Twombly, Cy

Along with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly is considered one of the greatest American contributors to postmodernist art of the late 20th century. Twombly’s signature abstract style is a blend of drawing and painting, combining elements of calligraphy and graffiti as well as abstract expressionism and references to antiquity and the Italian Renaissance. An early pioneer of minimalism together with Agnes Martin and Frank Stella, Twombly’s 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. In addition to painting, Twombly is noted for his sculpture and photography. Now considered to be one of the most important contemporary artists of the postwar era, his paintings are in several of the most highly-regarded museums internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris.

Born Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly Jr, in 1928 in Lexington, Virginia, Twombly was educated at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. After this, he won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York during which he had his first one-man show organized by Robert Motherwell. He then studied at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, where he worked alongside Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Ben Shahn, and the composer John Cage.

By the mid-1950s, Twombly emerged as a prominent figure in the New York School of artists that included Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. From 1954 to 1956, he taught art at 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 sculptures assembled from discarded objects in the manner of junk art.

In 1957, at the age of 29, Twombly moved to Rome where he worked and lived for the remainder of his life.

During the early 1960s, following his first showing at the New York gallery of Leo Castelli, Twombly began to include more color in his painting, together with numerous classical references and scatological imagery. After this, Twombly returned to a monochrome minimalist idiom. During the period of 1967-71, he produced his “grey paintings” featuring colorless 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.

From the mid-70s onwards, Twombly began to integrate text, image, and color but with his usual references to Greek art and mythology, and in 1979, the artist’s second retrospective was held at the prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 1994, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted another Twombly retrospective which met with significant success. In 2008, his European retrospective opened at the Tate Modern in London, traveling the following year to the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Museum of Modern Art in Rome. Other major exhibitions of Twombly’s works have been held at the Art Institute of Chicago (2009) and the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna (2009). In 2010, Twombly’s site-specific painting, titled Ceiling, was installed in the Salle des Bronzes at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The artist died in 2011 at his home in Rome.