Gods Are In The Details

Painter Cy Twombly -- who lives mostly in Italy--fingered the tubes of paint on the worktable of his temporary studio in Lexington, Va. "I get them from Wal-Mart," he said. "I love Wal-Mart. It's the cultural center of the South." Twombly, 66, wasn't being patronizing. He was born here, where his father was once athletic director at Washington & Lee University. Although he has three Italian residences (in Rome, Bassano and Gaeta), he's bought a house in Lexington. "The town is quite sophisticated," says Twombly, a tall, shambling man who looks more like a professor of literature than heir to the abstract-expressionist styles of Pollock and de Kooning. "Not your average Southern hick town. But it has that, too, which is fun."

More than mere fun is Twombly's elegant retrospective exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. (The show runs through Jan. 10, then travels to Houston, Los Angeles and Berlin.) For all its look of chance, Twombly's work is fearlessly composed and passionately colored. The best of his paintings--such as "The Triumph of Galatea" (1961)--are like vast desert dunes with scattered flowers growing in them. But the dunes are cut into perfect rectangles and the flower seeds have been delicately sown by dreams.

The young Twombly moved to New York in 1950. He made friends with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, attended the Art Students League, the progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina and traveled to North Africa and Europe. One taste of Italy was enough, and he moved there in 1957. (Contrary to art-world myth, Twombly is no expatriate. He returns to the United States regularly.)

Twombly was a nonfigurative artist from the outset. His early work was evoked by poet/critic Frank O'Hara: "A bird seems to have passed through the impasto with cream-colored screams and bitter claw-marks." Twombly evolved to surfaces redolent with allusions to graffiti--not the American aerosol variety but a more nostalgic, European sort evoking chance marks built up over centuries on old Roman walls. In the early 1960s, Twombly's ability to walk a fine, wiggly line along the edge of whimsical lyricism--at the risk of falling into bombastic silliness--was at its peak. The white-on-gray "chalkboard paintings" of the 1960s and 1970s might be surer, but they're also colder. Twombly regrouped in the late '80s and is now painting about as well as ever. Clots of color in "The Four Seasons: Autumn" (1993-94) resemble both flowers and bruises, and the near-empty spaces are wonderfully crisp.

Many viewers have difficulty with Twombly's paintings because they don't see much obvious, conventional skill in them. That his pictures have sold recently for more than $2 million only exacerbates the puzzlement: Twombly was the whipping boy in a recent assault on contemporary art by TV's "60 Minutes." (The exhibition's curator, Kirk Varnedoe, entitles his essay in MoMA's bulletin, "Your Kid Could Not Do This.") But for hipper viewers, his pictures are almost too precious, too rife with quotes from poetry and the names of Greek gods.

Twombly comes, however, from an older order of artist: the gentle and cultured talent whose work unashamedly addresses itself to our more refined sensibilities. He recalled a woman coming to see a painting he was working on in Lexington. "She started weeping," he said. "I tried to pretend I didn't see her, but she had some kind of reaction to something." Then he modestly added, "Maybe she had spring fever." Perhaps, but even in a field of ragweed, your kid couldn't have accomplished that.