Synopsis of an Artist 

Richmonders can continue to contemplate the work of Cy Twombly, Virginia’s greatest and most celebrated native artist.

Cy Twombly, whose scribbles and graffitilike art have long baffled and captivated art lovers, was in my peripheral vision recently. In May, two of my art history students at Maggie Walker Governor’s School chose his painting, “Synopsis of a Battle” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for an interpretative assignment. Although thrilled at the boys’ ambition, I didn’t hold my breath. Even seasoned aesthetes find Twombly’s work oblique.

Some weeks later, I received a postcard from two Richmond friends who’d visited Houston. “The Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection was a highlight of our Texas adventure,” they reported cheerfully.

Then I read of Twombly’s death on July 5 in Rome at age 83. Wrote New York Times critic Roberta Smith: “Postwar American painting lost a towering and inspirational talent.” True. And Virginia lost its greatest and most celebrated native artist.

Born in Lexington in 1928, Twombly first studied there with Spaniard Pierre Duara. At the urging of his friend Robert Rauschenberg, he later attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he was exposed to abstract expressionism. In 1952, Twombly received a Virginia Museum fellowship that allowed him to travel in Europe and North Africa. This proved life-changing. Soon thereafter he moved to Rome, which would remain home base. He married, had a son and reveled in the aura of the ancient world. If his historically inspired paintings, drawings and sculptures could be sketchy and somber, they were also elegant and joyous. And although living in Rome immunized him from late 20th-century American art trends, he never completely expatriated. He’d return periodically to work in New York and especially to his beloved Lexington, where he maintained a home.

One of his Lexington neighbors was Sally Mann, the photographer. “I will miss them [our travels and times together] (and him) terribly,” she responded to an email last week, “I have known Cy since I was a kid and he was a true mentor and friend.”

Fortunately, Richmonders can continue to contemplate Twombly’s output. “Synopsis of a Battle” is displayed in the VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis collection. Its oil-based house paint and wax crayon work on canvas measures 79 by 103 inches. What appears to be a complex mathematical equation on a blackboard is actually an abstract depiction of the Battle of Issus that pitted Alexander the Great against the Persians in 333 B.C.E.

I called Frances Lewis to ask how she and her late husband had acquired “Synopsis.”

After a 1969 visit to New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery, she says, “we had picked out another one but they [the gallery] called and said that MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art] wanted it, so we got this piece.”

Did the Lewises know Twombly? “We used to see him in Rome,” she says. “But he couldn’t make a date ahead of time. He was elusive. Then, all of a sudden, he was available. It was that kind of thing. We never went to his home or studio; he used to come over to our hotel, the Hassler, a beautiful hotel at the top of the hill [at the Spanish Steps].”

More recently, Lewis says she entertained Twombly at her home in Richmond. Sally Mann and John Ravenal, the curator of late 20th century and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum, also attended the small luncheon in 2006.

Ravenal said that Twombly was in Richmond to discuss having the museum permanently designate a space for his work (as in the Menil and the Philadelphia Museum of Art). “He was interested in the idea and we corresponded,” Ravenal says before stopping himself, laughing. “No, there wasn’t much corresponding. We talked on the phone and I met with him in Venice. And he came here to see the site. We were communicating right up until he died. He was too weak and the plans fell through.”

Now, what about my Maggie Walker seniors, Jason Kong and Juan Garavito, who’d selected “Synopsis of a Battle” to interpret in an imaginative way for their final art history project? Maybe they’d compare it with traditional history painting I thought, hoping for the best, as they went and stood before the class.

For their presentation they’d redrawn the scratchy-looking work on a big sheet of cardboard. But instead of Twombly’s downswept, fanlike shape they’d inverted it. In their eyes the shape was synonymous with Shell — or any big oil company for that matter. And for the next few minutes the students discussed with gravity, how like Alexander the Great and the Persians — fierce battles between East and West continue to be fought in the Middle East. What if Twombly had reached back over time? These students brought his 42-year-old canvas into the present in an astute and inventive way. I beamed.

“Perhaps the most important continuity that Mr. Twombly cultivated was that between artwork and viewer,” wrote Smith, the New York Times critic. “His art revealed an enthralling calligraphic and diagrammatic universe teeming with meaning. His ultimate subject was nothing less than the human longing to communicate—to make meaning that others could apprehend and expand.”

While Richmonders Sydney and Frances Lewis spotted Twombly early, it wasn’t until recently that his works hit the stratosphere commercially. In 2010 Sotheby’s sold a painting for $13.5 million.

When I spoke with Frances Lewis I’d asked if she collected other Twomblys in addition to “Synopsis of a Battle.”

“No,” she said ruefully, “Do you know what we paid for that work? $3,000. I could shoot myself.”

Edwin Slipek is Style Weekly's senior contributing editor and architecture critic. He teaches art history at Maggie Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies and at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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