What is the relationship between a title, an image and an annotated inscription in the work of Cy Twombly? This central issue has gone without adequate explanation in the vast majority of the literature on the artist. And yet the credulity stretched by the disjuncture between the titular allusion and the visual disarray of marks, signs and scribbled words that accompanies it is one of the most tacitly provocative aspects of Twombly's aesthetic of dissonance. Consider just a few of Twombly's titles for his peculiarly poetic paintings and drawings: Poems to the Sea, Delian Odes, Nine Discourses on Commodus, Letter of Resignation, Synopsis of a Battle, Treatise on the Veil, Roman Notes. Even the titles of Twombly's paintings and drawings seem to allude to a literary model, where the very act of naming itself, of enunciating and enumerating, takes centre stage.
This paper will examine how the titles of Twombly's paintings, drawings and sculpture relate to the images and objects they are attached to, including the many works based on lost images for which only a literary description now survives. My discussion will be bracketed by two foundational essays on the written word versus the image. The first of these is Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's essay Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting, published in 1766. Taking the sculptural group of the Laocoön (Museo Vaticani, Rome) as his exemplar to explore the distinguishing features of, and boundaries between, painting and poetry, Lessing argued that painting's capacity to articulate emotion, ideas and narrative was vastly restricted compared to poetry. Furthermore, Lessing argued that any attempt to coerce painting into abandoning its proper sphere would result in the debased from of allegory and 'an arbitrary method of writing', as typified, by the hieroglyph or pictogram.
The second text to consider will be Clement Greenberg's reductive formulation of modernist painting as becoming increasingly entrenched within its own 'area of competence' in his 1940 essay Towards a Newer Laocoon. In this, Greenberg spoke of the 'intransigence' of modern abstract painting, and stated that: 'When the purist insists upon excluding "literature" and subject matter from plastic art, now and in the future, the most we can charge him with off-hand is an unhistorical attitude.' Greenberg also warned against the risk of painting becoming 'nothing more than ghosts and "stooges" of literature.'
I will then trace the impact of Greenberg's writing upon the New York School that proved so influential upon Twombly, to complicate the supposed schism between Twombly and his American peers. For example, in 1946 Mark Rothko referred to himself and his fellow painters as a 'small band of mythmakers' who were intent on 'creating new counterparts to replace the old mythological hybrids.' The very same year as Rothko's comments, Jackson Pollock painted a picture titled Something of the Past. Inspiration drawn from by classical mythology, archaeology, ancient history and Italian culture that prefigured Twombly's engagement with these subjects can be traced through Jack Tworkov's Athene (1949), Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimus (1950-1), Ulysses (1952), Dionysus (1949) and Achilles of 1952; Willem De Kooning's Orestes (1947), Excavation (1950), the Italianate Villa Borghese (1960) and Pastorale (1963), Robert Motherwell's Ulysses from 1947 and Summertime in Italy no. 7, 1961 and Franz Kline's Corinthian II (1961). As these examples and almost the entire oeuvre of Twombly attest, in the fraught relationship between an abstract painting and its title, where might meaning be located and fixed?