Dean Rader

I do not remember the first Cy Twombly painting I saw, but I think it might have been this:

​​​​​Cy Twombly, Orpheus, 1979 (Courtesy of Emanual Hoffmann Foundation, on permanent load to the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel; photo: Kunstsammlung Basel, Martin P. Bühler)
© Cy Twombly Foundation.

I was in graduate school. It was the ’90s. I was more than casually obsessed with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. I had even tried translating one of the Orpheus sonnets. It was a terrible translation, but I was hooked on Rilke. Around that same time, I was reading a great deal of critical theory and found Roland Barthes utterly beguiling. Somehow, I came across Barthes’ great essay from 1979, “The Wisdom of Art,” in which he mentions one of Cy Twombly’s Orpheus pieces. I was immediately intrigued, and when I stumbled on the passage “Twombly’s art is an incessant victory over the stupidity of strokes,” I was smitten. Both with Barthes and by association with Twombly. Sometimes, I imagine Twombly reading that line. 

Almost nothing makes me happier.

Later, I tracked down a German edition of Die Sonette an Orpheus in hopes of locating the poem Twombly quotes in the piece above. I found the volume, but I realized right away the more difficult task would be deciphering Twombly’s handwriting. Had someone pulled that eager young poet/translator aside and told him that roughly thirty years in the future he would spend hundreds of hours and most of a pandemic locked indoors and engaged in the maddening and yet obsessive project of transcribing Twombly’s transcriptions, he would be stunned. In fact, he might have rethought his decision not to take the LSAT.

What I do recall about this piece is two things. One, I thought it was so cool that Twombly went all in on foreign language: Greek for Orpheus and German for Rilke. But the second thing was: why would an American painter make a painting with no images, only words? Isn’t the point of painting to transcend language? To create a universal visual field that anyone can see and potentially decode? One thing artists have over writers is the absence of the roadblock of language. I don’t speak Russian, but I love Kandinsky and Malevich. My French is awful, but wow, Manet! There is also the added complication that has plagued/seduced viewers for decades, and that is the simple truth that it is really hard to read Twombly’s handwriting. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha do not have this issue. Their text is oh so legible. Their textual work foregrounds legibility, while Twombly almost advertises illegibility. At the time, I thought Twombly was giving away the farm. The Orpheus “painting” required me to do the one thing I turned to art to avoid—scrutinize.

The passage from Rilke that Twombly samples is the opening quatrain from the 23rd poem of the first book of Die Sonnete an Orpheus:

O erst dann, wenn der Flug

nicht mehr um seinetwillen

wird in die Himmelsstillen

steigen, sich selber genug,

The lines are grammatically obtuse even in German. I would translate them as

O only then, when flight

Always get the last word.

Updates and special offers straight to your inbox.

Keep up with the latest from ZYZZYVA by subscribing to our newsletter.

By subscribing, you agree to our Terms of Use and acknowledge that your information will be used as described in our Privacy Notice.

will no longer rise

into the stillness of the sky,

for its own sake, sufficient in itself,

It is not obvious to me what this passage has to with Orpheus, Eurydice, the underworld, poetry, or art. I’m still not sure what it meant to Twombly. There are far better passages elsewhere in Rilke’s Orpheus sonnets. And yet, here it is. It is as though Twombly wants his painting to be free of linguistic freedom. He wants the inscrutability of poetry to animate his painting. He wants us to puzzle at this painting the way we might puzzle at Rilke’s poem. In short, Twombly wants to be inscrutable.

To me, the power of Twombly’s work, its enigmatic magnetism, lies deeply in this sense of inscrutability. By this I mean his work can be difficult to decode in an interpretive sense but also in the literal sense. I think this is intentional. In the painting above, for example, is the first word “oust,” French for “west?” Is it “O enst?” “O erst?” And how many viewers will know Opøeús is Greek or Orpheus? It is a shockingly simple painting; and yet a shockingly elusive one.

Thierry Greub, a Swiss art historian, has spent the last ten years addressing these issues of legibility. His epic six-volume Cy Twombly: Inscriptions, published earlier this year, catalogues, transcribes, and documents every instance of text in Twombly’s work from 1953 to 2011. When I write “every instance of text,” I mean it, whether it is a quote from Keats, some lines from Sappho, names of soldiers in the Battle of Troy, passages in Spanish by Lorca, excerpts from Rilke’s Duino Elegies and even seemingly random numbers and equations. According to Greub, out of the 3,086 works in Twombly’s Catalogues Raisonnés, 901 contain literary inscriptions by at least 113 different authors ranging from 3,000 BCE to 2000 AD. 

To transcribe all 901, Greub had to first track down the original sources to make sure he had the correct source text. Then he has to decode Twombly’s intensely obtuse penmanship. Sometimes, what Twombly writes strays from the original. And then, in the case of a translation, like Sappho or Rilke or Lorca, Greub hadto locate the correct translation. The research is painstaking and covers Twombly’s entire career. Also, captivating is the archival research Greub was able to do with the help of the Cy Twombly Foundation and the Twombly family. The book features photographs of highlighted pages from Twombly’s favorite books, including a marked page from Robert Bly’s translation of Rilke’s “Moving Forward” that contains the line, “It seems that things are more like me now, / that I can see farther into paintings.” The painter, moved by the poet, moved by paintings. And now this poet is writing about this scholar who is writing about an artist who included in his art the writings of poets. 

The cycle continues.

Greub’s books stand as a masterful example of detective and scholarly work, the likes of which I have never encountered before. His project of transcriptions may be the single most important scholarly work on Twombly, arguably America’s most scholarly artist.

Cy Twombly, Synopsis of a Battle (Primary Title), 1968. Collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Sydney and Frances Lewis, 85.451. © Cy Twombly Foundation.

Synopsis of a Battle, a stunning “chalkboard painting” from 1968, is locked in a head-to-head battle for my favorite Twombly. I use the word “painting,” but it looks more like a sketch or a diagram or a blueprint. How does one decipher all of the text(s) in this image? Can something be an “image” if, as in Orpheus above, it is primarily text? Can something be text if it is, at its core, inscrutable?

Inscrutable derives from the Latin word inscrūtābilis, which means “to search or examine thoroughly, to explore.” It shares a root with scrutiny, an evolution of scrutator, which is a person who investigates, one “whose office it is to examine or investigate closely, especially one who acts as an examiner of votes at an election, a scrutineer.” I love that word, scrutineer. I feel like the world needs more scrutineers. I do not believe that I am myself one, but I think Greub might be. 

His translation of Synopsis of a Battle bears this out. The painting asserts itself as a diagrammatic rendering of the Battle of Issus—a 336 BCE conflict in which Alexander the Great’s forces defeated a much larger army led by Darius of Persia. However, Twombly’s blueprint appears to bear little resemblance to the actual battle. In fact, his scribbles, slashes, and scrawls feel utterly chaotic. Almost nothing is legible. Here is where Greub is particularly helpful. According to him, “250,000 dead” is written in the top left corner, perhaps a commentary on the horrific casualties of war. The sliced off “Alexand” that Greub decodes on the right margin might support this view. He also discovers something I never noticed, the phrase “What wing can be held?” a passage from a poem by the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. In this context, wing likely refers to a wing of soldiers (flank dots the canvas three times). What is particularly interesting, is that this very phrase, What wind can be held shows up in six different Twombly pieces, including one that responds to Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps indicating a different use of wing. In my book, I render this painting as a diagram of God’s becoming, a battle to be. Again, wing in yet a different context. 

What is fascinating is how Greub’s decodings do not explain or clarify or paraphrase Twombly’s complicated canvases. He lets the chaos be chaotic; he merely unveils that which is linguistically hidden. He lets Twombly be Twombly.

Cy Twombly (1928-2011) is an artist whose place in the canon seems always in flux. On one hand, some of the greatest writers and thinkers of the Twentieth Century have praised his work, from Barthes to Octavio Paz to Robert Motherwell to Charles Olson to Dore Ashton to Frank O’Hara to Arthur Danto to Richard Howard. And on the other, his exhibits have been excoriated by important figures such as Donald Judd, whose nasty review 1964 review of a Twombly show damaged his gallery and exhibition chances for years. In 2005, the art critic Patricia Johnson penned a review of a Twombly show bearing the title, “Is Cy Twombly What’s Wrong with Modern Art?”

Twombly attended Black Mountain College with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg but is less well known and is generally considered to be the third wheel, or as Peter Schjeldahl described him, “the Other Guy from Black Mountain.” In fact, when MoMA mounted a career retrospective of Twombly’s work in 1994, Artforum ran competing essays (“Cy’s Up” & “Size Down”) by Schjeldahl and Rosalind Krauss as barometers of Twombly’s importance. This debate prompted Kirk Varnedoe to pen a now-famous defense, “Your Kid Could Not Do This, and Other Reflections on Cy Twombly.” 

And yet, a deep almost irrational devotion to Twombly endures. The actress Jennifer Lawrence recently named her son, Cy. John Waters claims Twombly is his hero. Joan Didion admired Twombly; in fact, her Twombly lithograph recently sold as part of her much written-about estate. But no adoration compares to that of a Frenchwoman who in the late ’90s visited the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection in Houston. According to witnesses, a museum guard found the woman standing in front of Twombly’s masterpiece Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) completely in awe and completely nude. Her note in the museum guestbook read, “The painting makes me want to run naked.” The guard, who, not surprisingly, still remembers the event, told the visitor, “I can admire your beauty, madam, but if you don’t put on your clothes, you’ll be more famous than Cy Twombly himself.” Of course, Twombly was thrilled by this. 

I will admit that as much as I love other artists, there is something about Twombly’s work that lives in the realm of the ecstatic. Indeed, it is hard to Twombly’s French admirer having a similar response to, say, Jasper Johns or Jackson Pollock. There is just something intoxicating about Twombly.

I know because I’ve spent the last three years of my life working on an entire book of poems in response to Twombly’s work. I’ve almost written nothing else. I have been completely consumed. Granted, I remained clothed during my time in front ofTwombly’s oeuvre, but I get the obsession.

Greub does too.

How else would you explain the level and kind of work required to do this?

I want to begin by praising the designer Andreas Langensiepen and the publisher, Fink, for doing a spectacular job producing this book. I don’t know if there are design and printing awards in Germany, but Inscriptions deserves to win them all. You can see that Greub (and the designers) are not content merely to translate what Twombly “writes.” They replicate the design and formatting of the writing by way of text, making the transcriptions visual documents as well. This reinforces decades of drawings and paintings in which Twombly makes text determine the visual grammar of his work. 

Each page also includes bibliographical information for the sources so that someone (like me) can go back and compare Twombly’s version with the original—in this case, Richard Lattimore’s translation of a poem by Anacreon, who, I confess, I had never heard of until I discovered Twombly’s Delian Odes

In order to fully decode Twombly’s writing from Delian Ode 55 (some of which has been scratched out), Greub had to piece together the source text. Then find the correct translation. Sometimes, to get a handle on what Twombly intended, he had to communicate with Twombly’s long-time partner, and the director of the Cy Twombly Foundation, Nicola Del Roscio. Other times, when dealing with translations of texts by say, Catullus, he would consult classics scholars. And speaking of translation, I should note that the original version of this book was written in German, though most of the source material Greub worked in is, of course, in English. Props also to Orla Mulholland who translated all six volumes into spectacular English.

Another detail I love about this book and Greub’s commitment to poetry is his willingness to print the entire poem that Twombly excerpts. A good example can be seen below. Twombly includes the opening stanza of a poem by the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz on the base of a sculpture. But in his notes, Greub provides the entire text, which feels like a gift.

Perhaps Greub’s most impressive transcription is this multi-textual, multi-author beauty Twombly completed a few years before he died. 

In this massive panel, Twombly has scrawled five haiku by five different Japanese poets, which, according to Greub, “are matched by round forms reminiscent of cotton blooms that float against the jade-colored background.” I find it utterly charming that Twombly gives each of the haiku their own flower, as if reminding us of the great paradox of haiku—and, in truth, all poetry—the poem blossoms not despite but because of its compression. 

Greub goes on to note that the “relations between the color figurations, inscriptions, and the jadeite-colored background of the picture dissolve in an atmosphere like that of a dreamer or a sleepwalker.” That description is both apt and beautiful. And it speaks to one of the ways Greub’s project not only contributes to art history and Twombly studies but also to literary studies. His interest in thinking (and seeing) through the ways in which the design and cadences of the poems created (and are not created by) the aura of the painting, is a celebration of poetry’s malleability. The poems are not captions or footnotes for Twombly. They are central. They provide perspective. They are perspective. Greub understands that the poems complete the incompleteness of the paintings.

While it is unlikely (m)any readers of this essay will go out and buy all six volumes of Cy Twombly Inscriptions, it is worth knowing about hybrid projects like this that marry the visual and the textual. A companion book to Inscriptions is a wonderful book from 2016 by Mary Jacobus called Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint. Jacobus, a skilled critic, applies a literary critical lens to the poetry Twombly samples. It proved useful to me when I was working on my own book, and I wonder now how much easier writing my book would have been had Greub’s tomes been in my study as well. These books are a testament to the ways in which old school scholarship continues to contribute to cultural production and the aesthetic sphere. Having spent hours, days, weeks, in literary archives, I know how laborious and time-consuming these projects can be. What I love about these books is the way in which Greub, the art historian, brings literary scholarship to the world of art history. We seem to be bombarded, on all sides, by essays chiming the death knell of poetry, but Greub’s decade of work reveals that what lies at the heart of one of America’s most important artists is not just the history of art, but the history and legacy and beauty of poetry. 

I often wonder how Twombly would feel about my book of poems devoted to his work. Would he like the poems? How would he respond to my responses to his art? Would he find my book a disservice to his artistic practice? 

I’ll never know.

But I have no doubt whatsoever how he would feel about Greub’s. He would adore this textual homage. He would see it for the work of poetry it truly is.


  1. This is an excellent essay. You might want to look at Sally Mann’s book about CT. She was his neighbor and friend till his death – “Remembered Light”
    Bravo on melding obsession and research with painting and poetry..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *