“In six minutes five lusty images gave me my first glob of gooie in my virgin panties. I was doing all my thinking between my legs.” So wrote Patti Smith on hearing the Rolling Stones. “Stones music,” she concluded, “is screwing music.” Along the same lines, the canvases Cy Twombly produced from 1958 to 1963 could be called screwing paintings.
Among the most abstractly yet explicitly erotic paintings of the 20th century, these visceral canvases-in-rut come on with a voluptuous rush. Profligate, chaotic, and voracious, full of peacocky opulence and Fellini-esque turpitude, they are two-dimensional equivalents to what Emerson dubbed Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yelp.” Twombly’s yelp came in his early thirties, amid a blossoming companionship with Robert Rauschenberg, travels to Europe and North Africa, and his marriage, the birth of his son, and a move to Rome. His paintings from this period teem with tantalizing, stylized pudenda, scrotums, cocks, and cunts that rise in orgiastic pandemonium, erupt in ecstatic blasts, scatter like schools of fish, or float in aphrodisiacal seas. Streaks and stains, intimations of violence and bodily secretions spot surfaces; titles, scrawled in pencil, conjure myth and antiquity. One painting, Leda and the Swan, features a winged vagina dripping liquid into an abstract anus. So animalistic are these paintings that it’s hard to remember they’re not sheets after lovemaking.
Subsequently, Twombly’s passion turned stagy and gleeless, his growth, sporadic. Always on the move, living mostly in Europe, Twombly became a kind of living legend. After a series of blackboard-like paintings done in the late ’60s and early ’70s—and except for occasional bursts of energy—since the mid 1970s, Twombly’s art has felt either apathetic, out-of-sync, overly refined, or overwrought. Adding to that impression—and I called around to verify this—he hasn’t had an exhibition of new paintings in a New York gallery in almost 30 years.
His latest effort, Coronation of Sesostris, the intermittently exquisite, 10-part Homeric narrative now lining three of Gagosian’s uptown walls, is the most specific, focused, and challenging painting Twombly’s made in years. It may still look old-fashioned to some, with its overblown emphasis on brushstrokes, weighty subject matter, and epic format. But here, Twombly’s risen to new levels of old-fashionedness, and everything works. These medium-sized canvases are magnificently colored, flirt with ethereal degrees of unfinishedness, and are at once luxurious and rotting, full of life and funereal. Coronation of Sesostris echoes some of the erotic tenor and violence of the early work, though in the mournful minor keys of yearning and homesickness. Bursts of scarlet that once read as hands thrown up in rapture, or bloodstains, now feel like flowers or heartbeats; convulsive, surging rhythm has turned beautifully, excruciatingly protracted; love, loss, melancholy, and memory have taken the place of real sex.
Overall, Coronation of Sesostris is majestic, though individual paintings can be uneven. Reading from left to right, and apropos a story picked up in midstream or old age, the cycle commences with a clang: a rudimentary red sun on a white ground. The sun’s already full, as if it had been here for some time, as if the teller of this tale had been daydreaming or startled. Because of this, and the fact that there’s no land, you assume you’re looking west, over water, in the afternoon. Whenever it is, it’s a brilliant beginning—a fully formed chord trumpeting through torpor.
In the second painting, Twombly’s imagination takes over and the story begins: The sun is lowered to the bottom of the picture and placed atop a wagon or chariot; the inscription “Solar Barge of Sesostris” is scribbled overhead. (Roland Barthes claimed Twombly’s handwriting evoked “English colleges, Latin verses, desks, notations in finely written pencil.”) The title and some imagery and phrasing spring from a series of works he began in February 1974, while staying with Rauschenberg on Captiva Island (good things seem to come out of Twombly whenever he has contact with Rauschenberg). Sesostris is the name of three 12th-dynasty Egyptian pharaohs, but the exoticness of the word summons something ageless, if a little ponderous.
The third painting depicts a full-fledged hallucination. “Eros weaver of Myth/Eros Sweet and Bitter/Eros Bringer of Pain” is written above the sun, which has exploded into a dazzling red-yellow ball. Here, the old rush comes back, only isolated, more contained. Then something goes wrong. In the fourth canvas, the sun returns to normal, the words and chariot all but disappear, color fades, the mirage begins to vanish. Twombly has painted that terrible moment when you think too much, wish too hard, and make a flight of fancy take flight.
From here on out, Twombly goes for it. In the fifth painting, one of the best in the cycle, the vision returns as a fabulous barge comes into view. Part chrysanthemum, part thistle—a descendant of his early vaginas and phalluses—this nebulous vessel is drenched in blush-rose reds, violets, and yellow. The sight of oars being lifted from or dipped into the white ground is blissful. The next canvas pulls back, and, like a Greek chorus, delivers an ardent oration. Surrounded by a crimson shower, a 14-line poem speaks of regret, loving, leaving, and being left. Overwrought or not, it’s pretty poignant.
In the next two paintings, Twombly attains visual heights he hasn’t for years. First, the barge reappears in a gorgeous bonfire of honey-saffron yellow, surrounded by traces of other boats; in the next canvas, the mirage reaches full strength as a shadow armada comes into view and the sun pours in from above. In the penultimate work, the chimera turns emblematic: The barge becomes a simple line drawing and the words “Leaving Paphos ringed with waves” appear. This is the end of this phase of the vision, the last time it will manifest in pictorial form. In the last painting, the vibration solidifies: The Eros inscription returns, and everything crystallizes into an implacable black shape—an abstraction of all these experiences, expectations, dreams, and loves lost.
At 72, Twombly is less like the fecund Whitman than the reflective Emily Dickinson. She never left home; he never stopped roaming. Both are hypersensitive emotional mechanisms—human seismographs. Both are motivated by the incredible transporting power of the written word, uncontrollable feelings, and the desire to map the interior landscape of the soul. After years of seeming aloof, Twombly’s finding ways to make it matter again.