Twombly's 'Fifty Days,' An Epic At Art Museum

Posted: November 30, 1989

Cy Twombly, a Virginia native who has lived in Rome since 1957, has long been interested in classical literature. Over the last 35 years or so, he also has developed a novel extrapolation of abstract expressionism, an approach that is considerably different from that of his contemporaries Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

Twombly has extended abstract-expressionist gesture to include actual and simulated language - that is, marks that resemble script but transmit no

cognitive meaning. His reliance on the emotive potential of writing and mark- making as a component of painting has made his chromatically subdued canvases not only distinctive but often abstruse.

Initially at least, Twombly's pictures are more accessible on a visceral level than on an intellectual one. The scrawls, smudges and primitive lettering that characterize them exert an atavistic appeal, as if they were linked not only to the human maturation process we all go through but to human prehistory as well.

These two aspects of Twombly's art have never been more forcefully or beautifully expressed, nor have they ever complemented each other so well, as in a suite of 10 canvases called Fifty Days at Iliam, which has been installed in the 20th-century wing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for an indefinite period. Twombly prefers to consider Fifty Days at Iliam as a single painting in 10 parts.

The suite is based on events in Homer's epic The Iliad. The dramatis personae are Achaean (Greek) and Ilian (Trojan) heroes such as Achilles, Patroclus and Hector; Helen of Troy and Paris, who abducted her; Agamemnon and Priam, the kings of the warring nations, and the Greek gods.

Although Twombly completed the suite in 1978, it has been exhibited only once before, that year at the former Heiner Friedrich gallery in New York. And that one time the suite wasn't installed as Twombly intended - as a panorama in an enclosed room - but in a straight line.

Fifty Days at Iliam was lent anonymously to the Art Museum as a result of conversations between Twombly and Mark Rosenthal, former curator of 20th- century art, who is organizing a major retrospective of the artist's work

tentatively scheduled to open at the Art Museum in 1992. Last summer, the museum converted several small galleries at the end of the 20th-century wing into a single large room to accommodate the suite. Actually only nine paintings are hung in that gallery; the first painting in the suite, together with three large drawings Twombly made after the paintings were finished, are hung in a small anteroom.

It's clear from the installation at the Art Museum that the circular pattern emphasizes the literary and visual juxtapositions that Twombly had in mind when he designed the sequence. A picture representing the three principals in the epic, one of three large horizontal canvases among the 10, occupies a wall opposite the entrance, at the mid-point of the sequence. The other two large pictures, Achaeans in Battle and Ilians in Battle, face each other from central positions on the side walls.

The most visually intense picture, The Fire That Consumes All Before It, depicted as a fierce red shape, counterpoints the more tranquil Shades of Eternal Night, a gentle gray form diametrically opposed to it. Heroes of the Achaeans and Heroes of the Ilians, pictures composed almost entirely of names, flank the entrance doorway as pendants.

The other principal opposition is chromatic; the paintings representing the Achaeans, on the left side of the gallery, are dominated by red and black, while those for the Ilians, on the right side, are basically blue and gray. The central "heroes" picture, Achilles, Patroclus and Hector, ranges from the red of the Achilles symbol on the left to the gray of Hector on the right.

Fifty Days at Iliam, executed in oil, oil stick and pencil, is entirely symbolic. Except for the writing and printing and a recurring shape that could be interpreted as a phallus or a dagger, the forms are suggestively abstract.

The "shield" of Achilles, for instance, is a roughly circular blob, but so actively gestural that it communicates energy and passion rather than just amorphousness. And typical of Twombly, there is considerable rubbing, smudging and tremulousness in the marks.

There is palpable drama here, and a kind of magic. Twombly, working totally outside of figuration, with a limited palette and employing fragmentary literary allusions, has managed to simulate the epic mood of the poem. He builds his version not on traditional narrative but on the evocation of characters, which he does simply by using their names, printed with Greek letters, as symbols.

Even without referring to Homer, one can intuit the epic scope of a human struggle and the denouement of the tragedy through the emotional rhythms of the sequence, which peak at mid-point and gradually attenuate, like a receding tide.

Fifty Days at Iliam is a theatrical but contemplative statement that must be absorbed gradually rather than impetuously. The symmetry of the installation is subtle, but true to the dramatic flow of the action, which even in strictly visual terms can be seen to move clockwise around the room.

One can't imagine that Fifty Days at Iliam could ever look more impressive than it does in this space, which is perfectly suited to it. The installation will remain up at least until next fall, with the possibility that the loan could be extended.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: $5, $2.50 for students, senior citizens and children between 5 and 18. Free Sundays until 1 p.m. Telephone: 787-5431.

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