Nature is a central aspect of a remarkable series of "Thickets" that refer to Mesopotamia. This "birthplace" of civilization, made up of city-states in the regions of Sumer and Akkad, developed cuneiform writing (the first pictographic writing system). Twombly's first Thicket was inspired by a diminutive Sumerian sculpture--of a ram resting its forelegs on the branches of a slender tree--from a royal tomb in Ur. This object, of around 2500 BC, also relates to his Thicket of 1991 (right), which employs a barren tree limb with a forked stem and branches with eight "leaves," each bearing the name of a Sumerian city-state. The trunk is primitively inscribed "Thickets of Akkad-Sumer," and the vestige of prior growth is suggested by the word "Sumer" that Twombly has written as "summer." This poetic characterization of the flowering of Sumerian civilization (and ultimately its death) is particularly apt, as the sloping walls of their temples, the ziggurats, were likely covered with trees and shrubs.
The graceful branches of Twombly's 1991 Thicket rise from a lumpy mass of cement, and a comparable hardened ooze serves as the base for the most recent Thicket, of 1992. Here, fertility is illustrated by a verdant grove of artificial flowers that spring from a kind of primeval plaster. This work, then, links two prevalent motifs of Twombly's sculpture: flora and formlessness. The elegant works that employ cloth or plastic flowers or even a fragile dried blossom (as in the delicate Untitled of 1993), remind one of the ephemeral nature of beauty and the changing seasons of life, while the plaster suggests primordial amorphousness.
The theme of mortality has pervaded Twombly's sculpture in recent years, through works that represent reliquaries, memorial plaques, or funerary monuments: the most devastating of these are entwined with martial subjects. In Epitaph (left) a mass of plaster elevates a tablet inscribed with the words of ancient Greek poet-soldier Archilochos from a sepulchral box. "In the hospitality / of war / We left them their dead / As a gift / to remember / us by." The inexorable horror of the prose is leavened by a grim irony, and Twombly echoes Archilochos in presenting us with a reliquary gift box that cannot entirely contain its archaic dead.
A poignant paean to military honor, Thermopylae of 1991 (below), bears the name of the mountain pass where the Spartan king Leonidas and his entire army perished defending Greece against the invading Persians in 480 BC. The work is inscribed with lines from modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who was similarly inspired by the illustrious battle. Twombly often makes bronzes of his "white originals," and particularly in its cast rendition Thermopylae relates closely to a fifth-century BC battle helmet. The mounded dome from which four tulips rise calls to mind another ancient association, an Etruscan tomb with burgeoning vegetation.
As poet and critic Frank O'Hara suggested in 1955, Twombly's sculptures are both "witty and funereal"; they are also elegant and coarse, fragile and monumental, visual and literary, and above all, ancient and contemporary. Metamorphosis is an essential aspect of Twombly's works, and these dualities highlight the depths of meaning contained in their often quotidian forms. Twombly's spare wooden constructions--or their bronze surrogates--distill archaic sources and present them in a uniquely modern language of form.
This exhibition brochure was written by Jessica Stewart, department of modern and contemporary art, and produced by the department of exhibition programs and the editors office. Cy Twombly: The Sculpture exhibition dates: Kunstmuseum, Basel, 15 March - 30 July 2000; The Menil Collection, Houston, 20 September 2000 - 7 January 2001; National Gallery of Art, 6 May - 29 July 2001
Copyright © 2008 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC