Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, American, 1928-2011



The featured image has the name The Shield of Achilles. 

This painting is hung just outside a fairly sizeable room of fairly sizeable white canvases covered with scribbles, names, partial names, whorls and amoeba-like blobs.  The room is dedicated entirely to Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam.

The room was installed in 1989 at the Philadelphia Art Museum.  It is under both electronic and continuous human surveillance because people are always trying to add their marks to the scribbles of these paintings.

Who can blame them? 

Sitting looking at this work tells you nothing about the Trojan War.  You don’t know who won and who lost.  You don’t know who is a god or a goddess and who is a mortal. You don’t know anything about anything except that someone marked these canvases with random marks that mean little either by themselves or in relation to any other marks. 

You don’t think the marks mean anything because they are like those of a child set down at a table with paper and crayons and encouraged to try his hand. 

The Trojan king goes to Achilles. Humiliating himself, he asks for the return of Hector’s body.  His son.  You cannot find this anywhere here.  Nor the two men filling the house with their weeping: one for his son and the other for his companion, his lover, almost his own flesh, Patroclus.  Nowhere in this room the terrible anguish of the death of beloveds.  

You begin to feel sad and uneasy. I can’t stand it.

 Anyone can scribble and many do.  In kindergarten.

Only adults, of course, go on to give their scribbles fancy and sacred names.  And other adults yet to develop whole theories about this kind of ‘art’. 


Victory,  edition 5 of 6,conceived 1987, cast 2005, patinated bronze. Promised gift of the Cy Twombly Foundation to the Philadelphia Art Museum.  On display 2016/2017.











Fifty Days at Iliam, in ten parts; 1978;  oil, crayon and graphite on canvas.   Philadelphia Museum of Art.




This, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in the darker shade is the map of the reach of the Roman Empire between 31 BC and 330 AD.



These below, again thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are a few of  the slightest of their Roman art holdings.   These are tiny pieces of very skilled work of which the biggest, the blown glass African head, is perhaps three inches high and three wide. 




Sardonyx cameo with Aurora in a chariot. Greek or Roman, 1st century BCE to 1st century ACE





Sardonyx cameo fragment with Jupiter astride an eagle. Greek or Roman, 1st century BCE to 1st century ACE



The Met displays also very large statuary, large mosaic floors, and reconstructed rooms which would take an eternity to review.

Nor is it necessary because the only question I am asking is what do the scribbles of Cy Twombly have to do with the considerable accomplishments of the Roman civilization or with anything else under heaven except his desire to be an ‘artist’?




TBD.  Philadelphia Art Museum.  On display 2016/2017




 Untitled (Rome), 1982, oil pant, wax crayon and graphite on canvas.  On loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016





Untitled (Rome), 1961, oil-based house paint, oil paint, wax crayon and graphite on canvas.  Philadelphia Art Museum




Dutch Interior, 1962, wax, crayon, lead pencil and oil on canvas.  MOMA, NY. 

The painting’s title refers to Dutch painting of the 17th century and is also, according to the museum, an homage to the Spanish Surrealist, Joan Miro, who painted a series referring to these same Dutch paintings.







Untitled (Rome), 1976, bronze.  Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art



Untitled (Rome), edition 2 of 3, 1997, bronze.  Promised gift of the Cy Twombly Foundation to the Philadelphia Art Museum.  On view 2016/2017.




Synopsis of a Battle, 1968, oil-based house paint and waxed crayon on canvas.  Corcoran Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


Cy Twombly 1965 Academy MOMA-1

Cy Twombly 1965 Academy MOMA-2

Academy, 1965, oil-based house paint, coloured pencil, led pencil and pastel on canvas.  MOMA, NY



Anabasis, edition 1 of 4, 2011, bronze. Promised gift of the Cy Twombly Foundation to the Philadelphia Art Museum.  On view 2016/2017.

Anabasis is the name of a history written in 370 BCE by Xenophon describing the effort of King Cyrus the Younger to capture the Persian throne. This was the artist’s last sculpture.





Untitled, 2005, plaster, paint, wood, metal, paper, cloth, twine and pencil.  Cy Twombly, 1928-2011, American.  MOMA, NY




In 1994, Cy Twombly prepared the Four Seasons for a retrospective of his work at MOMA, NY



The Four Seasons:  Spring, and detail, 1993, synthetic polymer paint, oil, house paint, pencil and crayon on canvas. Gift of the artist to MOMA, NY in 1994






The Four Seasons:  Summer, and detail, 1994,  synthetic polymer paint, oil, house paint, pencil and crayon on canvas. Gift of the artist to MOMA, NY in 1994





The Four Seasons:  Autumn, and detail, 1993, synthetic polymer paint, oil, house paint, pencil and crayon on canvas.  Gift of the artist to MOMA, NY in 1994






The Four Seasons:  Winter, and detail, 1993, synthetic polymer paint, oil, house paint, pencil and crayon on canvas.  Gift of the artist to MOMA, NY in 1994




What is all this about?

A determined man, for sure.  But lucky to have been friends from their young manhood of the celebrated American post-Abstract Expressionists, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

Very devoted and smart publicists also working to promote his work.  Whispers in the right ear; wining and dining in the right company and then, over time, the evolution by the artist and his critic friends of an intellectual justification for this work as art.




Tiznit, 1953, white lead, oil-based housepaint, wax crayon and lead pencil on canvas.  MOMA, New York

The painting is named for a Moroccan village.  The forms come from sketches Twombly made in the Pigorini Museum of Natural History and Ethnography.  First exhibited in 1953 with works of Robert Rauschenberg with whom Cy Twombly was then romantically involved.




 Leda and the Swan, 1962, oil, pencil and crayon on canvas. MOMA, New York



Then the commitment of major institutions to buy and hang this work; disquisitions by art critics and members of the literati as to the meaning and art historical provenance of this work.



Untitled (Bolsena), 1968, oil-based house paint, wax crayon, and graphite on canvas.  Philadelphia Art Museum.

The museum says that Cy Twombly stayed on the shores of Lake Bolsena north of Rome in the summer of 1969.  The museum suggests that this painting ‘may also be considered a metaphoric representation of the land and its seismic activities or the pulsation of the human body producing the lines that populate the paintings.’

Anything can be said about anything if there is sufficient reason to do so.


And, of course, the predominance of all things American in the art cultural sphere – as in others – since the emergence of the very celebrated New York School in the early 1940’s.

Et voila!

Collectors begin buying the work and there is such vested interest in the work not losing its monetary value that the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as an example, has just been made a beneficiary of Cy Twombley’s sculptures, sculptures which, it is reported, raised nobody’s interest in the 1980s. 

Exactly.  The interest of this work has had to be raised and has been raised in the last 30 years. 

I don’t know how reducing portions of the foundational myth and history of the West to scribbles is valuable except in the very, very narrow sense of the bank balances of a tiny group of people in the art world.

Cy Twombly’s skill has been to sell this nonsense as ‘art’. 

And one wonders if any woman artist could have proposed these scribbles with portentous names as a riposte to the Abstract Expressionists and gotten away with it.  

Cy Twombly, under the guise of  our high culture, added to the nihilism of our age.  1984.






The Cy Twombly room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was rehung and new sculpture acquisitions were installed on the occasion of the loan of the main works to the Beaubourg in the winter of 2016/2017.

The paintings are Shades of Night, 1977 and 1978, oil paint and graphite, some with oil stick also, on paper.  They belong to the Cy Twombly Floundation and were on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.



The great goddess and her wisdom remain always with us!


Sardonyx cameo of Athena, the owl of wisdom on her shoulder in the Sommerville collection at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. 18th or 19th century, British.








2 thoughts on “Cy Twombly

  1. I have been advised by an artist training at PAFA and by a second a little older that Cy Twombly’s work has been helpful to their own. So I have tried to understand and have failed!

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