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Cy Twombly

July 6, 2011

Cy Twombly's death on July 5 marks the passing of one of the most celebrated contemporary artists, known for a style sometimes suggestive of graffiti or furious scrawlings.

Painter Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly's legacy is preserved in the LouvreImage: picture alliance/dpa

Large canvasses filled with frantic squiggles or bursts of color made him a star in the art world. American painter and sculptor Cy Twombly died on July 5 in Rome at the age of 83. The painter had battled cancer for years.

In a career spanning six decades, Twombly rose to become one of the most influential artists of his generation.

"Over the years, I got more interested in [him] as a draftsman, as somebody who was drawing paintings and painting drawings, but who was really making space for language in painting," sculptor Richard Serra said about Twombly at a retrospective of his work at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Text played an important role in Twombly's visual work with lines from poets like Mallarme, Keats or Sappho sometimes dotting his canvases; the titles of his works often evoked classical mythology or literature.

Outside looking in

Fusing text with painting was also a preoccupation of fellow painter Jasper Johns, whom Twombly met by way of his close friendship and working relationship with Robert Rauschenberg. All three artists lived and got their start together in New York in the 1950s.

Rauschenberg and Twombly studied together at North Carolina's Black Mountain College, a short-lived institution famous for its associations with seminal post-war figures in the arts, like John Cage and Robert Motherwell.

Despite his relationships with some of the most prominent American artists of his generation, the rather shy and reserved Twombly saw himself as a bit of an outsider.

"When I came to Rome, I ­always wondered why there were books, with photographs, on all the ­artists of my period and I was only in one!" Twombly said in a 2008 interview with Tate director Nicholas Serota.

"I thought: Where was I? But I never was there. I was somewhere else," he added.

Mediterranean sensibility

Twombly made Italy his home beginning in the late 1950s, marrying Italian Tatiana Franchetti in 1959. He resided most recently in the coastal town of Gaeta between Naples and Rome.

Many of Twombly's famous works stem from time he spent in the Mediterranean region, including bright palettes and the artist's trademark use of expansive white or empty spaces in his canvases. Classical themes drawn in part from Greek mythology became a prevalent motif in Twombly's paintings after his move, evident in his "Birth of Venus" and "Leda and the Swan" series from the early 1960s.

Though the painter worked throughout his life, the following decades he spent in Italy also included time away from painting, with new series of works coming at times in a flash. One such series, titled "Lepanto" from 2001 and consisting of 12 pictures, is part of the permanent collection at Munich's Museum Brandhorst.

"I'm not a professional painter, since I don't go to the studio and work nine to five like a lot of artists," Twombly once said. "When something hits me, or I see a painting, or when I see something in nature, it gives me a thing and I go for it."

'Simply brilliant'

A special honor rounded out the painter's career - and resulted in an unusual work. The Louvre in Paris invited Twombly to create a large-scale design for the ceiling of one of its most famous wings, making him the first American and one of only a handful of foreign artists to receive such a commission from the museum.

Twombly's ceiling painting at the Louvre
In 2010, Twombly finished a ceiling painting commissioned by the LouvreImage: 2009 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier
A visitor stands in front of a painting in the "Lepanto" series in Munich
Twombly's "Lepanto" (2001) series is on display in MunichImage: AP
Guests at a gallery look at a series of paintings by Twombly featuring large scribbled lines
Large, scribbled designs are part of Twombly's trademark styleImage: picture alliance/dpa

Twombly crafted a deep-blue sky with large discs in blue, yellow, gold and beige - a departure in style from the artist's earlier, signature paintings.

The work, installed in 2010 over a 400 square meter (4,300 square feet) expanse, was the final major painting the artist created.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand praised Twombly's method as "neither figurative nor abstract, simply brilliant."

Author: Greg Wiser (afpd/dpa)
Editor: Kate Bowen