Cy Twombly in Los Angeles: Cheeky, challenging, classical

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Cy Twombly in Los Angeles: Cheeky, challenging, classical
Il Parnasso, 1964, Cy Twombly. Oil paint, wax crayon, graphite, and colored pencil on canvas. Collection of Ann and Graham Gund, Cambridge. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Photograph: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

by Walker Mimms

NEW YORK, NY.- Has anyone noticed that Cy Twombly is funny?

Like his critics, he acted so self-serious: “What I am trying to establish is that Modern Art is not dislocated, but something with roots, tradition and continuity,” he wrote in his 1952 fellowship application to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Well, the centerpiece of “Cy Twombly: Making Past Present” at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a cheeky and challenging exploration of his lifelong obsession with art and poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, is a hurricane of penises. Stare long enough at “Leda and the Swan” (1962), and from its vortex of abstract spokes and squelches you’ll notice a cartoon phallus leaping forth in lipstick-red. There goes another in sour cream. Another in graphite.

Leonardo, Michelangelo and Cézanne all tried the subject: Disguised as an elegant bird, Zeus rapes Leda, who births Helen, who provokes the Trojan War. Only Twombly’s smeary explosion captures the horrible domino effect of ego and libido.

Like graffiti in Pompeii, these 38 paintings (and some sculptures, displayed alongside antiquities from his personal collection for the first time) are half prank, half genuine insight into the bafflements of ancient culture. Vulvas in reflective paint, SAPPHO’s and PLATO’s scrawled as if on toilet stalls, and a fabulous trompe-l’oeil chalkboard, “Synopsis of a Battle”(1968), about Alexander the Great, and given the year, probably Vietnam.

Never “interpret” abstraction, Clement Greenberg warned. Bollocks, Twombly says. Across town, Gagosian Beverly Hills displays more strictly abstract work from his final decade. (He died in 2011.) His extreme color contrasts and sensuous, vaguely menacing paint handling are the Twombly we know. It’s hard not to absorb Gagosian’s impeccably hung canvases crammed with goopy, Hostess curlicues, without obsessing a little over Twombly’s brushsteps.

But words suit him. At the Getty, two loud, tall canvases in teal and safety-orange carry the same title up top in fluorescent yellow scribble, a wistful line from the seventh-century-B.C. Spartan poet Alcman: “Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves” (2009). In their neon frankness, we see a tiny fragment of verse enthralling the subconscious, which is what fragments do best.

In the gallery, a young woman sat reading Seneca and pointed me to a passage: “Think how often towns in Asia or in Greece have fallen at a single earth tremor, how many villages in Syria or Macedonia have been engulfed, how often this form of disaster has wrought devastation in Cyprus, how often Paphos has tumbled about itself!”

Tradition and continuity.

‘Cy Twombly: Making Past Present’

Through Oct. 30, The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, (310) 440-7300;

‘Cy Twombly’

Through Dec. 17, Gagosian Beverly Hills, 56 N. Camden Drive, Los Angeles, (310) 271 9400;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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