Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly

Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly

Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly

Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly


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Winner of the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize Dean Rader reaches beyond artistic description to engage Twombly’s work in conversation.

In 2018, just a few weeks after his father’s death, Dean Rader made a pilgrimage to the Gagosian Gallery in New York to see a retrospective of Cy Twombly’s work, In Beauty It is Finished: Drawings 1951-2008. The exhibit led to a poem that would become the genesis of this book — from loss and fear to regret and beauty, Before the Borderless: The Cy Twombly Cycle reaches for the embodiment of emotion and the aesthetics of possibility.

Through a range of experimental forms, including a series of octets, Rader writes to decode the gestures and energies in Twombly’s drawings and paintings. He reaches past observation and admiration to create a game of echolocation, reflecting Twombly’s infinite scrawls as “saddle stitch, spaghetti curl, white whirl.” Even as Rader searches for proximity, examining the gaps between symbols and what they signify, the collection remains unmistakably autobiographical. From the wheatfields of his Western Oklahoma upbringing to questions of loss—first his father and then his mother, who passed only weeks after Rader finished the manuscript for this book—the poems in Before the Borderless are both elegy and prayer, for Rader’s parents, for his children, for the world.

Blurring the distinction between canvas and page, Twombly’s work often includes lines of poetry from many of the authors who shaped Rader’s work — John Keats, Sappho, Federico García Lorca, and Rainer Maria Rilke. As Rader’s poems are paired with 50 color images of Twombly’s paintings and drawings, the line between looking and reading is blurred. Before the Borderless awakens in the space between language and silence to pose provocative questions about art and its power to heal.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556596759
Publisher: Copper Canyon Press
Publication date: 04/25/2023
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 577,184
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 11.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Dean Rader’s most recent book from Copper Canyon Press, Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (2017), was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. He is also the author of Works & Days which won the 2010 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize, was a finalist for the Bush Memorial Prize, and won the Texas Institute of Letters Poetry Prize. His 2014 collection Landscape Portrait Figure Form was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book. Often engaging in collaborative projects, Rader is also the co-author of a book of collaborative sonnets entitled Suture with the poet Simone Muench, and he co-edited Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence with Brian Clements and Alexandra Teague. He and pressmate Victoria Chang began a collaborative poetry review series titled “Two Roads: Poetry in Dialogue” for The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Edwin Parker "Cy" Twombly Jr. (1928-2011) was was an American painter, sculptor and photographer born in Lexington, Virginia. From 1948 to 1952, he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Washington and Lee University, Lexington; the Art Students League, New York; and, Black Mountain College in North Carolina. His best-known works are typically large-scale, freely-scribbled, calligraphic and graffiti-like works on solid fields of neutral colors. His later paintings and works on paper shifted toward "romantic symbolism." Twombly often quoted poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Rainer Maria Rilke, and John Keats, as well as classical myths and allegories, in his works. Permanent collections of Twombly's art can be found in modern art museums globally, including the Menil Collection in Houston, the Tate Modern in London, New York's Museum of Modern Art and Munich's Museum Brandhorst. He was commissioned for a ceiling at the Musée du Louvre in Paris and died on July 5, 2011 in Rome.

Read an Excerpt


This evening, the unknown waves its wand,

and a beam of light disappears into the sky’s black hat.

The moon has never known its true home.

The stars do not remember when they began their journey.

Ou of that forgetting,

Just like us.

they begin their own making.

Soon the sun will take off its cape,

and open a door to a place that is not there.

Out of that absence,

the questions:

What black bones hang above the unseen? What name does the fire give to flame?

What burns through existence to endlessness?

We are not here long enough to believe in anything but language, and yet we know what awaits us is silence—

somehow always rising above the darkness

ino darkness,

always drawn to our own obscurity.

Future self,

I think of you arriving at our ending—

last line on the last page—

the trace within the vanishing,

the final sleight of hand in which everything disappears. Remember: the unseen is never truly empty.

Despite erasure,

the canvas never blank



In Twombly’s Untitled you don’t know where to look because you can’t figure out which way the surface is moving. At first you believe it begins at the top of the canvas, almost in mist, before spiraling down toward you. But then, you see the direction is upward, a landscape in reverse, scaling a shifting mountain of stones and debris, until it disappears into the clouds. Vast swirl of stasis and motion, umber erasure of the heavens.


When I look at this painting, I see Oklahoma, I see autumn, I see wheatfields, I see the sun and a ray of rust and the wind bending the stalks but at the same time mending them into something akin to skin smoothing itself over a body that is not there, internal swirl of the not-yet-cut, glume and awn and spike and stem, glazed gold in the long rake of late light, all spiral, all coil, here tiller and rachis, here the ligule of last leaf.


How many fields go fallow inside me? Do you recognize me, wind, blind in the emptiness made by your moving?


This is one of the few scribble paintings Twombly executed in earth tones. Color is its own language, its own metaphor. Imagine the same composition but in blue or green. Imagine this poem in stanzas.

Imagine the dead deep below the surface of the field: the roots of the stalks stretching toward history as the little tips in the bright breeze make their own marks in infinite space.


In 1970, Twombly is either 41 or 42 years old. He paints this in the city in which, 41 or 42 years later, he will die. This piece, more than any other by him, makes me think of death: the palette of harvest: the season receding into the long barrow of winter: the harrow hard into ground: the nights numberless cold and countless: the orange and ash and flesh and flint and fall: the silent shift from stem to soil: that last release: the unlocking leaf: the slash of sickle and scythe: the brush lifting from the canvas: the pencil pausing:


When I was a boy, my grandfather walked me around the rim of our family farm. Wheat and more wheat. Nothing but wheat. Barely soil, barely a hill. It was Sunday. He was still wearing a tie. His shirt was the color of the wheat: his tie brown as the dirt the wheat recused. If you stand here long enough, he said, you will learn everything you need to know. I, who always wanted to be taught, asked him if he thought god could learn anything new. He put his hand on my shoulder, and we walked into the stalks like two figures stepping into a story from an ancient book that is yet to be written, the spaces where the illustrations would go, entirely blank. The page, like the world, is always waiting to be known. When god looks at my life, the lord learns nothing from me but infinite regret. But when god looks at this painting, it is the lord who learns about light.

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