Cy Twombly’s genius as an artist lies in creating intuitive, emotional forms that investigate both the process of drawing and its relationship with writing and language. His work often incorporates textual references to Greek and Roman mythology and engages the techniques of Surrealist-inspired automatic writing, through which Twombly studies the physical act of mark making. Individual characters, words, or phrases can occasionally be extrapolated from within the fury of Twombly’s dynamic line, yet in Untitled (1971) it is difficult to decipher precisely his scrawling notations. When viewing the drawing, one can pick out the numbers 8 and 4; here and there an X or a C rise to surface. Is that the letter P and the word of or up? Can we make out the word lightly smeared across the center of the paper? As with much of Twombly’s early work, here too it is impossible to avoid searching for recognizable letters or trying to make out the coded language he seems to convey. Because Untitled does feature some identifiable characters, it is only natural for the viewer to read these markings as signifiers of language and thus innately to assign meaning to the image.
Untitled is related to Twombly’s “Treatise on the Veil” paintings, a series of works made between 1966 and 1971, which feature broad grey-ground planes spanned with marks resembling either mathematical measurements or musical notation. As a sort of study after his larger “Veil” paintings, Twombly included some of the same cryptic markings in Untitled. How did Twombly intend these works to be deciphered? Did he intend his works to be understood at all? Does his inclusion of familiar characters and letters imply that the viewer must interpret the drawing as one would a text? Perhaps the viewer is meant to explore Twombly’s writing as just another form of mark making, like hatch marks in an engraving or brushstrokes in a painting. The marks in Untitled are not necessarily meant to be read concretely, but rather provide an opportunity to explore the intricacies of language and the very process by which we associate meaning with the written word.
As John Berger writes of Twombly’s work: “[His] paintings are for me landscapes of this foreign and yet familiar terrain. Some of them appear to be laid out under a blinding noon sun, others have been found by touch at night. In neither case can any dictionary of words be referred to, for the light does not allow it. Here in these mysterious paintings we have to rely upon other accuracies: accuracies of tact, of longing, of loss, of expectation.”1 Indeed, Twombly’s work is not clear or legible; the mystery of his mark making affords viewers the opportunity to examine their individual relationships with language.
1. John Berger, “Post-Scriptum” in Audible Silence: Cy Twombly at Daros, eds. Eva Keller and Regula Malin (Zürich: Scalo Publishers, 2002).
Emerging from the scores of vertical graphite striations lining the surface of this drawing, the words 102 boulevard Haussmann denote more than a physical location within the city of Paris. The phrase—an address, a place-name—describes a location in which events and interactions occurred, in which memories were formed, in which experiences were had. Once the residence of the French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922), 102 boulevard Haussmann is now a place rife with history, resonating with the significant moments, occasions, and encounters of those who have lived there. The place-name itself has become charged with meaning; the phrase is an evocation of the past, a key to the memories that were produced within the building’s walls.
Susanna Harwood Rubin’s fascination with memory and the ways in which it functions is drawn from her study of Proust and his multi-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherché du temps perdu), first published between 1913 and 1927. Proust’s preoccupation with the idea of memory was rooted in his understanding of le temps perdu, or lost time. To Proust, the notion of time was more than a quantitative measure of progress. Rather, it was a qualitative experience that, as it passed, was lost, leaving behind only the sensations felt—the sounds heard, the sights seen, the tastes and the smells. Any fragment of one’s past—be it an object, a location, or a scent—has the power to recall these sensations from deep within one’s subconscious mind. The place-name is an especially powerful prompt for memories. Merely seeing or hearing the words that describe a significant place can summon reminders of events that happened there.
In homage to Proust, Harwood Rubin created evocations of the places he inhabited in Paris. Tracing the author’s movements through the city, Harwood Rubin documented five of his residences, including 102 boulevard Haussmann. As she wrote of her project, “These patterns and designs…became symbols and emblems of their locations, serving as signs for those particular places, and whatever event or conversation had happened there. Each detail was both a container and a trigger for memory.”1 102 boulevard Haussmann is a place-name laden with substance and meaning. For the viewer, Harwood Rubin’s drawing encourages meditative reflection and the recollection of site-specific memories.
1. Susanna Harwood Rubin, “Proust Walk,” unpublished artist’s statement, 2000.
102 boulevard Haussmann was the primary residence of Marcel Proust in Paris, and to this day the Marcel Proust Society maintains the space as sort of an empty museum to him. I visited it several years ago, just before I created this piece, and it was kind of empty, which is analogous to the way in which I ended up making these drawings, which are these, really these ghostly evocations of the places associated with Proust and with his life. One of the entire volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time, whichever title you’d prefer, is called Place-Names. And Place-Names revolves around how a name can spiral out into webs of association and memory based on what the individual brings to it. Every drawing represents a residence or significant place-name from Proust’s book. He deeply explores each one of these in his writing, and the result is my own web of association placed on top of his own. I made this series of drawings in fine lines of graphite so that you can see the numbers and letters, but they still remain ephemeral. They evoke and imply rather than state.
Susanna Harwood Rubin