Skip to content

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 on Tuesday in Rome. He was 83.

His death was announced by the Gagosian Gallery, which represents his work. Mr. Twombly had battled cancer for several years.

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 widely panned 1964 exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. The artist and writer Donald Judd, who was hostile toward painting in general, was especially damning, 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 Twombly’s, like Joseph Beuys, the newfound attention brought him a kind of critical favor he had never enjoyed before. 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 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 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,” he said. 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 but he himself barely did anymore: “I usually have to go to bed for a couple of days,” he said.

Edwin Parker Twombly Jr., was born in Lexington, Va., on April 25, 1928, to parents who had moved to the South from New England. His father, a talented athlete who pitched a summer for the Chicago White Sox and went on to become a revered college swimming coach, was nicknamed Cy, after Cy Young, the Hall of Fame pitcher. The younger Mr. Twombly (pronounced TWAHM-blee) inherited the name, though he was much more bookish than athletic as a child, with stooped shoulders and a high ponderous forehead. He read avidly and, discovering his calling early, he worked from art kits he ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog. As a teenager, he studied with the Spanish painter Pierre Daura, who had left Europe after the Spanish Civil War and settled in Lexington. Daura’s wife, Louise Blair, studied cave paintings and may have sparked Mr. Twombly’s early interest in Paleolithic art.

In 1947 he attended the Boston Museum School, where German Expressionism was the rage, but Mr. Twombly gravitated to his own interests, like Dada and Kurt Schwitters and particularly to Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti, two important early influences. He moved back to Lexington in 1949 and studied art at Washington and Lee University, where his talent impressed teachers. By 1950, he was in New York, the recipient of a scholarship to the Art Students League. Later in his life, he cited visiting Willem de Kooning’s studio and seeing an Arshile Gorky retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art as important moments in his young painting life. But he also came to New York at the heyday of the New York School and was exposed to the work of almost all its giants in the city’s galleries. He turned down an offer for a solo show of his paintings at the Art Students League in 1950, saying that he felt it was too early for him.

He met Rauschenberg, a fellow student at the league, during his second semester, and Rauschenberg later persuaded Mr. Twombly to enroll at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which had become a crucible for the American avant-garde, with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Ray Johnson, Dorothea Rockburne and John Chamberlain among its faculty and students. Mr. Twombly, who studied with Ben Shahn, stayed at the college only briefly and was a bit of an outsider even then. As he told Mr. Serota: “I was always doing my own thing. I always wondered why there are books with photographs of all the artists of that period and I was only in one! I thought: ‘Where was I?’ ”

In the summer of 1952, after receiving a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Mr. Twombly traveled to Europe for the first time and met up with Rauschenberg. The two wandered through Italy, North Africa and Spain, an experience that later yielded some of the first paintings to be considered a part of Mr. Twombly’s mature work. “Tiznit,” made with white enamel house paint and pencil and crayon, with gouges and scratches in the surface, was named for a town in Morocco that he had visited, and the painting’s primitivist shapes were inspired by tribal pieces he saw at the ethnographic museum in Rome, as well as by artists like Dubuffet, de Kooning and Franz Kline.

The painting, along with another based on tribal motifs, was exhibited in 1953 at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery on West 58th Street along with monochromatic paintings by Rauschenberg. The show was generally savaged. (Early this year, the Museum of Modern Art acquired “Tiznit,” along with another early work, which Mr. Twombly had kept in his personal collection.)

Mr. Twombly was drafted and spent more than a year in the Army, where he was assigned to cryptography work in Washington. On weekends and leaves, he continued to paint and draw, sometimes at night with the lights out to try to lose techniques he had learned in art classes and to express himself more instinctively. After receiving a medical discharge and teaching for a time in Virginia, Mr. Twombly returned to New York and worked in a studio on William Street, near both Rauschenberg and Johns, who helped choose titles for his paintings during this period.

Mr. Twombly tried without success for several months to get a grant to go back to Europe and in 1957, with Ward’s help, he spent several months in Italy, where he met Tatiana Franchetti, a portrait painter and member of a storied family of Italian art patrons. They were married in 1959 at City Hall in New York and their son, Cyrus Alessandro, was born that year. She died in 2010. Mr. Twombly is survived by his son; two grandchildren, and by Nicola Del Roscio, his longtime companion.

Mr. Twombly fell in love with Italy, which reminded him of the faded grandeur of Lexington. (“Virginia is a good start for Italy,” he once said.) He rented an apartment facing the Coliseum in Rome and began to work on larger scale paintings, which were increasingly spare, incorporating scrawled words and doodle-like shapes on a smudged off-white background, establishing a lifelong reputation as a high-art graffitist that generally irked him. He told Mr. Serota that while early paintings made visual reference to ancient graffiti, his intentions were “more lyrical” and his inclusion of phalluses and female body parts were often just ways to evoke male and female presences in the work. If his aspirations were toward any period, he later said, it was an early neo-Classicism, like that of Poussin, whom he said he would have liked to have been. (In his final days, he at least communed with his hero’s spirit; the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London opened a show on June 29 pairing his works with Poussin’s.)

In 1958, Mr. Twombly left Ward’s Stable Gallery and began to show at Leo Castelli, which represented Rauschenberg and Johns and was establishing them as presences in the New York art world. Mr. Twombly continued to live and work in and around Rome, but he traveled extensively, to the Sahara, Greece, Egypt and Turkey. In 1964 his work was included in one of the first exhibitions to explore the ideas of Minimalism, “Black, White and Grey,” at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, with a roster of rising stars like Agnes Martin, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

But the same year, Mr. Twombly’s Nine Discourses on Commodus, an ambitious painting cycle he made after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, based on the life and death of the Roman emperor, received scathing reviews in a show at the Castelli gallery. In addition to Judd’s condemnation, other critics dismissed the work as nostalgically backward-looking or barely there; one described paintings of “indecisive pinkish scrawled areas floating across each other at the edges.” According to the catalog for the Tate Modern show, the criticism damaged Mr. Twombly’s career and caused him to paint less for several years. His aversion to the press might also have been cemented at this point; not long after the Castelli show, Vogue magazine ran a piece about Mr. Twombly, lavishly illustrated with pictures by Horst P. Horst of his elegant Roman apartment. The article noted archly that his wealth and comfort had led to “Twombly being suspected of having fallen for ‘grandeur’ ” and to a view among American critics that he had “somehow betrayed the cause.”

In the 1960′s, he began to work for periods of time back in Lexington and in New York, where he used the collector and curator David Whitney’s loft and then rented space on the Bowery. In 1972, he began working on one of the largest canvases of his career, a painting inspired by Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which would take him 22 years to complete and is now installed in the Twombly gallery at the Menil Collection.

With the opening of that gallery Mr. Twombly fully entered what might be called the Old Master stage of a career that had taken a long time to arrive there, though his presence is still muted in the narrative of postwar art told by many American museum collections.

In 2010, the Louvre unveiled a ceiling painting it commissioned by Mr. Twombly, a 3,750-square-foot work in the museum’s Salle des Bronzes, next door to a ceiling triptych created more than half a century before by Georges Braque. The work is as calm and classical as his many of his early paintings were stormy and scatological: a listing of Hellenic sculptors against a deep blue background with planet-like discs. Characteristically, Mr. Twombly said little about the work.

Just before the retrospective at the Modern opened in 1994, he submitted reluctantly to an interview with The New York Times, sounding more agitated by the attention the show directed his way than vindicated by the recognition.

“I have my pace and way of living,” he said, in his hillside house in Gaeta, south of Rome, “and I’m not looking for something.” Of reputation and artistic acclaim, he added: “It’s something I don’t think about. If it happens, it happens, but don’t bother me with it. I couldn’t care less.”

Source includes:
“American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Path”, The New York Times obituary of the artist, by Randy Kennedy, published July 5, 2011

Biography from the Archives of AskART