New York

Cy Twombly

Heiner Friedrich Gallery

A lot of art seeks validation by its affiliation with a preexisting text (or preexisting artwork or arithmetical system), and while there are many exciting elements to Cy Twombly’s 50 Days at Ilium, of no interest are the aspects that are getting most of the attention: that the ten drawn panels constitute one painting, that the painting is based on Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad.

My operating definitions of painting and drawing are obviously at variance with Twombly’s. Drawings are generally executed with some styluslike implement, usually on paper, and typically are involved with line and form without getting into further complexities like color and figure/ground relations. Paintings are generally executed with brushes, usually on canvas, and typically are involved with the whole me-gilla: drawing, color and figure/ground relations. Clearly the stigma attached to being only a draughtsman is the result of a foolish hierarchical conceit: the assumption that painting is a higher art than drawing because it’s more complex, thus diminishing the achievement of the draughtsman to secondary status. After ten dedicated years of art and artists savaging definitions and hierarchies, this assumption is not compelling. Twombly’s media are oilstick, crayon and pencil on canvas, and he may call 50 Days at Ilium one painting, but I call it ten sequential drawings. Epic drawings for an epic poem, and not in the least secondary to any mentionable painting activity.

Now, about its basis in the Alexander Pope translation of the Iliad: huh? Inspired by, perhaps. Influenced by, possibly. But based on? And why Pope’s translation? If I correctly recall my flirtation with English literature, Pope’s translation wasn’t particularly well received, being iambic couplets of Homer’s dactylic hexameter rhythms. I read Lattimore’s translation. You read it in the original Greek. To focus on the silly claims made for the work is to create a red herring. The real issue is the work.

Say you walk into the gallery where 50 Days at Ilium hangs. What you see are nine panels on the wall to your right and one panel on the wall opposite the entrance. The nine panels are of varying sizes, but there is a centerpiece which is, roughly, the largest of all. Each panel to the left of the centerpiece has a counterpart in size and scale on the other side. The arrangement of the pan-els implies some parallelism. Sure enough, upon reading the names drawn on the panels, those to the left of the centerpiece deal with Greek heroes and those to the right with Trojan heroes, while the centerpiece bears the name and seeming shields of the three most notable: Achilles, Patroclus and Hector. Two Greeks and a Trojan. Most likely you’re an educated person and have figured out the narrative involved is that of the Iliad, which, apart from the Pentateuch, is the oldest in Western history. And what does this have to do with these mammoth drawings?

Perhaps Twombly feels he needs an epic to guarantee the stature of his drawings, a heroic story to secure the work’s position as heroic art. If this is the case, it’s utterly disingenuous because the work’s so obviously assured. To employ narrative, to make work with content, is definitely à la mode, but this Iliad business reeks of Twombly’s politic calculation, particularly in view of the passion and spontaneity the drawings exude. The installation is dazzling, the shapes depicted mysterious and allusive, the scale of the work commanding. As for the drawing’s relationship to the Iliad, perhaps Pope’s Homer provided the catalyst for Twombly, but there’s no relationship to the text. There are intimations of story here, but no narrative except for some specious connections with the names of Homer’s characters. Narratives are organic with the work; this would-be narrative is appended to the work, the text’s just pretext.

Carrie Rickey