There’s a vast universe that divides words and images. A work is either written or painted, narrated or illustrated – hardly both. But American painter Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly (April 25, 1928 – July 5, 2011) spent his life blurring those well-defined lines, often employing both the written word and the rendered picture to instill tension, frustration and mystery in his work.
Twombly grew up in Lexington, Virginia, where at age fourteen he attended painting classes led by Spanish artist Pierre Duara, who was living in Lexington to escape the dangers of Paris during World War II. He perfected his craft in New York City and eventually earned a traveling grant that sent him throughout Europe and North Africa. Drafted by the U.S. Army, Twombly completed more than a year of service in 1953, but never put down the brush.
At first, his work wasn’t warmly accepted or acclaimed. After all, many of his large-scale paintings are full of the kind of abstract scribbles and stark, seemingly random splashes of color that could make an outsider think, “I could do that.” In 1964, a writer, Donald Judd, called Twombly’s showing at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York a “fiasco.”
But time proves that his art and influence endures. With history, poetry and mythology as his muses, Twombly created paintings and sculptures of epic proportion. JFK’s assassination stirred Twombly to create Nine Discourses on Commodus, based on the life and death of the Roman emperor. Later, Homer’sIlliad inspired Fifty Days at Illiam, a ten-part series of paintings now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And in 2010, the Louvre commissioned a 3,750-square-foot ceiling painting in the museum’s Salle des Bronzes. Though often cited as a “high art graffitist” (which reportedly annoyed him greatly), Twombly’s influence on contemporary art is hard to measure.
Notoriously quiet on the subject of his art and success, he moved to Rome in 1957, where he stayed until he died in 2011, at the age of 83. Today, the Cy Twombly Gallery is located in Houston, Texas, within the Menil Collection, a museum and neighborhood of galleries that is always free of charge. There, an entire room is devoted to Twombly’s 1994 masterpiece, Untitled, which measures 13 feet high and 53 feet long, and took him 22 years to complete. That painting, with its off-white background and punches of violent and bleeding colors, leaves more questions than it answers. But perhaps that’s exactly the kind of mystery Cy Twombly lived to create.