Contemporary Art

21 Things You Should Know About Cy Twombly

By Sotheby's
As an exhibition of works – Cy Twombly & Friends – goes on sale in Paris to coincide with the Paris+ by Art Basel international art fair, we take a closer look at the origins of the artist's career, the company he kept and the secrets of his studio.

1. Cy Twombly, born Edwin Parker Twombly, Jr., was nicknamed “Cy” after the legendary National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Cy Young. His father Edwin Parker Twombly, Sr. (who was also nicknamed “Cy”), was a pitcher in Major League Baseball, and played for the Chicago White Sox.

2. Born in Lexington, Virginia, he was a bookish child despite having an athletically minded family. His early interest in art was developed by art making kits he would order from the Sears Roebuck catalogue.

3. As a teenager, he studied with the Spanish painter Pierre Daura, who had fled with his wife Louise Blair from the Spanish Civil War and settled in Lexington, Kentucky. Blair’s study of prehistoric cave paintings may have contributed to Twombly’s fascination with Paleolithic art.

Black-and-white photograph of artist Cy Twombly from 1958, wearing a suit and tie and sitting backwards on a chair. His righthand rests on his face.
CY TWOMBLY, 1958. Photography by David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

4. After receiving a scholarship to study at the Art Students League, Twombly relocated to New York City. In his second semester of study, he met and became close, lifelong friends with the artist Robert Rauschenberg.

5. Twombly turned down the offer for an exhibition at the Art Student League in the 1950s, saying it was “too early” for him.

6. In 1952, Twombly received a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and he traveled to Italy and North Africa with Rauschenberg. These travels had a profound impact on the artist, and he filled a sketchbook with drawings based off the material culture he saw while abroad; these designs would act as the basis for later expressive abstract canvases such as Tiznit and Quarzazat (both 1953), named after towns in Morocco.

7. Upon returning from their travels abroad, Rauschenberg and Twombly had a two-person exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York City. The show was so scandalous that the director, Eleanor Ward, had to remove the visitor comments book because of all the negative, sometimes even hostile, responses.

8. Twombly’s work of the 1950s was done mostly in black and white, illustrating the strong influence artists such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and, perhaps most importantly, Franz Kline, had on him.

9. After being drafted into the U.S. Army, Twombly served as a cryptographer from 1953 to 1954 in both Augusta, Georgia, and the Pentagon, Washington, DC.

10. While serving in the U.S. Army, on his weekend leaves, he spent his time in a hotel room in Augusta developing scribbled, biomorphic sketches that would, in the artists words, set “the direction everything would take from then on.” He also utilized the surrealist technique of “blind” drawing by working after lights out and in the dark.

11. For a time, Twombly lived and worked in a studio on William Street in New York City. The space was close to the studios of the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who both often helped title his paintings.

WATCH: The French Connection – Cy Twombly and François Halard | In The Studio

12. Twombly met the Italian artist Tatiana Franchetti in Rome, who was the sister of his patron Baron Giorgio Franchetti. They were married in City Hall, New York City, but subsequently moved back to Italy.

13. In 1958, Twombly joined the famous Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City, which was about the same time as he relocated to Rome permanently.

14. During the 1960s, Twombly’s art was well received in Italy, but disdained in America. His 1963 show at Castelli Gallery, showing the “Nine Discourses on Commodus,” received terrible reviews, with the artist and writer Donald Judd describing the exhibition as a “fiasco,” and further saying, “There isn’t anything to these paintings.”

15. After a nearly twenty year hiatus from sculpture, Twombly returned to the medium in the 1970s. These works consist of mainly amalgamated found objects painted entirely white.

Artist Cy Twombly wearing a white suit and sitting comfortably in a chair in his art-filled apartment in a palazzo in Rome. His wife Tatiana can be seen in the doorway in the background.

16. American reception of Twombly’s work turned more favorable in the 1980s, attributed to both a renewed interest in European modern art and the rise of Neo-expressionism with artists like Michael Basquiat and Joseph Beuys; by 1989, he broke the one million dollar mark at auction.

17. Despite figuring largely in American art, Twombly generally shunned fame and recognition, rarely giving interviews and largely ignoring critics.

18. In spite of growing popularity in the 1980s, many critics were still antagonistic towards Twombly’s hard-to-categorize work. In 1994, on the occasion of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, curator Kirk Varnedoe defended the him with the essay Your Kid Could Not Do This, and Other Reflections on Cy Twombly, writing that Twombly was “…influential among artists, discomfiting to many critics and truculently difficult not just for a broad public, but for sophisticated initiates of postwar art as well.”

Room in the Rome apartment of artist Cy Twombly featuring a row of French Empire chairs and one of Twombly's paintings leaning against the back wall.
CY TWOMBLY’S STUDIO IN ROME, 1966. Photograph by Horst P. Horst

19. Greco-Roman art, and the history of Rome where he lived for the majority of his life, was a large influence on the artist; the Classical Greek god Bacchus, the god of wine, is referenced heavily in Twombly’s late work, such as in Untitled (Bacchus), 2008 (Tate Modern, London).

20. In 1995, the Menil Collection in Houston opened a gallery dedicated to his work. The acclaimed architect Renzo Piano designed the new space after a plan by Twombly himself.

21. Cy only ever wrote one statement about his own work, a short essay that was published in an Italian art journal in 1957. In it he describes the iconic line work in his oeuvre, saying “It does not illustrate. It is the sensation of its own realization.”

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