I’ve recently had occasion to revisit an essay that I read a couple years back. It’s Roland Barthes’s 1979 reading of Cy Twombly (in its first translation, from 1985). “Who is Cy Twombly,” he begins, a question that is followed by a qualifier “(hereinafter known as TW).” His question is about the artist, mine is about the theorist, concretely why he chooses to abbreviate Twombly’s name in this way. I think the answer is that he is trying to channel Twombly himself, or rather trying to enact the same artistic gesture that defines his work.
Barthes hints at as much. Toward the end of the essay, he describes his own scene of writing:
This morning, a fruitful–in any case, an agreeable–occupation: I very slowly look through a book of TW’s reproductions, and I frequently stop in order to attempt, quite quickly, on slips of paper, to make certain scribbles; I am not directly imitating TW (what would be the use of that?), I am imitating his gesture, which I, if not unconsciously, at least dreamily, infer from my reading; I am not copying the product, but the producing, I am putting myself, so to speak, in the hand’s footsteps. (171)
“I am not copying the product, but the producing”: I don’t know why Barthes didn’t choose to italicize this fragment. It is certainly the central statement in this fragment. In it, Barthes recovers what is for César Aira the defining characteristic of the avant-garde: a return to the origins of art, the placing of the procedure at the center of the aesthetic enterprise. To give an example, working in the tradition of, say, Marcel Duchamp does not mean buying a urinal and calling it a fountain; it means, rather, recovering his gesture of questioning what art is and how it relates to the world of production today, in a context distinct from Duchamp’s own.
Whatever Barthes was scribbling while he perused Twombly’s drawings, it didn’t make it into the final draft of the essay. But the analogue to his scribbles did: the abbreviation of Twombly’s name. It’s worth pointing out that he chose the first two letters of Twombly’s last name, not his initials. This seems significant, for to choose the latter would imply a sort of abstraction, wherein a C would represent Cy and a T would represent Twombly. Barthes doesn’t do that, for certain because that sort of abstraction is foreign to the aesthetics he finds in Twombly’s work. Rather, by writing “TW,” Barthes effectively erases most of Twombly’s name, leaving just a trace, or rather a fragment, of it intact.
This goes hand in hand with the idea that Twombly is a writer, not a painter, and a writer who is concerned with capturing “the essence of writing,” which “is neither a form nor a usage but only a gesture, the gesture which produces it by permitting it to linger” (158). Barthes allows part of Twombly’s name to remain, and in doing so makes patent the destructive quality of the gesture that does not fully destroy, but that rather uses and mistreats a given material. Barthes goes on:
Let us make a comparison. What is the essence of a pair of pants (if it has such a thing)? Certainly not that crisp and well-pressed object to be found on department-store racks; rather, that clump of fabric on the floor, negligently dropped there when the boy stepped out of them, careless, lazy, indifferent. The essence of the object has some relation with its destruction: not necessarily what remains after it has been used up, but what is thrown away as being of no use. This is the case of TW’s “writings”–they are the scraps of an indolence [. . .]. (158)
There is, of course, no such thing as an essence, but Barthes asks that we entertain the notion that there is (even while qualifying this request). In this case, the essence of an object is what is rejected. It is not simply the act of using it, but rather the act of throwing it away. Or rather, it is what we find when we encounter something thrown away. I remember years ago I went to a party in Philadelphia where most of the food had been gathered by dumpster divers from outside DiBruno’s. That bread would, in Barthes’s scheme, represent the essence of bread. Not in the moment that we ate it, rather in the moment of its disposal.
“TW,” the abbreviation, works something like that. It is Twombly’s name, the discarded version. Imagine “CY TWOMBLY” (it would have to be in all caps) written on a scrap of paper. Now imagine it crumpled up and thrown on the floor. Now imagine walking by. What you’d see is some fragment of the name: “Y T,” for example, or “LY,” or of course “TW”–his name reduced to a crumpled pair of pants.