Nicholas Serota on Cy Twombly
I first became aware of Cy Twombly’s work in the early 1970s, through catalogues and occasional sightings in European museums of his sensitive and sometimes luscious paintings, with their highly personal response to classical cultures and contemporary painting.
It is always a privilege to visit an artist in their studio. It is a challenge to be confronted with unfamiliar and new work, and to gain an insight into the creative process. It’s one of the reasons I can’t give up curating. Recently, I have been working with Nicholas Cullinan of the Courtauld Institute of Art on Tate Modern’s Cy Twombly exhibition, called Cycles and Seasons. This will be the most important exhibition of Twombly’s work anywhere in the world for 15 years, during which time he has made some astonishing new works. Over the past year we visited Twombly in Rome, and in his studio in Gaeta on the coast, halfway between Naples and Rome. This provided a rare opportunity to interview him about his work; the only other interview with him ever published was with David Sylvester in 2001. For me, it was a great pleasure to talk to an artist whose work I have for so long admired.
The interview was recorded during two conversations at the artist’s house in Via Monserrato, Rome, in September and December 2007.
NS: I want to begin with your early formation and interests as an artist in the late forties. Do you remember seeing your first Pollock?
CT: Yes, way before I came to New York, in Virginia. I also knew the works of Rothko, but again from photographs or from books, before he did the very simple ones.
NS: So you were looking at reproductions of these paintings when you were still in Virginia?
CT: In high school, but when I was in New York I didn’t see too much of de Kooning. You know there are a lot of painters that sort of disappeared, like Motherwell, Baziotes, Gottlieb, Tworkov, who were all good painters. That’s why I like Sotheby’s catalogues, because you see all the strata of the art world at the time. It wasn’t just made up of four or five key people; it was a whole scene. And a lot of them weren’t necessarily painters but they were great characters and always around. The first time I saw thing physically other than in Boston, was when I was an art student in New York. Betty Parsons had one great show after the other. The Pollock show, and then her Newman show with the beautiful little sculpture at the entrance with just a single painted board. But I never quite took to the Wagnerian American.
NS: Clyfford Still?
CT: Yes, I never quite …I was very fond of Gorky, naturally very fond of Gorky.
NS: But were the paintings around to be seen or did they disappear after he died?
CT: I knew them quite well, the drawings and things. When I was in school in New York I saw some of Gorky’s shows; there were shows of everyone between two or three galleries like Pierre Matisse and Betty Parsons. And then later Sidney Janis took over. I saw the most interesting period, through to the Women of de Kooning. I saw beautiful shows of European things at Curt Valentin [the Bucholz Gallery]. He had sculpture, but he would have a whole show of twenty-five or thirty beautiful big Klee drawings. You saw shows one after the other – Picasso, whatever.
NS: So your education was in the galleries, not in the museums.
CT: In New York I lived in galleries …I hardly ever went to school. I got that side of the line before. For instance, Pierre Matisse had the first Giacometti show in America. And he was very nice, in the back room he had the little plasters …a hand …a little figure. And then I saw a first beautiful show of reclining nudes of Dubuffet. Those had quite an effect on me. I looked at anything and everything. Everthing was on 57th Street, you know?
NS: So, you were already looking at European painting. Were you very conscious that the energy in painting was moving from Europe to America?
CT: I don’t think of that.
NS: But it must have been exciting with so many young painters working in New York at that time.
CT: At the Art Students League I met Robert Rauschenburg in the second term, and through him I met de Kooning and Franz Kline because Bob’s mother-in-law had bought things like Cornell. Anyway I met painters. I lived at Columbia and my roommate was a graduate of Princeton from Cleveland, taking his doctarate at Columbia. And when his family came to New York they always went to Knoedler which was on 57th, and they always bought very beautiful little Monets or Renoirs and things for each other for Christmas. So I sort of did different things. (My roommate) was a wonderful fellow, very austere named Peter Putnam. With his mother he started financing public sculpture for [Case Western Reserve University,] Cleveland. One day, about ten years ago, he was riding his bicycle when he got hit by a derrick – he was killed. He left $46,000,000 to continue his sculpture thing. I have a lot of friends from school who were very interesting and are still my friends now. Other than Bob, who was the first painter I really knew, I was always with people more interested in literature or history or cultural things…
NS: And how did you get to Black Mountain College?
CT: I once went to Bob’s house and he had the registrar of Black Mountain there. I signed up and went for the summer and winter session. I enjoyed the summer, not so much the winter, and then I went back just to visit the following summer with Franz Kline. He was also close to Bob, they worked together …and I met John Cage.
NS: It was unusual that you were working in both painting and sculpture at that time, because people normally think of themselves as either painters or sculptors.
CT: I didn’t think of myself as except what I was doing.
NS: Just making things.
CT: Yes, I did a lot of sculpture there, they were metal and things and they corroded and crumbled…
NS: So was one of the the things that made Black Mountain so interesting for you the fact that it attracted writers and poets as much as painters?
CT: It was the first time I’d been in an atmosphere of artsy-ness. I enjoyed it …it was very nice. The first summer I went, I enjoyed very much Ben Shahn and his family. I traded with him. He was very close to [poet and college rector Charles] Olson. And there were other people there, interesting students. I spent the next winter there but it had got a little ingrown after and a lot of the summer students had gone.
NS: So what was so remarkable about Olson?
CT: Everything revolved around Olson. And a lot of people were there mainly to see Olson. That summer …was stimulus. They were into D.H. Lawrence. I never went to Olson’s classes. There was a whole interesting group around – more than the painting group. Then the second summer I just visited. There was Franz Kline, who I liked very much. He did a very beautiful painting there. then Motherwell came back – he saw me in the beginning and he saw me at the end. And he wrote me one of the nicest testimonials …And then I don’t know which summer it was, the first or the second …Bob was working with Cage and other things. I was always doing my own things. I always wondered why there are books, with photographs of all the artists of that period, and I was only in one! I thought: where was I? But I never was there. I was somewhere else.
NS: What was the reaction to your first two shows in New York?
CT: There was no reaction. The first show I had, that Motherwell arranged with Sam Kootz, had those early paintings but I don’t think there was much reaction. I might have had some reviews or something. I shared this show with Brody, Eleanor Ward showed him together with my drawings. He was a very fine painter; they were very simple bold pictures. With Cornell in the back room. Cornell was very nice to me.
NS: Did he come and see the show?
CT: I went out to his house at Utopia Parkway with Eleanor Ward. He lived in this little house, just a plain 1910-1920 house. I wanted to go because I thought it would be quite atmospheric. It had very little furniture, the plainest thing you ever saw. He started making those boxes for Eleanor. Cornell had a brother in a wheelchair that he employed as his assistant. He made the boxes to entertain him, but you never saw where he worked. He always kept the boxes in the basement, and had a garage full of these tinned biscuits, English biscuits, that were probably fifteen years old. He had to bring up two boxes for Eleanor Ward, and I think he was fascinated by her, by young girls, since he did those little boxes for actresses in Paris and built the whole history around them. These early boxes were beautiful; they were just filled with sculptures.
NS: When you left New York for Italy in 1957, did you intend to stay in Europe?
CT: No, I came to see Betty di Robilant, a friend from Virginia who had got married and was having a child. I came two times, I came with Bob [Rauschenburg], we did all Europe and North Africa, and then I came back to see Betty, and my mother said later, ‘Oh, but you always wanted to live in Europe’. Virginia is a good start for Italy.
CT: I don’t know why …Maybe the confusion! Anyway, it’s just …one thing led to another. I met Giorgo Franchetti and Plinio De Martlis and people like that. When I came I already knew a lot of painters because I knew Gabrriella Drudi, a translator and literary agent for Steinbeck and others, who lived with Toti Scialoja, the painter and intellectual. They came to America and saw one of the early shows with Eleanor Ward. They told me: ‘If you come to Italy…’. The first summer I took a house in Procida and there was a whole group, Afro [Basaldella], his girlfriend, Scialoja, Gastone Novelli, and a number of people came because Afro was very highly regarded. We all met in a wonderful garden in the hotel to have lunch and dinner together. Then a friend of mine came over with his wife, Magouche Phillips [widow of Arshile Gorky], with the children. I remember I was on the beach when they came over in a little thingy. They had a little lamb with a blue ribbon on it and they got off at the pier and all the people were amused. Anyway, it was all very nice for a young person from Virginia. It was a beautiful summer.
NS: Who were the Italian painters that you were interested in when you first arrived? Did the tradition of painting that you encountered seem very different from what you had known in New York?
CT: There was a group. I knew Piero Dorazio, I met de Chirico …I was mainly interested in the country and the life and the people, more than Rome even, I mean the balance of life was like a dream, everything was functioning in the most natural way.
NS: So you immediately found yourself at home because you had grown up in a rural, Southern tradition.
CT: Yes, but I lived in Virginia and New England, you know. For America that was the most interesting kind of atmosphere that you can possible have. I grew up painting in Boston, at art school, and it was all about German Expressionism. The shows I saw were at the Institute of Contemporary Art. They had a great Kokoschka show and then a beautiful Ben Shahn show, with drawings and paintings. I saw a couple of his works recently and they are really still quite intense. Virginia made me very Southern in a way. They say that they are not creative in the South, but it’s a little rare mentality, it produces writers like a hothouse …Faulkner, for example but also Tennessee Williams and others, and it’s a literary tradition that I admire, it’s totally different from paintings. So in Lexington I always meet professors who hold classes, and someone from Charlottesville said, ‘What are you doing, a painter in academia?’ I never really separated painting and literature because I’ve always used reference.
NS: But the way you paint has changed very significantly over the years. Are you conscious of greater freedom in the way you paint during the last fifteen years or so?
CT: I guess, I don’t know. It depends on the moment of the day. Also I work in waves, because I’m impatient. Because due to a certain physicality, or lack of breath from standing, so I work in …an impatient way. It has to be done and I take liberties I wouldn’t have taken before. Like in those flower paintings [A scattering of Blossoms series], if I didn’t like what I was doing, I just did round it without even looking to cover it out. I got all kinds of wonderful effects that I never achieved before. They all have beautiful passages, such large passages, not like those early paintings. I don’t know what excited me with the blossoms. Sometimes it’s simplistic. If it’s hot I do some cool paintings. Lots of times I like to enjoy myself. Sometimes I have terrible times with painting, like that set in Philadelphia [Fifty Days at Iliam]. I can do it real good now. I mean much easier and better. I think I’m in a good point of working.
NS: But on the other hand you did the Ferrogosto paintings in one burst all those years ago. To me they are more like some of the cycles you have been doing recently in that they were made in such an intense way.
CT: Yes, They were done in Rome in that room down there when I had to stay here in August. I was completely crazy, out of my mind with heat in this town.
NS: So you live your life very much according to the season.
CT: That’s true …Landscape is one of my favourite things in the world. Any kind of landscape stimulates me. I love the train ride from here to Gaeta. In Virginia I love to ride two or three hours every day, up the back valleys, the back roads, the streams of water there. I would have liked to be Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time. I had a Poussin period in my head. I did Woodland Glade and it was a kind of romantic English thing rather than Poussin. It was just a homage. Just someone I had respect for. I had different crushes on different artists. But I look a lot at Poussin and I have got a whole set of etchings for example. I’ve always wanted to do brown paintings, because when I was in school I realised in that great room at The Frick Collection in New York, with all those incredible paintings, that the secret to great paintings is brown. And that is one of my great ambitions, to strive to do a brown painting.
NS: What is it about landscape that stimulates you? Just the state of nature?
CT: Yes, more than being in the city. Architecture is also landscape. And that idea stimulated me to do a show, a whole show, because I like the Palladian form. This house is ideal, because you have windows on one side and you have a straight line of doors on the other, and then you have this beautiful shape. I would have liked to be an architect but I’m not good at mathematics, so I don’t have the proper background.
NS: Forget the mathematics, why not? You have the ability to make very beautiful space, as in the de Menil Pavilion.
NS: You like very simple calm spaces with natural light.
CT: I think space is for paintings, for looking at paintings. Paintings ‘hold’ in that kind of rectilinear space, which contains the energy of the works, more than curved walls with this up here and that down there,
NS: When you made the pavilion in Houston, was it your idea to work with Renzo Piano?
CT: Mrs de Menil chose him. He was very nice to work with. He was the architect she had before and he’s a genius as an engineer, the roof is really brilliant. But he had the building in marble. It looked like Lenin’s mausoleum, and chose cast stone. I tried to use all local materials. I picked everything down to the handles because then you get something very simple. It’s light and happy and it’s not pretentious, it’s perfect for just what it is. And then it was my idea to filter the light with canvas on the ceiling. I was thinking of Art Deco buildings in Paris that usually had a hanging pulled over. So we found a sail maker. I think it’s a beautiful building I love it. Nice and warm and it sits there nice, with a big tree in front. And that wonderful little room for the sculptures on the side.
NS: Did you always intend to place sculpture in there?
CT: I added that foyer so you don’t go straight into the building. And those sculptures fit perfectly. I picked groups of paintings that I didn’t want particularly separated and I put them in there. I mean there’s enough diversity not to have the same dead feeling through the whole thing. It was fun. It was like doing a real project. I loved it. It’s an experience, it’s like a burnt feeling, it looks like ashes and things on the wall.
NS: Apart from Renzo Piano, are there any other living or twentieth-century architects that you admire?
CT: Yes I like the things that Louis Kahn did, like the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Too bad he didn’t have more work. I guess that’s because he was before his time… I also like certain pieces of Mies van der Rohe’s.
NS: What brought you back to making sculpture in the mid-seventies?
CT: I found myself in places that had more material. I found all kinds of materials to work with. In Gaeta you don’t find material but in Lexington there were those antique shops where you could buy boxes, all kinds of things, so it stimulated ideas.
NS: You hadn’t made sculptures for fifteen years and those first sculptures were simple tubes and boxes. They were very abstract, just as ten years earlier the first ‘blackboard’ paintings were simple abstract forms.
CT: Certain periods of painting are more abstract than others, too.
NS: Why did you give up sculpture for such a long period?
CT: I don’t know. Because I must not have wanted to do it.
NS: So why is sculpture so important to you?
CT: I love my sculptures, and I was lucky I had them for fifty years because no one would look at them, and I really liked having them around. Then I gave many of them to Houston.
NS: Most of them are relatively small in size.
CT: I did them a certain scale so I could carry them around. Small, because I like to be able to carry them, by myself …I mean, most of these things could be any scale, but I think what they are is what is important. That’s also because I never had a professional assistant.
NS: But by making them on that scale and by not having assistants you keep them under your own hand and under your own control.
CT: I like to hoard.
NS: Like Cornell. Do you find it easier to do sculptures than paintings?
CT: It is a different atmosphere, it’s more a feeling of construction. It’s more simple, because it’s totally another state of mind. I don’t think about this.
NS: So does that mean you tend to work on one sculpture at one time or do you have several?
CT: That I don’t know. I probably have one at a time because it’s a singular image.
NS: What are the sculptures you like best?
CT: Actually I like ninety per cent of them.
NS: That’s a high percentage!
CT: There’s a certain perfection in most of them. There’s a lot to do with trying to perfect something. There’s a front and a back and it’s formal, so the formality is important. You are able to perfect something more than if it’s in different directions and so evidently that’s why ninety-nine per cent of mine are formal. It satisfies a part of my character, I guess, whereas with paintings, anything goes; you know, get the brush!>
NS: So do you see yourself as Apollo or Dionysus?>
CT: In different times, different things. Every now and then one gets excited by nature.
NS: Did you ever do painting and sculpture more or less simultaneously after the early years?
CT: I don’t do drawings when I paint. It’s another state of mind, I think.
NS: So you have to be in a different state of mind?
CT: No, I just fall into it.
NS: What do you feel about conservators looking after your paintings? Do you want them in pristine condition or are you content to allow them to age?
CT: Sculptures, I like to allow them to age. Because it makes sculpture more transparent. You know, white paint makes it opaque and it had a light to it previously. Certain paintings I like, like a lot of those early paintings, but particularly School of Athens, it’s so glowy, the canvas and everything.
NS: Are you most happy when you are in the studio?
CT: More and more. When I was young also, but I really enjoy being in the studio now. I like to do many different things and I’m curious about a lot of things, but I enjoy painting.
NS: So what do you do when you’re in the studio?
CT: Well, I mainly sit and look. It’s very fast, particularly the Bacchus Paintings. The last ones were changed, but they were all done in a couple of months.
NS: Were the Bacchus Paintings done in Gaeta like the Four Seasons paintings? Because the scale of those paintings is quite majestic.
CT: In that big studio. However, two were done in the small studio upstairs in the house in Gaeta and that’s when they dripped. How tall are they? Three metres? It was just very physical, it’s a process. I tried to do one since then but it didn’t work. It was the sensation of the moment, you can’t warm it over, unless you want mannerism.
NS: Do you think you have certain cycles within your own work? When you look back at your work do you see one phase followed by another?
CT: Well, it looks coherent …John Cage said, ‘I’ll prepare a programme and I want diversity over a number of years and I’ll pick pieces,’ and he said, ‘it all sounds alike’. I mean everything sounds alike but it looks like it’s different. I don’t deliberately make a move for some ulterior reason. I do get carried away sometimes. I mean, painting comes natural, I guess.
NS: Well, it doesn’t always come natural because there have been quite long periods when you haven’t made paintings.
CT: I mean when it does come, it’s natural. I don’t force it, which would be in those periods when it’s kind of barren. I’m not a professional painter, since I don’t go to the studio and work nine to five like a lot of artists. When something hits me, or I see a painting, or when I see something in nature, it gives me a thing and I go for it. But I don’t care if I don’t go for three or four months. You know, when it comes it comes.
NS: Do you keep canvas ready in the studio?
CT: No I don’t as soon as I get an idea, it determines the shape and size of the canvas.
NS: For a long time most of the paintings were roughly two metres square.
CT: I tend to have metres because the canvas comes in two-metre widths. I get rolls and cut it. It’s a nice full size. I usually worked in the horizontal, not vertical. I would think of a vertical painting as a portrait and the horizontal is landscape. It’s psychological, instead of vertical and horizontal. But the Four Seasons are not portraits.
NS: When you put them together they make a horizontal composition with a steady rhythm. Did you have a model for the Four Seasons?
CT: No it was from scratch. I mean I don’t know if it was the first time I used that boat. It was a Celtic boat found in England with lots of oars. It was a Celtic model. I don’t know where it was from, but later Kirk Varnedoe went to India and told me of a boat with a red and yellow banding on the top and gave me the photograph. It was exactly that same Celtic boat. You can’t get away from mother nature.
NS: Do boats have a particular meaning for you?
CT: Yes, boats. I like the idea of scratching and biting into the canvas. Certain things appeal to me more. Also pre-historic things, they do the scratching. But I don’t know why it started.
NS: It’s a very basic kind of mark making.
CT: Infantile. Lepanto is full of boats. It’s all about boats. I always loved boats. That was done when Lucio Amelio was dying. I had all this gloomy text. I had no clue where it was from but it’s beautiful.
NS: You were talking about marks, and obviously the marks in early paintings are often connected with the action of the wrist but also with writing. Was the connection between the physical action and the use of language that simple?
CT: I always used the pencil. I didn’t paint until very recently. I would sayFerragosto, that is oil paint and it’s very viscous. Now I paint because I use acrylic and it dries quickly. But paint is something that I use with my hands and do all those tactile things. I really don’t like oil because you can’t get back into it, or you make a mess. I mean it’s not my favourite thing, pencil is more my medium than wet paint. Now I’m going to try to paint. I did by mistake once paint on a picture in Lexington and then quickly put an image on top. And I got into the wet. I had the background painted and then worked into it and then slightly merged the background and surfaces. It’s not done to remain on the surface.
NS: So you do now paint into the wet?
CT: Yes, I paint images on to the wet and so it absorbs part of it. Part of it comes out of the past, the past meaning the inside, which I never did before. Before, I always had a dry background and painted on. I made the images on the ground. Now, I have someone to paint the background that I have already figured out. I used to change things in my early paintings to get the nuance or feeling I wanted, but now I plan everything in my head before I do it. Also the scale of the things, they are big and I can’t get on the ladder all the time, it hurts. So they are more thought out. I have drawn little sketches of things.
NS: So do you start with a group of canvases or a single painting?
CT: I like to work on several paintings simultaneously because you are not bound. You can go from one to another and if you get strength in one you can carry it to the other, they are not isolated. Anyway they are a sequence; they are not individual, isolated images. I always worked a lot in series even from theCommudus series onwards. I always did about eight painting a year. Most were series so they were all around the studio and I was jumping from one to the next.
NS: So even when they were separate paintings you always had three or four paintings on the go at one time?
CT: Probably. Like when I painted the Bolsena paintings, it was a very long big room and they were all around the room. But the Lepanto paintings were done in Virginia. I didn’t have any space. There was just one wall for four paintings, so when I finished one I packed another on top so they were stacked three deep. When I took them down to send to New York, I tried to put them in sequence.
NS: So is that why there is a sense of groups?
CT: They were done in groups because they come from this group of tapestries in the Doria Pamphilj family. Jonathan Doria Pamphilj gave me some photographs of the tapestries, and those divisions are the borders of the tapestry and it builds up a sort of drama.
NS: So these subjects were really just a starting point for paintings, a springboard?
CT: Exactly. It’s not simple but the process feeds this, like these things, I was thinking of something from Mesopotamia. I’m not a pure; I’m not an abstractionist completely. There has to be a history behind the thought.
NS: So when you are painting your large paintings, do you feel yourself to be in or out of control?
CT: On Bacchus, it’s complete control. And I never had any trouble with ‘The Peony Blossoms. I changed them. When I didn’t like them, I put something else. They went very fast without any problems.
NS: And you said you spend a lot of time in the studio just sitting and looking, before starting and during.
CT: I spend more and more time sitting in the window and looking at the sea. with certain works like Nini’s paintings, it’s interesting because it’s more like music. It’s like seventeen-centurary music, or eighteen-century music.
NS: Like Mozart, early Mozart, or early Handel. It’s certainly not Wagner.
CT: No it’s more like the classics. Handel was wonderful. He was a lot in England. The Water Music; so beautiful.
NS: What kind of music do you listen to when you paint? Do you like jazz?
CT: No, I don’t like jazz at all, too intellectual for me. A lot of people like jazz but I think it’s boring, I like more sentimental, emotional music, it gets me high.
NS: So it is more about intuition and feeling than about rational structure?
CT: Yes, when I paint it’s all about that. You can think of one thing that you’re doing and before you get finished you are questioning something else. It often works very quickly. If you see a painting that’s always coherent from beginning to end, it’s something far away from the main preoccupations or the character of the person, that’s all. As much as you’d like to get away from yourself you never do.
NS: So do you paint your own moods, whether they be joy or melancholy?
CT: I tried, you know. I wanted to do… that big painting that is now in Houston [Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor]; I got a couple of volumes of that beautiful treatise on melancholia [Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholia]. It went on for three or four years and I didn’t do anything. Then I rolled it up and it went to Virginia. When all the paintings went to Houston [to the Twombly Pavilion], I unrolled it and got to a friends warehouse and finally completed it because of the boats. Cattalus went to Asia Minor to see his brother, and while he was there his brother died, and he came back in this little boat. I found it very beautiful, the line in the painting is from the Keats poem. I mean something sticks in my mind… and of course I got the line wrong. I said ‘to the shores’, but it’s not that romantic.
NS: You changed the phrase?
CT: I changed it to ‘Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor’. Instead it should have been ‘to the plains of Asia Minor’. But this is not of any importance. For me it’s a fantasy, you know. I mean it’s a way the mind works; it can’t occupy itself with just a brush all the time.
NS: I remember you once mentioned that Pound and Eliot were important for you even from an early moment.
CT: Yeah, I read Eliot in Washington University, in Lexington. One of the little Quartets. And now I have a nice collection of books – a first edition of The Waste Land, little volumes of the first of the Four Quartets and I also have a facsimile of Pound’s correction of The Waste Land …The next series of paintings has lines from The Waste Land. It’s one of the most beautiful, especially the beginning, on the seasons: ‘Summer surprised us…/ With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, / And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten.’
Anyway …I need, I like emphasis …I like something to jumpstart me – usually a place or a literary reference or an event that took place, to start me off. To give me clarity or energy.
NS: So you start with a reference, then you build from there.
CT: Well, now the paintings are not so complex. It almost could be the image, like these blooming things, just a single image more or less. Then the haiku were added as a kind of nuance or touching piece to the paintings, but they weren’t about peonies; they’re just about blooming.
NS: So why does Eliot remain so important for you?
CT: It’s not any more important than a lots of things – we just happen to be talking about Eliot right now. We can talk about Catullus. I like poets because I can find a condensed phrase… My greatest one to use was Rilke, because of his narrative, he’s talking about the essence of something. I always look for that phrase.
NS: You look for the phrase. And then you’re in the studio.
CT: No, no, I’m not in the studio – I read at night.
NS: So a phrase sits in your head and you begin to work with this phrase.
CT: Sometimes it can take a long time. When I work, I work very fast, but preparing to work can take any length of time. It can even be a year. Now things sort of fall into place – you know like the Coronation of Sesostris paintings. They were started in Bassano and hung upstairs for years. I like the sun disc because I managed to do very childlike painting, very immediate. Then I took them to Virginia and finished them – wound up at the end with a detail of Degas’s The Cotton Exchange in New Orleans. How it got in there, I don’t know, but it’s one of my favourite sets.
Lines have a great effect on paintings. They give great emphasis. There’s a line in Archilocos, who is my favourite poet, a general, a mercenary: ‘Leaving Paphos rimmed with waves, rimmed’ …It may not sound interesting to you but it’s central to me. I’m a Mediterranean painter. I like that idea of a northerner in the Mediterranean, but more blood and guts, like the Ferragosta, say.
Speaking of those paintings, there was a child in the bathroom and the father came to the door because she was there so long, and he said, ‘What are you doing dear?’ She said, ‘I’m making four horses and a carriage’. In North Africa, the Arabs used their left hand to clean themselves. And so the paintings are a whole combination of that, and my revulsion for the viscousness of the paint which entered into that wonderful series with the smears. But it didn’t just come from my imagination or anything that I would be involved in, but from Jung and from being in North Africa, which I wouldn’t have got if I’d stayed in Virginia.
NS: When you say it comes from Jung…
CT: That little story. It’s about words, how you can effect the character of a child by using words. He used the word making, so she was constructing, but I guess that was only one version. And probably Expressionism to an extreme extent is what psychiatrists call anal rebellion, which is very easy if you get paint. Personally it’s not something I am interested in at all, but when I did Ferragostapaintings, the heat and the …So if you are susceptible to things a lot of things can come in and be used in a certain moment. A lot of people don’t take in anything, they just don’t want to consider things for one reason or another, but if you are quite open, there’s whole worlds that you can articulate or use at a certain moment.
NS: So did you have a revulsion for paint?
CT: No, this is not about revulsion …It’s too slow to use a brush, so I picked the paint up and used it. I still do, although these last paintings [Blossoms] were made with big brushes and have lots of paint all over them. The Green Paintings were all hanging, smeared …because I work very fast. I sit for two or three hours and then in fifteen minutes I can do a painting, but that’s part of it. You have to get ready and decide to jump and do it; you build yourself up psychologically, and so painting has no time for brush. Brush is boring, you give it and all of a sudden it’s dry, you have to go. Before you cut the thought, you know? You want to contain the thought. But this is not true for all paintings, only at certain times.
NS: It’s about speed; it’s about translating quickly, isn’t it?
CT: Yes. A couple of hours of sitting sparks the thing for five or six minutes. But I can’t always do it …With Nini’s Paintings, for example. Certain things are just the moment you do them, and sometimes it’s the message. You know, it’s a tricky thing. If everything needs to be articulated, you can’t come up with the message.
NS: So there’s never a rehearsal for a painting; you just wait until it’s there.
CT: Yeah, but the recent Peony Blossoms were thought out. There were drawings and everything. I’m talking about a specific kind of paintings, more extreme paintings.
NS: So when you make a cycle of paintings, do you want it to control the relationship between the parts, at least to some extent?
CT: I don’t know. I don’t put the whole text in one picture as I would have done before. That’s the problem with me. My favourite [cycle] is Seostris, but that’s very personal, those beautiful disappearing boats under the surface. I started them in [Gaeta] years ago. They were five or six years on the wall and then I took them to Virginia and finished them there. I finished a lot of things there; another atmosphere sometimes changes works.
NS: Is it difficult to start on a group of paintings like Sesostris?
CT: On the Lepanto series I went straight through, one after the other. I don’t have that kind of struggle as much as I used to, I don’t think. It’s nice being old in the sense that it requires so much less and so… maybe complications, maybe struggle, I don’t know.
NS: So who do you make paintings for?
CT: Probably I’m indulgent. It’s an indulgent thing really.
NS: But in a way if you are inhibited or if you think you can’t finish a painting, does that suggest that you have some concern about how other people will respond to it?
CT: No, I can work on that. In a painting, the content of what you are feeling can be complete, but it’s also a form. Painting is plastic, it’s visual in the way it’s constructed too. It’s the same with sculpture, if you are satisfied with it or happy with it, it reaches that kind of…, as far as you can perfect it. You try to perfect something, either an idea, a feeling or a plastic, a visual object. I study my paintings a lot, and the sculptures, and I can see the mistakes in these things. The Green Paintings are extremely successful.
NS: So is the end about achieving a certain kind of feeling in the paintings?
CT: Yes, then it’s successful. In a visual object, a plastic, everything goes together. That’s when something is really most complete. How many paintings in the career of anyone are great paintings? So it reaches a pinnacle. You never know at what moment or when, but it happens at certain times and at other times it falls down or is more humdrum. That’s why I thought a great show would be to have six or eight artists to show what they consider to be five of their best paintings. I’m just curious how they judge their own paintings.
NS: Who would be the artists in such a show?
CT: Brice Marden, Bob Rauschenburg, Jasper Johns, Richard Serra.
NS: We were talking before about earlier series such as Poems to the Sea and their importance for this show. But clearly it’s a group of works you’ve continued to think about, partly because of your fascination with the sea.
CT: Yeah, ’cause I always went to the sea. Since I was a child we always spent the summer at the sea… And the Poems to the Sea were also done in Sperlonga. That’s why they’re on the sea. This was 1959. Tatia was there – she was expecting Alexander. It was a Saracen village. No tourists there – they had just opened up the road. It was just a white town.
NS: So what’s the fascination with the sea, apart from childhood? Is it the light?
CT: The bay [at Gaeta], it’s kind of baby blue. Pink …pink mountains [across the bay] and then when it’s clear it’s very deep blue. I’m not too sensitive to colour, not really. I don’t use it with any nuance, that I know of. It’s the object; the form of the thing is more interesting to me than colour. I’m not principally interested in colour. You know, I’ve been painting for fifty years – sometimes it’s different – I’m different , I’m interested in different things than I was a couple of years before.
NS: So you say you’re not primarily interested in colour?
CT: No, in form. I mean, in creating intuitive or emotional form. And it’s why I say I’m probably not primarly interested in colour, it’s that I take the colour as primary – like, if it’s the woods, it’s green; if it’s blood, it’s red; if it’s earth, it’s brown.
NS: And if it’s white?
CT: I don’t know …I like white. Like the black, or the whole grey period. One’s more serious than the other, one’s more expansive. It’s not closed. And I think psychologically it’s like there’s no beginning or end. Then the painting doesn’t have a centre – it comes in one side and goes out the other. And so white is that…
And I’m also a draughtsman so writing in white is almost impossible. Write in grey, in red or anything else. So it’s the piece of paper; and you can write in it or do what you want. Bruise it or …That was for a long time. Then came all the colour, colour came in with Lepanto…
NS: The colour is highly emotional in Lepanto and The Seasons.
CT: Yeah …It’s what I call a good moment. I had two or three great moments in all these years – one was the period of Poems to the Sea and a series of drawings I never saw again. Then in Hope Sound, Florida, with the sculpture, the little room in the de Menil. You know, there are moments and then there are others. And then maybe Lepanto when I started taking those red …that strange lobster colour and started making the boats.
NS: Those paintings came quite fast, didn’t they? Once you got going.
CT: One right after the other …Because I’d been for a vacation and come back.
There were four canvases hanging in the studio and when I finished I put the other one on top, three sets of four pictures on top of each other. And I never saw them together. I didn’t do any changes – it might have been two or three days I did them all. It was fun. I liked doing them like that.
NS: So you have been working largely in sets and cycles and groups recently?
CT: Yes, I don’t know why I started that – it’s like you can’t get everything in one painting. I don’t know why I do that – maybe they’re pages in a book.
NS: So, you said before that in some ways things are becoming simpler. Is that because you are using the ideas that would have have been concentrated in one painting across several paintings?
CT: No, that wouldn’t be it. Well, lets speak of a specific series. Like the Blossomspaintings are just ramifications, in different shades.
NS: Like variations?
CT: Yes. And also I planned them for a particular architectural space. It was planned [for the exhibition in Avignon] for a reason …architectural reason. I get very stimulated by architecture. I always liked the little gallery, the uptown gallery [Gagosian in New York]. It’s just the right space. I always liked it, if I was having a show uptown. The Bacchus Paintings were done but I did only six. And I don’t even know if I planned them for up there, then Larry said do two more and he closed the room. I also liked very much the Gathering of Time paintings in that space. There’s a linguistic thing that crops up regulary. Like the paintings in London. There’s a kind of garbled form of Japanese writing, pseudo…
CT: Yes, pseudo-writing. And the Salalah paintings are a take-off on arabic. That’s why I named them that way, I tried to put it in a desert. I mean, the writing and certain garbled linguistic things…
NS: So does it irritate you when people talk about graffiti in relation to your work?
CT: Yeah, I don’t think of graffiti and I don’t think of toilets.
NS: Well, you are quite scatological at times
CT: Yeah, but it doesn’t have that rough crudeness about it. But body parts are always just …The penis makes a direction, and that’s used as a direction in the painting to force you one way. But also the scale is so enormous. I use body parts, male or female. The female or male presence in the painting. Those particularly, you can have a whole set of things at the time. You know, painting is very viscous, I don’t really like paint. I like tempera or acrylic because it dries. And also at the time I was reading the Olympia Press publications of the Marquis De Sade and then there was a movie, you know. There was something in the air at that moment…
NS: So there’s a relationship with graffiti but it’s not really the important point…
CT: Well graffiti is linear and it’s done with a pencil, and it’s like writing on walls. But [in my paintings] it’s more lyrical. And you know, in those beautiful early paintings like Academy, it’s graffiti but it’s something else, too. I don’t know how people react, but they take the simplest way to something, and in the totality of the painting, feeling and content are more complicated, or more elaborate than say just graffiti. Graffiti is usually a protest, or has a reason for being naughty or aggressive. Ink on walls is graffiti. I don’t follow too much what people say. I live in Gaeta or Lexington, and I just have all the time to myself. I don’t have to worry, I had years and years during which no one could care less, so I was very well protected. I had my own freedom and that was nice. I didn’t have to bother with myself ever except as a vehicle to look for subject matter…
NS: Why have you always been so reticent to talk about your work?
CT: Because …I’d rather talk about other things. It’s like talking about yourself really – it’s indulgent. I don’t like to feel indulgent. I guess. And I never did.
NS: True. Probably because for a long time there wasn’t so much interest.
CT: Probably, but I head away from it now. Because you know, my parents were from New England. One from near Boston, the other from Mount Desert Island. It’s very funny, but when I grew up you always had to say, ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘Yes, sir’. And you were never to talk about yourself. Once I said to my mother: ‘You would be happy if I just kept well-dressed and [had] good manners,’ and she said: ‘What else is there?’
NS: Cy, I think we’ve got plenty.
CT: You’ve got enough. And if there’s something I didn’t say, you could make it up.