Cy Twombly, 1928-2011 American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Path by Michael Stravato

cy twombly.

cy twombly. (Photo credit: Jjjjanic)

Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly with his painting “1994 Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor),” at the Menil Collection in Houston in 2005.

Cy Twombly’s Gagosian GalleryCy Twombly’s “Untitled” from 2007. He once described his work as “more like I’m having an experience than making a picture.”   

Cy Twombly, whose spare childlike scribbles and poetic engagement with antiquity left him stubbornly out of step with the movements of postwar American art even as he became one of the era’s most important painters, died in Rome Tuesday. He was 83.

The cause was not immediately known, although Mr. Twombly had suffered from cancer. His death was announced by the Gagosian Gallery, which represents his work.
Cy Twombly in 2005.Michael Stravato for The New York TimesCy Twombly in 2005.

In a career that slyly subverted Abstract Expressionism, toyed briefly with Minimalism, seemed barely to acknowledge Pop Art and anticipated some of the concerns of Conceptualism, Mr. Twombly was a divisive artist almost from the start. The curator Kirk Varnedoe, on the occasion of a 1994 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote that his work was “influential among artists, discomfiting to many critics and truculently difficult not just for a broad public, but for sophisticated initiates of postwar art as well.” The critic Robert Hughes called him “the Third Man, a shadowy figure, beside that vivid duumvirate of his friends Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.”

Mr. Twombly’s decision to settle permanently in southern Italy in 1957 as the art world shifted decisively in the other direction, from Europe to New York, was only the most symbolic of his idiosyncrasies. He avoided publicity throughout his life and mostly ignored his critics, who questioned constantly whether his work deserved a place at the forefront of 20th-century abstraction, though he lived long enough to see it arrive there. It didn’t help that his paintings, because of their surface complexity and whirlwinds of tiny detail – scratches, erasures, drips, penciled fragments of Italian and classical verse amid scrawled phalluses and buttocks – lost much of their power in reproduction.

But Mr. Twombly, a tall, rangy Virginian who once practiced drawing in the dark to make his lines less purposeful, steadfastly followed his own program and looked to his own muses: often literary ones like Catullus, Rumi, Pound and Rilke. He seemed to welcome the privacy that came with unpopularity.

“I had my freedom and that was nice,” he said in a rare interview, with Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, before a 2008 survey of his career at the Tate Modern.

The critical low point probably came after a 1964 exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York that was widely panned. The artist and writer Donald Judd, who was hostile toward painting in general, was especially damning even so, calling the show a fiasco. “There are a few drips and splatters and an occasional pencil line,” he wrote in a review. “There isn’t anything to these paintings.”

But by the 1980s, with the rise of neo-Expressionism, a generation of younger artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat found inspiration in Mr. Twombly’s skittery bathroom-graffiti scrawl. Coupled with rising interest in European artists whose work shared unexpected ground with Mr. Twombly’s, like that of Joseph Beuys, the new-found attention brought him a kind of critical favor he had never enjoyed. And by the next decade he was highly sought after not only by European museums and collectors, who had discovered his work early on, but also by those back in his homeland who had not known what to make of him two decades before.

In 1989 the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened permanent rooms dedicated to his monumental 10-painting cycle, “Fifty Days at Iliam,” based on Alexander Pope’s translation of the “Iliad.” (Mr. Twombly said that he had purposely misspelled “Ilium,” a Latin name for Troy, with an “a,” to refer to Achilles.) That same year, Mr. Twombly’s work passed the million-dollar mark at auction. In 1995 the Menil Collection in Houston opened a new gallery dedicated to his work, designed by Renzo Piano after a plan by Mr. Twombly himself. Despite this growing acceptance, Mr. Varnedoe still felt it necessary to include an essay in the Modern’s newsletter at the time of the retrospective, titled “Your Kid Could Not Do This, and Other Reflections on Cy Twombly.”

In the only written statement that Mr. Twombly ever made about his work, a short essay in an Italian art journal in 1957, he tried to make clear that his intentions were not subversive but elementally human. Each line he made, he said, was “the actual experience” of making the line, adding: “It does not illustrate. It is the sensation of its own realization.” Years later he described this more plainly. “It’s more like I’m having an experience than making a picture.” The process stood in stark contrast to the detached, effete image that often clung to Mr. Twombly. After completing a work, in a kind of ecstatic state, it was as if the painting existed and he barely did anymore: “I usually have to go to bed for a couple of days.”

The New York Times:Cy Twombly, 1928-2011 American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Path by  Michael Stravato        


“As a tribute to the recently deceased artist, the Centre for Fine Arts is turning the spotlight on a less familiar aspect of his oeuvre. The exhibition includes more than 100 dryprint Polaroid photographs (selected by Twombly himself), along with a selection of other works by Twombly and a film portrait by Tacita Dean.

Cy Twombly (who was born in Lexington in 1928 and died in Rome in 2011) was one of the most important US artists of his generation. He made his name with large-scale abstract paintings whose free form and spontaneous dynamism recall calligraphy and graffiti. In his work Twombly often referred to the myths of Classical Greek and Roman Antiquity, to literature and to art history.

The exhibition focuses on a less familiar aspect of Twombly’s oeuvre: his photographic work. The photographs are an addition to the artist’s creative world and throw new light on it. At the request of the publishers Schirmer/Mosel, Twombly selected more than 100 never previously published Polaroid photographs for a catalogue that was published just before his death on 5 July 2011. This selection is the subject of a travelling exhibition that has already been seen in Germany at the Museum Brandhorst (in Munich) and the Museum für Gegenwartskunst (in Siegen). At the Centre for Fine Arts the exhibition is being expanded, in collaboration with Dr. Hubertus von Amelunxen, who wrote an essay for the Twombly catalogue and who has made a selection for BOZAR of drawings and paintings by Twombly that reveal in greater depth the interplay of lines and light in his work. In addition, the exhibition is complemented by the screening of Tacita Dean’s intimate film portrait “Edwin Parker” (which takes its name from Twombly’s official given names).

Twombly and photography

Twombly took up photography back in his student days in the 1950s and continued to take photographs throughout his career. It was only in the 1990s, however, that he went public with his photographic work in gallery exhibitions and publications.

All the photographs in the exhibition were taken with a Polaroid camera, enlarged, printed using a special kind of dryprint, and reproduced in limited editions. This procedure, developed by Twombly himself, gives the photographs a hazy glow and a coarse grain. Twombly further reinforced this impression of blurring by playing with light and shade, by overexposure and sophisticated colour saturation, and by employing extreme close-ups. The lack of definition gives his photographs a certain indefinable quality and a poetic dimension. Our attention is no longer drawn to the subject, but to the texture of the picture. In a certain sense, Twombly operates like the pictorialists: his photographs look almost like paintings in which light is captured in brushstrokes.

The subjects of his Polaroid photographs are extremely diverse. There are traditional still lifes with tulips, lemon leaves, and angel trumpets, alongside photographs of temples and atmospheric landscapes. Twombly surprises the viewer with intimate images of everyday objects such as his slippers, a detail from a painting, his brushes, a snapshot of his studio, etc.

The photographs are fascinating because they throw new light on Twombly’s creative spirit and visual language. These intangible, fragile images are permeated by the same themes that inspired the artist’s paintings, drawings, sculptures, and graphic art. The atmospheric colours and diffuse motifs of his photographs are an unexpected addition to his creative universe. Twombly’s oeuvre, moreover, is all about light – and is photography not the medium of light par excellence?

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4 comments on “Cy Twombly, 1928-2011 American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Path by Michael Stravato

  1. mkdickerson says:

    Fantastic read on Twombly. Thanks for sharing.


  2. granbee says:

    This reminds me of a quote I read recently by Salvador Dali, who said he learned to paint like Renoir (I may be disremembering!) in four years, but that it took him a lifetime to learn to paint like a child!


  3. […] Cy Twombly, 1928-2011 American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Path by Michael Stravato ( […]


  4. a vitamin says:

    This is just the kind of thing I’ve been hunting for! Excellent and thank you!


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