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Cy Twombly ’53: Mixing Images and Words

Twombly-book-248x350 Cy Twombly '53: Mixing Images and Words“Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint” by Mary Jacobus

When Cy Twombly was a student at Washington and Lee University, one of his instructors wrote a letter of recommendation for the young man for a grant from the Virginia Museum of Art. He said, “I feel that he will develop into a poet in paint… and that it will be a strong poetry as he is not easily changed from his purposes.”

How right that instructor was.

A new book by Mary Jacobus, “Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint” (Princeton University Press) is the first book to examine the artist’s use of poetry in his work.

Cy often incorporated passages and themes from Sappho, Homer, Virgil, Keats, Cavafy and others. As a book review on the Hyperallergic website noted, “The verses often unwind spool-like in the painter’s dancerly script, and raise a variety of questions regarding the verbal component of Twombly’s work — work that declares nothing beyond itself and its viscerally felt, fidgety elegance, but that nevertheless talks, recites, and references.”

The Princeton University Press website states: “Jacobus shows that poetry was an indispensable source of reference throughout Twombly’s career; as he said, he ‘never really separated painting and literature.’ Among much else, she explores the influence of Ezra Pound and Charles Olson; Twombly’s fondness for Greek pastoral poetry and Virgil’s Eclogues; the inspiration of the Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and Twombly’s love of Keats and his collaboration with Octavio Paz.”

So far, reviews of the book are positive, noting that the author’s unprecedented access to the artist’s notebooks and annotated sources allowed her to interpret Cy’s work in new ways.

However, the only reader review on Amazon gives the book two stars. “Too high brow,” he wrote. “Mr. Twombly was a humble Virginian who also loved the Mediterranean and its rich history. To read too much into his references is to ignore the romance and nuance of his work. He’d be perplexed by such overthought analysis.”

That’s art for you.