Making his mark: 10 things to know about Cy Twombly
The artist’s love of history and classical culture inspired him to make some of the greatest artworks of the late 20th century
Thomas and Doris Ammann were avid supporters and close friends with the artist Cy Twombly. In 1982, after being introduced by the dealer, curator and critic, Heiner Bastian, the Ammann’s acquired their first of many works by the artist. The trio became fast friends, travelling the world together to attend exhibitions and openings. The Ammans gravitated to Twombly’s lyrical style, as well as his invocation of classical cultures and collected the artist indepth.
Here, we uncover 10 reasons why Twombly’s name still resonates today.
Edwin Parker Twombly Jr was born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1928. His father, who was from Massachusetts, played a few games for the Chicago White Sox in the 1920s before being let go. Twombly Sr was jokingly nicknamed ‘Cy’ after the great pitcher Denton True ‘The Cyclone’ Young. The nickname passed from father to manifestly unsporty son.
After studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Twombly attended the Art Students League of New York in 1950, where he met Rauschenberg. The following year they enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. This was the most influential art school in the United States in the mid-20th century. Among the staff and students between its founding in 1933 and closure in 1957 were Josef and Anni Albers, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller.
In 1952, when Twombly received a travel scholarship from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, he embarked with Rauschenberg on a tour of North Africa, Spain, Italy and France. On his return, after service in the army as a cryptographer and a year teaching, he worked when he could in New York until he moved to Rome. This was a surprising move as he had already had three solo shows at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery — one of the most influential of the 1950s — and was attracting attention.
Twombly began his career in the early 1950s, when Abstract Expressionist painting dominated the New York art scene. His friends Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns wanted to explore representational work, and would help to lay the foundations for Pop Art by incorporating contemporary imagery and found objects into their paintings and sculptures. Twombly, however, stuck with abstraction but developed it in a radically new direction.
In works such as Academy (1955) and Untitled (1955) he used house paint to lay down a pale ground on which he would doodle and scratch frenetically with pencil and crayons across the whole surface of the canvas. The result was a departure from the drip-painted abstracts of Jackson Pollock and the colour-field paintings of Mark Rothko, emphasising instead the nervous gestures of Twombly’s hand and including scrawled but legible words.
Twombly was fascinated by history, classical mythology and poetry. This led him to move to Italy in 1957, where he could live among the ancient Roman ruins and soak up the Mediterranean atmosphere.
The following years saw a dramatic change in Twombly’s style. His paintings of the early 1960s became more colourful and chaotic as he started to use oil paint. They have much more varied marks, and large areas of the ground are left untouched, giving paintings such as those of his overtly scatological Ferragosto series of 1961 a visceral impact.
As his career progressed, Twombly would revisit the restrained palette and mark-making of his breakthrough paintings of the 1950s, such as in his ‘blackboard’ series, painted between 1967 and 1971. But he also produced increasingly exuberant works, such as the ‘green paintings’ of the 1980s, his two versions of Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) in the 1990s, Lepanto, and his Bacchus series, painted in the 2000s.
He usually worked in series, thoroughly exploring a theme over a period of years and then pausing, sometimes for years, before embarking in a new direction.
Twombly’s early work attracted criticism and even ridicule. In 1964, four years after he had last shown in New York, Castelli exhibited his Nine Discourses on Commodus, a suite of nine paintings. In a city now entranced by Pop Art and Minimalism, Twombly’s wildly expressionistic works, with their classical references, looked irrelevant to some. Minimalist artist and critic Donald Judd was particularly scathing: ‘There isn’t anything to these paintings,’ he wrote.
Despite this harsh review, institutional and scholarly interest in Twombly’s work continued to grow. His work was shown at the 1964 Venice Biennale, and the first major survey of his work was held at the Milwaukee Art Center in 1968, when Twombly was only 40
Regular retrospectives followed over the next 40 years, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1979), MoMA (1994) and Tate Modern (2008). In 1995 the Menil Collection in Houston opened a gallery, designed by Renzo Piano, for a permanent display of 33 of his paintings and 11 sculptures, chosen by Twombly himself.
After his arrival in Rome in 1957, Twombly met Giorgio Franchetti and his sister Tatiana, who were from a prominent aristocratic family with an interest in art. His first show in Italy, in 1958, was not well-received in Rome or Venice but sold out when it moved to Milan, and there was soon a waiting list for new work. Later that year he returned to New York and signed up with the most powerful dealer in the city, Leo Castelli, who already represented Rauschenberg and Johns.
Twombly married Tatiana at New York City Hall in 1959. They had a son, Cyrus Alessandro, the same year, and remained married until Tatiana’s death in 2010, though they lived largely independent lives.
Despite critics in the United States sometimes levelling accusations that Twombly had rejected his own country by spending so much time in Italy, he had various studios and homes in the USA throughout his career, both in Lexington and New York. Unusually for an artist rooted in the classical world, he responded to the first Moon landing in 1969 by painting the Bolsena series, 14 paintings inspired by the event.
In Italy he eventually settled in Gaeta, a small historic town north of Naples, where he bought a house in the 1980s.
While he is best known for his paintings, Twombly also made sculptures and thousands of drawings, and he was a keen photographer.
Unlike his paintings, which vary in size from large to monumental, his sculptures are mostly of modest size. They are made from found materials and usually of simple construction, often resembling totems, altars or shrines, and are usually coated in plaster or painted white, giving them an eerie presence. He stopped making sculpture for 17 years after 1959, but took to it with renewed vigour in the 1970s. Asked about this hiatus by Serota, he replied, typically opaquely, ‘I don’t know. Because I must not have wanted to do it.’
Twombly also took many photographs and Polaroids, sometimes to inform his art but often just to record the work-in-progress in his studio or to remind him of friends and places.
In 2001, when he was 73, Cy Twombly’s epic cycle of paintings, Lepanto, was shown at the Venice Biennale. He had been commissioned by its director, the renowned Swiss curator Harald Szeemann (1933-2005), to produce a work of his choosing. Szeemann had admired Twombly’s oeuvre for decades, commenting in 1987: ‘on paper, on canvas, and in the sculptural structures — his works retain the freshness of speculative invention and yet hold within themselves the seeds of eternity’.
Twombly chose as his subject a decisive battle off the Greek coast, where in 1571 a fleet of Spanish and Venetian ships defeated the Ottoman navy. The resulting work was a tour de force: 12 riotously colourful abstract paintings that movingly convey the unfolding horror of the encounter. The same year the Biennale jury presented him with the coveted Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement.
Twombly had already received the prestigious Praemium Imperiale from Japan in 1996, and would be made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by France in 2010, the year before his death. The Louvre commissioned him to paint a work on the ceiling of the Salle des Bronzes, which was completed in 2010. At the time he was only the third living artist to be invited to enhance one of the museum’s interiors.
Twombly was an extremely private man. He rarely discussed his work and left no writing about it. His most forthcoming interviews were with the British critic David Sylvester in his book Interviews with American Artists (Chatto & Windus, 2001), and with Nicholas Serota to accompany Cycles and Seasons, a retrospective at Tate Modern in 2008.
Asked by Serota why he was so reticent, Twombly replied: ‘Because I’d rather talk about other things. It’s like talking about yourself really — it’s indulgent. I don’t like to feel indulgent.’ He was also breezily unconcerned about the opinions of critics, concluding the interview by saying, ‘If there’s something I didn’t say, you could make it up.’
Since Twombly’s death in 2011, at age 83, his art has been prominently showcased in institutions across the globe. In 2016, the Centre Pompidou mounted a major retrospective of his work, and museums — including Tate, MoMA, the Getty, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art — have made important acquisitions of the artist’s work across all medium. His oeuvre continues to inspire those around the world.
When three paintings and five bronzes by Twombly were gifted to the Tate in 2014, Serota reflected on the artist’s long and influential career, saying, ‘I think he is a very remarkable artist. He has taken the legacy of postwar abstract expressionism, and allied to that a deep love of the great eternal themes of the classical world.’