Cy Twombly‘s Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) is considered a pivotal work in the career of one of the most important artists to emerge in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. Yet, due to its size—close to thirty-three feet in length—this highlight of his celebrated “grey-ground” period is rarely shown and has not been exhibited in New York in nearly thirty years. Beginning September 26, Treatise on the Veil and a selection of related drawings will go on view at the Morgan Library & Museum, in a collaboration with Houston’s Menil Collection, which owns the works and organized the exhibition. The show will run through January 25, 2015.

Executed in Rome in 1970, Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) was inspired by a musical composition and explores Twombly’s fascination with time, space, and movement. White lines running across the work’s grey surface suggest, in the artist’s words, “a time line without time.” The twelve drawings in the exhibition—which combine pencil, crayon, collage, tape, measurements, and other inscriptions—offer an intriguing window into the artist's creative process. Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) was last exhibited in New York in 1985 at DIA.

“We are pleased to present this fascinating exploration of one of Cy Twombly’s signature works from a period of notable change in his art,” said Peggy Fogelman, acting director of the Morgan Library & Museum. “This show represents an ongoing partnership between the Morgan and the Menil Collection, under the auspices of the Morgan’s Drawing Institute, an initiative aimed at fostering scholarship and innovative exhibition programming related to the drawings field.”

Treatise on the Veil

In 1968, Twombly created a large, multipanel painting entitled Treatise on the Veil (now in the Museum Ludwig, Cologne). Two years later, he revisited the subject in a series of drawings that led to the execution of a second painting of the same title.

The related drawings are not so much preliminary studies as records of the artist’s meditation on time, sequence, and space. In most of them five or six vertical strips of paper are covered to varying degrees with energetically applied wax crayon, recalling the panels of the painting’s first version. They are arranged in a lateral progression from left to right. Scrawled inscriptions and traces of tearing, folding, and erasing reveal the physical engagement of the artist and endow these sheets with a singular, emotional presence. In the exhibition the drawings are presented in the presumed chronological order in which they were created, based on dates and numbers Twombly inscribed on them.

The two Treatise paintings are hallmarks of Twombly’s “grey-ground” period, which ran from 1966 to the early 1970s. In a 1967 exhibition at New York's Leo Castelli Gallery, the artist set aside his trademark splashes of Mediterranean color, opting instead for lines of white crayon over flat grey house paint.

For the next five years, these paintings offered a more calculated and controlled alternative to the sporadic, painterly compositions of his earlier style. Although some of the grey-ground paintings are highly lyrical with their flurry of curves spilling from left to right as in a handwriting exercise, others, more sober, have been linked to the contemporary development of Minimalism. Taken as whole, the “grey-ground” paintings display a pared down aesthetic at odds with the profusion and exuberance that characterized Twombly‘s work in the early 1960s.

Sources of Inspiration

According to Twombly, both versions of Treatise on the Veil were inspired by a musical piece by French composer Pierre Henry (b.1927), a pioneer of musique concrète, a type of music that incorporates non-instrumental sounds recorded on magnetic tape and manipulated. Henry’s 1953 piece, entitled The Veil of Orpheus, features the recording of cloth being torn—a prolonged, seemingly unending sound that impressed Twombly for its embodiment of the concept of duration.

Henry’s composition evoked the journey of Orpheus to the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice. The composer used the recording of tearing fabric to reference the moment at which Orpheus loses his bride forever by transgressing the gods’ command and gazing upon her before leaving Hades. The reference to mythological poet and musician Orpheus would have appealed to Twombly’s love of classical culture.

Another source mentioned by Twombly is an unidentified photograph of a veiled woman walking by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), an early practitioner of recording human movement through stop-action photography. In Muybridge’s pictures, figures appeared in front of a numbered white grid upon which each move could be registered, offering a fascinating new way to look at movement in time and space. Such concerns were central to Twombly in the Treatise series.

Cy Twombly (1928–2011) was born in Lexington, Virginia. He studied at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, New York's Art Students League, and Black Mountain College, North Carolina. Early travels to Spain, North Africa, and Italy fueled his interest in Mediterranean culture. In 1957, Twombly moved to Rome, where he lived most of his life. Inspired by the gestural style of the Abstract Expressionists, he developed a rich repertoire of marks, scrawls, scribbles, doodles, and scratches that functioned both as expressive marks and cultural symbols. His fascination with classical antiquity and the Renaissance, evident in many inscriptions and references, nourished an imagery linking personal experience to myth and history. One of his last projects, in 2010, was the painted ceiling of the Salle des Bronzes at the Musée du Louvre, which houses Roman antiquities.

The exhibition Cy Twombly: Treatise on the Veil was shown at the Menil in 2009. Prior to that, the monumental painting was included in the exhibition Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, organized by Tate Modern in 2008, and also shown in Bilbao and Rome.