Wandering through the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I caught a peripheral glimpse of a Cy Twombly painting, but was stopped by a security guard as I approached it. When he asked “Is that a pen?” he threw me off so much I was unsure, too. Politely he told me I’d have to use a pencil. So back I went through the labyrinth of galleries to borrow a golf pencil from the nice ladies at the information desk. They gave me two.
Showing the guard my pencil as if it were a backstage pass, I stopped in front of Twombly’s Shield of Achilles (1978), one of ten works in the painting cycle Fifty Days at Iliam (1977-78). Here thick oil paint is smeared repeatedly resulting in a circle of heavy, fiery electricity. The globular shield hovers over the canvas, barely attached to its surface: a kinetic circle biting its tongue.
The light inside the main gallery functions as if the ceiling had disappeared and opened up to bare sky, so that each work seems drenched in crisp sunlight. The aged oil stick on the canvases still smells like it looks, raw and soft. Each painting is diagrammatic while retaining a visceral edge, as if Twombly had finished each one yesterday. The intimacy of the cycle is such that to come close to any of the ten works feels disrespectful, like tomb raiding. Twombly wasn’t interpreting The Iliad, he was working through it, to find the humanity in the legend.
Twombly’s scrawl is only partly legible, so I project onto the work my own struggle with precision in writing. I see Twombly desperately trying to manipulate oil paint and language towards clarity, only to find his materials insufficient for the velocity and depth of his content. These paintings are scars of a long engagement with a foundational narrative of Western culture, specifically one that concerns the horrors of war. Twombly fought as hard as Achilles. To grasp the gravity of the series requires solitude–so scare off the other visitors with your own intense graphite scribbling.
If painting is decision-making, you can see Twombly’s arguments with himself play out from one canvas to the next. This form goes here and shows up again over there only to be negated in another place entirely. The colors are dragged, lumped up, pulled apart, and conjoined in a running dialogue. You can follow the blood around the room.