A great lover of ancient Roman and Greek studies, Renaissance masters, and Neo-Classicism, Cy Twombly sought to express in his art the universal inner states of humanity purely through abstraction. His work is emotionally expressive, often using wildly animated gestural lines and painterly layers of color accompanied by scrawled words taken from poetry or Classical stories. A lifelong confounder of critics, Twombly’s graffiti of the interior world is considered by many to have been among the freest and most audacious work of his generation.
Twombly was born in Lexington, Virginia, as Edwin Parker Twombly. Both he and his father, a former professional pitcher for the Chicago White Socks, were nicknamed “Cy” after baseball legend Cy Young.
At 12, Twombly took private art classes with Pierre Daura, an accomplished Spanish Modernist painter who had relocated to Virginia to be near his wife’s American family.
After graduating from high school in 1946, Twombly attended the Darlington School, a private boarding school in Rome, Georgia, for a time. He then studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1948–49), at Washington and Lee University (1949–50), and at the Art Students League in New York City. It was at the League that he met Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he developed a relationship that would last several years. With Rauschenberg’s encouragement, he decided to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a formative time in his career. It was there that he studied with fellow Modernists Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Ben Shahn, and met John Cage. The college’s rector, poet Charles Olson, also had a lasting influence on him.
Motherwell helped Twombly receive his first solo gallery show in New York in 1951, primarily of pieces strongly influenced by Kline’s gestural black-and-white Abstract Expressionism. The following year, Twombly received a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, allowing him and Rauschenberg to travel through North Africa and the Mediterranean region in Europe. The trip changed his life. After a period of service as a US Army cryptographer and later sharing a studio in New York with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Twombly moved to Rome in the late 1950s.
In 1959, Twombly married Baroness Tatiana Franchetti, a portrait artist and sister of one of his Italian patrons. The couple bought a palazzo on Rome’s Via di Monserrato and a villa in Teverina. Their son, Cyrus Alessandro Twombly, followed in his father footsteps and grew up to became a painter in Rome. In the mid-1960s, Twombly met Nicola Del Roscio who became his assistant and later life partner. The two lived in separate homes in Del Roscio’s native town of Gaeta beginning in 1979, the seaside location strongly influencing Twombly’s subsequent work. Tatiana and Twombly never divorced and remained close friends until her death in 2010.
Twombly’s Panorama (1955) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York appears as a dense layer of thin white chalk lines and letters scrawled evenly across a gray chalkboard. It’s at once intimately familiar and mysterious, recalling the childhood experience of seeing a classroom blackboard filled with writing exercises. Yet the script is abstract enough that the viewer can’t make out a meaning. We hover somewhere between immediate, even sentimental recognition and not knowing what to think of the image. Twombly would come back to the blackboard style many times, often including historical references. His Synopsis of a Battle (1968) depicts a flamboyant diagram drawn on a gray background, underscored by what appears to be an abstract timeline and surrounded by a flurry of small sketches. The painting prompted one writer to muse that it resembles, “the dreams of a history professor.”
The Italians (1961) is a busy canvas, evoking the urban noise of life in Rome. Inspired by the phallic graffiti of Italy’s ancient walls and murals, the painting arguably embodies nearly the full sweep of art history, from Pompeii to mid-century expressionism.
Frustrated by his early experiments with sculpture in the late 1950s, Twombly didn’t return to the practice for nearly 20 years. The later works resemble Classical forms, painted in white or plastered over. The pieces are assembled from found objects, including wood and consumer packaging, or cast in bronze and covered. The artist said that sculpture is, “A whole other state. And it’s a building thing. Whereas the painting is more fusing—fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere.”
Hero and Leandro (1984) was inspired by the poem written by Christopher Marlowe that retells the Greek myth of two tragic lovers. In the story, Leandro swims across the nearly four-mile wide Hellespont strait each night to be with Hero, a priestess who had previously lived in chastity. The painting’s dark greens, white, and maroon evoke a tsunami wave on a gloomy, turbulent sea, capturing the passion, longing, and drama of the myth. This mature period of Twombly’s work is characterized by its romantic symbolism, often including large, scrawled words taken from favorite poetry, as in 1985’s Wilder Shores of Love – the title scrawled in enormous red letters over a landscape. He also developed an interest in flower painting during this time, creating enormous “peony” forms dripping with vivid color.
Twombly’s works are in the permanent collections modern museums around the world, including New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Menil Collection (Houston), and the Tate Modern in London. He was commissioned for the ceiling of a room of the Musée du Louvre in Paris. He passed away in Rome in 2011 at the age of 83. The Cy Twombly Foundation holds a large share of the artist’s works and is overseen by Del Roscio.
Untitled (Rome), 1959
Oil, wax crayon, lead pencil on canvas
38 ¼ x 55 3/8 inches
Untitled (New York City), 1970
Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas
57 x 70 inches
Untitled (New York City), 1968
Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas
68 x 85 inches