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Cy Twombly’s Iliad
May 20, 2017 - October 8, 2017
Cy Twombly’s Iliad
May 20, 2017 - October 8, 2017
Get a fresh look at Cy Twombly’s ambitious retelling of Homer’s Iliad.

Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam returns to the Museum from a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Experience the celebrated painting cycle alongside related drawings and sculptures before it goes back to its permanent gallery later this year.

Twombly (1928–2011) initially selected the six sculptures in this exhibition for the Museum in 2011 as complements to Fifty Days at Iliam. Five of those works are recent gifts of the Cy Twombly Foundation.

Fifty Days at Iliam (1978)

A “painting in ten parts” about the final days of the Trojan War, Fifty Days at Iliam represents the pinnacle of Twombly’s lifelong preoccupation with Greek and Roman mythology. In it, he fuses an 18th-century translation of Homer’s ancient poem The Iliad with abstraction and figuration.

The artist purposefully misspells the besieged Trojan city as Iliam. The letter “a” stands for the Greek warrior Achilles, whose rage over the death of friend Patroclus propels the end of the ten-year conflict. Within ten large canvases, Twombly explores heroism and aggression, comradeship and revenge, victory and mourning.

Shades of Night (1977–78)

Around the same time as Fifty Days at Iliam, Twombly created a series of large drawings, Shades of Night. Featuring the paintings’ characteristic color clouds, they provide insight into Twombly’s process by revealing his preparatory work and development of visual motifs.

The series at first appears to be abstract lines and color, but it can also be read as an artist’s diary or as a kind of astronomical notation. Twombly renders the earliest scenes in deep blues as a metaphor for the darkest night. He casts subsequent drawings in bright reds to suggest how dawn dissipates the shades of night.

Twombly’s propensity for treating word as image is also evidenced. The letter “s” in “shades” is often illlegible, leading the viewer to read the word as “Hades,” Greek god of the underworld. In his translation of The Iliad, Alexander Pope often used the word “shade” to signify the soul of the character. In Fifty Days at Iliam, Twombly borrows this image to represent Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector as color clouds, turning a poetic metaphor into a visual one.

Bronze Sculpture

The six sculptures in the exhibition offer visual parallels to Fifty Days at Iliam. Although fundamentally abstract, they reflect the artist’s sustained engagement with classical art. The charioteers, banners, sea sails, and thrones also speak of triumphant victories and tragic defeats of ancient warfare. Five of the sculptures are recent gifts of the Cy Twombly Foundation. Untitled of 1979 is a promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs.

Twombly often created assemblages from found materials that later served as originals for his bronzes. Cast as one piece in bronze, Untitled (shown here) began as a wooden pedestal and an arch-shaped metal piece covered with clumps of liquid plaster.

The roughly textured surfaces of the sculptures in this exhibition stand in stark opposition to the smooth and polished bronzes of Twombly’s ancient artistic predecessors, resembling instead finds from archaeological excavations of bygone cultures.


Support for this exhibition has been provided by The Daniel W. Dietrich II Fund for Excellence in Contemporary Art.


Carlos Basualdo, The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Senior Curator of Contemporary Art


Alter Gallery 176 and Tuttleman Gallery 174, first floor