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Cy Twombly (American, 1928–2011)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor. He studied from 1948 to 1951 at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, at the Museum School in Boston, and at the Art Students League in New York. In 1951–2 he spent a semester at Black Mountain College, an important period for his involvement with Abstract Expressionism. Action painting, in particular, became his point of departure for the development of a highly personal ‘handwriting’ that served as a vehicle for literary content. During this period he became friendly with Robert Rauschenberg, travelling with him to North Africa.

In Untitled (1952; Basle, Kstmus.) Twombly used long brushstrokes in contrasting tones against a dark background, only to paint partly over them again. This alternation between the visible and the hidden, between clear and murky forms, which became a unifying theme in Twombly’s work, has been interpreted by one critic, Gottfried Boehm, as a struggle between memory and oblivion. Twombly’s use here of clusters of brushstrokes arranged diagonally across the surface became a recurring feature of his pictures in a variety of forms, for example as perpendicular stripes in the series of lithographs Gladings (Love’s Infinite Causes) (1973; see Lambert, pp. 35–41).

In the mid-1950s Twombly began working also in chalk and pencil, and his paintings assumed a more graphic character. The stylistic changes in his paintings were subsequently registered more or less simultaneously in his prolific production of drawings and prints, which were often executed in series; often he drew contrasting, gradually dissolving lines on a beige or greyish-black ground, sometimes when it was still damp. Panorama (1955; priv. col., see Bastian, 1978, pl. 6), the only surviving dark canvas on a monumental scale, is completely covered with dynamic interweaving white lines truncated by the borders of the picture. The potential of gestural brushwork as a form of handwriting was not exploited by Twombly until he settled in Rome in 1957 and found inspiration in classical landscapes and literature. In Olympia (1957; priv. col., see Bastian, 1978, pl. 11), for instance, coloured lines form signs against a light-coloured background with pale yellow spots. In his paintings and drawings Twombly made direct reference to antiquity only in the inscriptions, which at the same time form part of the complex of lines and forms, and he remained committed to a deliberately awkward line verging on a scrawl. The few small sculptures that he produced between 1955 and 1959 are more disciplined, and their forms also suggest references to Classical culture. For example, in Untitled (painted resin, 1959; priv. col., see Zurich 1987 exh. cat., pl. 102) a pedestal of three superposed geometrical forms carries a row with interconnected staves suggesting a pan-pipe.

In the first half of the 1960s Twombly made particular use of subjective, erotic signs in his paintings, and he began to use more intense and denser colours. In Leda and the Swan (1961; priv. col., see Bastian, 1978, pl. 43), red and pink marks gradually emerge from the concentrated turbulence of the brushwork to assume a recognizable form. In the Blackboard Paintings initiated in 1966 Twombly returned to contrasting lines against a light or dark background. Rhythmic marks, spatially projected geometric shapes, words, letters and numbers are characteristically scattered across the painting surface, as in Untitled (1969; Basle, Kstmus.).

From 1976 Twombly again produced sculptures, lightly painted in white, suggestive of Classical forms. In the mid-1970s, in paintings such as Untitled (1976; priv. col., see Bastian, 1978, pl. 97), Twombly began to evoke landscape through colour (favouring brown, green and light blue), written inscriptions and collage elements, often distributing these features across the surface by means of right angles that emphasize the legibility of the image and its narrative character. In later works such as Gaeta-Sets (1986; see Bonn 1987 exh. cat., pp. 131–6, 138–44), however, Twombly treated landscape in a more purely abstract manner, freeing it from a literary context.

Anneke E. Wijnbeek
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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