I grew up familiar with Cy Twombly’s work from regular trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where one room is devoted to his Fifty Days at Iliam, but I didn’t begin to learn how to engage with his work until I spent a school holiday at the museum with my high school girlfriend, who has a lifelong and symbiotic relationship with art and art making. On that day, we sat with Twombly’s series and looked and talked and worked to develop a relationship until we reached what I now regard as the experiential art museum ideal: a sense of ownership in our experience with the paintings, a home ground in Twombly’s work.
Because I didn’t begin to develop an academic interest in art history until my final two years of college, I have a particular attachment to the artists whose work I learned to love before I amassed the academic tools that helped me figure out what the work was doing – relationships I developed on the grounds of observation and instinct. This year, encountering the work of those artists (an unusual mixture of Thomas Eakins, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko and the photographer Andreas Gursky, among others) in different museums around the world feels reliably like a homecoming, and so when I came across the Twombly series “Three Studies from the Temeraire,” in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the room itself felt immediately familiar.
The wall text that accompanies the series highlights Twombly’s engagement with the idea of a uniformly accessible past, of “the trajectory from the present to the past and vice versa” that provides a “continuity of human, cultural and aesthetic experience in which the past is always available.” There’s a particular strength in the fact that the paintings call Australia their permanent home, and that they sit on land both historically accessible by sea only and containing over 40,000 years of human history.
As an American in Australia, I’m consistently struck by the discontinuity of old and new. By the standards of American colonization and the subsequent gain of independence from its colonial protectors, Australia’s 20th century separation from Great Britain is mystifyingly recent. Growing up in Philadelphia, which was founded in the 1680s, Sydney feels like a young city, despite its late 18th century foundation. Australians often talk about themselves as citizens of a young country, and yet in the Sydney Basin there are rock carvings that are purported to have 40,000 years of history, which is nearly impossible to reconcile with the discourse that sees Sydney as a “new” place.
To the make the argument that Twombly’s work communicates the idea of an accessible past is also to suggest that, by means of Twombly’s model, the relationship to the past is fluid, that there is continuity between what is and what was – something that I wonder about often when considering Sydney’s history during my tenure as a temporary Sydneysider.
Twombly’s series communicates this by means of an endless current of viewership, in which it is possible to find a connective path between the panels in both directions, the progression of the boats across the canvases from left to right suggesting that the rightmost boat will continue onward, and the partial boat extending from the leftmost side of the left panel suggesting that the progression could just as easily continue in the other direction.
One of the ways I read the series was to consider it as a study in the progression of one boat, where the direction of movement is unclear. In this reading, the boat is morphed by the process of travel, having greater or shallower depth to its body, carrying a heavier load as indicated by the saturated color partially covering its body in each of the panels, effectively allowing the boat to shed and reconstitute itself in travel.
In reading the panels from left to right, because the first two panels contain boats that extend to the horizontal edges of the picture plane, in the rightmost panel, the boat commands the full horizontal space of the canvas, where it is situated in its journey even as it sheds its pigment to its environment below, where it’s paused in a magnetized balance between the pull of the ships and the pull of the rightmost extension of the canvas, thus creating a limitless present with a marked route back into the available past.
Thinking about Twombly’s interest in creating process-based linkages to antiquity, (where the ships are both a mode of transit and a figure with a long, progressive history; the ships are both the means by which antiquity is reached and the symbol of antiquity itself) it brings to mind Harold Bloom’s characterization of Walt Whitman’s four major tropes in Leaves of Grass: death, night, the mother and the sea, all of which are both destinations of and vehicles for seemingly endless transit, all of which can be used to move from the limitlessly antique to the present and back, where the movement can be omnidirectional. Where to investigate the innate human qualities of the present is to draw an innately human path back through their history by means of these tropes.
In my reading of Twombly’s series, to draw this path to antiquity is to understand that those ships will eventually have their own homecoming, arriving at a final present, and yet as soon as they do, that present will serve as another link, back through their past and onto the future present of another series of ships, which creates a template for the development of a connective engagement with the past that Sydney itself could do well to use.
As I consider the final weeks of my Watson year, which is full of things that soon will be superseded by another present, but which I’m not ready to let go of, to find these lines, these ships that link my continual present to a dynamic and evolving relational past means that there is hope for the ongoing relevance of these experiences. As Twombly might argue, there’s hope, too, for their availability to a future present, to catalogue them, as they happen, as integral features of a linked and forward-thinking history.