Cy Twombly was born 1928 in Lexington, Virginia. From 1948 to 1951, he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Washington and Lee University, Lexington; and the Art Students League, New York, where he met Robert Rauschenberg. At Rauschenberg’s encouragement, he attended Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, in 1951 and 1952, where he studied under Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Ben Shahn. Building on the freedom afforded by the previous generation, the younger artists emphasised libidinal energy integrated through experience.
In 1962, he painted a work that illustrates many of the abiding engagements of his practice. "Untitled" is divided into two zones by a horizontal line about two thirds of the way up. Across the bottom edge of the canvas, Twombly has scribbled a textual fragment gleaned from the poet Sappho: “But their heart turned cold + they dropped their wings.” The phrase, suggesting a hovering between higher and lower realms, conjures up a distant classical realm, even as the grappling, awkward hand renders the words materially present.
Although his work resonates strongly with generations of younger artists, ranging from Brice Marden to Richard Prince to Tacita Dean to Patti Smith, it has a general propensity to polarise its audience between perplexity and unbridled admiration. Additionally, the critical and historical reception has seemed to describe two Twomblys – one about form, the other about content.
For eight months spanning 1952–1953 Twombly and Rauschenberg travelled through Europe and north Africa, joined for a while by the writer Paul Bowles. Upon returning to New York, Rauschenberg set up the Fulton Street studio that Twombly sometimes shared. Eleanor Ward invited the two artists to exhibit at her Stable Gallery.
In 1959 Twombly executed some of the most spare works of his career, among them the 24 drawings that comprise Poems to the Sea, done on the coast of Italy at Sperlonga. What order of poems, punctuated with numerals and question marks, are these? The sea is reduced to horizon line and word, scribblings and veils of paint against the stark white of paper. A persistent compulsion is invoked in the viewer, the desire to read what is there, but not fully manifest in the artist’s scrawled script. Two words in these drawings emerge into legibility, “time”and “Sappho”, as if washed up on the beach alongside sudden, subtle gem-flashes of colour – blue, orange-yellow, pink – gleaming all the more because of their discretion.
Following this exhibition, Twombly’s American enthusiasm ebbed for a number of years. The situation was quite different in Europe, where his work remained a critical success. Nevertheless, the Commodus exhibition represents a crucial moment of rupture in the artist’s career, for, as he commented, it made him “the happiest painter around for a couple of years: no one gave a damn what I did”.Approaching the end of the 1960s, Twombly employed a monochrome grey ground.
To find out more about Cy Twombly or where to view more of his work, please visit http://www.cytwombly.info/