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Cy Twombly, Academy, 1955, oil-based house paint, lead pencil, colored pencil, and crayon on canvas, 75 1/4 x 94 7/8".

THE TITLE IS A FALSE LEAD. Academy alludes to a tradition, a school, a set of accepted practices. Yet it is attached to a painting that writes itself out of art school and finds instead a territory unoccupied by official precepts or proscriptions.

The school, in 1955, was Abstract Expressionism, whose pioneers had by then found fame and whose dominance of the New York art scene was uncontested. Jackson Pollock was still alive and, if a bit undone, still capable of making paintings of profound dignity. Willem de Kooning was the newly heralded leader, and his approach allowed ample room for protégés. But as the ranks of adherents swelled, the originality quotient diminished. Ad Reinhardt was already bemoaning the inevitable stylization that overtakes any breakthrough.

If you’re on a sinking ship, you have to throw certain things overboard. If you’re a painter, that could be paint.

Cy Twombly covered the canvas that would become Academy with a fine layer of primer and then a thin coat of white house paint. The house paint—cans of which Twombly might well have had on hand from painting his studio—had a fluid consistency that allowed it to cover the canvas lightly and efficiently. Then, rather than opening tubes of oil paint, Twombly turned to the pencils and crayons with which he had been making scrawly drawings. De Kooning’s swaths of beloved oil, Rothko’s respiring chroma, Pollock’s poured arabesques—all were renounced, as if too rich for Twombly’s blood. His mediums were as far from those meant to create a six-by-eight-foot painting as his drop-cloth support was from a fine linen canvas. Twombly used his pencils to articulate a vast field of writing that takes form in such a way that the painting feels as if it is becoming itself as you stand by. Some of the writing is rhythmically patterned, some unrelentingly awkward. Tacked to the artist’s studio wall on William Street in downtown Manhattan, the canvas was a field for mark-making that shouted and whispered, surged and slowed, swirled and skittered. The approach harked back to the automatism of the Surrealists, via the legacy of Arshile Gorky, but now it had traded biomorphic elegance for a seemingly untutored rawness.

Twombly went into the drawing with more white paint, its creamy opacity deepening with the additional layers. As wet paint blurred into the black pencil, the mixture assumed a tone that almost reads as blue. The center of the painting acquired a remarkable depth, utterly immune to reproduction. But Twombly knew, too, when to wait for a layer of white paint to dry, in order to accommodate a new layer of drawing that would not interfere with the paint. Throughout the work, one spies through the uppermost layers of white the vestiges of lines covered over, visible testimony to the painting’s past, like the pentimenti intrinsic to Matisse’s Dance.

Academy is also filled with cross-outs by pencil, of pencil, once-clear passages now obscured by unrelated overdrawing. De Kooning had transformed conspicuous self-cancellation into a primary building block of painting. Two years before Twombly painted Academy, his friend Robert Rauschenberg had asked de Kooning to give him a drawing to erase; a seeming act of Oedipal destruction served equally as a salute to de Kooning’s own great contribution to the art history of erasure. For Twombly, too, the processes of making and unmaking went hand in hand.

Myriad other things happen to Academy’s surface. Twombly ran his fingers through the paint to make small channels and in several places used a stick or brush handle to etch fine lines. He used some oil paint much like chewed gum, to form little gobs atop the canvas, which were ultimately covered with house paint to integrate them into the whole surface. The white background fades out toward the edges of the canvas, as if the painter didn’t need to trouble to be thorough. In fact, he could not trouble to be thorough: He was making a modern painting in the tradition of late Cézanne, and one of that tradition’s core beliefs was the necessity of the non finito.

What about the writing? At some points, it is recognizable: One makes out a letter or two here and there and then watches them deteriorate—or, perhaps better, graduate—into an illegible scrawl. It is as if one is looking at a textbook’s evolution diagram in reverse, as the sophisticated phonetics of modern language reverts to guttural sounds. This is interrupted by a few moments of legibility, in a number of block-print FUCKS that embed themselves as auditory jolts within the composition. Fuck is a word often employed to deface a surface not meant to be written on, like a bathroom or alleyway wall. (Early in its history, a vandal wrote FUCK YOU on Rauschenberg’s contemporaneous Combine painting Rebus, which, as it happens, includes among its many elements a drawing by Twombly.) By incorporating the four-letter word into Academy, Twombly usefully imports the manners of urban graffiti into his painting. “Graphic language,” one euphemistically calls obscenities.

Cy Twombly in his studio on William Street, New York, 1956.

Twombly became himself as Academy did. The painting announces the approach that would govern his next half century of work and transforms into bold independence the allusions to contemporary vocabularies still evident in earlier paintings. It was the largest of a group of several canvases that Twombly worked on together during the course of 1955 and that were shown in January 1956 at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery on West Fifty-Eighth Street. For Twombly’s first show there, in 1953, the gallery had displayed his work in tandem with Rauschenberg’s. This exhibition paired him with Joseph Cornell, whose boxes were shown in the gallery’s back room. The paintings’ titles came from a list of possibilities invented for this occasion with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Academy joined words like criticism and geeks, which shared its school-like echoes, all apparently ironic terms vis-à-vis the paintings’ evident iconoclasms.

The real irony, of course, is that Twombly has turned out to be the major contemporary artist who let his work celebrate the glories of Western civilization. Twombly opened new art to antiquity and to the riches of classical European literature, history, art, and philosophy at a time when these were considered dead ends and unsuitable for further use. To declare the academy anathema was part and parcel of the myth of the avant-garde. For nearly six decades it has been Twombly’s project to puncture that myth and openly recruit centuries of tradition to the cause of radical painting.

Ann Temkin is Chief Curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.