Cy Twombly

Annie Lee | Jul 23, 2023

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Cy Twombly, born Edwin Parker Twombly Jr. on April 25, 1928 in Lexington, Virginia - died July 5, 2011 in Rome, is an American painter, draftsman, sculptor and photographer.

Cy Twombly belongs to the generation of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns or Brice Marden, renewing American art after the generation of Abstract Expressionists that were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman.

His work intersects with some of the major issues of twentieth century art such as the dilemma of abstraction

Family origin

Edwin Parker Twombly Jr, known as "Cy", was born in 1928 in Lexington, Virginia. His father, Edwin Parker Twombly, known as "Cy" (1894-1974), was a baseball player for the Chicago White Sox. He took the nickname of the famous pitcher Denton True Young (1867-1955), called "Cy Young" (Cy for "Cyclone").

The painter Cy Twombly will therefore take over not only his father's first and last names but also his nickname. Cy Twombly Sr. is a professor of sports at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.

Training and first exhibitions in the United States

From a very young age, Cy Twombly was interested in drawing and painting. Between 1942 and 1946, he took classes in his hometown with the painter Pierre Daura, a Spanish artist (a former student of Picasso's father), who had been a refugee in France for a long time and came to the United States after marrying a Virginian woman in 1938.

In 1946, Twombly entered the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia. He spent the summer of 1947 with an artists' colony in Ogunquit and Groveland. Then, from 1947 to 1949, he attended the Boston Museum School. Returning to his hometown to study at Washington and Lee University (Lexington), he was encouraged to join the Art Students League of New York (1950-1951). It was there that he met the painters Knox Martin and Robert Rauschenberg. On the advice of the latter, he spent time in 1951 and 1952 at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, a place of exchange and intellectual encounters where the New York avant-garde gathered. There he rubbed shoulders with Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Ben Shahn, the poet Charles Olson, the musician John Cage and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

His first exhibition was held in November 1951 at the Seven Stairs Gallery in Chicago thanks to Aaron Siskind; he was exhibited at the Kootz Gallery in New York at the same time through Robert Motherwell. A grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1952 allowed him to travel with Robert Rauschenberg to Europe, Spain, Italy, France and North Africa from September 1952 to May 1953. During this trip, the two painters discovered Rome, Venice, Florence, Assisi as well as Casablanca, Marrakech and Tangiers. Cy Twombly participated in archaeological excavations in Roman baths.

Upon returning to the United States in 1953, Twombly and Rauschenberg exhibited at the Stable Gallery in Eleanord Ward, to negative reviews. Between the fall of 1953 and the spring of 1954, Twombly fulfilled his military obligations in the cryptographic services in Washington D.C. Back in New York, he shared the studio that Robert Rauschenberg rented on Fulton Street. His life in New York was marked by new friendships, notably with Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock, and by new exhibitions at the Stable Gallery in 1956 and 1957. He was exhibited from 1959 by Leo Castelli, a famous New York gallery owner of Italian origin. In the latter part of his career, he was linked to the Gagosian Gallery.

Between Europe and the United States - The Traveler

In 1957, during a second stay in Italy that was to be temporary, he decided to settle permanently in Rome. That same year he met Tatiana Franchetti, a painter and descendant of a family of art patrons. They married in New York on April 20, 1959 and had a child, Cyrus Alessandro, born on December 18 of the same year. From then on, Cy Twombly lived between Europe and the United States, having successively or sometimes simultaneously residences and studios in Rome, New York, Lexington, Sperlonga, Bolsena, Bassano in Teverina, Gaeta, and regularly visiting Robert Rauschenberg on Captiva Island (Florida).

The painter's life was marked by numerous trips, notably to France, where he lived in Paris at the Hotel La Louisiane, to Germany, Switzerland, Egypt (1962), Yemen (1983) and India (1973). In the summer of 1991, Cy Twomby followed the itinerary of the English romantic poet Lord Byron to Greece.

International recognition

Twombly was invited to the 1964 Venice Biennale. In 1968, the Milwaukee Art Center mounted his first retrospective in the United States. This recognition was accentuated in 1979 with a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He subsequently exhibited his work all over the world: Kunsthaus Zurich in 1987, Musée national d'art moderne de Paris in 1988, MoMA New York in 1994, as well as in Houston Texas (where the Menil Collection opened, in 1995, a section specially designed for his work in a building designed by Renzo Piano in close collaboration with the painter), in Los Angeles, in Berlin... The Brandhorst museum in Munich also presents a large number of his works (an entire level is devoted to the painter with, as a highlight, the Lepanto cycle of 2001).

In 1996, he received the Praemium Imperiale prize in the Painting category and in 2001, the Golden Lion at the Biennale of Contemporary Art in Venice.

Cy Twombly died on July 5, 2011 in Rome.

Brief chronology of the painted work

Cy Twombly's work can be roughly divided into seven successive periods.

The catalog raisonné places the beginning in 1948, although there is a photograph of the young man at the age of 16 painting on a natural landscape in Ogunquit, Maine (photograph titled Cy Twombly with painting box + Umbrella of Charles Woodburry . These early paintings are little published and not well known.

Between 1951 and 1953, the artist used a thick and rough material in his canvases, painting large primitive forms, often phallic. This phase, dominated by a chromaticism limited to black and white, was nourished in particular by the trip made to Rome and the Maghreb with Robert Rauschenberg.

1955 was the year of a series of paintings, all of which were lost except for Panorama. The set, destroyed by the artist, is known thanks to a photograph taken by Robert Rauschenberg in the studio they shared on Fulton Street in New York. On these canvases, a light, jagged, abstract white line runs across a uniformly black background. This series is often compared to Cy Twombly's efforts during his military service (1953) to unlearn classical drawing technique by practicing in the dark.

The years 1955-1959, marked by the move to Rome in 1957, show a certain unity in the whiteness of the backgrounds on which fine signs of various kinds are scattered. This period includes major series and works such as the ensemble formed by Academy, Criticism, Free Wheeler, etc. painted in 1955 in New York, titled randomly with the complicity of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and sometimes interpreted as a response to the fierce criticism that Twombly endured following his first exhibitions (one reads "Fuck" several times on Academy). This series continued with Arcadia in 1958, which was formally very similar but used a very different theme, a reference to the Arcadia painted by Nicolas Poussin. 1959 sees multiple variations of these white surfaces crossed by discrete signs with : the series Untitled known as Lexington Paintings where the signs fragment into tiny entities, the 24 drawings of the set Poems to the sea which is a tribute to Stéphane Mallarmé (discovered by Twombly in 1957) and evokes the fertility of the painter's wife who was pregnant at the time, and finally, concluding the year since it was painted during the night of New Year's Eve 1959-1960, The Age of Alexander which inaugurates the recent paternity of the artist (his son was born on 18 December 1959).

The five years that followed, from 1960 to 1964, were dominated by an irrational energy expressed as much in the workmanship (exacerbated colors, anarchic compositions, paint often applied directly with the hands) as in the themes (sexuality, scatology, violence of certain myths, etc.). The Ferragosto series, named after the Italian feast of the Assumption, which Twombly experienced in 1961 under a very strong heat wave, is the summit of this baroque outburst. These forms and themes coincide with Twombly's new Italian life, but also with his son's early childhood. It was nourished by confrontations with the great history of art: School of Fontainebleau (1960, in reference to the School of Fontainebleau), Empire of Flora (1961, in connection with Nicolas Poussin), Dutch Interior (1961), the two versions of School of Athens (1961 and 1964, in reference to Raphael's fresco of the Vatican Lodges, Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus (1962), etc. The turning point of this period was the exhibition at Leo Castelli's gallery in 1964 of the cycle Nine Discourses on Commodus (painted in 1963 and recounting the tragic life and death of the Roman emperor Commodus), severely criticized in particular by the leader of minimal art Donald Judd.

This new confrontation with American critics slowed down Twombly's production for several months before he began the period known as the "Blackboard paintings" (1966-1970), so called because of their resemblance to the school chalkboard. Executed with industrial paint (background) and wax crayon (forms), these numerous works are clearly reminiscent of Panorama and its destroyed counterparts from 1955. However, the motifs are often more rigorous and austere, which encouraged a link with the minimal art then in vogue in the United States. References to art and even music remain: the title Night Watch recalls Rembrandt and Treatise on the Veil (1970) owes as much to Leonardo da Vinci's drapery drawings as to the concrete composition of musician Pierre Henry. This arid and rigorous period continued with series of different forms but similar spirit: Bolsena (1969, named after the Italian city where the paintings were executed) and the famous Nini's paintings (1970) named after Nini Pirandello, wife of a gallery owner and friend of Twombly who had recently died. The first series multiplies geometric figures with annotations, while the second is formed of all-over interlacing suggesting the unspeakable in the face of death.

The forty years that follow, from 1971 to 2011, can be brought together, despite the constant renewal that Cy Twombly proceeds with. From then on, color dominated, the pictorial material often flowed, writing (poems) was particularly present and the great cycles became more regular (Fifty days at Iliam, Green paintings, Four Seasons, Coronation of Sesostris, Lepanto, Bacchus, Peony, Roses, etc.). The particularly long execution of the artist's largest painting spans part of this period: begun in 1972, Untitled (Say goodbye, Catullus, to the shores of Asia minor) was completed in 1994 to be exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, in parallel with the major retrospective at MoMA. The painter alternates elegiac themes (particularly on the theme of love and exile) and epic themes (wars of the ancient and modern periods). This duality is ideally expressed in two large graphic works forming pendants: Apollo and the Artist and Mars and the artist (1975). The last years, nourished in particular by several collaborations with French (Yvon Lambert) and German (the Brandhorst couple) clients, gave rise to very large colored formats (Bacchus, Peony, Roses).

A work apart, mixing gestuality, mythology and poetry

Cy Twombly's work developed on the bangs of the dominant currents in American art and was organized into vast series and cycles. Never an illustrator, nor solely abstract, it remains in the background of debates concerning figuration, which constitutes an apparent formal paradox. This gives her a multiple and unique character at the same time, which is reflected in the breadth and diversity of her works on paper.

In presenting his first exhibition in Paris in 1961, Pierre Restany, a contemporary art critic, wrote :

"His graphic design is poetry, reportage, furtive gesture, sexual release, automatic writing, self-affirmation, and refusal as well... there is neither syntax nor logic, but a quivering of the being, a whisper that goes to the bottom of things.

The painted work shows a great diversity in its techniques and issues. Many of his canvases are white surfaces receiving all kinds of traces: numbers, crosses, geometric diagrams, daubs made with the finger, scribbles in hatchings or loops, bloody or scatological flows and finally some words (names of gods or ancient heroes, verses of famous poets, etc.). The oil painting takes up the tints of the body moods (from the white-cream to the brown passing by all the gradations of pink and red) and mingles with the pencils of paper and colored pencils of the childhood. The writing is jumbled, capital letters are mixed with small letters, the simplest words are crossed out. When the work is finished, most of the surface of the canvas remains blank. The meeting between a form of childish primitivism, the depths of psychoanalysis and classical culture (which, by the modes of its intrusion on the canvas and the choice of titles, always seem to be the absolute horizon of the painter's universe) is thus played out here.

"Twombly has constituted a corpus of inscriptions regenerating an entire literate, ancient and inactual culture. His art is a fight against the erasure of true knowledge, that of the genesis of the gods and the world, and of its mythical substratum. Thus, Twombly has left us Tables. A Table of the matter, of the materia prima.

In his last years, and despite his advanced age, the artist has renewed himself considerably. From the roughly painted motif, streaks of colored paint flow to the bottom edge of the canvas. Each motif brings its own colors so that the bottom of some paintings is a juxtaposition of drips whose hues alternate randomly. The energetic scribbling has thus given way to a more ample gesture with a liquid paint on which gravity acts. Moreover, the palette is richer and the colors (especially the yellows and reds) reach an intensity rare in the history of painting. Twombly proves here his qualities as a colorist. A new theme accompanied this entry into color: flowers. On canvases or boards several meters long, Twombly painted roses or peonies out of scale in large scrolling movements. Verses by Rainer Maria Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Patricia Waters, T.S. Eliott or Ingeborg Bachmann accompany these motifs. One constant remains: the rejection of mastery. The writing is crossed out, crossed out, sometimes summarily erased; the motifs feign clumsiness; gravity, associated with the texture of the support and the viscosity of the paint, destructures the forms and generates random streaks. The Lepanto, Blossoms and Roses cycles are the best examples of these recent innovations.

In 2001, Cy Twombly was asked by Harald Szeemann, director of the Venice Biennale, to propose an exhibition on the theme "The Foundation of Human Being". For this particular event, he created a large narrative cycle dedicated to the Battle of Lepanto, a famous naval battle that took place on October 7, 1571 in Greece, in the Gulf of Lepanto. This exhibition is called "Lepanto". Twombly's interest in this subject began with the depictions of the battle in tapestries made from a suite of paintings by Luca Cambiaso for King Philip II of Spain. The artist arranged "Lepanto" in a way that is both symphonic and cinematic with four images of flames, falling leaves, and with a very abstract narrative of the battle. The "Lepanto" suite was then permanently installed in the Brandhorst Museum in Munich.

Works on paper

There is no hierarchy between painting and drawing for Cy Twombly. Several of his works on paper are considered the pinnacle of his oeuvre, such as Poems to the Sea (1959) or the 1975 counterparts Apollo and the artist and Mars and the artist.

Towards the end of the 1950s, graffiti and scratches appear on the paper, juxtaposed with letters, words and numbers. Actual quotations sometimes appear alongside the scattered graffiti, which are often crossed out or even erased.

The drawings of the 1960s feature a burst of material, manifested in the extensive use of colored pencils and pastels and a surface saturated with graffiti and numbers.

During the 1970s, he gave pride of place to collage, in which he produced a series of paintings that used the same motif. He then produced very large formats, devoted to Greco-Latin mythology, which has been the source of his work since the late 1950s.

The use of paint, as well as pencil and pastel, intensified in the early 1990s and reached its peak in a series of drawings dated 2001. These works, in which the artist breaks down the traditional division between painting and drawing, constitute an unprecedented peak in his art.


Cy Twombly also made sculptures, assemblages of modest objects that he covered with white paint. A photograph from 1946 demonstrates the precocity of this research. He established his aesthetic as early as 1948 with an untitled work composed of porcelain door knobs (kept at the Art Institute of Chicago). He continued in this vein during the months he spent in Robert Rauschenberg's studio on Fulton Street in New York after 1952, and extended it throughout his career. Flowers, boats, monuments and mythologies form common themes with the painted work. The unification of forms assembled by white paint recalls the importance of white in all of Twombly's work (the white of paper, canvas, etc.) but is associated by the artist himself, in the case of the sculptures, with ancient marble.


Twombly is also a photographer, an activity in which we find the modesty and poetic sweetness that permeates all his work.



Year 2000

Year 2010

Twombly's Three Studies for the Bold (1998-1999) was purchased in 2004 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for A$4.5 million.

In 2015, a painting produced in 1968 by Cy Twombly, estimated at $60 million and depicting six lines of what looks like white circular doodles on a gray board, sold for $70.5 million at auction in New York.

In 2017, at a Christie's sale, the large painting Leda and the Swan, painted in 1962 by Twombly, was sold for $52.8 million (47 million euros).

The case of the "kiss

In 2007, an exhibition entitled Blooming, a scattering of Blossoms and other Things, was devoted to Cy Twombly at the Hôtel de Caumont which houses the Collection Lambert in Avignon.

During this exhibition, a Cambodian artist, Rindy Sam, put an imprint of her lips smeared with lipstick on a white canvas of the Triptych devoted to the Phaedrus of Plato, strongly degrading this set estimated at 2 million euros. The young person appeared on October 9, 2007 before the court of Avignon. The judgement was rendered in November. A fine of 4 500 € is required.

Judgment of November 16: Rindy Sam is condemned to 1,500 € of damages (500 € for the Foundation) and one euro of damages is attributed to Cy Twombly in accordance with the artist's request. In addition, Cy Twombly was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. A decision on the costs of restoring the work has been postponed to February 28, 2008 by the court. His lawyers, Patrick Gontard and Jean-Michel Ambrosino, propose the replacement of the work with a new, identical canvas.

On June 2, 2009, the Court of Appeal of Nîmes condemned it to pay 18,840 euros to the Lambert collection, for the costs of restoration of the painting. The decision is in line with the one pronounced in first instance by the criminal court of Avignon, in August 2008. It must also pay a sum of 500 euros to the painter, but also to Yvon Lambert, owner of the painting, and to the collection that houses it, for expenses related to their defense.

The ceiling of the Louvre

The Musée du Louvre in Paris has commissioned Twombly to create a permanent ceiling for one of its main halls (the Greek Bronze Room) since 2010. This is the second commission from the French government, following a stage curtain for the Opéra Bastille in 1989. On March 23, 2010, Cy Twombly attended the museum's inauguration of his 400 m2 ceiling, a work entitled The Cieling, for the Salon des Bronzes on the second floor of the Sully wing. This "Giotto blue" ceiling features forty circles of other colors on the edge of the rectangle it forms, depicting ancient shields and seven cartouches bearing the names of seven famous sculptors of Greek antiquity: Cephisodotus, Lysippus, Myron, Phidias, Polyclitus, Praxiteles, Scopas.

On this occasion, Cy Twombly was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor by the Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand.

In February 2021, the Cy Twombly Foundation denounced "an odious affront" by the Louvre after the rearrangement of the room, "a complete change in the quality of the daylight, which is absorbed by the red walls, instead of being reflected by the white and thus illuminating the colors chosen for the ceiling. The result is that the ceiling has lost the delicate and airy atmosphere of the artist's project and is now weighed down by this new and artificial chromatic device." They therefore consider this to be "serious damage to Twombly's work, in violation of the artist's moral rights" and the Foundation is seeking the intervention of the Ministry of Culture.

Charles Olson

The poet Charles Olson supported Cy Twombly when the latter resided at Black Mountain College in 1951 and 1952. He wrote a prose poem in 1951 titled Cy Twombly that read:

"  Il y eut un homme qui s'occupa de la blancheur. Et de l'espace. C'était un Américain. Et son génie résidait peut-être davantage dans l'innocence que dans la candeur désormais nécessaire. En tout cas, il n'a pas été compris.  "

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes, whose analysis of Cy Twombly's work is one of the most insightful, writes in a major text, dedicated "to Yvon, to Renaud and to William":

"How to name what he does? Words arise spontaneously ("drawing", "graphism", "doodling", "left", "childish"). And immediately a language awkwardness arises: these words, at the same time (which is very strange), are neither false nor satisfactory: for on the one hand, TW's work coincides well with its appearance, and we must dare to say that it is flat; but on the other hand - this is the enigma - this appearance does not coincide well with the language that so much simplicity and innocence should arouse in us who look at it... The material will show its essence, show us the certainty of its name: it is pencil.  "

Philippe Sollers

"A memory is said, a pleasure is celebrated. The name, the allusive image, the dedication, the date. The whole without edges, in movement, as if thrown in the flat delight. One can recognize a god there if one wants. Not just any god. Not at any time nor under any mask. "Then he recognized the god." Classic Homeric situation, theophany behind the sometimes most trivial epiphany. Twombly's invitation is explicitly of this order. His calm and resolute hero - himself - records these revelations."

- Philippe Sollers, "Les épiphanies de Twombly", in: Éloge de l'infini

Renaud Camus

"There are few areas or inspirations in Twombly's work that I like less, and very few that I don't like at all. But there is one field that I love more than anything else, it's true, it's the great lyrical field, that of the tributes, often in polyptychs, to Goethe, Sapho, Virgil, Theocritus or Valery. Plastic poetry never ceases to be a quivering because, however literary its inspiration, and charged with the finest and most loving culture, it is breath, air, travel, landscape and rustling foliage, mountain scent in view of the sea."

- in Renaud Camus, Aguets - Diary 1988

Demosthenes Davvetas

"Cy Twombly's graphics are emotional and implicitly erotic. The graphic

- in Poetic writing and plastic language (Au même titre éditions)

Marcelin Pleynet

"The work of Cy Twombly carries away the judgment, its presence imposes itself like an obviousness and carries away the adhesion. It is already in the eye of the one who discovers it, it requires it, it exceeds the conviction. You are in this immediate report or it is missed, it will not be for you, not this time. You are compromised in its gesture, you are of its collage. There, she understands the one who approaches her, he is of her staging, he is in it, he is of her commentary."

- in Marcelin Pleynet "Design of letters, numbers and words. Painting by ear" (1974)


  1. Cy Twombly
  2. Cy Twombly
  3. a b c et d (en) Nicholas Serota, Cy Twombly, Cycles and Seasons, Londres, Tate, 2008, 272 p. (ISBN 978-1-85437-769-2), p. 234-238.
  4. a b et c Paris Match, « Cy Twombly au Centre Pompidou : l'art en fusion », sur (consulté le 15 septembre 2021)
  5. ^ The Sunday Times Magazine, The Sunday Times, December 18, 2011, page 64
  6. ^ Matt Schudel (July 6, 2011), Cy Twombly, influential Va.-born abstract artist, dies at 83 The Washington Post.
  7. The Sunday Times Magazine, The Sunday Times, 18 de diciembre de 2011, pag. 64
  8. a b c d e Heiner Bastian (Hrsg.): Cy Twombly, Band IV, S. 178.

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