July 15, 2011  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Cy Twombly: Sculpture

Installation view of Cy Twombly: Sculpture at MoMA (May 20–October 3, 2011). Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

On July 5, the art world lost one of its key figures when Cy Twombly passed away. A remarkably innovative and deeply influential artist, Twombly left an important legacy that resonates in a broad range of contemporary work. MoMA recently had the great fortune of acquiring seven sculptures and two paintings directly from the artist. These works join a core group of paintings already in the Museum’s collection. To acknowledge this landmark acquisition, the Department of Painting and Sculpture mounted a focused installation of the sculptures outside the entrance to the recently reinstalled fourth-floor galleries (where the two newly acquired paintings by the artist, Tiznit [1953] and Academy [1955], are on view). Twombly’s sculptures have remained relatively unknown to the public, overshadowed by his more widely exhibited paintings. The works currently on view, made over the course of 50 years and in various studios, trace the history of Twombly’s sculptural production and present a unique point of entry into this important body of work.

Two of the sculptures included in this installation were made in the mid-1950s, soon after Twombly’s return to New York from a trip to Europe and North Africa that profoundly informed the direction his art would take. Like other works from this same period, these sculptures make reference to the ancient objects Twombly viewed in his travels. Intimate in scale and made of simple materials—sticks that have been covered, bundled, and bound—an untitled work from 1955 invokes an almost fetishlike object of personal and private devotion. Untitled (Funerary Box for a Lime Green Python), comprising two pairs of bound palm leaf fans on a rectangular base, suggests a kind of ancient monument or reliquary. Twombly applied white house paint to this work’s surface, initiating a technique that would become an integral part of his sculptural process.

Installation view of Cy Twombly: Sculpture at MoMA (May 20–October 3, 2011). Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. Shown, from left: Untitled (Funerary Box for a Lime Green Python). 1954. Wood, palm leaf fans, house paint, cloth, and wire. Promised gift of Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis. Untitled. 1984–85. Wood, plaster, nails, and paint. Purchase. Untitled. 1955. Wood, cloth, twine, and paint. Promised gift of Steven and Alexandra Cohen. All works in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art and © 2011 Estate of Cy Twombly

At the close of the 1950s, Twombly stopped making sculpture for nearly two decades. Upon returning to the medium in 1976, he made a series of works in Rome composed of cardboard tubes, one of which is on view at MoMA. Here the task of sculptural production was reduced to an almost unthinkably simple strategy: Twombly created an abstract form from two spare columnar elements whose textured surface, built up by layers of white house paint, lends an expressive quality to the structure’s reserved stateliness.

Twombly drew inspiration from classical literature, ancient epic poetry, and mythology, and evidence of these influences recur as themes throughout his oeuvre. He once said he was “very happy to have the boat motif” in his work, not only for its autobiographical relevance—as a child, he spent his summers with his parents by the sea in Gloucester, Massachusetts—but also because he liked the “references to crossing over” associated with it. One of the sculptures on view at MoMA, an untitled painted wooden construction made in Rome (1984–85), conjures nautical imagery through its ship-like form. The cast bronze By the Ionian Sea, made in Naples (1988), gets its title from the 1901 travelogue by the British author George Gissing (1857–1903), who traveled the Mediterranean by land and water.

Twombly’s sculptures are primarily made of found materials he gathered in the various places he has lived. While in Jupiter Island, Florida, in 1992, Twombly dug in the sand on the beach to form a mold for the plaster base of an untitled sculpture included in MoMA’s display. Atop the base is a pair of found objects—a long wooden stick and a set of plastic leaves—and embedded within it is actual sand that adhered to the plaster during the casting process. In a recent work from 2005, made in his studio in Lexington, Virginia, a painter’s mixing wand, its tip a blaze of electric pink paint, is perched atop an assemblage of found objects.

Embedded within the history of Twombly’s sculptural production is a history of Twombly himself, and so the artist becomes increasingly familiar through an understanding of his practice. It is truly an extraordinary opportunity to be able to present, in this particular moment, a broad selection of such an important body of his work, and an honor to become its new custodian.