PRINT April 1982


Tanzt die Orange! (Dance the Orange!)
—Rainer Maria Rilke

IS IT POSSIBLE to make a sign, a symbol, a gesture that cannot be transformed into words? Could it be true, recalling one of Karl Kraus’ witty epigrams, that language is the mother of thought? But imagine George Balanchine muttering impatiently, “Why should I bother to compose a ballet for dancers if I can ‘say’ the whole thing in words?” Most other artists would join him in agreement. They would be right in suspecting so shallow an interpretation of the science of linguistics.

We have come far since the first insights of Ferdinand de Saussure. His Cours de linguistique générale, a compilation of many years of lectures at the Université de Genève which was published three years after his death in 1913, became the starting point of 20th century linguistics. It was Saussure who was among the first to find connections in the shaping of words among that cluster of languages called Indo-European. He was particularly successful in unraveling the knottiest of vowel alterations among these languages by his careful study of the vowel a. This long study brought Saussure to the conclusion that language must be regarded as a social phenomenon of highly structured systems. Such structures must be regarded in two ways: as parole, the speech of individuals, and as langue, a methodically arranged framework for that speech existing at a given time within a given society. Parole changes continually over time; langue is a model from which to diverge and which might also change due to the shifts in individual expression. Saussure might well be called the father of structuralism, since he inspired radical changes in linguistic studies, both in Europe and in America, toward close examination of language systems and structures. These new theories for understanding what means what have more recently been termed semiology, the name Saussure proposed for a general science of signs, of which linguistics has become only a part.

“Language” exists, then, on many levels and in many forms. Returning to the example of Balanchine, let us postulate that his langue is the whole grammar of classical ballet, and his parole consists of the individual compositions he has created within that grammar. The movements that are idiosyncratically his invention are given further individuality by the way each dancer performs them. (The same model of description could be used for the work of Merce Cunningham or any other choreographer who uses the langue of classical ballet.)

The langues within the visual arts have structures that are perhaps at least as complex as those of spoken communication or literature. I venture this point because both in its making and in its experiencing by receivers, art often changes from its originally intended meaning, sometimes remaining elusive despite the most intense “reading” of its signs and symbols, even its style. Like it or not, we “read” pictures and statues, whether abstract or representational. No one can resist the search for meaning, even if it is to discover there is little or no meaning to be found. This search for meaning on the part of the viewer invites a deeper, more creative involvement than mere “looking”; the receiver hopes to participate, at least in part, with the maker.

Achieving such a relationship with the viewer was the intention, for example, of Joseph Cornell. This is equally true of Cy Twombly, who expects full participation. Both artists are direct; what is given is what is there. Both require viewers to imagine, fantasize, free-associate and, above all, use their eyes to explore the image and live with it. They give no guarantees that a definitive “answer” will be forthcoming.

Just as 19th century France and Northern Europe fascinated Cornell, so the wide area called the Mediterranean has dominated Twombly’s life and imagination. Like the historian Fernand Braudel, he apprehends the Mediterranean as that expanse of sea surrounded by Africa, Turkey, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and Southern Europe from Greece to Gibraltar—all territory that contains huge residues of ancient civilizations. The cultures of these civilizations compose Twombly’s langue. They are, according to him, his “earth-environment”; their “landscapes” his enduring passion, the cause for his “constant interaction of place and spirit.” Throughout Twombly’s work there are intimations of a classical world, whose place and spirit dominate his reveries. Shall we guess the dreaming began in childhood in Lexington, Virginia, where calm, decorum, and intellectual excellence was prized? It was at Lexington that in 1749 the institution that would later become Washington and Lee University was founded. Houdon’s marvelous marble portrait of George Washington could be seen in the capitol building in nearby Richmond. It was in academic groves the child wandered. He could appreciate Monticello, the estate where the philosopher, designer, and statesman Thomas Jefferson lived, and his university at Charlottesville, with its classic Palladian elegance. The classical ideal as a background for Twombly becomes strikingly apparent. I suspect the young Twombly imbibed these white beckonings like a chameleon in the sun. He was already discovering the Mediterranean.

In one 1967 painting called Duino, the word Duino is written twice, once enclosed in a rectangle and scratched out, the second time very clear. In this painting is a hint of the direction Twombly’s reveries can go. We are taken to Duino, at the top of the Adriatic Sea near Trieste, where the Princess von Thurn and Taxis lived in her castle which brooded over the water below. Here, for a while, Rainer Maria Rilke was a guest. For 17 years Rilke had been unable to write poetry, but in this marine ambiance he suddenly produced the first two of the Duino Elegies and many fragments of the others. A line in one of these poems may have inspired Twombly’s painting (beyond the dedicatory aspect): “We are the bees of the invisible.” Both painter and poet tenderly buzz, and the humming, which we faintly hear, praises, extols, sings. They commend the invisible to our care.

The question arises, where do such bees gather their nectar? In the case of Rilke we can read his own story of his inner journey and the effort to evolve what he called the Ding Gedicht (object poem), which attempts in words to capture the plastic essence of physical objects. No doubt this was due to his four-year-long association with Auguste Rodin, which resulted in Rilke’s celebrated essay on Rodin’s unremitting search for form. It was through Rodin that the poet discovered the treasures of French art and architecture, and a way to translate the objective world into the tropes of his own magnificent verse.

But how should a Modern American painter, who is not a writer and doesn’t enjoy talking much, find in classical literature the nectar to inspire a concrete, plastic visualization of his subjects? Would not such bookishness lead to mere illustration—as in Gustave Doré’s explications of Dante, for example? (Or, on a very low level, Philippe Jullian’s sketches for Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu?)

Twombly is primarily a painter and a draftsman who, like any good artist, wants his work to be understood for what is there as art. He is satisfied if any viewer, regardless of cultural background, enjoys the picture. There is no deliberate obfuscation or condescension in any of Twombly’s work. He is not hermetic. His chief concern is to project on canvas or paper exactly what he is feeling, but these frissons of emotion are swift, mercurial, and dependent on speed of decisions and gestures. Twombly darts at his surface like an oriole constructing a hammock-nest in midair out of thread, straw, twigs, and down. He scratches, scribbles, erases, crosses out, smudges, smears, dabs, stains, doodles, or delicately letters. It would be almost impossible for anyone else to imitate these surfaces and as difficult to fake them as forging another person’s handwriting would be. The secret of such unique draftsmanship is wholly in the gestures made, but these compositions of ingenious variety and subtlety never become or resemble graffiti.

A picture by Twombly can disclose touches as light as butterfly wings, or smudges of darkest density. The weight of every stroke, be it a line or a smear, is constantly diversified. Twombly abjures the traditional paintbrush (“it slows me down”); he banishes “mistakes” by turning false moves into true ones as if, like Freud, he believed it impossible to tell a lie. I suspect if a finished work did not please Twombly he would simply destroy it. His work as a whole is more than plausible—it convinces us that we are in the presence of intelligence and a rare imagination which give mental processes visual concreteness. Twombly thinks on canvas or paper as a philosopher philosophizes by thinking about thinking. We cannot, however, know how long these thoughts have been incubating. Have they, like Rilke’s Duino Elegies, been gestating for 17 years? Twombly apparently lives with a similar daemon, which ruminates, during sleep and wakefulness, on landscapes of the classical world, conjuring up visions of sweetness and horror. One series of paintings, “The Nine Discourses of Commodus,” 1963, contains the latter.

If we inquire who Commodus was, we will find him in the Capitoline Museum in Rome where as a marble bust Commodus is pretending to be Hercules. Lucius, the son of the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius, upon inheriting the throne changed his name to Commodus and proceeded during the 12 years of his reign to destroy almost nine decades of unbroken Roman stability and prosperity. Commodus inherited nothing of his father’s austerity and dedication to the state. He was irresponsible, pleasure-prone, and vindictive toward all who opposed him. Since he was incapable of dealing with political reality widespread unrest and economic crises marked his reign. Being as unstable as his government, Commodus lapsed into insanity, firmly believing himself to be the demigod Hercules and entering the arena to fight as a gladiator to prove it. It was there that a group of conspirators from the palace had him strangled by a professional wrestler. Soon after, the country lapsed into civil war.

But why the “Discourses of Commodus”? To whom is Commodus talking? Obviously to his dead father, the splendid Marcus Aurelius. The first painting in the series is a neatly drawn grid, anchored by a horizontal line with two short vertical lines going up; beneath the grid is an immense space. Within the grid are two ball-like forms, one slightly larger than the other. During the last three years of his reign Marcus Aurelius had made his son co-ruler of the empire. The two round forms undergo various transformations, but at no point does the smaller rid itself of the larger. Can discs of this sort be “symbols” for two Emperors? And are these “landscapes” in some way? These forms lead us into seeing the paintings as figurative. The theme of the “Discourses” is disaster, a disaster for the Roman empire. The landscape is that of the Roman grid cities. The beautiful grid has burst; hegemony is in question; and order has been replaced by the strains of love, hate, and paranoia. In the end Commodus is destroyed by his need to be en bal travestie. The series is the landscape of delirium. Often the lines dribble away in downward falls as in medieval psalters where the illuminator and calligrapher, carried away by emotions aroused by the texts, would sometimes allow private feelings to dribble down the page, creating pages heightened by odd marginal images and drôlerie.

In 1967, in an “Untitled” canvas done with house paint and crayon (now owned by Jasper Johns), Twombly announced one of his concerns: writing. The “writing” is literally that, and resembles the penmanship, called the Palmer Method, taught forty years ago in American public schools. Pupils were taught not to grasp the pen too tightly. The arm had to rest comfortably, wrist down. The teacher would say, “Circle, circle, circle,” then “Up, down; up, down; up, down.” Twombly’s concern with “writing” is at the very root of non-oral literature. Later Twombly attempted to expand his ideas of writing into a larger rhythm with a deeper meaning. The three Orions, 1968, describe planetary movement. The great agitated “Untitleds” of 1971 imply unruly forces of nature, turbulence in air and water during tempests; they capture the feel of weather as we experience it out of doors. If the constellation Orion rises in the heavens at dawn it is a sign of approaching summer; if at evening it is a sign of winter and storms. As a major constellation it contains three bright stars and enough others to form the configuration of a hunter. The Palmer Method’s “circle, circle, circle” becomes the O of Orion, while the “up, down; up, down; up, down” turns to sleet, rain, hurricane. These transformations are continuous in all of Twombly’s work, and remind us of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notations on natural phenomena.

Twombly’s fascination with landscape combined with myths and poems emerged in the untitled canvases as early as 1954. Panorama, 1955, a myriad of “stories” on a black background, full of a reticent sorrow, perhaps based on personal loss, gives startling evidence of this mix. At this point he had not yet moved to Italy, ensconced himself in Rome, embraced the Mediterranean world. But this is in the wings. His longing for that culture is expressed in the elusive elegance of the 1957 Olympia, in which he is seeking the gods and demigods who dwell on Mount Olympus and whose stories he wishes to contemplate. Elsewhere he seeks the bucolic world of Theocritus and of Virgil’s Georgics. A photograph of Twombly sitting among a flock of sheep in an ancient ruin in the Campagna suggests that he subsumes what he observes, ingests it, becomes a part of it—a process that recalls Jackson Pollock’s remark, “I am nature.” Little wonder his pictures dissolve into landscapes. This transforming process is evident in View, 1959, and in Hyperion (to Keats), 1960. Hyperion was one of the Titans, the son of Uranus (heaven) and the father of Helios (the sun god). Hyperion was a god of huge strength, associated with vast spaces, who shook and moved the cosmos, and who regulated the seasons. Keats tells us of Hyperion’s activities:

The planet orb of fire, whereon he rode
Each day from east to west the heavens through, Spun round in Sable curtaining of clouds;
Not therefore veiled quite, blindfold, and hid
But ever and anon the glancing spheres,
Circles and arcs, and broad belting colure,
Glow’d through, and wrought upon the muffling dark
Sweet-shaped lightnings from the nadir deep
Up to the Zenith—hieroglyphics old . . .

For Twombly the operative word is hieroglyphics, a tool for recreating the Titan Hyperion. Thus the painting is more than simply dedicated to Keats, since Twombly feels the sort of gratitude to Keats that Ingres must have felt to Homer for giving him Zeus, or Picasso to Balzac for The Unknown Masterpiece.

There is no denying Twombly’s initiative in making the unseen visible. He records two visits to Parnassus, in The First Part of the Return from Parnassus (1961) and The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus (1962). The paintings refer to the fact of two different locations for Parnassus. One is in central Greece within sight of Delphi; its caves and springs are sacred to Apollo and the Corycian nymphs, and it is the home of the Muses. The other Parnassus was located in Paris in the mid-19th century, the headquarters of Leconte de Lisle and Théophile Gautier. The Parnassians, who were in opposition to early 19th century romantic poets, counseled precise description, technical perfection, restraint, and objectivity. Theirs was the doctrine of “l’art pour l’art,” whence came, at a later date, Stéphane Mallarmè and Paul Verlaine; it was a doctrine which changed the poetry of Europe, affecting still later the art of Rilke. Many of these poets were inspired by such myths as those of Leda and the Swan, Apollo, Adonis, Narcissus, Herodias, Orpheus, and Venus. Twombly, too, has been so moved, and all of these classical subjects and many more can be found in his work. He finds his way to these themes through the ancient poets as well as through the Moderns who remain within the humanist tradition.

The author of The Aeneid is an example of this interest. Virgil, 1963, is a clear dedication to the epic poet, but to me the earlier Arcadia, 1957–8, and many of the untitled pictures as well, are Virgilian landscapes. From Virgil’s Bucolics we read (in Gilbert Highet’s translation):

Yet surely I have heard that, from where the hills begin to stoop, sloping their ridge gently towards the plain, to the water and the ancient broken-created beeches, all had been saved for you by Mercaleas with his songs.

And in The Georgics (also in Highet’s translation):

. . . then let me love the country, the views running through valleys, the streams and woodlands—happy though unknown. Give me broad fields and sweeping rivers, lofty mountain ranges in distant lands, cold precipitous valleys, where I may be beneath the enormous darkness of the branches.

It was in Naples that Virgil wrote The Georgics, long after he had left his birthplace near Mantua. Of Naples he declared, “Parthenope holds me”: indeed, he was the poet of Naples, a city drenched in Greek thought and art, perhaps more so than anywhere else on the whole Italian peninsula and Sicily. He died shortly after his last visit to Athens and was buried, at his request, somewhere along the road to Pozzuoli, near Naples. Twombly’s marvelous Bay of Naples, 1961, reminds us of the poet’s love for his adopted city and its magnificent location. The painting is redolent with fire, water, the perfect shoreline, the fumes of Vesuvius; it is full of Neopolitan brio.

It was also in Naples that Virgil wrote most of the Aeneid, his monument to the founding of Rome and its imperial grandeur. Rome for Twombly represents the scene of many assassinations and other excesses. The Crimes of Passion I and II, 1960, radiate a sinister quality which suggests both violence and evil, and Empire of Flora, 1961, deals with sexual abandon. Flora, herself, can be seen in the Capitoline Museum as a standing figure with a wreath of flowers around her head. (One can also see her on the coins of the Roman Republic.) Being the goddess of plants, she was a very early subject of worship. A temple was erected in her honor in the Aventine and an annual festival, the Floralia, was held in her name. (Roman prostitutes considered this their special holiday, a day for ribaldry and high-jinks.) The picture is a wild mixture of piety and eroticism, which Twombly denotes in effusive color and markings.

In the Epithalamion III, 1976, we can observe a romantic, almost sentimental Twombly. An epithalamium is a poem to a bride and bridegroom on the day of their wedding. Most such songs exist in early Greek poetry as invocations to Hymen, the deity of marriage. Later, Catullus wrote three rather obscene ones. During the high Renaissance Torquato Tasso and Pierre de Ronsard turned to this theme, and in England during the same period Sir Philip Sidney, John Donne, Richard Crashaw, and Ben Jonson used the form. But the most famous epithalamium, and the loveliest, is by Sir Edmund Spenser; from it come these lines:

Wake now, my love, awake! for it is time
The rosy Morne long since left Tithones bed,
All ready to her silver coche to clyme,
And Phoebus gins to show his glorious hed.
Hark how the cheereful birds do chaunt their laies,
And carrol of loves praise!

In Twombly’s painting as in Spenser’s poem, the time is the early morning of the day on which the nuptials are to take place. On the left of the picture is a golden orb in a flushed pink sky, and to the right is a second panel depicting the sky changing into “rosy morne.” Twombly eschews the couple’s later consummation of the marriage. In this sense the picture is romantic. However, in the themes that deal with Eros, the feeling of sexuality is never absent. An overt projection of Twombly’s essential realism is well-defined in The Birth of Venus, 1963, which is replete with shapes like swollen genitals and breasts, rising to the surface of the sea. Innocence and depravity move side by side. Like the Surrealists he searches for and finds correspondances in the many layers of reality we all experience daily. It could be argued that the forms in Birth of Venus resemble the thousands of species of mollusks and crustaceans, for instance, that live along the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, reproducing and surviving in fantastic ways. The artist suggests that life rises from the sea as Venus did on her sea shell—but it is a far cry from Botticelli. Twombly understands the delights and the follies of classical Greece. In depicting School of Athens, 1961, it is as though he had read the historian H.I. Marrou, who in one essay remarked that Greek education was not free from “aberration”: “the paideia found its realization in paiderasteia.” The School of Athens shows a “queer” picture indeed. Twombly seems to be amused that paideia, the system of education stressing Hellenistic culture, served as the model for early pious Christian institutions. The sublimation of ancient Greece by 19th century English pedants into a realm of golden perfection is an absurdity which lessens both the splendor and the humanity of that civilization.

War has been a constant in the lives of Twombly’s generation. It is an almost impossibly difficult subject for art, and few artists have been able to deal with it as a Modern theme. Synopsis of a Battle, 1968, is a preview of a gradual, growing awareness of the brutality everywhere in the world. This painting, done with house paint and crayon on canvas, could be a chart drawn up by Karl von Clausewitz, the great strategist for Russia during the Napoleonic invasion. The lines and forms rise swiftly in a pyramid shape to a central point at the top of the canvas, as though all of the energy of the image were thrusting toward a target. Included are scrawled numbers, as though for the enumeration of troops; some are on one “flank,” some “to the rear” or “South.” Is the strategist indicating the charge of cavalry, artillery, or foot soldiers? Only his aides-de-camp know. This painting is of an event that has not taken place, but that we know will. Twombly has dislocated us in time so that our imaginations can take in the horror. The picture moves me more than TV movies of the obscene war in Vietnam, which was in progress at the time Synopsis of a Battle was painted. Twombly has not painted many canvases of this sort, but war has been a subject about which he has thought much. It was not until the summer of 1977 that he began Fifty Days at Iliam; it was finished the summer of 1978. These ten canvases are epic in subject and size. Appropriate to the sweep and ambition of the project, the smallest is 162 by 150 inches, and the largest is 300 by 380 inches. There were harbingers for this epic series in previous works—for instance, Achilles and Patroclus, 1962, with its center inscription, “Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus,” referring to one of the most moving scenes in Homer. Twombly’s opinion of armed mayhem is stated by a contrast between two 1975 collages—Mars and The Artist, a study in dissonance opposed to order, and Apollo and The Artist, in which the upper and lower sections delicately harmonize. An opening blossom in both pictures symbolizes the artist.

Many of Twombly’s “untitled” works can be interpreted as an expression of the dichotomy between confusion and calm. The bona fide artist produces esthetic accord even when the subject is violence. There is no better example of this than Goya’s Disasters of War, which can only be termed terrifying and masterful. Twombly’s capacity for distancing himself from literalness is well demonstrated in his approach to the Trojan War. The translation of The Iliad that he prefers is Alexander Pope’s. How natural and right that this translation should be his favorite: the heroic couplet fits well with Twombly’s ideal of the classical and the legendary. The music of Pope’s iambic pentameters is perfectly appropriate for a poem of such great length; furthermore, it is a rhythm suitable to what has been called the “picturesque.”

Pope was among the first English poets to understand and practice visual art, trying his hand at engraving, painting, design, and architecture. He had complete confidence in the Renaissance doctrine of ut pictura poesis; to him, painting was simply a branch of poetry. Throughout his notes on his translation of The Iliad, Pope draws analogies between painting and poetry: “This is a fine picture of the Grief of Achilles . . . ” And elsewhere, “There is scarce any picture in Homer so much in the savage and terrible way, as this comparison of the Myrmidens to the Wolves: It puts one in mind of the Pieces of Spagnolett, or Salvator Rosa.” And, “What he [Homer] writes is of the most animated nature imaginable; everything lives, and is put into action . . . The course of his verses resembles that of the Army he describes . . . They pour along like a Fire that sweeps the whole Earth before it.” Pope’s favorite comparison is between Homer and Raphael, both of whose works he considered masterpieces of unified organization and design. Of Book VII Pope asserts in his notes that “It is the most beautiful Nightpiece that can be found in Poetry. He [Homer] presents you with a prospect of the Heavens, the Sea, the Earth: the Stars shine, the Air is serene, the World enlighten’d and the Moon mounted in Glory.” Pope translates the celebrated passage thus:

The troops exulting sate in order round,
And beaming Fires illumin’d all the Ground.
As when the Moon, refulgent lamp of Night!
O’er Heav’ns clear Azure spreads her sacred Light,
When not a breath disturbs the deep Serene;
And not a Cloud o’ercasts the solemn Scene;
Around her throne the vivid Planets roll
And stars unnumber’d gild the flowing Pole,
O’er the dark Trees a yellower Verdure shed.
And tip with Silver ev’ry Mountain’s Head;
Then shine the Vales, the Rocks in Prospect rise, A
Flood of Glory bursts from all the Skies:
The conscious Swains, rejoicing in the Sight,
Eye the blue Vault, and bless the useful Light.
So many Flames before proud Ilion blaze,
And lighten glimm’ring Xanthus with their Rays.
The long Reflections of the distant Fires
Gleam on the Walls, and tremble on the Spires.
A thousand Piles the dusky Horrors gild,
And shoot a shady Lustre o’er the Field.
Full fifty Guards each flaming Pile attend,
Whose umberr’d Arms, by fits, thick Flashes send.
Loud neigh the Courses o’er their Heaps of Corn,
And ardent Warriors wait the rising Moon.

Twombly apparently—unlike his contemporaries—does not object to the adage ut pictura poesis; none of the great masters objected, so why should he? His reading of The Iliad, however, is again a distancing, and the subjective meaning of Twombly’s jumbo-sized images is simply a moral cast which provokes an essential question: what is the human condition that leads to war? The Trojan War is the paradigm of all wars. Like Simone Weil, Twombly views The Iliad as the quintessential “poem of force”—not simply a struggle for glory or power, since heroes exist on both sides, but a poem profoundly concerned with affliction. “Whoever, within his own soul and human relations, escapes the domination of force is loved,” Weil wrote, “but loved sorrowfully because of the threat of destruction that hangs over him.” Twombly, too, sees human tenderness and pity with its after effects or bitterness.

Fifty Days at Iliam reflects incidents from the Trojan War as told by Homer. Its parts, each monumental in scale, are entitled “Shield of Achilles,” “Heroes of the Achaeans,” “Vengeance of Achilles,” “Achaeans in Battle,” “The fire that consumes all before it,” “Shades of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector,” “House of Priam,” “Ilians in Battle,” “Shades of Eternal Night,” and “Heroes of the Ilians.” A plague has ruined the Achaean army because Agamemnon, king of the Achaeans, has refused to return the captive Chryseis to her father, a priest of Apollo. The chief commander, Achilles, as a result of this action, and because he has been insulted by Agamemnon, refuses to continue the nine-year battle against Ilium (Troy). However, Achilles’ beloved friend Patroclus does continue to fight, and meets with success in repulsing the enemy; encouraged by this, he moves too far from the Greek ships. Achilles urges him to return, but Patroclus, pushing his triumph, does not heed the warning and is killed. The same fate awaits the great Trojan commander, Hector, who against the wise counsel of Polydamas stubbornly maintains his army where it should not be and is destroyed. All of these heroes have exceeded the limits of the human condition in defiance of their fate. They have been induced by Ate (folly, goddess of mischief) to allow themselves excessive pride (hybris) and are punished by divine vengeance, Nemesis (depicted in the third section of the painting). Death is the lot of all men and women, but if people remain within the possibilities of their lives they can bear life with dignity, pride, and style. This is the tone maintained throughout the Fifty Days at Iliam. It is a tone that matured through the many years of Twombly’s absorption in classical cultures which we call “humanist,” meaning a way of life centered on human interests and values. There is an absence of bombast, of inflated visual rhetoric. The scale of each Twombly work can be measured within ordinary human dimensions and relates to the size and presence of any person viewing it. It was heroic to assay the appropriate monumentality of the Iliam series, but even here we can identify our own ideals of grandeur. “The fire that consumes all before it” is Twombly’s intimation of a possible nuclear disaster which may befall the entire world in the near future. It is a warning, and an outcry of grief should such a holocaust occur, exterminating forever all that is human—everything Twombly loves.

“It has become harder and harder for me to do new work,” the artist has said recently. Picasso once compared himself to a picture that had been emptied; perhaps Twombly feels likewise, and is waiting for it to fill up again. But then we remember his wistful Aristaeus Mourning the Loss of Bees, 1973, and we say, don’t worry; you are one of the “bees of the invisible.” We shall not lose you.

John Bernard Myers is a frequent contributor to Artforum and the editor of Parenthese Signatures.