Cy Twombly, Legendary Scribbler, Dead Age 83


Artist Cy Twombly died today in Rome, age 83. He had recently battled cancer but the cause of his death was not immediately disclosed by Gagosian Gallery, which made the announcement. Twombly showed with the gallery since the late 1980s, most recently at its Paris location in 2010.

In his work, Twombly often sought to capture the essence of line and the experience of its making. His scribbles, drips and smears on vast expanses of canvases look fresh today, resonating with works by younger generations of artists, such as Basquiat, Gary Simmons, Phillip Taaffe and Suzanne McClelland. But for the first decades of his career he often found himself on the wrong side of artistic fashion, pursuing his spare, scribbled canvases, once maligned by Donald Judd, through years of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop. Instead of pop culture or politics, his works were informed by antiquity and classical literature.

The publicity-shy artist was born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1928. He studied at the Art Students League in New York from 1950 to 1951. It was there that he befriended Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who became lifelong friends. The following year he studied with Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Ben Shahn at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Motherwell helped Twombly get his first exhibition, at Samuel Kootz Gallery in 1951.

Turning away from the New York-centric art world of the time, he moved to Rome in 1957, where his penchant for classicism was nurtured.

Twombly’s career boomed in the 1990s. In 1995, the Menil Collection in Houston opened a facility, designed by the artist and Renzo Piano and in partnership with the Dia Foundation for the Arts, devoted to Twombly’s work. Filled with mural-size canvases and bright, diffuse light, the galleries have an ethereal, meditative quality.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art permanently installed his monumental 10-painting cycle, “Fifty Days at Iliam,” based on the Illiad, in 1989.  And in 2010, his 4,300-square-foot ceiling painting was permanently installed at the Louvre. He was the first American and the third contemporary artist-following Anselm Kiefer and François Morellet-to be invited to exhibit work at the Louvre. Installed in the Greek Bronze Room, the ceiling is an expanse of blue bordered with spheres and rectangles bearing the names of Greek artists.

Twombly was included in the 1964, 1989 and 2001 Venice Biennales, receiving a Golden Lion in 2001. Surveys of his work have been mounted by, among others, the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1968, the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979, the Museum of Modern Art in 1994 and Tate Modern in 2008.

A selection of seven of Twombly sculptures recently acquired by MoMA are on view there through Oct. 3. “Twombly & Poussin: Arcadian Painters” is on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London through Sept. 25.