After the fiasco: Notes on Twombly’s Commodus

I recently revisited the Guggenheim Bilbao, which meant spending some time with my favourite work in their collection: Cy Twombly’s Nine Discourse on Commodus (1964). I have always found this work compelling, both in and of itself, not only as a Classicist, but also because of the mythic story of it first being shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery.  While Donald Judd, in a curt review of the show, dubbed it ‘a fiasco’, I always had the sneaking suspicion that there was more praise than condemnation in the minimalist’s description of the work (‘There isn’t anything to the paintings‘).

Beyond the myth, every time I see this work in the flesh, I feel like I am seeing it for the first time, studying each scrawl and drip, flitting from grey canvas to grey canvas, trying to make sense of the overall structure, the whole mad portrait of Twombly’s anti-hero Roman emperor. The problem, however, is that when I leave the museum, the details of my breathless encounter with Twombly’s Commodus too readily slips from my mind, and so writing about it after the fact has always been a challenge for me. Even my attempts to describe this work to students – which I have done a couple of times in my Ohio State colleague, Tina Sessa’s class on historical thought and methods – has left me wishing that I could transport us all to Bilbao to stand before this epic work, with me running around pointing and gesturing at every detail, juxtaposition and nuance. (I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to do something like this for a comparably epic work by Twombly, when Carlos Basualdo invited me to participate in a conversation about Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few years ago).

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Mindful of these frustrations, I decided that this time I visited Commodus, I would try to make some tangible record of the experience, something that I could then post on Minus Plato. I knew that I couldn’t take photographs of the work itself – this was not allowed by the Guggenheim (although I do have a shaky video that I took surreptitiously a few years ago, swiftly moving through the gallery), so I decided to make written notes instead. I brought with me a unique little notebook (created by the artist Lillianna Marie out of an anonymous installation of coloured pieces of paper with the words ‘Work Harder’ on them). I wanted to make these notes somehow reproduce the experience of frustration that I endured since my last visit, to retrace my steps back to the paintings themselves through more accessible routes, so I started by taking notes on the excellent essay by Nicholas Cullinan for the book of the Guggenheim Bilbao Collection. After this I would then take photographs and make notes on the reproductions of the works in the book, marking which details I wanted to pay close attention to on entering the gallery. Only then would I take notes on the direct experience of returning to the works themselves. Here are a selection of those notes from the second ‘stage’ of my journey back to Twombly’s Commodus, the photographs and notes I took from the reproductions of the work in the catalogue, juxtaposed to get some idea of the whole ‘fiasco’.

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