All of us have interests from which we derive pleasure, but which we know are beyond the scope of our talents and abilities. Pleasure can, in fact, be intensified knowing that a given individual possesses skills beyond our immediate ken. Few people in the crowds that recently hunkered down at the local pub to watch the World Cup finals claim to be the equal at soccer of a Lionel Messi or Kylian Mbappé; still, that didn’t forestall their enthusiasm or admiration. Attendees of the Metropolitan Opera or, for that matter, the Grand Ole Opry are there to relish and, perhaps, stand in awe of performances that are beyond the ordinary. As someone who enjoys movie musicals, I marvel at how the Nicholas Brothers dance as if gravity had no purchase on them. Still, I don’t kid myself: tripping is my forte, not tripping the light fantastic. Best-faith efforts are limited—should be limited, actually—by a degree of realism.

Cy Twombly, Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves (III), 2009, The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection.

This is not to suggest that artists shouldn’t have ambitions. World art would be considerably poorer without those individuals who had the chutzpah to take on precedent. A few years back, the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece, mounted “Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay,” an exhibition in which artifacts from antiquity were juxtaposed with related drawings, paintings, and ceramics by the Spanish modernist. The mercy of that exhibition was just how capably Picasso’s riffs on this krater or that effigy held up against the real thing. Picasso was a peculiar talent, of course, and so, too, was the American artist Cy Twombly (1928–2011), though his peculiarity is of a more rarefied sort. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, now gives us “Making Past Present: Cy Twombly,” a show which, like “Picasso and Antiquity,” argues that (in Twombly’s words) “Modern Art isn’t dislocated, but something with roots, tradition and continuity.”

The pacing of the exhibition is deliberate and measured.

As organized by Christine Kondolean, the George Behrakis Chair of the Art of Ancient Greece and Rome at the mfa, “Making Past Present” is an expansive exhibition that could serve as a template for students of art installation. The show begins with an instructive video and includes a mural-size photographic reproduction of the artist and his wife in their spacious Italian home. Twombly’s paintings, works on paper, and sculptures—many of them sizable—are exhibited near artifacts and artworks from antiquity culled from the artist’s own collection as well as that of the museum. The pacing of the exhibition is deliberate and measured, made so by the careful juxtaposition of paintings and sculptures, but also by thematic commonalities. Five Great Poets and a Philosopher (1978), a suite of Twombly lithographs, is placed adjacent to a marble portrait bust of Plato that dates from the mid-third century B.C. Elsewhere, a ceramic oil flask that includes a depiction of Aphrodite has been included as a point of comparison to Venus (1975), a mixed-media work on paper in which Twombly evinces, we are told, the “artist’s rare sensitivity to the lives of objects made in one moment, but continuing to resonate in many others.”

Cy Twombly, Vengeance of Achilles, 1962, Collection Lambert, Avignon.

Those unfamiliar with Twombly’s work should be apprised that his métier is scribbling. Sometimes erasing is involved, at which point usually more scribbling takes place. Of course, there’s scribbling and then there’s scribbling. When drawing, Rembrandt, Correggio, or Daumier could knock out a picture of startling brevity, but their scribbling coalesced into something greater—a moment, a likeness, a keening sense of character or the advent of life. For Twombly, the mark is always and only itself. Metaphor is absent. Pictorial space is the equivalent of a notepad or blackboard. This kind of thing has its admirers, chief among them the marketplace, and the better Twomblys do radiate a louche elegance, being a brand of epicurean doodling that both admits to and indulges in its own exhaustion. The pleasures of the work are meager, particularly when seen en masse or, as is the case at the mfa, where it is so clearly outclassed by the competition.

The carefully contoured equipoise of Young God or Mythological Being (Roman, imperial period, second century A.D.) or, say, Model Cart, a bluntly configured Syrian terra-cotta that’s roughly three thousand years old, puts paid to the degree of seriousness with which we should consider Twombly’s achievement. Even the most rudimentary artifact evinces more creative ingenuity than Twombly could imagine, let alone muster. Opinions vary, of course. A contemporary observer avers that Twombly’s scrawling of a name—Sappho or Catullus, for instance—can “evoke entire mythologies, whole bodies of literature.” The mfa, along with the J. Paul Getty Museum, its partner in this venture, believes it, too. One wonders, however, if Twombly believed it. He was, from all accounts, a worldly man, well-traveled and conversant with the classics. Surely such a temperament would be able to distinguish between aspiration and achievement, ardor and actualization, and, in the end, schmutz on a canvas and Polykleitos? Whatever the case, enough people do think that Twombly can trip the light fantastic, rendering “Making Past Present” something close to a fraud and something less than a joke.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 7, on page 54
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