Reading Cy Twombly


Arts & Culture

These images, selected from my book Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, indicate the range and provocation of Cy Twombly’s works on canvas and paper, pointing especially to his inventive use of literary quotation and allusion throughout his long career and his relation to poetry as an inspiration for his art.



George Seferis, “Three Secret Poems,” in M. Byron Raizis, Greek Poetry Translations: Views, Texts, Reviews (Athens: Efstathiadis, 1983), 164–65; copy marked by Cy Twombly. Reproduced courtesy Alessandro Twombly. Photo: British School at Rome.

Twombly’s working copy of a paperback translation of Three Secret Poems, by the twentieth-century Greek poet George Seferis, shows his hands-on approach to quotation and revision as well as paint stains from his work in progress. A number of marked passages reappear in Twombly’s paintings of the mid-1990s, notably in Quattro Stagioni (1993–94) and Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor (finally completed in 1994).


Cy Twombly, Venus and Adonis, 1978, oil, crayon, pencil on paper, 28″ × 39 1⁄2″. Collection Stephen Mazoh, New York. © Cy Twombly Foundation.

One of a sequence of related drawings, Venus and Adonis (1978) wittily alludes to Shakespeare’s poem of the same title. Along with a series of cleft heart-shaped (buttock-shaped?) and phallic forms poised in suggestive proximity, each drawing contains a flower-like scribble and a foldout book. Perhaps Twombly is alluding to the “flowers” of poetry as well as to Venus’s rival, the boar who gores Adonis with his amorous tusk.


Cy Twombly, Il Parnasso, 1964, oil paint, wax crayon, lead pencil, colored pencil on canvas, 80 3⁄4″ × 85 7⁄8″. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Graham Gund. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Photo courtesy Gallery Heiner Bastian.

Il Parnasso (1964) riffs on Raphael’s Renaissance fresco in the papal Stanza della Segnatura. Twombly responds in his own fashion to the auratic cultural icons of Rome, drawing attention to the missing role of painting in the representation of learning and culture. The play of line replaces the playing of Apollo’s lyre at the apex of Raphael’s design. Signing himself in the shuttered rectangular window around which Raphael’s fresco arches, Twombly draws attention to the flat surface of the “wail” or support.


Cy Twombly, Poems to the Sea, XIX, 1959, oil-based house paint, pencil, wax crayon on paper, 12 3⁄4″ × 12 3∕16″ in. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Photo courtesy Gallery Heiner Bastian.

The early series of works on paper Poems to the Sea (1959) shows Twombly’s use of horizon line, wave signs, and quasi-writing, along with thick creamy paint, to eroticize the abstract play of repetition. In a series that makes reference to Sappho, Twombly also seems to be alluding to the typographical experiment of Mallarmé’s shipwreck poem, Un Coup de Dés, as a sequence of rhythmic marks and blanks. Non-referential signs tussle with the impulse to “read” and “write,” as if words and thoughts were about to be born from the waters of the Mediterranean.



Cy Twombly, Synopsis of a Battle, 1968, oil-based house paint, wax crayon on canvas, 68 × 81 3⁄4″. Anne and William J. Hokin Collection. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Photo courtesy Gallery Heiner Bastian.

Synopsis of a Battle (1968) takes Twombly’s blackboard paintings of the late 1960s in the direction of the era’s obsession with space travel, alluding to the blackboard calculations of NASA scientists as well as his own fascination with weightlessness. Abstruse mathematical formulas and recurrent fan shapes suggest orbiting gyrations, rather than battle formations. Cyanotype blueprints for gravity-defying Gemini and Apollo spacecraft were widely available at the time. Here, Twombly designs his own prototype.


Cy Twombly, Untitled [Mainomenos], Bacchus, 1st version IV, 2004, acrylic, wax crayon on wooden panel, 98 1⁄2″ × 74 3⁄4″. © Cy Twombly. Photo courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Twombly’s paired paintings, Bacchus Psilax and Bacchus Mainomenos (2004) show the winged Bacchus morphing into his identical twin, the raging mad god who unleashes a title of blood. Painted during the bloodiest years of the Iraq occupation, when the first and second Battles of Fallujah brought the heaviest urban fighting since the Vietnam War, the Bacchus series has been linked to the fury of Achilles’s twelve-day brutalization of Hector’s body, towed around the grave mount of Patroclus. Twombly’s work elsewhere refers to the destruction of Sumerian cultural heritage.


Cy Twombly, Hero and Leandro, Part II, 1981–84. oil-based house paint, oil paint (paint stick) on canvas, 61 3⁄8″ × 80 1⁄2″. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Photo courtesy Karsten Greve, St. Moritz.

The middle painting from Twombly’s sequence, Hero and Leandro (1981–84), suggests his interest in the whiteout—an obliteration that is also a kind of memory. As the sea washes through the story of Leandro’s drowning, the liquidity of water and paint eradicate the visible. Drawing on another Mediterranean narrative, Twombly combines his lifelong fascination with the sea with the erasure of a forgotten name, hidden in the darkness at lower right—not Leandro’s, but Hero’s.


Cy Twombly, Untitled (To Sappho), 1976, oil, wax crayon on drawing cardboard, 59″ × 53 1⁄4″. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Courtesy Archives Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio.

Twombly’s “homage” to Sappho in Untitled (To Sappho) (1976) creates an erotic visual poem out of Sappho’s fragmentary epithalamium, using purple (the mark of consummation and death) both to celebrate and to mourn Hyacinthus’s death and transformation into a flower. The juxtaposition of paint and poetry marks the conjunction of the pastoral strain and the pastoral “stain”—painting and sexuality. Twombly’s relation to pastoral suggests, not so much nostalgia as the modern artist’s inextricable entanglement with sociality.


Cy Twombly, Orpheus, 1975, collage: oil paint, color pencil, scotch tape on paper, 55 1⁄2″ × 39 3⁄8″. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Courtesy Archives Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio. Photo: Mimmo Capone

Twombly’s recurrent preoccupation with Rilke’s Orpheus sonnets emerges in numerous paintings, drawings, and sculptures. His collage Orpheus (1975) quotes from Rilke’s “Be in advance of all parting” (“be a ringing glass that shivers even as it rings”), beneath a repeated broken line that seems to record a break in the fabric of life. Here, an oblique line has its start in the faint pink of erotic passion. Spare and epitaphic, the broken ascent echoes Rilke’s emphasis on “the realm of decline” inhabited by the poet.


Cy Twombly, The Rose (Part V), 2008, acrylic on four wooden panels, 99 1⁄4″ × 291 3⁄8″. Gagosian Gallery. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Image courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Part five of Twombly’s late sequence, The Rose (2008), draws on Rilke’s sequence of French poems to address the riddle of the incommensurability of word and thing, word and image—the conundrum of poetry itself. Drawing on stanzas that Rilke himself omitted, Twombly explores the strange green of darkness and the alternation between seeing and not seeing: eyes wide shut, in the image of Rilke’s “Livre-mage,” the enchanted book that forms the subtext or the dream-text of Twombly’s multi-petal sequence.      

Mary Jacobus is professor emerita of English at the University of Cambridge and Cornell University, and an Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford. She has written widely on visual art, Romanticism, feminism, and psychoanalysis. Her recent books include The Poetics of Psychoanalysis and Romantic Things. She lives in Ithaca, New York, and Cambridge, UK.