John Garland Winn
How can things exceed the language we use to name them? John Winn examines Cy Twombly's assemblages, while reading the works in conversation with Giorgio Agamben, Arthur Danto, Kate Nesin and postwar New York artist Robert Rauschenberg.
On display at The Art Institute of Chicago are seven sculptures made between 1948 and 1995 by Cy Twombly. These sculptures, referred to as assemblages hereafter, now congregate in an otherwise empty gallery room. Previously part of Twombly’s private collection in Rome, the assemblages are also untitled, with only their location, materials, and year of production provided. White paints and plaster, with all the variation that white provides, coat the seven assemblages, which are made of seemingly discarded things: wooden boards, crooked nails, deteriorating cloth, and ageing porcelain. Within and between each of these assemblages is a strong impression of togetherness, which is not to say cohesion; rather they are a community of differences. Yet their white surface could be read as a flattening of their difference, smoothing each piece out into a field of self-similarity. In such a case, each assemblage could be assumed to adopt either a base materiality or a transcendental erasure. Two prominent writers discussing Twombly’s sculptures have adopted such positions: Arthur Danto argues these assemblages engage in transcendental literary play whilst Kate Nesin argues that they rather enact an immanent materiality.
Rather, I will suggest that the white surface saturates these things with a surplus matter that is proper to none of them and generates a kind of transcendental immanence. These assemblages rest in a community of difference, wherein each are exposed by a surface of total impropriety. Further, this community of impropriety collapses the dichotomous writing between language and materiality, characteristic of Danto and Nesin respectively. All this recalls the writings of Giorgio Agamben, whose work The Coming Community will be in conversation with Twombly throughout.
Twombly’s Untitled (1948, Lexington), the first to be coated in white paint, is a clear evocation of the saturated surface making improper the assemblage’s relation to itself. The piece has a wooden base, two porcelain doorknobs, and a hand valve. Kate Nesin, writing in Twombly’s Things, notes that the piece’s thin white surface and strangely juxtaposed found objects accentuate each part’s “material non-functionality” (53). But I would push this line of thought further and suggest that the non-functionality of each part reveals the impropriety of their being nameable as such. Nesin is right to recognize that the non-functionality of the doorknob brings attention to itself, but it is at that exact moment of non-functionality that the doorknob can no longer be apprehended in its concreteness as a doorknob. Yet the whiteness of the coat is thin enough so that each component remains clearly as that which it is called: doorknob, valve. Likewise, Agamben writes of “the being-in-language of the non-linguistic,” whereby a thing can only be-called what it is named, but no longer is it. This is to say that the assemblage’s surface, it’s non-functionality, produces an improper saturation whereby the assemblage’s parts are no longer nameable, classifiable, but are rather liberated from language’s assignable grasp. This unnamable nameability enacts Untitled’s unnerving material presence, its overabundant thingness, by virtue of its being in a language that no longer has power over its being a thing.
Agamben names this being, whereby both language and things are defined as being as what they are, absent the particularity of their properties, as 'the whatever'. Rather than tracing out two separate and alienable realms, one of language and another of things, the whatever is the realm where neither is subject to the other. Thus the importance of being-called for Agamben, as it reveals a possibility whereby things are intertwined with and included within language whilst, simultaneously, relating to it as that which is non-linguistic, in their shimmering thingness. But further, as Agamben notes when writing on the literature of Robert Walser in The Coming Community, this exposure, by which being takes place without its subjection to that which is proper to it, is to be irreparable: “Irreparable means that things are consigned without remedy to their being-thus, that they are precisely and only their thus … but irreparable also means that for them there is literally no shelter possible, that in their being-thus they are absolutely exposed, absolutely abandoned” (38). So too are Twombly’s assemblages characterized by this divine abandonment. Their components are ruinous miniatures with white secretions that do not so much enclose them, as provide them with a threshold. These white surfaces are the bare exposure of the assemblage’s irreparability.
In Untitled (1980, Bassano in Teverina) such white surfaces hold the assemblage’s components in a suspended state of their being fallen. In the piece, two sticks descend from a bandaged breaking point, triangulating downward, and are supported by two other wooden sticks. Out from under the larger of the descending sticks slopes a plastic leaf, which makes contact with the wooden base beneath. The assemblage is the first in Twombly’s oeuvre to deal explicitly with these fallen breaks, but throughout the 1980’s he returned repeatedly to this theme. One such assemblage is Untitled (1984, Gaeta), which is the subject of Agamben’s essay “Falling Beauty.” In it, a stick ascends from a plaster mound but, at its middle, the stick is broken, where from it descends to the piece’s base. At the base is a scrawled transcription from Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Agamben sees the assemblage as “giving form to a caesura,” although, as he is quick to note, “the work is not simply a representation of a caesura, but is the caesura itself” (15). Agamben reads, in both Rilke and Twombly, the caesura as the gap that dislocates ascension, forcing it downward, towards the earth. This analysis is predicated on the stick’s initial ascension, so that it is “fallen and risen at every moment,” which, he further suggests, gestures toward the “messianic moment”, not in its saveable ascension, but in its suspended “de-creation” (15). The 1980 assemblage, rather, is defined by two descending breaks in the absence of the bases from which they were broken. They are absolutely suspended in their fallenness. But this assemblage contains more than just these two fallen breaks, it contains other stuff, such as clumps of clay, cloth, and a plastic leaf. This stuff brings these breaks out of their formalism and into their awkward thingness. Their white paint is not clean or smoothly applied rather it drips and browns. In this way, these components and their dirty surfaces make fall the caesura, out of language and into things.
Another artist concerned with the divine abandonment of things and language is Robert Rauschenberg, whose Combines provide a counterpoint to Twombly’s assemblages. Twombly and Rauschenberg were incredibly close during their formative years as artists, living together in New York in 1953 as well as attending Black Mountain College together. About the same time that Twombly is beginning to produce his assemblages coated in white, Rauschenberg is completing work on his White Paintings. Although the artistic relationship between these two artists in their formative years, especially their application of white paint, remains theoretically underdeveloped, the concern here is rather with the differences between their particular methods of assemblage.
Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955) and Untitled (1955) elucidate these differences. Bed is just what its name implies: an upright frame, the size of a bed-frame, attempts to hold within itself a sheet, quilt, and pillow, which are splattered with oil paint and marked by pencil. Untitled is a stretched canvas stained by occasional streaks of white paint with a parachute attached at its bottom right corner and a sock at its left. Like Twombly’s assemblage, these things are non-functional and could, perhaps, be considered in their simply being-called what they are. But, unlike Twombly, these things remain incredibly active, even disconcertingly so. Additionally, the pieces themselves are much larger than Twombly’s assemblages, intimidating in their material activity. Each component—the pillow, quilt, or parachute—is destructive towards the assemblage as a whole, as though they want nothing more than to be stripped from their belonging to the assemblage. Brandon Joseph similarly notes this in Rauschenberg’s assemblages (specifically referring to Gloria (1956), Factum I and II (1956), and Painting with Red Letter S (1956)) by stating that their “materials seem not so much to come together as to fall apart” (148). For Rauschenberg’s assemblages, the irreparable beauty of each component’s active force is attributable to their being unworkable refuse, not just in spite of it. These things are neither the mere being of their thingness nor the belonging of the non-linguistic in language. Instead they are counter-forces, attempting to fallout of any belonging available to them.
Twombly’s assemblages, rather, are characterized by a radical passivity, which is not to say that they are inactive. Their white paint holds them not in unity but in a singular belonging, as whatever components resting along the same wooden base. They’re quiet collectors of dust and slow time who move with the geologic shifts of the earth, rather than with the violently accumulative waste of urbanity. Agamben’s discussion of Walter Benjamin and the messianic moment is informative in regards to this assembling passivity. He remarks that for the messiah to come, it is not necessary for a dramatically new world to present itself, but rather, what is necessary is that this world remains exactly as it is, yet with the addition of a “tiny displacement” (CC, 52). He goes on: “The tiny displacement does not refer to the state of things, but to their sense and their limits. It does not take place in things, but at their periphery, in the space of ease between every thing and itself” (52). For Agamben, the halo elucidates this slight messianic shift, as it is an addition that changes nothing essential about the thing but marks it as perfect in the form of a supplemental gift, or rather: “The halo is this supplement added to perfection—something like the vibration of that which is perfect, the glow at its edges” (CC, 53).
The white variations that occupy the surfaces of Twombly’s assemblages are just this glow, wherein each thing is changed ever so slightly by an edge that brings it into the singular presence of belonging itself. The force of the assemblage is this radical passivity, “this imperceptible trembling of the finite that makes its limits indeterminate and allows it to blend, to make itself whatever” (Agamben, CC 55). Such that for Untitled (1955, New York), its components of cloth, wood, plaster, and nails belong to one another, not by an additional common property, but by a shift in their surface, whereby each component retains its nameable exteriority whilst, simultaneously, is made virtual in its potential to relate to each other component. Though not only are the components of each assemblage exposed to this belonging, so also are the assemblages themselves exposed in their belonging with each other.
But how are we to accept that these white surfaces are impropriety itself, without property? The white stuff is there, recognizable as paint or plaster. Thus the paint and plaster must be recognized as other stuff and things, but not their whiteness (or perhaps their not-quite-whiteness). The white—for the paint and plaster as well as the wood, nails, cloth, and so forth—functions by that slight shift, whereby the thing is made whatever. But what of this whiteness, is it not also another part of the assemblage? No. Rather the white surface is the very impropriety whereby belonging and togetherness are made potential within this community of difference. It is this very improper matter, which seeps in and saturates these things, that makes them communicable in their mutual fallenness.
The white surfaces of Twombly’s assemblages make visible the transcendental limit that reveals these things in their irreparable immanence. Agamben understands things to appear as they are—in their being-such that they are—in their impropriety. This is to say that, what is proper to a thing, it’s having a certain property, in fact dispossesses the thing of its thingness and transmutes it into something other than itself, as something already determined. Therefore the mere immanence of its properties never reveals the thing but rather delimits it. But what is improper to a thing, it’s potential to be precisely what is not proper to it, simultaneously transcends it and reveals it to be a thing among things. It is only in this impropriety that things are whatever they will be, exposed to their potential to be exactly what they are. For Twombly’s assemblages, their white surfaces are such an improper transcendence, which returns to them their irreparable thingness, their immanence, whereby they are no longer assignable to that which is proper to them. Further, this improper consistency places each assemblage and its components amongst one another in an irreparable sphere of belonging itself.
To gesture toward a conclusion, I would like to consider what it is to be an irreparable thing passing the time at The Art Institute of Chicago, where it matters little to none whether or not us humans are present, save for the potential absence or presence of our dead flesh-components falling to rest with these assemblages’ surfaces. Turning to one piece in particular, Untitled (1987, Bassano in Teverina), it becomes clear that these assemblages are not for us, but rather are, themselves, only for each other. Untitled is the largest assemblage on display, with a wooden base that dominates the majority of the structure. On the base is a trapezoidal piece of wood and atop it is nailed, plastered, and glued a rectangular wooden board. At each crease, where the components have been attached, are globs of white stuff, of plaster. Looking at a twenty-year-old photograph of the assemblage from the Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture (1997), I notice that the piece has clearly aged where these creases and stuff are present. But, more than aged, this stuff appears to be growing, like the hardly noticeable slow growth of bathroom now non-corners. I’m unhinged by the simultaneous abject horror and humour of the impending passivity of this assemblage’s incredible thing-power. Or, as Timothy Morton writes: “They are here … waiting” (190). Although, regardless of my specific existential response to this appearance of growth, what’s most notable is that the growth appears at the imperceptible gaps where the components attach. This stuff is a material trace of a medial capacity, emergent from these components being together. Whatever it is that grows, modulates, and excretes in these gaps is not proper to any of these particular things, but is rather the material of their mutual belonging. I can’t help but consider the molecular particles of stuff that these assemblages trade with another, exchanging ephemeral components, whilst waiting in their messianic thingness.
*Certain remainders from The Art Institute of Chicago’s congregation of Twombly’s assemblages have gone unnamed. They are: Untitled (Bassano, 1989), Untitled (Rome, 1985-95), To (F.P.) The Keeper of Sheep (Jupiter Island, 1992).
References Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Translated by Michael Hardt, University of Minnesota Press, 1990. Agamben, Giorgio. “Falling Beauty.” Cy Twombly: Sculptures 1992–2005, Alte Pinakothek Munchen, 2006, 12-15. Danto, Arthur. “Monuments of a Metamorphoses: The Sculptures of Cy Twombly.” Cy Twombly: A Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture, edited by Nicola del Roscio, 1997. Joseph, Brandon. Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde. MIT Press, 2003. Nesin, Kate. Twombly’s Things. Yale University Press, 2014. Morton, Timothy. “They are Here.” The Nonhuman Turn, edited by Richard Grusin, University of Minnesota Press, 2015, 167-192.