Thursday 7 July 2011


Yesterday I wrote this obituary of Cy Twombly for the Independent, but because of a glitch in my computer, I never actually filed the copy to them, and as they were unable to reach me later they had to rush to get another piece. This is the kind of mistake I hope I never make again, wasting their time and mine, and losing the opportunity to register my appreciation of Twombly in print.

I first wrote about him after I went to the Tate Modern's 'Cycles and Seasons' exhibition in 2008, the very first post for Untitled: Perspectives, which was intended to be a regular blog about art, but has been somewhat irregular instead. You can link to that essay here. I had always been interested in Twombly, because of the Black Mountain connection, and I took time in this obit to try to explain briefly its importance; but there wasn't really space to link the writing of Olson or Robert Creeley, the music of John Cage, the dance of Merce Cunningham and the art of Kline, Motherwell, or Twombly.

But that Tate show was a revelation to me, because although I had a sort of regard for Twombly, I hadn't realised how beautiful much of his work could be, and I was overcome by its ability to express emotion and move me. I regret messing up that assignment from the Independent, and apologise profusely to my editors there. What I wrote for them follows.


The American painter Cy Twombly, who has died aged 83, was our last link with the glory days of the Abstract Expressionists, but his work was always an awkward fit with that movement, indeed with any modern movement. It was a mark of his idiosyncratic talents that he abandoned New York for Italy just as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline were at their peaks of success; moreover, where all of those artists died at the height of their fame, appreciation of Twombly's work progressed slowly, dividing critics and the public alike. Some of the reasons for this became evident in his hugely successful retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2008. Where individual Twombly canvases might seem ephemeral, random, and difficult, presented together their impact was intensified and became clearer. His mix of dripping colour, hand-written notes or fragments of poetry, and chaotic lines for many obscured his mix of classical and modern concerns. Cynical voices accused him of deliberate obscurantism, but Twombly never indulged in flamboyant display for its own sake, preferring to find new ways to express old stories.

If Abstract Expressionism wanted to go beyond the pure self-involvement of abstraction, Twombly's work can be seen as constantly seeking more direct expression, and even in a European context, spoke of a uniquely American perspective. Like the Abstract Expressionists, there is a sense of American pragmatism, but there is also the intellectual curiosity which allowed him to absorb European classism, and meld it into something sui generis.

He was born Edward Parker Twombly, Jr., 25 April 1928 in Lexington Virginia. His nickname came from his father, a pitcher in baseball's major leagues who was called 'Cy' for his resemblance to the great Cy Young. He studied in Lexington with the exiled Spanish artist Pierre Daura, and after finishing high school, he spent a year at a prep school in Georgia followed by brief spells at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts school. In 1950 he got a scholarship to New York's Art Students League, where he met and became close to Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg introduced him to Franz Kline, and persuaded Twombly to enroll at Black Mountain, an experimental college in North Carolina, where Kline, Ben Shahn and Robert Motherwell taught, and where Twombly's affair with Rauschenberg would lead to the breakup of the latter's marriage.

The influence of Kline and Motherwell was apparent in Twombly's first New York shows, one arranged by Motherwell at the Samuel Kootz gallery, and another at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery, where he shared the space with Joseph Cornell. But Black Mountain's influence extended beyond painting. The college's rector was the poet Charles Olson, and much of the writing on Twombly's canvases recalls Olson's 'Projective' verse, and his dictum that 'form is never more than an extension of content'. Kline's work is often compared to Chinese written characters, and Olson drew on Ernest Fenollosa's studies of them; we can often see Twombly's graffiti as objects in themselves. John Cage taught music at Black Mountain, and the silences in his work might be seen to have their equivalent in the large expanses of blank canvas in many of Twombly's larger works.

A grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts allowed Twombly to travel to southern Europe and North Africa. 'Virginia is a good start for Italy,' he said, referring to his Southern sense of faded glory, but he returned from that first trip to go into the Army. His service as a military cryptographer also had a profound influence on the writing he would include in his paintings. Moving back to New York, he worked closely with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who were was breaking away from Abstract Expressionism, and would be crucial in the foundation of Pop Art. Twombly left Stable for Leo Castelli, fast becoming New York's most influential modern art gallery, but by then he had moved to Italy, and, in 1959 married Tatiana Franchetti, the sister of one of his patrons.

If his 1959 'Poems To The Sea' show a fusion of Kline's art and Olson's poetry while celebrating the peaceful Mediterrean shore, Twombly was already creating new work which reflected the heat and passion of Italy, such as 'Crimes of Passion' and 'Murder of Passion', as well as more classical influences, including Roman myths, particularly Leda and the Swan. His series based on the Discourses of Commodus, which he painted to reflect the assassination of John Kennedy, received a savage reception from the critics when shown at Castelli in 1964. Although that setback caused his production to slow down, he began returning to the States more often, working both in Lexington and in New York. His painting reflected this part-time change of setting, particularly the series Treatise On The Veil, whose strong brush strokes and serenity remind one of late Rothko. At the same time, the elegaic Nini's Paintings seem an almost violent grief in response to the death of the wife of his Roman dealer.

One can see pieces of Shahn's emotional impact and Cornell's cool found-object commetary co-existing in Twombly, but his scale was always increasing. By the Seventies, massive works like his deliberately-mistitled 'Fifty Days At Iliam', based on the Trojan War had restored his reputation, prompting a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1979. He began spending most of his time in the southern Italian coastal town of Gaeta, producing sculptures based on boats and paintings with watery themes, like his version of the myth of Hero and Leandro. Twombly showed at the Venice Biennale three times, thirty-seven years apart, and had retrospectives in Zurich and Paris before the monumental 1994 show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, In 1995 the Cy Twombly Gallery was opened at the Menil Collection in Houston.

One of the highlights of the Tate Modern show, titled 'Cycles And Seasons', was Twombly's two versions of what his arguably his greatest work, 'The Four Seasons'. Although influences of music and poetry abound in the paintings, there is an obvious reference point to Poussin, and just last week the Dulwich Picture Gallery opened 'Arcadian Painters', a joint exhibition of Twombly and Poussin, which does much to answer the still-spiteful voices in the British press who, even after his death, rushed to deflate his reputation. Twombly died in Rome 5 July 2011, after a long struggle with cancer. His wife predeceased him in 2010; he is survived by his son Cyrus Allessandro, and by his long-time companion Nicola del Roscio.

Note: this essay appears also at Untitled: Perspectives (On Art

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