“I swear if I had to do this over again, I would just do the paintings and never show them.“
He was nicknamed “Cy” by his father, a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, after Cy Young, another famous pitcher. Born Edwin Parker Twombly Jr. on this day in 1928, he should have had the life of a southern gentleman, but instead he became one of last century’s most important and controversial artists, and the lover and comrade of artist Robert Rauschenberg.
Twombly was a part of the great artistic circle of the 1950s New York City Avant-Garde that included musician John Cage, Dancer / Choreographer Merce Cunningham, and artists Ray Johnson and Jasper Johns. It is one of my favorite periods for art and popular culture and the history of my favorite city.
In the mid-1950s, Twombly and Rauschenberg did the grand tour thing in Europe. Rauschenberg returned to New York and became very, very famous. Twombly stayed, settling in Italy, just in time for the focus of the Art World to shift decisively from Europe to New York City. Life in Italy and its history informed Twombly’s work the rest of his life and his unique sense of the modern mixed with the ancient.
He shunned publicity and he ignored his critics, who constantly questioned whether his work deserved a place at the center of 20th century Abstract Art. Twombly’s paintings, favorites of mine, thrillingly viewed in museums in Italy and the USA, are huge, complex and richly detailed, with scratches, erasures, paint drips and graphite, containing fragments of Italian and classical verse amid scrawled phalluses. You can spot those phalluses among his squiggles, although, while studying his giant canvases with my 1970s-era boyfriend, he insisted that they were not penises at all, but carrots and spaceships. I guess I have a dirty mind.
As a reaction to a prejudice against left-handedness, right-handed Twombly began to draw “as if with his left hand”. By denying himself dexterity, he purposely diminished his control of his creative process. He took this even further during his military service as a cryptographer in the early 1950s by working at night, in the dark.
He brought distinctive, thrilling references of the high culture of the past, only occasionally referring to contemporary events or issues. Yet, despite ignoring the present, Twombly had early successes by offering his clever alternative to the popular Abstract Expressionism of the era and he still managed to keep going long enough to come back into fashion.
One of the aspects of Twombly’s work that is so appealing is his childlike application of paint. Each painting is so charming in a primitive way. In many works, you can see Twombly’s hand prints. Others have drippings.
Twombly was prolific and his works now hang in the most important museums of the world including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), The Louvre, even my town’s Portland Art Museum.
Even in his lifetime, Twombly’s paintings sold in the millions of dollars. After his death in 2011, the prices hit the stratosphere. UNTITLED (NEW YORK CITY) sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2015 for $70,530,000.
For me, Twombly’s art is fun. And sure, it really is a primitive form of expression. In 2009, studying a Twombly at MoMa, the woman beside me said to her companion: “I don’t get it. My toddler could do this…”. I wish that I had turned and quoted the artist himself:
“My line is childlike but not childish. It is very difficult to fake… to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child’s line. It has to be felt.“
Twombly’s work is all about impulsiveness and boldness. It isn’t concerned with right or wrong, good or bad. Sometimes, art can free you to feel gay, daring, and more yourself.
Living in Italy, Twombly met Tatiana Franchetti, a pretty Italian aristocrat. They married in New York City, in 1959, but the couple lived in Rome. At the very same time, Twombly started an affair with Nicola Del Roscio, who was his assistant, archivist and lover for the next 50 years. Twombly kept a home and studio close to Del Roscio’s place in Gaeta, on the Tyrrhenian Sea.
When Twombly’s obituaries were written in 2011, even the one in the New York Times, his relationships with Rauschenberg and Del Roscio were not mentioned, although they somehow found a way to include his wife, who died the year before, and mention of their children and grandchildren. But, in 2016, the NY Times Magazine had a colorful feature on Del Roscio with many telling details of their life together, plus wonderful photographs of their two homes in Italy.