Cy Twombly
Abstract Expressionist painter noted for his calligraphic style.

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Cy Twombly (1928-2011)


Career as an Artist
Style of Painting
Recognition and Major Retrospectives

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those produced by Cy Twombly, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.


Art Work Example

Untitled (2008-2010)
From the "Last Paintings" series
by Cy Twombly, exhibited at the
Gagosian Gallery, London.


Along with Robert Rauschenburg (1925-2008) and Jasper Johns (b.1930), Cy Twombly is considered to be one of the greatest American contributors to postmodernist art of the late 20th century. Twombly's signature style of abstract art is a blend of drawing and painting, which combines elements of calligraphy and graffiti as well as abstract expressionism, with references to Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance. He was an early pioneer of minimalism - together with Agnes Martin (1912-2004) and Frank Stella (b.1936) - and his rather challenging art has an expressive quality linking him with the school of European neo-expressionism. It also has a primitivist aesthetic reminiscent of Outsider art as well as the avant-garde work produced by the Cobra Group (1948-1951). Later in his career, Twombly adopted a more robust style of expressionism, exemplified by the vivid colour of his "Rose" paintings and prints. In addition to his painting, Twombly is noted for his sculpture and photography, both of which have appeared in some of the best galleries of contemporary art, notably the Gagosian Gallery. Now considered to be one of the top contemporary artists of the postwar era, his paintings are in several of the best art museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris. The Cy Twombly Gallery (Menil Collection, Houston) holds a large number of his paintings, sculptures, and drawings, dating from 1953 to 1994. Other large collections of his work can be seen in the Museum Brandhorst and the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, and the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas.


Born Edwin Parker "Cy" Twombly Jr, in 1928 in Lexington, Virginia, he was educated at Lexington High School and Darlington School, before training at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1947–49) and at Washington and Lee University (1949–50) in Lexington, Virginia. After this, he won a tuition scholarship to the Art Students League in New York (1950–51), during which he had his first one-man show at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery, organized by Robert Motherwell (1915-91). His works at this time were strongly affected by the black-and-white gesturalism of Franz Kline (1910-1962), and the imagery of the Swiss artist, Paul Klee (1879-1940). After this he studied at Black Mountain College, North Carolina (1951–52), where he worked alongside Kline, Motherwell, Ben Shahn (1898-1969), and the composer John Cage (1912-92).

Career as an Artist

By the mid-1950s, after travelling on the Continent and in North Africa, financed by a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, he emerged as a prominent figure in the New York School of artists that included Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, both of whom would take the road of Pop art with its populist references and materials. From 1954 to 1956, he taught art at the Southern Virginia University. During this time he became drawn to the primitivism of tribal art, and developed a style of gestural painting marked by thin white lines on dark canvases. He also produced a range of sculpture, assembled from discarded objects in the manner of junk art. From 1953 to 1957 he exhibited at Stable Gallery, New York.

In 1957, at the age of 29, Twombly moved to Rome, a move which reflected his closeness to European art in general (and to the Italian artist Baroness Tatiana Franchetti whom he married in 1959, in particular) although it may have lowered his standing in America. Indeed, during the 1960s and 70s, he was - like the calligraphic painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976) - much more highly thought of in Europe than in the USA. His idiom combined "low" art methods (graffiti-like pencil/crayon doodlings; all-over painting technique) with "high" art references to Classical Antiquity (reminiscent of Arte Povera), the Italian Renaissance and French Neoclassicism. His earlier paintings - typically monochrome works in greys and whites - often lie midway between drawing and writing, with coded allusions to erotic and emotive subjects. Later, he became one of the boldest users of colour in painting, in contemporary art.

Style of Painting

Twombly's style of painting has changed many times over the years. In 1959, he produced the most minimalist works of his career, including his series of 24 drawings known as "Poems to the Sea".

During the early 1960s, following his first showing at the New York gallery of Leo Castelli (1907-99), he began to include more colour in his painting, together with numerous classical references (Leda and the Swan, the Birth of Venus) and scatological imagery, a process which peaked in the "Ferragosto paintings", as well as his series entitled "Nine Discourses on Commodus" (1963), a portrait of the power-crazy Roman emperor created under the influence of works by Francis Bacon (1909-93). Unfortunately these heavily referenced works - also shown at Castelli's gallery - coincided with the rise of the "low-brow" Pop Art movement, led by commercial artists like Andy Warhol (1928-87), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97) and Claes Oldenburg (b.1929). As a result, reaction was not enthusiastic. In his review of Twombly's works, the minimalist artist Donald Judd described them as no more than "a few drips and splatters and an occasional pencil line."

After this, Twombly returned to a monochrome minimalist idiom. During the period 1967-71, for instance, he produced his "grey paintings", featuring colourless scrawls, as well as a series of scribblings that resembled chalk on a blackboard - hence their nickname "blackboard paintings". In 1968, he received his first retrospective, courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Center. In 1971, to commemorate the death of friend Nini Pirandello, he painted the lyrical "Nini's Paintings".

From the mid-70s onwards, Twombly began to integrate text, image and colour, but with his usual references to Greek art and mythology, as exemplified in works like "Venus" and "Apollo" (both 1975). The style continued to jar with art critics in America, however, as shown by the lack-lustre response to Twombly's second retrospective, held in 1979 at the prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Recognition and Major Retrospectives

Twombly continued to explore the Aegean art and mythology of the Mediterranean throughout the 80s and 90s. In Europe, where his reputation remained high, he was given an important retrospective at the Kunsthaus Zurich (1987), which travelled to Madrid, London and Paris. Then in 1994, the Cy Twombly Gallery opened in Houston, Texas. Funded by the Dia and Menil Foundations, and designed by Renzo Piano - co-creator of the Pompidou Centre in Paris - the museum boasted an extensive collection of the painter's work. In the same year, taking advantage of a change in US taste, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted another Twombly retrospective, which this time met with significant success.

Twombly's final burst of creativity revealed a dramatic new style of Neo-Expressionism. His "Bacchus" series (from 2005), for example, featured vivid whorls of gestural energy, while his "Rose" paintings and prints vibrated with brilliant colour.

In 2008, his European retrospective "Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons" opened to the public at the Tate Modern in London, travelling the following year to the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Museum of Modern Art in Rome in 2009. Other major exhibitions of Twombly's work have been held at the Art Institute of Chicago (2009), the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna (2009), and the Gagosian Gallery (Paris, 2010). In 2010, Twombly's site-specific painting, entitled "Ceiling" was installed in the Salle des Bronzes at the Louvre Museum in Paris.


Twombly was also one of the most accomplished of photographers. In 1993, the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York staged an exhibition of his work which featured a wide selection of large colour images of flowers, trees and ancient sculpture. In 2008, a carefully curated display of the artist's photos was exhibited in the Museum for Photography, Amsterdam. In 2011, the Museum Brandhorst in Munich, held a major retrospective of his photographic art from 1951 to 2010, which later travelled to the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels.

Paintings, sculpture and photos by Cy Twombly can be seen in some of the best art museums across the world, including the far-flung Gallery of New South Wales, in Australia.


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