Rosalind Krauss: The Optical Unconscious

Here is why I am addressing Chapter Six of Rosalind Krauss’ The Optical Unconscious, in which she considers the mid-career paintings made by the artist Cy Twombly: I am writing about Rosalind Krauss on Cy Twombly’s ‘chalkboard’ paintings as way of thinking about mark and repetition, eventually as applied to my new theoretical work on the English baroque. I am writing about Krauss on Twombly because I am trying to think about the boundaries between art criticism, personal emotion, and art history in new and productive ways, both for myself and for my work for the project. Finally, I am writing about Krauss on Twombly because I both disagree with her, and owe her the foundation on which I myself am able to mount a critique. I can disagree with Krauss at all in a context like this one, and in an affective mode that is my own, because she foundationally built an affective reading of AbEx painting and its postwar American successors in a field that was largely contra affect as a result of its definitional machismo. 

Cy Twombly. Still image from a video by Sotheby’s accompanying an auction of Twombly’s Blackboard Paintings. November 2015. Source: www.sothebys.com

I am in Krauss’ debt; I also think she’s wrong. She describes Twombly using marking to “… to scar and maul and ravage the creamy stuccoed surface of his canvases…”, a violence that for here, invokes the mark as graffiti. Krauss argues that Twombly, like the graffiti artists, makes his mark on the chalkboard paintings, like an “X” for “Killroy was here” with a specific eye toward the temporality of after, that is, someone seeing the painting long after its completion. The present is “already invaded by the future” for Krauss reading Twombly, thus creating what she sees as a Derridean différance, a deferral of meaning implicitly present in the sign itself. Twombly’s lines, not only the looping ones of the chalkboard paintings, but also the early sexualised ones of his Roman early-career works, are for Krauss, “… an attack on presence, an attack on organicity, and an attack on good form.”

Krauss personally dislikes the image she recalls of Twombly, recalling “… the arrogance of that mouth—fleshy, toothy, aggressive—and its pronouncements, which though voiced in a hesitant Southern slur, are always implacably final”.  Krauss’ Twombly seems just as committed to the pastness-as-present of his own words as Krauss sees his paintings as being. This is how she sketches him, primarily in relation to Pollock, about whom this chapter in the book is largely written.

Here is where I have to lay out my own commitments, make them vulnerable to the futurity of your readership: I like Twombly, with the full knowledge that he probably wouldn’t have liked me, or indeed thought me worthy of thought at all. I largely see his paintings as both engaging with antiquity and juggling what was at times a trouble, queer contemporaneity. Because of my own feelings about Twombly, my own self-mapping on my subject, I see his chalkboard painting, for instance, in “Untitled 1968”,  as the opposite of différance – a desperate attempt to live in the moment of marking the surface of canvas with wax crayon rather than in the “after” of viewership. 

The ‘chalkboard’ paintings were made after negative reviews dogged the artist’s 1963 show ” Nine Discourses On Commodus “. As Joshua Rivkin notes in Chalk, his poetic-biographical exploration of Twombly’s life, the Commodus paintings were seen as somehow efflorescent, excessive, too too. Commodus himself was known as a megalomaniac, a pseudo-gladiator in costume, a schizophrenic, and especially in the rhetorical sphere of the Second Sophistic and late antiquity, for his enjoyment of ‘debauched’ homosexual acts, including in public  . The paintings in ‘Nine Discourses’ then—and the ‘chalkboard’ paintings made afterward in their wake—are charged with more than a hint of worry about interpretation. In this sense, both sets of paintings are imbued with a futurity at the time of their making, but not in any particular Derridean sense of a lack of indexicality to the past or the archive, which so clearly was on Twombly’s mind.

While one could certainly argue that the ‘chalkboard’ paintings were by design a radical departure from the Commodus series in style, their “nowness” is also an implicit reaction against the critique of the ‘Nine Discourses’ show as too imbued with historicity (and implicitly, queerness). Twombly seems to be very aggressively trying to show his critics that he could be now now now, here here here, loop loop loop in wax-as-chalk. Which is to say, he was performing a kind of drag, in not using the referents to classical history and works that inform both the work preceding the late 1960’s-early 1970’s, and much of his corpus after that as well. If the Commodus paintings reveal a complex interiority in which what is condemned as depravity is considered carefully and in depth, the chalkboard paintings are an attempt of erasure of that very consideration. They are, as Krauss notes, an attack on presence, organicity, and good form, but not because they are blanked graffiti marks—rather because they are a conscious attempt by Twombly to re-write his own historical sensibility, and in doing so evoke that sensibility in retrospect, and all the complicated meanings and indices it entails. In all the senses, the chalkboard paintings play it straight. Straight drag though, is still drag; performative, complicated, and as preoccupied with the past as with the possible future. Pace Krauss, reading Twombly’s chalkboard paintings now, in light of new biographical information, cannot not circle around queerness, which in its essence implies mark-marking not as différance, but as difference.


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