Cy Twombly was one of America’s most important postwar painters. His canvases – palimpsests of child-like scratches, erasures, drips, and penciled fragments of classical verse and literature oftentimes nestled amidst scrawled images of genitalia– subverted Abstract Expressionism and anticipated Minimalism and Conceptualism. Yet despite this engagement with the many aesthetic concerns of his time, Twombly stubbornly remained on the outskirts of these major movements, prompting critic Robert Hughes to call him “the Third Man, a shadowy figure, beside that vivid duumvirate of his friends Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.”
Edwin Parker Twombly, Jr. was born in Lexington, Virginia in 1928; he inherited the nickname “Cy” from his father, who was himself nicknamed Cy after the Hall of Fame pitcher Cy Young. Twombly remained in Lexington until 1951, when he graduated from the city’s Washington and Lee University. Upon his graduation, Twombly moved to Boston to study art at the Museum School, from where he transferred to the Art Students League in New York. Twombly immediately became immersed in the city’s bustling art scene, and upon the encouragement of his new friend Robert Rauschenberg attended the 1951 summer session at Black Mountain College, an experimental liberal arts college in Asheville, North Carolina.
Twombly’s time at Black Mountain was extremely formative; the school’s experimental nature encouraged exchange of ideas between individuals and fields that proved highly stimulating for young, artistic minds like his. While Twombly was there, figures such as Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Ray Johnson, Ben Shahn, Merce Cunningham and John Cage added their unique insights to the dynamic atmosphere. Twomly’s greatest influence, however, was the college’s rector, poet Charles Olson, whose interest in the roots of writing and its calligraphic forms emerges in many of Twombly’s future paintings.
Twombly traveled to Europe for the first time in 1952 using funds he received from a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Robert Rauschenberg joined him on this trip, and together they explored Italy, North Africa, and Spain, experiences that resulted in what are
now considered some of Twombly’s first mature works. Upon their return to the United States, Eleanor Ward invited them to exhibit at her Stable Gallery.
Twombly left the United States again in 1957, settling permanently in southern Italy; Twombly would later characterize himself as a Mediterranean painter. He still maintained his New York presence, however, and had his first one-man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1960. After another show at the gallery in 1964, however, the enthusiasm for Twombly’s work ebbed in the United States; his refusal to join the popular Pop and Minimal movements of the period, in conjunction with his residency abroad, kept him removed from complete critical acclaim. Twombly, however, was not discouraged by this; indeed, he even commented that the situation made him “the happiest painter around for a couple of years; no one gave a damn what I did.”
Beginning in 1975, Twombly gradually combined texts with images. These innovative canvasses, whose complexity was still troubling to many critics, began to receive more critical attention, resulting in a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979. This show rectified his previous relative absence from the American art scene.
In 1994, his importance was further recognized when the Dia and the Menil Foundations commissioned the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston in a building designed by architect Renzo Piano that was intended solely for a permanent installation of his works. That same year also saw another retrospective of Twombly’s work, this time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, curated by Kirk Varnedoe. The success of this show solidified Twombly’s canonical role in American art history.
Twombly continued to live and work in Italy, his recognition as a great artist only increasing as the years progressed. He died on July 5, 2011 in a hospital in Rome at the age of 83.
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