Cy Twombly’s Cold War Code by Jay Curley

Cy Twombly was not just a painter; he was also a cold warrior—drafted by the United States Army in the autumn of 1953 to serve at Camp Gordon near Augusta, Georgia. It was there he went through basic training and developed a specialty in cryptography, a vital skill in a cold war world of intercepting and protecting political and military transmissions. While often mentioned as a biographic detail in the literature on the artist, no one has considered this context as fundamental to his art, even though he commented that the drawings he made on weekends off during that year of enlistment established “the direction everything would take from then on.” Soon after his discharge from the army in August of 1954, Twombly made a remarkable set of canvases of white marks on a grayish-black surface, anticipating his “chalkboard paintings” of the late 1960s. The lone surviving example is Panorama, a monumental picture of over eight feet high and over eleven feet long. Referring to penmanship as well as surrealist automatic drawing, this canvas has a linguistic quality, implying, even, that one might be able to read its marks from left to right, if only given the key to its encryption.

The syntax of Twombly’s Panorama embodies conspiracy. Its marks threaten to turn into words or numbers that then might mean something significant. That one can decipher a few actual letters, like “HOU” toward the bottom right corner of the picture, only emphasizes the potentiality of all the canvas’s script. Twombly is investigating the limits of sign-making, the threshold of signification, soon after his own militarized training in the variability of the sign (it is clear why Roland Barthes eventually himself turned to Twombly’s work). Rosalind Krauss has written that Twombly’s art of this period desublimates the informe qualities of Pollock’s drip paintings from 1948-1950—their debased and destabilized nature. The younger artist transforms Pollock’s elegant drip and attenuated lines into something resembling graffiti—a low form of public language whose meaning is always deferred, a personal secret whose mere contours are made public as a kind of code. Extrapolating from this, might a painting like Panorama also suggest the ways that Pollock’s paintings were also a kind of code to decipher? In this context, was the gallery goer’s act of interpreting a Pollock or Twombly canvas itself a cold war conceit, a sublimated form of locating a conspiracy of meaning? Twombly’s title for the painting, Panorama, suggests complete vision in the round and therefore only reiterates further its frustrating tease of legibility.

Kurt Varnedoe, “Inscriptions in Arcadia,” Cy Twombly: A Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994), 9-64.

Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).

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