New York

Cy Twombly

Gagosian Gallery

CY TWOMBLY'S Coronation of Sesostris, 2000, looks like ten paintings—a suite, perhaps, like The Four Seasons, 1993-94, which formed the coda to the artist's MoMA retrospective seven years ago—but he calls it a painting in ten parts. And aptly so: Each panel might not hold up as an individual, self-contained work, but the whole succeeds brilliantly, its throwaway eloquence burning as brightly in the breaks between canvases as in the constituent parts themselves. It may not be entirely accidental, though, that the widths of the ten panels add up to not much more than the fifty-two feet of An Untitled Painting, 1994, the last monumentally scaled work Twombly showed in New York. That huge, scroll-like painting (on three abutted canvases) felt strangely unbalanced, as though the artist, having refused to give in to any conventional sense of composition, had found no other means to sustain the viewer's attention (or his own) across its entirety.

The ambition to work on an architectural scale is not necessarily something one might have suspected of Twombly earlier in his career. The fitful, scattered composition that has long been his signature has never lent itself to the stentorian delivery of the mural—his citations of Roman antiquity abjure the rhetoric of the exemplary to present themselves as the private musings of a learned amateur—nor even to anything like the sublime ungraspability of the pictorial field in Barnett Newman's biggest paintings.

The ten parts of Coronation of Sesostris take the form of a sequence of flares, each blazing against the fading afterimage of the last. Their subject is the ceremony for an Egyptian described by Herodotus—hence, by the time it reaches us in this painting, the story is an echo of an echo, a translation of a translation, and even has a questionable basis in reality since, as avid Shapiro points out in his impassioned catalogue essay, “there may never have been a Sesostris at all, just a collage of a variety of kingly doings in the XIIth Dynasty.” The imagery includes a bristling sun (an unusually direct citation of children's art), a churned-up gondola-like boat, and, of course, words. But the content is primarily a slow modulation of resplendently Turneresque color, starting with the red scrawls threading in and out of white surrounds dense with layerings and erasures in the first canvases, then heating up with the admixture of a solar yellow in parts 3 through 5 and 7. The tonalities smolder down into the purple and black that emerge in 7 and 8 so that (except for a few random swabs of red in 9) the last two canvases have the purely graphic and summary quality of black marks on an uninflected white page. Here “coronation” seems a grand metaphor for death: a funerary barge set aflame at sea. Or maybe it's just vision itself catching fire under scorching sunlight. In the end, writing—as in the final, fallen-off scrawling of the word “Eros”—becomes the cool shade under which these flames may be preserved.

Barry Schwabsky