Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, the austere and enigmatic expatriate painter who recently had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, hates watching his paintings leave the house. He imagines the movers in Rome, where he lives, crossing the street with a canvas and someone on a motor scooter driving through it, like a stunt in a circus. Twombly lives on a narrow street, in a palazzo that was built in the 17th century. On the morning the summer before last that a number of paintings departed for the Modern all the shutters in the house were closed against the heat. While the movers wrapped the pictures in plastic and placed them in carrying frames, Twombly walked from one high-ceilinged room to another. Occasionally, he dabbed a handkerchief at his forehead and the back of his neck.

Twombly is 70. He is tall and long-limbed and loose-jointed. He walks with small steps, and his stately progress gives an impression of thought and abstraction. Pacing the hallways of the palazzo in the blue-gray light he looked ghostly. Or, with the gravity of his movements, like a cardinal in his chambers. It took perhaps half an hour to wrap each painting and settle it into its frame. Some of the paintings had been turned to the wall for years, ever since they last returned from shows.

While Twombly examined a folder of reproductions of the works he was sending to the museum, his son Allesandro and his assistant Nicola discussed how to turn the last painting. Nicola stood on one side of the frame, and Allesandro stood on the other. Twombly had his back to them; he had laid the folder of reproductions on a sculpture stand. Nicola said, “Here comes another painting, Cy.” Twombly was leafing through the pages. All he said was, “Do it.” Saying, “Ready…OK…now,” Nicola and Allesandro began lifting the frame. They had turned it perhaps a quarter of the distance it had to travel when it began tilting toward the floor. Nicola drew his breath in sharply, and Twombly wheeled around. Nicola said, “It’s all right, it’s all right,” and he and Allesandro quickly steadied the frame. Twombly stood watching them then. As the surface of the canvas finally came into view, he smiled and said quietly, “Now, there’s a painting.”

In New York, at the museum, several months later, people stood in front of the painting-it is called “Olympia”-and said:

“Clive wanted to introduce me to someone-he was very sweet about it-and said it was a great friend, college roommate or something, I don’t know, and I had to say, but Clive, I went out with his older brother!”

“This makes me think of aliens.”

“I’m not supposed to be doing this. The doctor said so-no stimulation, you know-but I can’t sit in my room all the time.”

“This I could live with. Not the other one, the gray one. The gray one made me anxious.”

“It’s so, so…”

“This means a lot to me. I had a postcard of this for years on my desk.”

“How are you supposed to look at this? I mean, where is the focus?”

“How does he know when it’s finished?”

“It’s about nothingness.”

“It’s about what’s inside the heart.”

“This sort of makes slight fun of art in a way, right? It says, ‘Don’t take art too seriously’?”

“I don’t take them to drive. Oh my God, no, I take them to make me feel better.”

“Jackson Pollock, right?”

“Pollock poured paint.”

“Well, it looks like he poured some paint over here.”

“It’s not supposed to make sense, right?”

“It’s about urban decay, is it not?”

“Isn’t the ideal of art to help us to learn? This is frustrating to me. It’s supposed to be about communication, and he’s not communicating.”

A thin young man, wearing a red shirt and black jeans and carrying a pack over his shoulder, stood in front of the painting. He took a small notebook from his pocket. He wrote: “Olympia. 1957. Has a myth as subject, or object, whatever. Dynamic Greek goddess. Lots of heart in it. It gives me a feeling of glory and worship.”

About the Author

Alec Wilkinson

Alec Wilkinson is the author of ten books, including “Big Sugar” and “A Violent Act”. Since 1980, he has been a writer on the staff of the New Yorker.

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