I hated those fucking paintings. That was the only reaction I could muster upon my first introduction to Cy Twombly’s deeply moving 50 Days at Iliam. It’s easy to recount the exact posture of revulsion I experienced standing in this enormous white room full of dumb scribbles. It was 1995. I was in my first year of community college design class. I didn’t know anything about modern art, but I knew how I felt. I hated those fucking paintings. Those god damn scribbles, I could do that in a day and collect a fat bankroll.
Completed in 1978, 50 Days at Iliam was conceived as a “painting in ten parts… pay[ing] homage to what is perhaps the definitive narrative of Western literature: Homer's Iliad, the tragic story of the final fifty days of the Trojan War, probably written before 700 B.C."
So, okay. Great. Old Cy liked history, but how does that explain this chilled expanse of globs and scratches? Well, that’s where it gets interesting.
After my initial encounter and reaction to the work, I realized that, not once in my life had a piece of artwork elicited such a strong reaction from me, neither positive nor negative. What was curious, though, was that I didn’t really know why, other than it was so different than anything I had known as Art. For the next few years I made it a point to spend some time with Twombly’s series each time I went to the museum. I was determined to understand this reaction that I had.
It took a few patient years, but I eventually came around to a different view of the paintings. A well-placed bench offered a place to linger and relax while working through the complicated history, iconography and mark-making in the series. The nods to history and war offered the easiest way into an interpretation for me—reflecting the inescapable force and fury, shields, blood, and white emptiness of death and the unknown. The marks are human, fashioned in a way to appear brooding, nearly obsessive. The viewer is situated between opposing sides in conflict. The deeper I looked for insight and meaning, the more I found.
It was a remarkable shift within myself, to now occupy complete reverence and respect for 50 Days at Iliam. It’s one of the most rewarding relationships I’ve ever had with a piece of art. It reminds me to be curious; to ask why; to look inward and outward; to be honest; to stop and look, with an open mind, and find inspiration in unexpected places.
I love those fucking paintings.