Cy Twombly, the late American painter, sculptor, and photographer, had one of those enviable, dual-city living situations: For exactly half of the year, he worked in Gaeta, a small seaport town in central Italy. For the other half, he returned to his hometown of Lexington, Virginia, where, improbably, he was not the only famous artist among its 7,000 citizens. The photographer Sally Mann lives on a farm there just out of town, and was a close friend, confidant and mentee of Twombly’s up until his death in 2011.
Mann was also a diligent documenter of Twombly’s studio, which was set up in an unassuming storefront in downtown Lexington. The new book, Remembered Light, a companion piece to a recent gallery show of the same name, collects Mann’s photos of Twombly’s studio from 1999 to the present, where residue of his explosive, vivid artistic style still remain. Mann has a way of photographing Twombly’s studio that show the inextricable connection between an artist’s work and his space—and her photos make a case for why the latter is worth documenting and preserving.
Mann’s photos capture a studio cluttered with found objects, splattered with paint and still reverberating with the energy of an artist at work, even in the years after Twombly’s death. Per the book’s title, light plays a leading role: it comes in hot and strong through venetian blinds, it plays narrowly along sculptures and across walls, it glows fuzzy behind window panes like its being contained. But what’s most striking about these photos is a feeling of intimacy; Mann’s photographs of the space don’t feel voyeuristic or imposing. As art historian Simon Schama put it in the book’s introduction.”Remembered Light is as much an artist’s exploration as it is the house-wandering of a bosom pal and creative coconspirator, barefoot on the floor, pushing open the door of affectionate memory.”
Schama also affectionately describes Twombly’s “dumpster-diver’s appetite for junk,” a habit of visiting yard sales and collecting objects that show up on every surface of the studio—window sills, chairs, side tables, stacked up on the floor. Some early photos show mountain peaks of stuff, piled up in a way that makes it hard to distinguish his possessions from his work.
In an interview in the book, Mann describes Twombly’s space as an “accretion of his enthusiasms,” and describes Twombly working with “such extravagant joy, with an energy that almost burst out of him and onto the canvas.” Some of the most striking photos are the ones taken after his death of the walls still white where the canvases were, but dripping with dry paint in a colorful fringe along the floorboards.
Twombly’s studio is located in an old eye-doctor’s office. It had low drop ceilings, cushion-less window seats, plastic lawn chairs and metal fold up tables that remind me of my childhood in Virginia. It’s a refreshing departure from the bright, white, self-consciously organized studios seen in lifestyle pieces online and in magazines. It was also very much of a place: In a recent article in the New York Times about the photo series, Mann describes her work and Twombly’s work as having a similar quality of Southern melancholy, a “moldering decadence,” in her words, which also strikes me as an apt descriptor for his studio.
Twombly’s Virginia studio, as you might imagine, as very different from the one in Italy, which was surrounded by the sea and by lemon trees. In the Times article, Mann hints at his place between those two worlds, and the appeal of a hometown even to a world-renowned artist. One of Twombly’s favorite spots in town, she says, was a bench outside of the Walmart: “One of the most urbane, sophisticated humans alive, he would just sit there and watch the people come out and look at the mountains. He was fascinated.”