Cy Twombly at Musée Yves Saint Laurent | Marrakech

Much like the artist it celebrates, “Cy Twombly: Morocco 1952/1953” does a lot with very little. This small, intelligent exhibition offers a glimpse into the nearly five months the artist spent exploring Morocco with Robert Rauschenberg in the winter of 1952 and the spring of 1953. Physical evidence of these adventures is sparse. Both artists traveled light, abandoning the large canvases of New York for an aesthetic of snapshots and sketches, yet minimal traces coalesce to form a compelling portrait of a turning point in Twombly’s career.

Letters and documents on view provide context for the three visual components of the show: photographs, drawings, and a single large canvas Volubilis, on loan from the Menil Collection. This work was completed in 1953, shortly after Twombly returned from his African sojourn. Titled after an ancient Roman-Berber archeological site, the painting depicts two abstract mounds radiating frenzied filigree lines, suggesting both a fortress and a phallus. Marks are scratched and gouged as well as painted. The use of cheap materials such as wax, housepaint, and chalk imply the urgency of creation as well as the chaos of immanent collapse. This vocabulary of frenetic, anxious markmaking signaled a departure from the comparatively meditative compositions Twombly favored under the tutelage of Franz Klein at Black Mountain College.

Photographs of symbols etched deeply into stone foreshadow the raw power of this painting. But such explosive bravado was also produced against a background of private tenderness, expressed in Twombly’s lyrical photographic portraits of his companion. One picture shows Rauschenberg contemplating a leaf. His right hand is wrapped around a tree trunk with the delicacy of a sparrow perched upon a twig. Such images index an affection never fully excavated, just as the ancient site of Volubilis is partially obscured in ruin and dust to this day.

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