It caught my eye from across the room, like Humphrey Bogart at the end of the bar. I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art entering the Cy Twombly room. The space contains his 1978 Fifty Days at Iliam, a narrative painting in ten parts based on Homer’s Iliad, evoking the final, tragic 50 days of the Trojan War. Twombly said he chose to spell “Ilium,” a Latin name for Troy, with an “a” to refer to Achilles. I stood amazed at the towering canvases of joyous color and text. His work is abstract, gestural, expressionistic, thoughtful, world-weary with an eye toward history, and symbolic in the all-encompassing way that a piece of graffiti can nearly move you to tears. The paintings, though perhaps simple looking to some, are intricate and ordered in a linear fashion.
Looking back at this experience, I remember the paintings reading in a way that showed they were the work of an artist who knew his history, but wasn’t afraid to defy convention in portraying that history. Twombly evoked the freedom one gets from scribbling and added strong strokes of color that personified both his child-like whimsy and his melancholy mysteriousness. Some of the text in the paintings was partially erased, evoking an artistic appropriation of Heidegger’s method of sous rature, but with the words partly rubbed away, instead of crossed out. The effect remains the same: a word that is inadequate but necessary, perhaps even one that gains power in its absence. How else could one visually represent and abstract one of the most seminal Western works in literary history?
The art giant who moved me so much passed away on Tuesday, July 5, 2011, after years of battling cancer. (Click here to read the story from the New York Times‘ arts blog.)
Born on April 25, 1928, Edwin Parker Twombly, Jr., was a Virginia native who was said to have practiced drawing in the dark in order to make his lines less purposeful. He inherited his unique nickname from his athletic father, known as “Cy” after pitcher Cyclone Young.
Twombly wrote that his work involved “the actual experience” of making the line, which “does not illustrate. It is the sensation of its own realization.” As he later described it, “It’s more like I’m having an experience than making a picture.” While pursuing his artistic studies, he became interested in the anti-art Dada movement, the outsider art of Jean Dubuffet, and the work of the ever-existential Alberto Giacometti. Though once ignored by critics, Twombly became one of the top-selling artists of his day, with some of his work selling for millions.
Top seller or not, he inspired numerous younger artists, including the late, great neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The power and influence of Twombly’s work will live on. He may be gone, but he will not be forgotten.