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  In 1952, in an application for travel funds made to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Cy Twombly signaled an interest in the “primitive.” He wrote: “For myself the past is the source (for all art is vitally contemporary). I’m drawn to the primitive, the ritual and fetish elements, to the symmetrical plastic order (peculiarly basic to both primitive and classic concepts, so relating the two).” (Kirk Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, 1994, p. 56.)

Twombly’s commitment to the past as a source has remained a constant through his career. He has referenced the ancient world continuously and has summoned its heroes, gods, lovers, and poets. However, rather than being nostalgic or pseudo-intellectual, Twombly’s choices of content are informed by an underlying humanist theory and praxis that the artist both absorbed and developed during his formative years. Despite being one of the most important artists to have emerged in the postwar era, the intellectual context in which Twombly’s works were created has been ignored by most scholars.

After World War II and in the face of the Cold War, American and European artists and theorists rejected the over-determined rationality blamed for producing the chaos of preceding decades. Instead, they sought a revised subjectivity capable of gaining unmediated access to experience, querying the past to locate basic human truths, basing “knowledge” in pre-cognitive processes of consciousness, and describing the world before ideas are imposed. These notions centered on locating the elemental, the primordial, and the mythic in human experience so as to uncover the core of human nature. Hence, “primitivism,” in thematic and formal guises, emerged as a tangible and desired ingredient of what was deemed the “new humanism.” This paper will draw a line from Twombly’s experimental series of the 1950s, in which he produced experientially-based works consistent with the era’s imperative to locate “primitive” truths , to his immersion in Italy in the 1960s when he tapped its layers of history and myth to develop a unique humanist perspective that offered an alternative to postmodern de-centering.

In 1951, while working at Black Mountain College on paintings and sculptures inspired by Luristan bronzes, Twombly formed the habit of creating in series to exhibit the succession and range of phenomenological states—instinctual, emotional, abstract, empirical, etc.—that humans intend toward their environment. To a great extent, his early project paralleled Sartre’s descriptions of consciousness and his construct of a subject immersed in a past/present/future world. At the same time, he benefited from contact with Charles Olson, the poet, who was rector of the College. In terms of praxis, Olson may be understood as elaborating on many aspects of Sartre’s existentialism. Olson cultivated a mythical mind-set in his theories of “open” form, language and glyph, and history. Olson’s own style of “projective verse” allowed one perception to follow another without concern for traditional poetics and has much in common with Twombly’s paratactic solutions and use of the written word.

When Twombly settled in Rome in 1959, the context of Italy solidified his manipulations of what were perceived as “primitive” qualities and literally embedded himself in the “roots” of civilization and human nature. However, with the crushing American reception of his Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963), he fell outside of the American mainstream. Nonetheless, in the Italy of the 1960s, he found a compatible intellectual and artistic community connected to Galleria La Tartaruga, an important nexus of advanced art in Rome. Although Europeans participated fully in the postmodern and conceptual trends that made Twombly look outmoded in New York, postwar Italians were forced to continue their examination of the past and recuperate their relationship to it. Like Twombly, their answers to postmodern queries were unique, cutting two ways by upholding tradition while offering needed revision.

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