The Polaroid camera was Twombly’s preferred tool, allowing him to capture his surroundings swiftly and maintain a sense of spontaneity that is a trademark of the resulting prints. The internal dye diffusion transfer print, introduced by the Polaroid Corporation in the early 1970s, fast became widely popular because of the simplicity of the process and the dense vivid colours of the resulting prints. After an exposure was taken, the print was automatically ejected from the camera and ‘the photographer could watch the image slowly appear as the dyes came to the surface’.1 Twombly embraced the Polaroid camera, photographing everyday subjects and focusing on richly textured details and layered surfaces. The resulting images are deceptively simple and quiet in comparison to his expansive and complex paintings.
Born in Lexington, Virginia, on 25 April 1928, Edwin Parker Twombly, Jr. inherited the nickname ‘Cy’ from his father.2 Twombly’s first formal art school training began with his enrolment in 1947 at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The programme emphasised practical matters of technique and materials in order to train young teachers. With the school’s bias towards German expressionist aesthetics, Twombly developed an interest in the avant-garde styles of Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) and Alberto Giacometti (1901–66).3 After the two-year course in Boston, he enrolled in the newly created art programme at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, in the autumn of 1949. His immense talent quickly became apparent to Marion Junkin, the university’s sole art instructor, who immediately encouraged him to apply to the Art Students League of New York, which he joined in September 1950.4 In New York he immersed himself in the art community, visiting exhibitions and occasionally showing his own work in the League’s gallery. Along with fellow student Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), he attended the influential Black Mountain College in North Carolina the following year, where the progressive pedagogic atmosphere provided an oppor- tunity to meet and study with leading artists of the era. Prominent artists working in a range of media were either faculty members or visited as guest lecturers, and the school gained a reputation for incubating the American avant-garde. Photographers Harry Callahan (1912–99) and Aaron Siskind (1903–91) were visiting faculty members during the 1951 summer session, around the time Twombly began to take snapshots with a 35mm camera of his instructors and fellow students. In November 1951, Siskind arranged a small exhibition at the Seven Stairs Gallery in Chicago, with paintings Twombly had completed over the summer and notes by Robert Motherwell (1915–91), another instructor at the college.5 In 1952 Twombly and Rauschenberg travelled to Europe and North Africa, on a scholarship administered through the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The two visited numer-ous museums and historical sites in Italy, and Twombly immersed himself in the culture of Rome, Florence, Siena and Venice, before retreating to Casablanca and later Tangier.6 The following year, after returning to New York, the artist was drafted into the United States Army. During this period he began investigating automatic writing, a surrealist technique that harnesses chance to create expressive markings.7 He would soon experiment with it in his large canvases, which he then photographed in Rauschenberg’s Fulton Street studio in New York.
Here Twombly once again made photographs focusing on his immediate surroundings. These pictures include cropped views of his paintings in various states of completion and mounds of the raw materials used by Rauschenberg to create his ‘Combine’ paintings. Robert Rauschenberg Combine Material Fulton St. Studio presents a crowded frame in which discarded objects are arranged in the tradition of a still-life composition. By placing the camera at a lower vantage point, almost parallel to the ground, the floorboards in the foreground are thrown slightly out of focus, leaving the torn rolls of paper, the wooden crate and sheets of glass to create an asymmetrical composition that is barely contained by the top of the frame. Although the negative was created in 1954, Twombly later revisited the print; in the process of repeatedly photocopying the gelatin silver print that had been the source photograph, he further diluted areas that were already out of focus, bleaching the highlights to a degree where some details become almost illegible.
Twombly participated in a number of exhibitions of his paintings in both the United States and Italy during the 1950s, but received little attention from American dealers and collectors. In 1960, shortly after he began exhibiting with the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, he relocated with his new wife Tatiana Franchetti to Italy, which would become his primary residence for the remainder of his career.8 During this period, as he increasingly began to find success with his paintings, he continued to take photographs – but with no intention of exhibiting or publishing them.
This approach to photography, as a mode of personal documentation and investigation of specific ideas or subjects, is closely tied to the idea of the photographic sketchbook, a practice of sustained study that has a long history and that continues to be employed by many contemporary artists. The Getty’s collection contains an array of photographs by prominent figures who have used photography in this or similar ways, including Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Charles Sheeler and Andy Warhol (1928–87). A closer look at some of these prints provides insight into Twombly’s own photographic methods.
For much of the 19th century, few painters would have admitted to using a camera to facilitate their work, and indeed many scorned the device as beneath the dignity of art.9 This hostile attitude towards the photograph from many academic painters and sculptors is well documented, and undoubtedly led to the exclusion of photography from the realm of the fine arts. Interest in the camera’s aesthetic on the part of prominent painters such as Degas and Eakins reveals a broader shift in attitudes towards the end of the 19th century, however. In 1888 George Eastman introduced the Kodak No. 1, a small box-like camera pre-loaded with a sensitised roll of film, which one would send back to the manufacturer for development and reloading. The company promised that anyone who ‘could wind a watch’ would be able to master the new camera.10 This simplified approach to the photographic process initiated greater public enthusiasm for the medium, though it was largely rejected by artists and photographers with artistic ambitions. Degas turned to photography in the mid-1880s (he probably did not yet own a camera), and showed no interest in Kodak’s new invention, instead continuing to use an apparatus that required a tripod and glass plates.11 As a result, many of his photographs resemble those prints made during the early years of the medium in which the subject is bathed in strong natural light and forced to remain still for the length of the exposure, with the physical strain on the figure evident in the resulting print.12 In After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Back, a female figure holds a pose in which her body is slung over the back of a chair draped with towels. The distribution of the model’s weight and the structure of her back show that this is a deliberately choreographed photograph; Degas would subsequently use it as the basis for a major painting, After the Bath (c. 1896). By no means a simple snapshot, this image is an early example of how a photograph can serve a specific compositional function for artists primarily working with paint.
The photographs of Eakins have received considerable scholarly attention over the last 20 years and have been examined as both documents of the artist’s personal life and studies for completed works in other media. Primarily known as an academic painter whose canvases ‘established new standards for scientific accuracy founded on exact perspectival studies and the careful, empirical examination of human anatomy’, Eakins was a master of depicting the human figure.13 He took up the camera in the early 1880s and became an avid and innovative photographer. Like Degas, he did not create photographs for exhibition; but his keen interest in the medium is borne out by his following of journals including the Philadelphia Photographer, which offered both technical instruction and articles about aesthetics.14 Working in Philadelphia in the late 19th century, Eakins came into contact with photographers of considerable reputation, including Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904), who was employed by the University of Pennsylvania from 1883–86. Photographs by Eakins in the Getty collection offer glimpses into both the private and artistic lives of the artist. A print from 1884, Male Figures at the Site of ‘Swimming’, is one of a series that depicts a group of nude young men convened on a ledge overlooking a small lake. Unlike Degas, who often carefully constructed his scenes and directed his models, Eakins moved his models outdoors to encourage spontaneity and escape the monotonous light of the studio.15 The prints reveal how he used photographs like sketches, taking multiple exposures and later combining elements of them on canvas; Eakins used several of these images in preparation for the painting The Swimming Hole (1884–85).
Although Twombly’s interest in photo-graphy can be traced to the photographs he made during his tenure at Black Mountain College in the early 1950s, he did not exhibit or publish his prints for nearly 40 years. Instead he photographed his environment as a personal exercise, at times experimenting with simple devices such as the use of bright flash and moving the camera to blur the subject before the lens slightly. The range of his photographic subject matter perhaps echoes his earlier interest in surrealist techniques of psychic automation (where the hand is thought to create freely as a result of directions from the subconscious). For Twombly, the act of photography resembled
a reflex action to certain forms of visual stimulation; he used a camera, rather than a pencil or brush, to record his reaction to scenes ranging from the banal to the dramatic.
In the mid 1980s, Twombly began to photograph a series of tightly cropped thematic groupings of classical statues, trees and bouquets of flowers. Printed by the Atelier Fresson in Savigny-sur-Orge, France, the resulting Fresson Prints are exquisite examples of the carbon process, exploiting the rich textures and colours of the subject with subtle variation in tonal gradations. The prints from the Tulips III portfolio continue the flower motif that emerged in Twombly’s work in the early 1960s in several of his drawings that were coupled with hastily written lines of verse.16 As a painter engaged almost exclusively with abstraction, the introduction of recognisable shapes and natural subject matter signalled a change of direction in his work that he would further explore in later canvases of large floral motifs, such as the Peony Blossom Paintings of 2006–07. The carbon prints of flowers produced by the Atelier Fresson, with their interest in texture, soft differential focus and simple subjects, reflect the style of late 19th-century Pictorialism. They were exhibited in 1993 at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, the first time that the artist had shown work in this medium. In subsequent years, he began to focus on photography with renewed enthusiasm.
The almost instantaneous results of the Polaroid camera, Twombly’s preferred tool, were also alluring for artists such as Warhol, Keith Haring (1958–90) and their contemp-oraries; having no formal training as photographers, they quickly embraced the immediate results of this machine to create both informal snapshots and sketchbook-like studies for later projects. For Warhol, raising the camera’s viewfinder to the eye and capturing an image came to replace the traditional pencil and sketchbook as a means of exploring ideas while in a state of inspiration. At a later stage, he would hone in on the pictures that sustained his interest, creating numerous self-portraits.
In a picture from 1998, Twombly focused his lens on a small fragment of an abstract sculpture bathed in the natural light of his studio. The cropped view of a larger object emphases its fundamental constituents: lines, shapes and the visible weight of the photographed scuplture. It is as if a new work has emerged from the old. A similar effect is felt in Twombly’s pictures of a number of his paintings in progress; although in these, the inclusion of the painter’s accoutrements in his studio create images that also have a documentary aesthetic. When photographing everyday objects such as lemons or cabbages, he transforms what is commonplace into what seems unfamiliar; their vivid colours and the pronounced craggy surfaces lend an almost visceral texture to the objects in each print. Yet the light that streams in from a window outside the frame reinforces the quietly lush qualities of subjects that have long been part of the still-life tradition.
In 1994, curator Kirk Varnedoe character-ised Cy Twombly’s work as having ‘proved influential among artists, discomforting to many critics, and truculently difficult not just for a broad public, but for sophisticated initiates of postwar art as well’.17 An important component of the painter’s oeuvre, his photographs might be said to challenge the accusation of obscurity. While his paintings contain a complex interplay of literary references, scrawled markings, scratches, erasures and drips of paint that make him one of the most opaque, if rewarding, abstract painters of the 20th century, his photographs are more approachable; they are technically accomplished and deceptively simple. The camera, for Twombly, was as much as tool for investigating the world’s shapes and surfaces as it was as for furthering his art.
Arpad Kovacs is Assistant Curator of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
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