Cy Twombly was one of the most defining artists of his generation, along with his peers Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Unlike these two, Twombly was a more mysterious figure, whose practice oscillated between different dominant art movements of the time including Conceptual Art, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Neo-Dada. Deeply influenced by classical literature and ancient mythology, his gestural paintings are loaded with narrative and spirituality – he often used mixed media and collage, as well as text throughout his rich and diverse oeuvre.
Born 1928 in Lexington, Virginia, Cy Twombly studied art in Boston and New York before attending the prestigious Black Mountain College in North Carolina. On a scholarship, he moved to New York to pursue a career as a painter, and was quickly swept up in the circles of fellow legendary artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as the then-dominant Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art movements.
Twomby was less interested in apolitical and ahistorical abstraction and quickly digressed from it to explore his interest in pre-modern Art, Etruscan and African artefacts, archeology and the ‘primitive’. He moved to Italy in the late 1950s, which only deepened his fascination with past traditions, leading to the creation of colourful, erotically and abstractly charged works such as Ode to Psyche (1960). These vibrant works were succeeded by the more subdued and minimalist ‘blackboard’ paintings, mostly grey with white cursive loops and lines evoking chalk and writing - a constantly recurring, iconic visual motif throughout his oeuvre.
Examples from this series are Cold Stream (1966), Untitled (1967), and Untitled (1970). Text and language remained an important influence for Twombly throughout his career and he would often integrate it into his works, including references to alternative movements such as graffiti. This fascination also stemmed from his brief time in the United States Army as a cryptographer. The series Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) is a good illustration, as well as one of his most significant pieces, Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair (1985), which features floral shapes in pink and purple hues with quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, and Giacomo Leopardi. This work was subsequently acquired by the Menil Collection.
Twombly lived in Europe and North Africa before finally settling in Gaeta in Italy, and has incorporated their landscapes into his paintings, drawings and photographs. He engaged with a variety of mediums including collages, which he started producing more frequently in the 1970s - these evoked the Dadaist tradition and incorporated everyday fragments like postcards and sketches from Twombly’s everyday life and travels. Much like his more painterly, abstract pieces, these were also infused with spirituality, meaning and poetic significance in a more direct and material form.
In the 2000s, Twombly’s artworks became increasingly vibrant and colourful, while invariably dealing with historical events, mythologies and traditions. Such works are Coronation of Sesostris (2000), referencing the Ancient Egyptian King, and Lepanto (2001), which is a circle of paintings dedicated to the Lepanto Battle in 1571.
Alongside his interest in historical figures and significant events, Twombly also drew inspiration from nature, manifested in the flower series Peony Blossom Paintings (2007) and The Roses (2008).
Exhibitions and Awards
Like many of his successful contemporaries, Twombly was represented by Leo Castelli Gallery from the 1950s onwards and later exhibited with Gagosian Gallery, which opened in Rome with an inaugural exhibition of Twombly’s works in 2007. He also has his own gallery, housing many important artworks created between 1953 and 2004, which opened in Houston in 1995 across from the Menil Collection.
In 2001 he represented America at the 49th Venice Biennale and won the prestigious Golden Lion award.
Given his interest in literature and themes from Greek and Roman mythology, Twombly was commissioned to do numerous site-specific pieces for important cultural institutions across the globe. In 2010 Twombly was asked to paint the ceiling for the Salle des Bronzes in Paris’s Louvre, which is a masterpiece dedicated to the canon of Hellenic sculptors with their names written on the enormous blue sky. For the 2010/11 season of the Viennese State Opera, Twombly created the large-scale work Bacchus after the Greek myth for the exhibition series Safety Curtain.
Other notable institutional exhibitions include his solo presentation Cy Twombly: The Natural World, Selected Works 2000–2007 at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009 and his retrospective Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons at Tate Modern in London in 2008, travelling to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome in 2009.
Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters (2011) at London’s Dulwich Picture gallery opened a week before his death.
The Last Paintings exhibition featuring eight untitled paintings, showing rich bright red and orange strokes on green canvases, went touring in 2012 from Los Angeles to Hong Kong and Gagosian’s London and New York galleries throughout the year.
His works are in many museum collections from Art Institute Chicago through the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Louvre to the Museum of Modern Art.
Even after his death, Twombly’s lasting influence on the art world and market is apparent. He still keeps appearing in newspaper headlines whether it’s because of various conspiracies regarding his sexuality or his auction records.
On the market
Twombly has been setting auction records consistently since the 1990s, when his Untitled (1971) blackboard painting sold for $5.5 million with Christie’s. Posthumously, his prices skyrocketed even more, his Untitled II (1967) painting fetching for $15 million, also with Christie’s in 2011, and Untitled (New York) (1971) selling for $17.4 million with Sothebys. The record was broken again a year later at the Sothebys Contemporary Art Sale at $21.7 million for an early abstract mixed media work Poems to the Sea (1959) consisting of 24 works of paper. His prices kept creeping up to more than $60 million for his Untitled (1970) blackboard canvas with Christie’s in 2014, and more recently over $50 million for Leda and the Swan (1962), a beautiful abstract canvas also with Christie’s in 2017.
His auction record to date is $70.5 million for Untitled (New York City) (1968), sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2015 (the same piece that sold for a record price previously, in 2011).