The Essential Cy Twombly

ON VIEW at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Cy Twombly’s 1955 painting Academy is a work you can look at, and into, for a long time. Providing an early example of the calculated offhandedness that came to distinguish both his style and technique (he employed not paint but pencil on a drop cloth rather than a canvas), Academy rewards close scrutiny, as it reveals expressive layer upon layer of choreographed lines. In fact, so lively is the dance that it tests the viewer’s certainty that the picture isn’t moving. That a former Army cryptologist might produce work requiring careful discernment to determine its physical nature—not to mention its meaning—comes as no surprise. Cryptic is an apt adjective that applies to both Twombly’s work and career—one largely carried out in Italy, far from the New York art world. The connections between the artist’s oft-engaged classical sources (Greek myth, Roman history, the Iliad) and his spare, allusive, yet abstract imagery are far from apparent, even as they sound in a subliminal register: Vengeance of Achilles is an isosceles triangle rendered in quick, agitated lines that only gradually emerges as the bloodied tip of a spear.

Cy Twombly, Anabasis (detail), 1983, oil stick, oil paint, and pencil on paper, 39 3/8 × 27 5/8."

This volume provides a complete survey of Twombly’s oeuvre, including his sculpture and photography, and features pointedly insightful essays that help crack the artist’s code of script and signs. Having nearly sixty years of work at hand provides abundant evidence of the paradox governing Twombly’s art—the interplay between the epic scope of his cultural materials and the enigmatic, deeply personal means of their representation. In a series of drawings titled “Anabasis,” the artist references a narrative, authored by the Greek soldier Xenophon, of battles and journeys he undertook while in the service of Cyrus the Younger. In the image to the left, Twombly spells out the Greek writer’s title (the A’s morphing into more spear tips?), along with what may be the painting’s date of composition. The artist’s name and that of his son (Cyrus Alessandro) are present, not only in the literary allusion, but also in the C and Y inscribed (multiply so) as the image’s bisected circle. The overlapping and mirroring letters suggest the possibility of past and present, the historical and the personal, occupying the same space, yet Twombly’s familiar “scribble” complicates that reading with intimations of erasure and chaos. Of course, none of this ideation, however elegant in its intricacy, would mean much if the images themselves weren’t beautiful—or, to be more accurate, beautiful in their subversion of “beauty.” Twombly’s art instructs, perplexes, and ultimately seduces.