Cy Twombly’s Iliad

By Olivia Jia


Through October 8th

50 Days at Iliam (1978) returned to the Philadelphia Museum of Art this May after its inclusion in a major Twombly exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Though I don’t know how the works travelled back from France, I indulge in the notion of a voyage by sea – I imagine this suite of paintings embarking on a journey across the Atlantic, mirroring a previous path from Twombly’s studio in Italy to the United States years prior. Sailing would befit these canvasses, whose subject is an army that arrives by boat, winds bolstered by Agamemnon’s slaying of his daughter, Iphigenia.

Cy Twombly’s Iliad highlights the 50 Days at Iliam series, alongside lesser known sculptures, works on paper, and photographs of Twombly’s studio. The exhibition also provides an opportunity to reassess a seminal work from the museum’s permanent collection, before 50 Days at Iliam is rehoused in the chapel-like space of the Alter Gallery.

The main body of the exhibit is held in a large gallery within the Modern & Contemporary wing. The monumental canvasses of Fifty Days at Iliam hang in a counter-clockwise sequence around the room, and bisecting the space are three sculptures of cast bronze, with beautiful patinas that mimic the scrappy, white house-paint surfaces of the original forms. In the hallway, drawings, photographs, and small sculptures allow a more intimate glance at Twombly’s practice.

In particular, the drawings provide an entry point to his work. Entitled Shades of Night, they are uniform in scale, the size of a large pad of drawing paper – each bears an abstract ‘cloud’ composed of hastily scribbled oil stick, in vivid red or a quiet blue. Graphite notations roughly scratch his initials, the date, and a phrase – in one, the text reads “C.T. JAN 8 78 Aug. 1 78 SHADES of night.” In others, Twombly plays with the formal qualities of the text, emphasizing and diminishing different letters. The drawings fascinate me less individually than as way to glimpse Twombly’s methods. Perhaps what we see through these drawings is Twombly’s learning of the cloud-like ‘shade’ form, which becomes such an important motif in Fifty Days at Iliam.

The mythologies contained within these canvases have always been brutal, but our encounters safely rest in the sanitized pages of classical literature – through literary dissection and analysis, they become palatable. Twombly’s rendition exists in stark contrast to the Iliad as a hyper-intellectualized pillar of classical education. These paintings are the Trojan War told through a Freudian id. Through an intentionally child-like scrawl and phallic symbols referencing ancient graffiti, Twombly explores the psychological qualities of warfare that endure despite technological advancement. The posturing of masculine aggression, the rage, the mess, the grime, the plans that blur and splinter beyond their strategic intentions, the looming specter of tragedy – these are the subjects of his paintings.

Like children who practice their signature, scribbling their names over and over again to encounter that moment of unconscious production, Twombly generates his visual lexicon through repetition. What is initially a drawing of a cloud begins to carry the cryptic effect of pictograms – laden with potential linguistic nuances, but veiled by translation or lack thereof. Through this quality, Twombly’s work is in dialogue with the history of art through an archaeological lens. Looking at his paintings, I feel compelled to engage in a kind of excavation. I am mired in the impossibility of coming to a truthful rendition of the history as told through his paintings, these canvasses which turn the white cube into a cave, coated in the history of rage. Yet, upon realizing the catch-22 of my gaze, I feel that I have come upon something of Twombly’s intentions – the universality of things like war, and therefore a connection with the impenetrable past.

For as long as I can remember, 50 Days at Iliam has been the cornerstone of every trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Stoic, monolithic, and scatological, the permanent installation has served as litmus test of my own engagement with painting and the history of art. When I was a child, his paintings seemed vacant of things which signified ‘good art’ – where are the attractive, bright landscapes and dramatic chiaroscuro figures? As a teenager, these paintings provoked in me a great sense of disgust – they were like monumental smears of shit, dismissing all the canonical rights and wrongs often taught to adolescents as objective truth. Ironically, this last observation from the past remains how I see Twombly’s work, now stripped of value judgement. Twombly’s work is magical to me in its masterful command of opposites – the abject and the majestic, the epic and that which we desire to make invisible. His paintings deal in literary poetics that are mediated through illegibility; titans of the classical world, articulated by an absent-minded scribble.

When I go to the museum with someone who is unfamiliar with Twombly, or perhaps unfamiliar with “modern painting” in its great, messy entirety, the reaction to 50 Days at Iliam is rarely positive. My hunch: there is popular assumption that art exists in two categories – the representational, which is recognizable, skillful and therefore easy to understand, and the abstract, which is not. Those who love art often forget how ‘modern’ works appear to the layperson. For instance, in the absence of context, it is understandable that someone might feel duped by Black Square, as if Malevich is pulling a cloth over their eyes. Beyond its groundbreaking impact on the trajectory of Western art and modernism, it is difficult for me to articulate why Black Square is particularly good, and a recitation of academic verbiage is rarely as compelling as visual pleasure, personally felt.

Twombly’s work, on the other hand, doesn’t fit comfortably within 20th century art history – I can’t convince someone of his value through a brief summary of history, as I could with Duchamp (whom amongst the Title readership hasn’t given a non-art-making relative the quick and dirty rundown of why a urinal is in a museum?). Twombly’s work deals in poetics – his paintings aren’t one-liners. Perhaps the most generative way to talk about his work is through the language of poetry. His marks are like allusion and onomatopoeia – the harshness of an “A” for Achilles, violently demarcating fictional rage, or the softness of the ‘shades,’ ghosts, quiet like a tomb, yet ever-present. There is a shield that is like a vortex of sensation, painted on swaths of white that have obliterated something – we do not know what, nor will we. A field of red, a gush, the prelude or the aftermath, a feeling like a flame, like a fire that consumes all before it.



Olivia Jia is a painter from Philadelphia.