by DAYNA EVANS
There is a room in the Philadelphia Museum of Art that houses ten Cy Twombly drawings in a series called “Fifty Days At Iliam.” Cy Twombly is dead now, which is a shame because he is irrefutably one of the most precious creators to ever have existed.
The room is set off to the corner like a restroom, so you must access it with determination or by accident, perhaps while looking for the restroom. But once you are in, it is just the one room, and in order to exit, you must go back the way you came. This is all weird because it feels like you’re in someone’s bedroom or studio apartment but without all the furniture. Just some art.
The series is a visual representation of the Illiad, which I told my father, is an epic poem by Homer.
“Have you heard of it?” I asked, while I drove, not looking at him.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve heard of it.”
“Have you read it? You know, maybe in high school or whenever?” I asked, this time shifting my eyes slightly to the right. He had his hands in his lap, one cupping the other as if he were holding a dying gull or a pool of water that he didn’t want to spill. His knees were together, slightly turned inwards.
“I don’t think so,” he said, looking ahead at the road. “Maybe a really long time ago.”
“Oh, it’s not that great anyway. You’ll like the drawings more than the poem, I’m sure of it.” This time I turned to look at him briefly, smiling an unsympathetic smile, and then back on the road. The rain was picking up. I turned on my wipers.
“Are you at least excited to go to the museum?” I asked.
“Sure am,” he said. “But maybe we could stop and get me a handful of crackers first. I feel a little carsick.”
I didn’t know of anywhere to pick up only a handful of crackers. I kept driving down the turnpike hoping for a reprieve, a shallow anchor.
Off the highway and into the city, I felt a clicking beneath my canvas shoe, the one that rested off the brakes. It felt like something was stuck below the car’s anatomy, dragging along into the city like a noisy and irresponsible stowaway. I pressed my foot into the sound and it stopped. When I lifted my foot to listen again, nothing happened and the sound was gone.
“How did you ever get your driver’s license?” he grunted. “You don’t even use your turning signal!”
We parked in the lot that lays right out in front of the museum like a wet tarmac red carpet. It was $10, I paid the attendant, and when the car was turned off, I looked over at my father and felt something so close to pity, but that really registered as distaste. His face hadn’t changed the entire drive to the city—a full hour of unrestrained frowning, chiseled so deeply and with such genuine conviction that, as I thought about it, I couldn’t remember his face without the downturned lines. He reached down to adjust a shoelace, and then said, “Well?”
“Mm,” I said. “Let’s go.”
The very first time that my father was given his court-ordered permission to take my brother and I for the customary weekend visit, a very bad thing happened and I ended up in the hospital. I was four and blonde, still oppressively innocent and cherubic, but smarter than I am even now. I refused to speak until I turned five, a consequence of what my mother tells me was my rigid need to “observe.” Talking got in the way of commitment to perception. I was observing what a mistake everything was.
A cousin, several years older, had flung me through a glass table in a game that I couldn’t win. I cut my elbow badly. In the car to the hospital, I didn’t cry because my dad told me not to.
“It’s all right, sweetheart,” he looked back at me, blonde head now speckled with crusts of my own blood that had dried. “You’ll be fine, angel.” My brother, a year older, rode in the front seat. He stared straight forward and never said a word to me, too afraid that whatever he said would make me talk.
When I was in the hospital room, they drugged me with baby drugs and stitched me up with four stitches to stop the blood. It was a rich, unforgiving, mottled red.
My mother wanted to kill him.
Cy Twombly met Robert Rauschenberg when he moved to New York City and the two of them became rather chummy. It is rumored that they were lovers, and when they were given a grant by the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts, the pair traveled the world together collecting artifacts and romantically imagining cultures outside their own. The thought of that companionship nearly takes my breath away. If death were a measurement of skill and ingenuity, it let the wrong artist get buried first.
There aren’t any biographies on Cy Twombly, but there are at least a dozen coffee table books because his art looks spectacular when it’s strewn across sheets of glass that lay low to the floor and that make everyone under a certain tax bracket feel incredibly nervous when you’re over for espresso and wheat berry scones. Sadly, those people don’t really even get Cy Twombly. Not the way I do.
The rain was really pelting, so I changed into rainboots before I got out of the car, twisting and turning and throwing things overhead and behind me. Without explanation, my dad had gotten out, put on a khaki bucket hat with fishing wire tied around the rim, and stood there, waiting for me. He was soaking.
“Dad, get back in the car,” I yelled through the closed window, feeling selfish enough to want to stay dry while he got consistently wetter. “Dad! In the car!”
He didn’t even look in my direction. He zipped up his windbreaker and continued to get wet.
The sky in Philadelphia was turning a dim black and as we walked up the several flights of iconic steps that lead to the entrance of the museum, a very bad thing happened, and I tried to look away.
“Ma’am, are you all right?” my dad rumbled loudly toward the woman who had slipped, reaching his hand down in a gallant gesture that I’d never before seen him do. She lay, moaning, on her back, every raindrop pounding down on her face, body, hands, and her neck, which fell slackly back like Jesus of the Pietà. She didn’t respond, only gaped her mouth as wide open as it would go, drinking in the water like a pup. Water to wine. Water to wine.
“Let me help you up,” he yelled; the wind was picking up around him, and the first thing to fly off was the bucket hat with the fishing wire. He didn’t even grab after it, his focus so singular as to not have noticed. My position, several steps above both of them, was regal, political. I kept a severe distance. No hand in the fray, as much a Queen Elizabeth as a Pontius Pilate.
A crowd was beginning to form near the woman, closing in as well around my father, his long arm still reaching down, stretching, dripping, intense and tight. His position barely shifted as the others endeavored to help her. The weight of the crush rendered him to stone from my perch above. My father, one form of the Three Shades.
There are less than four reputable biographies on Auguste Rodin on the website Amazon.com. It seems this is due to people’s belief that artists’ work should speak for itself in the form of ninety-pound hardback books with inordinate and impractical trim sizes. But all I want to know is what Rodin was feeling when he sculpted the Gates of Hell. I’ve felt curious about Dante’s feelings while writing The Inferno. Both men must have struggled with such dark, unmoored obsessions.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently decided to exhibit several of Cy Twombly’s finished sculptures, of which none look like they are inspired by Rodin. They are rough, spackled, plain, and every bit as white as his most chaotic drawings aren’t. I find these sculptures heartbreaking because every sculptor should be inspired by Rodin at least a little bit.
When Twombly visited France for the first time in the mid-50s, he wore pressed gray slacks, a blue linen button-down with the sleeves rolled up, and navy suspenders. His clothes were never speckled with paint like other artists’ were because he took very meticulous care of his workspace, always wearing an apron over his clothes, and occasionally he’d tie shorn scraps of muslin around his brown loafers with rudimentary twine or elastics. In France, he beamed in photographs, but the draw to Italy was magnificently strong, where the sculptures were whiter than bleached farina and smooth like warmed milk.
My father had given up on the woman once authorities arrived. Within a terrifying, short instant, he was upright again, walking toward me, and my face, as grim as ever, watched him through two gray stones. Somehow there was light behind his green eyes, which I had never cared to notice were green. He blinked and they were black again.
“I’m soaked through,” he said to me from one step below.
“Yes. You looked awfully heroic, though.”
“I still feel carsick. That woman’s probably going to be in a bad way for a good while.”
The rain hadn’t stopped and I really hated getting wet and I found it impossible that my dad didn’t mind the weather.
“Can we go inside now?” he asked, and I was sure he meant it, though only because it was inside, and not necessarily because of what that inside was. We walked next to each other taking the steps slowly, aware more than ever of the danger a little water and concrete can befall upon you.
The museum felt wet and echoey, like the inside of a near-empty white vinegar bottle. I inhaled and walked forward, not certain that today was the day to step into the white room with the ten drawings that felt like a studio apartment without the coffee table and the coffee table books.
“What do you want to see first?” I asked my dad as he stripped off his cobalt windbreaker, shaking it without discretion all over the cerise hall rug, stained here and there with tourists’ accidents and curators’ coffee slips.
“The café. I’d like to grab a handful of crackers. I feel rather carsick.” Water to wine and back again.
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