These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
   –T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

In the works that made him famous, Jasper Johns realized an ancient dream by painting things that overcame the distinction between reality and representation–numerals, for example, or targets. Thus a painting of the numeral 2 is at once the numeral 2 and its representation; the same is true of a painting of a target, or of the American flag. This was not quite the achievement the sculptor Pygmalion had in mind when he carved a woman in marble that metamorphosed into a woman of flesh and blood. Still, with its mischievous approach to the seemingly intractable divide between reality and representation, Johns’s work acquired a remarkable philosophical interest. Like his friend Robert Rauschenberg, Johns mined what Rauschenberg called “the gap between art and life.” Both Johns and Rauschenberg explored as well the gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop, its cool successor and ostensible antithesis.

Rauschenberg’s friend Cy Twombly was the third member of this remarkable cohort, united by personal bonds and comparable aesthetic ambitions, but his work stands apart from that of his more famous peers. Twombly’s relationship to the New York School was closer; the signature feature of his work is the scribble, which has an affinity with Pollock’s drips. Whereas Johns carefully drew or printed numerals and stencil-like letters, Twombly scrawled lines that were barely legible. Twombly had fewer qualms about being overtly representational, and he didn’t seem to worry much whether his scribbles were read as imitations of scribbling or as the thing itself. Even so, his art was very much in harmony with that of the Pop generation and beyond, based as it was on loosely written texts.

Take, for instance, the painting on the cover of the catalogue for the celebratory exhibition “Cy Twombly: 50 Years of Works on Paper,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 8 (after which it travels to the Menil Collection in Houston). The painting features a variation on the show’s title, “Cy Twombly: 50 Years of Drawing,” in three nearly unreadable lines of script. It has a feeling of urgency and almost looks as if it were written by a finger dipped in blood. Yet it appears to have been first written tentatively and then painstakingly overwritten, as if to make sure the message got through. Which it barely does: The two layers of writing bleed into each other, obscuring the words and suggesting a nearly hopeless struggle to communicate. Twombly’s work draws its power from this struggle with words and inscriptions, not from their meaning, in striking contrast to Johns, who never allows the bravura of his painting to obscure the transparency of his forms. Twombly has turned hermeticism into a strangely stirring form of expression.

The show begins with an arresting pair of nearly matching works, which raise all the questions of Twombly’s art, as well as a certain number of questions all their own. Both paintings are dominated by an array of black and scarlet daubs on white surfaces, but Twombly is not really an abstract painter, and the daubs irresistibly become objects in pictorial space, and convey a sense of floating on water. They could be flowers on the surface of a pond, like Monet’s waterlilies, but another reading is just as possible. In the 2001Venice Biennial, Twombly was awarded the Leone d’Oro prize for twelve panels showing a historic sea battle–the Battle of Lepanto of 1571–and the black-and-scarlet daubs could be ships aflame, seen from a distant shore, which might explain the serenity of the scene. Both works have the same title–Petals of Fire–but we don’t know if this is a poetic image or a botanical designation. There is writing on each sheet, as there often is in Twombly’s work, in a distinctively loose calligraphy, but the writing characteristically fails to clarify what we are looking at. The writing is in pencil, urgently overwritten with red oil stick. In one, in tiny script, there is an almost legible text that seems to say, “Awake a moment/Mind dreams again/Red rose black edged.” This same text seems to appear at the bottom of the other painting, but part of it disappears under a reddish smear. The end of the line is difficult to make out and perhaps was not meant to be read by anyone anyway, since the writer, painting for himself, knew what it said. In one painting there is also writing at the top. It feels like a letter (“As long as you have…”), which then fades out, though the last word is “love.” Part of the text is occluded by the word “Petals” in large script.

The combination of writing with image suggests an affinity with Chinese paintings, with calligraphy on the surfaces and images that belong in pictorial space. But I am unable to connect the writing and image in a coherent interpretation. I don’t think it would greatly enhance these works if the difficulties of reading and interpreting were removed, and if we knew just what the writing says and the images show–quite the contrary, in fact. The charm, the energy, the power of these works are connected with the revisions, the shifts in direction and meaning, the smudges, the erasures, the indeterminacies. We feel, rather, that the artist is disclosing something about his own processes of thought, as if his work is the labor of helping something come into being, a complex of words and images that might pin down an ephemeral experience or dream. I am unable to determine whether the words are transcriptions of someone else’s text or something Twombly came upon while doing one of the paintings and then copied in the other. In the lines of penciled writing at the bottom of each work, I can only make out “dark purple” and “of the.” It remains to be said that the works are extremely beautiful, for all their tentativeness, and that whatever vision they seek to capture on paper–a sea battle or a garden–it must have been powerful, since Twombly tried to get it down twice. I cannot imagine getting tired of looking at them.

In his 1975 work Adonais, Twombly’s words are transcribed from Shelley’s eponymous poem. Adonais is a somewhat minimal collage–a piece of paper shaped like a draftsman’s square is pasted onto a large sheet of tan paper. Something was written beneath the square, but it is impossible to read it, since it has been scumbled over with opaque paint or crayon. The word “Adonais” is awkwardly penciled in large letters on the bottom leg of the square, continuing onto the paper. It overwrites the same word, partially written, which has been erased. Beneath that the date and the artist’s initials are scrawled. As we know, “Adonais” is a name Shelley gave Keats and used as the title of the great elegy he wrote shortly after Keats’s death in 1821, which Shelley and others ascribed to a heart broken by bad reviews. A line from the elegy, “He has outsoared the shadow of our night,” is neatly written, like an epitaph, below the square. On the vertical leg of the square, Twombly has written out the opening verse of the elegy: “I weep for Adonais–he is dead!/O, weep for Adonais! though our tears/Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!” This is written very faintly, as if it’s a graphic whisper; and he has “Oh” where Shelley has “O,” which suggests that he was writing from memory. Finally in an angle formed by the legs of the square, we read (barely): “He is a portion of the loveliness/Which once he made more lovely.”

Is this work meant as a visual equivalent of the poem, an artist’s interpretation of the spirit of elegy? Or is it itself an elegy for someone dear to the artist–a mourning picture in its own right? Somehow the innocence of the script, the utter simplicity of the means, conveys a sense of sincerity.

What, then, is the meaning of the draftsman’s square? A half-remembered Masonic emblem? In some way, Twombly’s work conveys a feeling of improvisation and bricolage, in which art is made out of scraps and fragments, whether of language or material, recycled into something of great meaning without losing its original identity. I became enchanted a few years ago by Twombly’s sculptures, in which he reassembled found objects–a few scraps of wood, a palm leaf, a nail, a broken wheel from a discarded toy–into effigies that often conveyed a sentiment of elegy or loss. On these works, whether drawings or sculptures, there is always an overlay of allusion and reference that derives from Twombly’s exceptionally wide reading of Greek and Roman classics, Russian literature and English poetry.

Consider a drawing in oil stick, paint and pencil from 1983, titled Anabasis. Like Petals of Fire, it is a composite of writing and image. At the top, in red quasi-Greek letters, is “Anabasis.” Just below that, barely visible, is “Xenophon.” And beneath that, the date and his initials. The lower part of the sheet consists of a crudely drawn wheel, over which Twombly has fiercely scribbled back and forth in a gesture of vehement obliteration. As often in his work, the wheel and the scribble could have been made by a child. But the juxtaposition of the overscribbled wheel and the classical inscription imbue the form with a kind of memorial meaning. Xenophon was a disciple of Socrates, and indeed one of the main sources for our knowledge of the philosopher. Anabasis (The March Up Country) is a historical account of a march into Persia by the Spartans, who were allies of Cyrus in his effort to seize the throne. Xenophon led the retreat. By association, I imagine that the overscribbled wheel is an emblem of a broken chariot–in Virginia, where Twombly was raised, it could have been the wheel of a cannon. There is a mark that suggests a flame. The picture is like a memorial drawn by an infant with a classical education who can barely write–and since that is not a possible description, it could be a letter home by an illiterate soldier bearing eloquent testimony of something having gone terribly wrong. What is intoxicating in Twombly’s work is the combination of an almost regressive primitiveness with a level of humanistic cultivation matched in American art only by Robert Motherwell. Imagine Jean Dubuffet as an elegant Southern gentleman, and you’ll have an idea of Twombly’s persona.

The scribbling in Twombly’s work began quite early, and soon became his signature mode. It may have been an outgrowth of Pollock’s work, or of automatic writing, which the Surrealists brought to New York, and which some Abstract Expressionists–notably Pollock and Motherwell–explored under the tutelage of the renegade Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta. Twombly studied at Black Mountain College, the legendary avant-garde outpost in North Carolina where Motherwell and Franz Kline were in residence, and where Rauschenberg made his seminal all-white paintings. The scribble, in which the hand moves almost without direction, may also owe something to certain Zen ideas that John Cage, another Black Mountain figure, had adopted. And yet there is an eroticism in Twombly’s work that is not especially Zen. In an untitled drawing of 1954, for example, Twombly bears down on an impulsive dark line in a tangle of pencil lines to evoke what looks like a vaginal opening, thus turning a scribble into a pubic thatch and giving the work the timelessly raw look of something scrawled on a lavatory wall. In 1961 the critic Pierre Restany wrote:

Twombly occupies a unique position at the centre of the young generation of American artists. He is a lone wolf who left New York to settle in Rome, a person apart, a “character.” His graphic language is poetry and reporting, furtive gesture and écriture automatique, sexual catharsis and both affirmation and negation of the self. As full of ambiguity as life itself, it appears on corners of walls, in schoolyards and on the fronts of monuments. Twombly’s “writing”–and this is the miracle–has neither syntax nor logic, but quivers with life…. The graphic language of Twombly remains at all times inimitable.

There are two drawings in the show, made the year Restany wrote this, in colored pencil and ballpoint pen, that seem like pages of doodles by someone with sex on the brain–pairs of breasts, orifices, squiggles and squoggles, some numerals, a mysterious tabular formation that looks like a calendar, some rows of numerals crossed out. And there are four drawings, done on brown paper at the end of the 1960s, that resemble worksheets for a construction project, showing doors and windows, together with their dimensions, interspersed with random pencil marks, points of emphasis that seem to be intended for the builders. The numeral 69 appears frequently, whether as a date or an erotic notation. Each of the marks is set down without reference to the rest, so there is nothing like composition or organization. The drawings look found, like paper tablecloths in a working-class restaurant on which a foreman has given instructions to the crew.

But then we come upon a drawing that, though it seems to refer to a construction site–with numbers and words like “wall” and “green”–is titled Study for “Treatise of the Veil.” It bears the legend “Treatise of the Veil,” as well as a sheet of paper, pasted on, labeled “Veil.” What is “The Treatise of the Veil”? I searched the Library of Congress and the Columbia University Library catalogues for a work with that title, and got no result. It is an extremely poetic reference, a title one might have come across in a novel by Muriel Spark. There are four works with the title Scenes From an Ideal Marriage, which seemed to allude to a classic, but none of the literary scholars I asked had heard of such a book, nor could I locate it in any catalogue. But such titles, together with the classical allusions–Plato, for example, or Archilochus, not to mention Venus and Apollo and Pan–reveal a mind comfortable on both the levels that Nietzsche believed defined classical culture: Apollonian and Dionysian, civilized and down-and-dirty. Consider Pan, from 1975. A dirty sheet of paper is pasted onto a clean one. Above the dirty sheet, with its smudges and finger marks, Twombly has pasted two leaves, cut, one supposes, from an old album of botanical prints. On the dirty sheet, he has written “Pan”–and below that “(Panic)” next to what looks like a fecal smear.

And yet the overall feeling of this show is one of great beauty. Twombly has spent much of his life in Italy, both in Rome, where he has a studio, and in Gaeta, where he has a home. For all the scrawls and scribbles, the atmosphere of the show is one of gardens, of ruins, fertility, desire, myth and the memory of ancient gods and warm winds from the coast of Africa. The magic of Twombly’s art lies in the way he is able to evoke the poetry of his vision by the unlikely means of smudges, smears of paint, scraps of paper, notations, penciled fractions, scatological doodles, lines of writing, crude diagrams, awkward drawings, found bits and pieces from the life world, shreds of nothing.