THE words scrawled on Cy Twombly's canvas, ``Spring'' (1993-94), could serve as a gloss for his retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art: ``You were talking about things they couldn't see/ And they were laughing.'' Echoing T.S. Eliot's ``The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,'' the words sum up the serious intent of Twombly's work - concerned with things others don't see - as well as the frequent response to his work: ridicule.
In a ``Sixty Minutes'' segment last fall, ``Yes ... But Is it Art?,'' Morley Safer jeered at Twombly's paintings. Admittedly, some of them look as if a chicken got loose on wet canvas and scratched up the surface. It's easy to miss the point of this American painter's work. The retrospective, featuring nearly 100 paintings, sculptures, and graphics, intends to claim Twombly's place in art history as the equal of his friends Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Twombly, who was born in 1928, vacated that place when he emigrated to Italy in 1957, just when New York became the international center of the art scene.
Although Twombly's reputation has risen since 1980s Neo-Expressionists like Anselm Kiefer and Francesco Clemente showed their debt to him, his standing in the United States has lagged behind the reverence shown him in Europe.
No attempt to please
Two factors have hampered Twombly's acceptance. First, the work does not reproduce well. Second, Twombly's paintings, which look downright messy, are steadfastly uningratiating. One suspects they must be executed with eyes closed. (In fact, Twombly trained himself to achieve this effect of clumsiness by drawing in the dark.) His surfaces are so encrusted with layers of partially obliterated words that responding to his art almost requires the eye of an archeologist rather than an aesthete.
Arranged chronologically, the exhibition begins with apprentice work of the 1950s when Twombly first scarified his canvases by digging into wet house paint with bristly strokes of pencil or crayon. ``Volubilus'' (1953) consists of a black-outlined hump with hundreds of protruding quill-like lines. In the gallery displaying early work, Twombly's debt to Abstract Expressionism and Dubuffet's gritty brutalism is clear.
In ``Panorama'' (1954), Twombly's signature style of all-over unintelligible white squiggles on a dark field first appears. The image is like a chalkboard from another planet, whose message is intended to teach some essential information. The mind strives to ``read'' the half-erased gibberish, but its private language shuts us out.
This tantalizing near-legibility frustrates many viewers. Like a smeared window offering only teasing glimpses of a beautiful panorama, the art promises answers but provides only questions. In 1956 Twombly wrote that his art originated in an ``aesthetic sense of eroded or ancient surfaces of time.'' He tries to achieve this sense of continuity between past and present with his obsessively worked surfaces, each a palimpsest of buried messages and images.
All too often, as in ``Olympia'' (1957) - a canvas that looks like low-grade graffiti - the art seems all surface. His defiance of compositional devices, such as the distinction between figure and ground, gives the eye no point of entry or resting place. Despite rough pictograms like hearts and circles, the scattered doodles fail to draw the viewer in.
Much has been made of Twombly's residence in Italy and much said of his bridging the gap between contemporary chaos and the classical past (through allusions to history, mythology, and poetry). Writing ``Olympia'' on a canvas does not, however, elevate a painting to Olympian heights. One can't scribble ``Zeus was here'' on a wall and claim to have rewritten ``The Iliad.''
Just when a viewer is tempted to dismiss Twombly's ambitions as so much twaddle, the artless elements come together in a painting that works. In ``Leda and the Swan'' (1962), the scratches coalesce in a dense scumble. The childlike scribbles denoting a swan's neck, hearts, breasts, and white gobs of pigment cohere in a whirlwind of in extremis scrawls.
A mass of contradictions
From the union of Leda and Jupiter disguised as a swan came the birth of Helen of Troy. Out of the unpromising union of Twombly's furious lines and scratches comes an unconventional beauty - hardly the type to launch a thousand ships but a masterpiece all the same.
``Wilder Shores of Love'' (1985) is another instance of histrionics in paint, which soars off the canvas into the pantheon of real art. A combination of swooping scarlet letters and a rising mass of thick paint surges with the immediacy of passion.
At the end of the show is the artist's latest series, ``The Four Seasons'' (or ``Le Quattro Stagioni.'') Here we see what Twombly has been about all along: metamorphosis.
The four canvases encompass the cyclical flow of the changing seasons. In ``Summer,'' a stream of paint drips over primitive boats ascending against gravity on a ray of sunshine. The floating boats are on the verge of dissolving into the surrounding space and words such as ``high on light'' blink in and out of visibility. The work is spare, plebeian, and life-affirming all at once.
One can't describe Twombly's work without mentioning the contradictions he bestrides: impulsive and obsessive, public and private, vulgar and refined, disclosing and concealing, protean and permanent. Or, in the words of the exhibition's curator, Kirk Varnedoe: ``Minimal, Marxist, and Mediterranean all at once.''
* ``Cy Twombly: A Retrospective'' continues at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through January 10, 1995. It travels to the Menil Collection in Houston (Feb. 7 to March 19) where it will inaugurate a new building dedicated to a survey of Twombly's career; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (April 9 to June 25); and Berlin's National Gallery (Sept. 1 to Nov. 19).