Formerly held in the prestigious contemporary American art collection of Florence and S. Brooks Barron, Virgil is a seminal early painting by Cy Twombly. Executed in 1963, it is the first of just two ethereal works on canvas daubed with the name of the ancient poet – the other remains in the artist’s collection. Here, the inscription is suspended against a pale void, poised mid-air like a talisman from an archaic, metaphysical realm. A cloud of painterly spatters crackles above, topped by a faint row of numbers that seems to gesture towards a higher order. Having moved to Italy in 1957, Twombly was fascinated by the world of antiquity, and devoured literature and mythology – particularly the works of Virgil - throughout his life. His practice evolved as a meditation on the relationship between systems of communication, entwining painterly, graphic, linguistic, symbolic and numeric fragments with elusive references to bygone stories and legends. In the present work, the gestural and the cerebral are held in tremulous balance, eloquently conjuring the very condition of poetry itself.
The work’s provenance is exceptional. Florence and S. Brooks Barron were prominent patrons of the arts who, over the course of their lifetimes, assembled an extraordinary collection of works by contemporary American pioneers. During the 1920s, the couple settled in Detroit, where Florence built a career as an interior decorator and her husband practised law. On regular work trips to New York – which was quickly taking its place as the new centre of the global art world – Florence began to nurture close relationships with emerging dealers and artists. Over the following years, the couple would acquire works by some of the greatest practitioners of their time, including Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, Claes Oldenburg and Frank Stella, as well as Twombly. Famously, it was Florence who commissioned Warhol to paint his first ever self-portrait: an iconic suite of four blue and violet panels, created during the same year as the present work. Warhol’s confidant Henry Geldzahler – the legendary curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – spoke of his admiration for Brooks Barrons’ collection, which hung in exquisite harmony with the couple’s Modernist home designed by the architect Minoru Yamasaki.
Despite coming to prominence amid the avant-garde currents of Pop Art and Minimalism, Twombly’s work remained steeped in a rarefied, timeless world. His literary library was extensive – his bookshelf housed copies of works by Ovid, Sappho, Horace and Catullus, as well as more modern poets including John Keats, T. S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke and Ezra Pound. At the heart of his collection was a 1698 edition of Dryden’s The Works of Virgil, including translations of the poet’s Eclogues, Georgics and his masterpiece The Aeneid. While coded references to these stories punctuate Twombly’s works, it is the distinctive invocations of Virgil’s name that offer perhaps the clearest insight into his relationship with the poet. Mary Jacobus suggests that these works conjure ‘the mingled tranquillity and memoria of Virgilian pastoral’: odes to ‘Arcadia’ as envisioned by the Eclogues (M. Jacobus, Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, New Jersey 2016, p. 176). Roland Barthes, similarly, suggests that the light, fleeting nature of Twombly’s script suggests ‘an era of bygone, calm, leisurely, even decadent studies: English preparatory schools, Latin Verses, desks, lamps, tiny pencil annotations’ (R. Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms, Berkeley 1985, p. 162). At the same time, the present work is charged with a sense of mystery, as if attempting – through calculation and incantation – to commune with the lessons of the past.
Twombly’s vacant backdrop might also be seen within this context. Throughout his early practice, white represented an aesthetic ideal, invoking the vast, mythic waters of the Mediterranean that lapped at the shores of Rome and Naples - as they had for Virgil before him. While his work remained distinct from that of artists such as Piero Manzoni - whose ‘achromes’ conjured a similar colourless purity - the present painting nonetheless captures the strain of quiet, Apollonian order that ran in counterpoint to the wilder whims of Twombly’s oeuvre. Suzanne Delehanty compares the work with the contemporaneous Death of Commodus paintings, defined by their visceral outpourings of colour. ‘If Twombly’s portraits of [Commodus’] death can be read as the clashing of reason and passion,’ she writes, ‘Virgil 1963 harnesses these polarities in an affirmation of poetic inspiration. In the Virgil picture, Twombly discarded the garish colours and brutal gesturing which personify Commodus for a pure white canvas composed with elegiac restraint … With breath-taking self-assurance, Twombly recognised the exact moment of completion: in Virgil he knew a minimal number of markings could claim and hold pictorial space’ (S. Delehanty, Cy Twombly: Paintings, Drawings, Constructions 1951-1974, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 1975, p. 20).