Biography of Cy Twombly, Romantic Symbolist Artist

A woman stands in front of a painting by Cy Twombly
A museum visitor looks at a painting by Cy Twombly. Johannes Simon / Getty Images

Cy Twombly (born Edwin Parker "Cy" Twombly, Jr.; April 25, 1928–July 5, 2011) was an American artist known for works featuring scribbled, sometimes graffiti-like paintings. He was often inspired by classical myths and poetry. His style is called "romantic symbolism" for its interpretation of classical material in shapes and words or wordless calligraphy. Twombly also created sculptures during much of his career.

Fast Facts: Cy Twombly

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Known For: Romantic symbolist paintings and characteristic scribbles
  • Born: April 25, 1928 in Lexington, Virginia
  • Died: July 5, 2011 in Rome, Italy
  • Education: School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Black Mountain College
  • Selected Works: "Academy" (1955), "Nine Discourses on Commodus" (1963), "Untitled (New York)" (1970)
  • Notable Quote: "I swear if I had to do this over again, I would just do the paintings and never show them."

Early Life and Education

Cy Twombly grew up in Lexington, Virginia. He was the son of a professional baseball player, Cy Twombly, Sr., who had a short major league career pitching for the Chicago White Sox. Both men were nicknamed "Cy" after legendary pitcher Cy Young.

As a child, Cy Twombly practiced art with kits that his family ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog. He began taking art lessons at age 12. His instructor was painter Pierre Daura, a Catalan artist who fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. After high school, Twombly studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Washington and Lee University. In 1950, he began studying at the Art Students League of New York, where he met fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg. The two men became lifelong friends.

With Rauschenberg's encouragement, Twombly spent much of 1951 and 1952 studying at the now-defunct Black Mountain College in North Carolina with artists like Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Ben Shahn. Kline's black-and-white abstract expressionist paintings, in particular, heavily influenced Twombly's early work. Twombly's first solo exhibition took place at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery in New York in 1951.

Military Influence and Early Success

With a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Cy Twombly traveled to Africa and Europe in 1952. Robert Rauschenberg accompanied him. When Twombly returned to the U.S. in 1953, Twombly and Rauschenberg presented a two-person show in New York City that was so scandalous, the visitor comments book was removed to avoid the negative and hostile responses to the show.

In 1953 and 1954, Cy Twombly served in the U.S. Army as a cryptologist deciphering coded communication. While on weekend leaves, he experimented with the Surrealist art technique of automatic drawing, and he adapted it to create a methodology for drawing in the dark. The result was abstract forms and curves that emerged as key elements of later paintings.

cy twombly academy
Cy Twombly "Academy (1955)" at Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA. Robert Alexander / Getty Images

From 1955 through 1959, Twombly emerged as a prominent New York artist associating with both Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. During this period, his scribbled pieces on white canvas gradually evolved. His work became simpler in form and monochromatic in tone. By the late 1950s, his pieces appeared on dark canvas with what looked like white lines scratched into the surface.

Romantic Symbolism and Blackboard Paintings

In 1957, on a trip to Rome, Cy Twombly met Italian artist Baroness Tatiana Franchetti. They married in New York City in 1959 and soon moved to Italy. Twombly spent part of the year in Italy and part in the U.S. for the rest of his life. After moving to Europe, classical Roman myths began to heavily influence Twombly's art. In the 1960s, he frequently used classical mythology as source material. He created cycles based on myths like "Leda and the Swan" and "The Birth of Venus." His work was dubbed "romantic symbolism," as the paintings were not directly representational but rather were meant to symbolize the classical, romantic content.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Twombly created what are often called the "Blackboard Paintings": scrawled white writing on a dark surface that resembles a chalkboard. The writing does not form words. In the studio, Twombly reportedly sat on the shoulders of a friend and moved back and forth along the canvas to create his curving lines.

cy twombly untitled new york
Cy Twombly's Untitled (New York City) at Christie's auction. Peter Mcdiarmid / Getty Images

In 1963, after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Twombly created a series of paintings informed by the life of the assassinated Roman emperor Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius. He titled it "Nine Discourses on Commodus." The paintings include violent splatters of color against the background of grey canvases. When exhibited in New York in 1964, American critics' reviews were largely negative. However, the Commodus series is now seen as one of Twombly's most significant achievements.

Sculpture

Cy Twombly created sculpture from found objects throughout the 1950s, but he stopped producing three-dimensional work in 1959 and did not begin again until the mid-1970s. Twombly returned to found and discarded objects, but just like his paintings, his sculptures were newly influenced by classical myths and literature. Most of Twombly's sculptures are painted white—in fact, he once said, "White paint is my marble."

cy twombly sculptures
Cy Twombly sculptures and paintings at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, California, USA. Santi Visalli / Getty Images

Twombly's sculpted works were not well-known to the public for most of his career. An exhibition of selected sculpted pieces from throughout his career was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2011, the year of Twombly's death. Since they are constructed mostly of found objects, many observers see his sculpture as a three-dimensional record of the artist's life.

Later Works and Legacy

Late in his career, Cy Twombly added more bright color to his work, and on occasion his pieces were representational, such as his massive late-career paintings of roses and peonies. Classical Japanese art influenced these works; some are even inscribed with Japanese haiku poetry.

'Untitled (Roses)', Cy Twombly (2008) at the Broadhurst Museum in Munich
'Untitled (Roses)', Cy Twombly (2008) at the Broadhurst Museum in Munich. Miguel Villagran / Getty Images

One of Twombly's final works was the painting of the ceiling of a sculpture gallery at the Louvre museum in Paris, France. He died of cancer on July 5, 2011, in Rome, Italy.

Twombly avoided the trappings of celebrity for most of his career. He chose to let his painting and sculpture speak for themselves. The Milwaukee Art Museum presented the first Twombly retrospective in 1968. Later major exhibitions included a 1979 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art's 1994 retrospective in New York City.

Many see Twombly's work as a significant influence on important contemporary artists. Echoes of his approach to symbolism are seen in the work of Italian artist Francesco Clemente. Twombly's paintings also presaged the large-scale paintings by Julian Schnabel and the use of scribbling in the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Sources

  • Rivkin, Joshua. Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly. Melville House, 2018.
  • Storsve, Jonas. Cy Twombly. Sieveking, 2017.