Frame by frame

A scribble that speaks to wild nature of art

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / July 20, 2010

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PROVIDENCE — Cy Twombly makes pictures — if you can call them that — that are dense with the humors and vapors of indolence. This gigantic scribble, “Untitled’’ (1967), feels like a secret communique with no specific message. It’s one of the most arresting works in the permanent collection of Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art.

Like so much of Twombly’s work, it’s right on the edge of being nothing: a desultory blackboard scrawl. Mere graffiti. An insult. A provocation. And yet, even in the context of RISD’s crowded and star-studded modern and contemporary displays, it has a tendency to still roving eyes.

To begin with, it’s large. Those looping marks in crayon are evidence of vigorous action, a pungent residue of some past frenzy. Something about them reminds me of the twitching muscles of a lion, spent and flyblown after a spectacular kill or a marathon copulation.

Moreover, the work has an unexpectedly satisfying design: Over a gray background of washy oil and erased doodles, Twombly has set a group of loosely ascending heart-shaped scribbles, drifting up and to the right, against a run of dripping gray splotches that descend from left to right.

Robert Motherwell, who met the young Twombly at Black Mountain College, remembered him as “a natural.’’ He had a “native temperamental affinity with the abandon, the brutality, and the irrational in avant-garde painting at the moment,’’ he wrote. Ten years before he painted this picture, Twombly moved to Rome, where he has spent most of his time ever since. At one stage he had a studio opposite the Colosseum (ancient arena of lions!) And yet his incessant allusions to the classical world are always vague and incomplete, providing not so much content as a drenching background poetry. His allusions to the old masters and to poetry, similarly, provide no more than the scaffolding of an arena in which the astonishingly intimate and visceral drama of his works plays out.

The drowsy sense of expended effort in Twombly’s art is entirely unique to him. The French critic Roland Barthes likened his work to a pair of trousers — not the ideal pair hanging neatly on a rack, but a pair that has been discarded and left on the floor after wearing: “The essence of an object,’’ he wrote, “has something to do with the way it turns into trash.’’

You can see them as nothing (many people do). But Twombly’s best works — and this is one of them — speak to me of something that is flying apart, never to be recovered, just as it reaches a point of maximum beauty and intensity.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


By Cy Twombly

At: Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence, 401-454-6500,