In 1952, 24-year-old Cy Twombly won a grant to study art in Rome with what was then a radical pitch: that nothing came from nothing, and the continuities of lineage, history, and narrative were as natural — essential, really — to art as breathing was to life.
Twombly, a Virginian, was fresh out of Black Mountain College, the experimental art school in North Carolina famous for its roster of avant-garde mavericks. Twombly had a promiscuous curiosity in both art and life — his community there included the composer John Cage, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the artist Robert Rauschenberg, all of whom crossed over in on-and-off-again romantic entanglements with each other. But his devotion to the ancients — Greece and Rome, Egypt and Persia — made him a misfit amid the great upheavals of American art.
The Abstract Expressionists had spent the previous decade building for themselves a fortress of abstract purity: no reference, no precedent, just the thing itself. The movement encompassed all, or at least the American art world, and left little room for deviation. Twombly’s painting would evolve, eventually, to often include paint and oil stick applied in spontaneous, rhythmic arcs that looked suspiciously like writing, and that would never do. So when he left in pursuit of a world ancient and rooted, I have to think he knew even then that he wasn’t coming back.
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, “Cy Twombly: Making Past Present,” which opens Jan. 14, starts with that departure — the entry is marked with a blown-up photo of Twombly next to the giant hand of Emperor Constantine in Rome’s Capitoline Museums in 1952 — and then anchors itself in his life’s ambition. Twombly was determined to prove that being Modern didn’t require the clean-slate dogma of his peers; in the embrace of the ancients in Rome itself, he would make his stand.
That’s partly why Twombly, who died in Rome in 2011, was late to recognition on this side of the Atlantic; he was as much a European artist as an American one, widely collected there, as curator Christine Kondoleon told me, while brushed aside here as a quirky sidenote to an American artistic revolution. His companion on that first Roman sojourn was Rauschenberg — he took the photo — who, along with artists like Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, would soon make his own challenge to the AbEx hegemony. But where Rauschenberg’s gleefully chaotic work would gather in referents by the armload — snippets of mass media and abject cast-off objects, the flotsam of modern life — Twombly submerged in the classics, hopelessly uncool in an era obsessed with the shock of the new.
It’s a sign of the times that “Making Past Present” makes no effort to resituate Twombly in an American context, but instead leans into his romantic fascination with the ancient world: its myths, its aesthetics, its poetry. It matches his abstract paintings to classical marbles of gods and goddesses in a way that, not long ago, might have been seen as sacrilege, or at least mildly cringeworthy. But not here. It works.
To be fair though, Twombly’s romantic devotion to the ancients can be a tad melodramatic, a l’Italiano. One room at the MFA is devoted to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, with a wall of vibrantly expressive abstracted flowers blooming with erotic intent; a marble sculpture from the MFA’s collection of the deity’s nude form from 100-150 B.C is placed at its center.
But formally, Twombly’s work compels; not least because of his devotion to epic drama, he’s utterly unique, his gestural painting style set against the rhythms of his erratic handwriting, striving for connection to the eternal. In “Apollo,” 1975, which appears midway through the 150-work exhibition, he scrawls the sun god’s name on the canvas in a rich cobalt hue. It dissembles in a cascade of words etched in pencil that include a string of the God’s aliases, like “Phoebus.” Less clear are random words like “mouse” and “grasshopper,” chaotically dashed off in a corner of the frame. Twombly didn’t aim to be knowable; his works are often opaque and spontaneous-seeming, deliberately rich with beauty and mystery. To me, they often feel like painterly embodiments of the vagaries of lost history, buried too deep for collective memory to access.
The show establishes quickly that Twombly’s Roman life was one of exceptional privilege. He and Rauschenberg had gone to Rome as lovers; when Twombly went back in 1959, he met and married the Baroness Tatiana Franchetti. Her brother, Baron Giorgio Franchetti, became his key patron.
The family was wealthy, and Twombly benefitted from their largesse. His home with Tatiana was a palazzo on Rome’s Via di Monserrato, which he filled with his creative passions. Interspersed with artworks by his friends Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol were his own works alongside an array of marble sculpture on pedestals. The exhibition includes many photographs of Twombly at home, with his rough, energetic paintings stacked three deep and leaning against the wall on lush marble floors, with classical busts and figures all around — the embodiment of the artistic lineage he craved.
A nice aside in the show connects his classical affinities to the MFA itself, where Twombly, as a fresh-faced student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the late 1940s, might have first seen the Old World wonders that drove his ambitions. It seems fair to speculate that as a southerner he might have felt affinity with decadent decay. You might get a little charge — I did — from perusing the museum’s storehouse of antiquity, one of the best in the country, and thinking about the teenage Twombly laying eyes on those very objects, having no clue his own work would show right alongside some of them almost 80 years later in the very same building.
The exhibition, and indeed, Twombly’s entire oeuvre, is chock-a-block with indulgent paeans to ancient poetry and myth, and his fervent desire for connection to art and history. This can get a little eye-rolly, but the extravagant beauty of his wildly expressive mark-making balances things out; you can be deeply with the work, while dipping lightly into the backstory. “Il Parnasso,” 1964, an epic canvas very loosely based on Raphael’s “Parnassus,” 1511, of Apollo and the Muses, is spectacular, gorgeous, and brooding, with squibs and dashes of paint almost violently applied. “Leda and the Swan,” the Greek myth of the rape by Zeus that begat Helen of Troy, plays out on a chaotic canvas with a furious maelstrom of black lines oozing blots of red and white (the MFA’s wonderful marble sculpture, from 410-370 B.C., sits right alongside it).
The exhibition closes with an entire gallery devoted to Mars, the god of war, who Twombly saw as close kin. Whatever you want to do with that — the equal but opposite forces of creation and destruction, I think? — the paintings are remarkable. “Mars and the Artist,” 1975, has the energy of deep haphazard passion, pale scratches of wax crayon and charcoal tracked diagonally across a patchwork of paper. “Death of Pompey,” 1962, with its ragged stabs of red, orange, and black, is a sparsely visceral representation of the assassination of the Roman general, complete with what you could read as a bloody handprint streaked at the bottom.
“Symbols of a Battle,” from 1968, a ghostly oil painting that has the uncanny look of a chalk on a dusty blackboard, brought Twombly in from the cold, at least as far as American critics were concerned. Its web of cryptic forms — grids and numbers and codes — might have resonated with the rising tide of conceptual art. Not that it mattered much to him. By then, Twombly didn’t much need America’s approval for anything. As a misfit in that slim narrative, he found another — bigger and broader and centuries old.
CY TWOMBLY: MAKING PAST PRESENT
At Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 465 Huntington Ave. Jan. 14 - May 7. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org