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Cy Twombly Photo

Cy Twombly

American Draftsman, Painter, and Sculptor

Born: April 25, 1928 - Lexington, Virginia
Died: July 5, 2011 - Rome, Italy
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism
"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."
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Cy Twombly Signature
"Graffiti is linear and it's done with a pencil, and it's like writing on walls. But in my paintings it's more lyrical."
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Cy Twombly Signature
"When I work, I work very fast, but preparing to work can take any length of time."
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Cy Twombly Signature
"Paint is something that I use with my hands and do all those tactile things. I really don't like oil because you can't get back into it, or you make a mess. It's not my favorite thing..pencil is more my medium than wet paint."
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Cy Twombly Signature
"I sit for two or three hours and then in 15 minutes I can do a painting, but that's part of it. You have to get ready and decide to jump up and do it; you build yourself up psychologically, and so painting has no time for brush. Brush is boring, you give it and all of a sudden it's dry, you have to go. Before you cut the thought, you know?"
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"For myself the past is the source (for all art is vitally contemporary)"
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Summary of Cy Twombly

Although at first glance the graffiti-like scribbles and scratches of Cy Twombly's work might resemble art made by a naughty child of Jackson Pollock, it is nothing of the kind: it is the work of an erudite, sophisticated, and emotional painter. Whereas the work of Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists emerged in 1940s New York, where their existential inner dramas were enacted against the acutely felt backdrop of World War II, Twombly's work was part of the next generation, emerging during the 1950s in Europe - a Europe that was trying to forget and rebuild. Twombly, based for the most part in Rome, thus focused on his immediate surroundings, responding to the history and beauty he found there, combining aspects of both traditional European sources and the new American painting.


  • Much of Twombly's work is a direct reflection of, response to, and re-working of the ancient Greco-Roman past that surrounded him in his chosen home in Rome. Inspirations came from Greek and Roman mythology, history, and places, French Neoclassicism, and contemporary graffiti on ancient local walls. Twombly was able to balance the seemingly static history of the past with his own sensual and emotional responses to it.
  • In both the content and process of his art, Twombly was interested in the layering of time and history, of painting and drawing, and of various meanings and associations. His art situates itself in the context of the history of Western civilization as well as the process-oriented aspects of Abstract Expressionism.
  • Writing and language also served as major conceptual foundations for Twombly's mostly abstract art. In addition to the written word - in the form of poems, myths, and histories - he also focused on the process of writing, both by sketching unidentifiable doodles and splotches or words directly onto the canvas and by creating line-based compositions, often inspired by handwriting. Through these methods, he was often able to suggest subtle narratives that lay beneath the surfaces of his paintings.

Biography of Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly Photo

Edwin Parker Twombly, Jr. was born in Lexington, Virginia in 1928. Like his father, who briefly pitched for the Chicago White Sox, Twombly was known as Cy, after Cy Young. His father later became a coach and athletic director at Washington and Lee University. Twombly's parents were from the Northeast, so he made frequent trips to Massachusetts and Maine, but the South, with its sense of history and autonomy, ultimately became an integral aspect of his identity. As a young boy, Twombly ordered and worked on art kits he ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog. His parents encouraged his interest in art, and at twelve years old he started studying with the Spanish modern painter Pierre Daura.

Important Art by Cy Twombly

Progression of Art
Untitled (1954)


While in the army, Twombly modified the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing by creating compositions in the dark - after lights out. These "blind" drawings resulted in the kind of elongated, distorted forms and curves that we see in this work. Biomorphic imagery is also apparent in the figurative scrawls giving way to more non-figurative scribbles and markings.

Colored pencil - Collection Cy Twombly Foundation

Leda and the Swan (1962)

Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan (the title is written in the lower right corner), one of Twombly's most accomplished works, illustrates his career-long attraction to the stories, literature, and events of classical antiquity, an interest that expanded further after he moved to Rome in 1957. The title refers to the Roman myth in which Jupiter, transformed into a swan, seduces Leda, who would later give birth to Helen of Troy. Rather than depict the conventional and erotic imagery of a graceful nude languidly entangled with a swan, Twombly combines diverse media, with the violent and forceful swirls, scratches, and zig-zags flying out in all directions suggesting the presence of Jupiter and the fleshy pinks and ovoid forms suggesting Leda and the eggs that were produced from the union. Amidst these colliding, graffiti-like elements, Twombly included recognizable hearts, a phallus/swan neck, and a window-like rectangle. This "window" provides a stabilizing effect on this otherwise explosive painting, but also amplifies content in its witty paradox of being part of graffiti on a flat wall vs. a window that might offer passage through the flatness to the world of the painting (and the myth of the title) or in the opposite direction to the real world outside. The work as a whole reconciles themes of male/female, destructive/creative, and earthly/divine. As in much of his work, Twombly transformed an ancient myth by becoming Jupiter himself: ravaging the canvas and producing beauty. As Roberta Smith has commented, "the crux of his achievement was not so much to overturn [Abstract Expressionism]," ... but to connect Abstract Expressionism to other forms of culture."

Oil paint, lead pencil, wax crayon on canvas. 75 x 78 3/4 in. - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Discourse on Commodus (1963)

Discourse on Commodus

For this nine-part series, Twombly took inspiration from Commodus, Emperor of the Roman Empire and son of Marcus Aurelius, who was later assassinated. The series was also painted following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Twombly's frenzied splatters and layers of color against the grey background reflect the volatility and civil war that stemmed from Commodus' oppressive rule that ultimately led to his assassination. Yet, these works also have a structured composition, and each is based around a grid form, perhaps summoning ideas of the imposed order of the Roman Empire. The series as a whole, and perhaps as a sort of narrative, begins with a conflict of two painted white masses that are still contained within the grid structure; it continues with increasing evidence of violence and its consequences, concluding with this panel, where the "victor" and the "vanquished" rise above a frail and single rectangle as if to say that all order has been abandoned. The "fallout" from such violent acts floating down in the long and empty vertical space below serves as a reminder of the past and a caution to the future; the famous historian Edward Gibbon saw the rule of Commodus as the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire. When exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1964, when the critical establishment was embracing Minimalism, the series did not receive positive reviews. It is now recognized as a major Twombly work.

Oil paint, wax crayon, lead pencil on canvas - Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain

Untitled (1970)


For this work, Twombly's composition has taken inspiration and form from ideas of handwriting or mark-making. It is the largest of a group of grey-ground works he created from 1966 to 1972 evoking blackboards covered in chalk writing. It is said that the feeling of continuous flow in the marks is a product of the way Twombly executed this work as he sat on the shoulders of a friend who moved from side to side in front of the canvas. Yet although his continuous loops and scrawls were inspired, in part, by handwriting drills, Twombly's repetitive, rhythmic drawing does not create specific words. The painted background creates a luminous glow suggesting a potentially enlightened state of mind and being, as the artist - and by extension humanity - frantically, and perhaps futilely, summons the "logos" or word, making marks to name things and trying to understand them. Twombly has said that Leonardo da Vinci's notebook drawings of both structured diagrams, where Leonardo drew in order to learn, thus emphasizing the process of drawing, and tumultuous floods, with their rippling, spiraling motion, influenced him while he was producing these works.

Oil based house paint, wax crayon on canvas. 159 1/2 x 252 1/8 in. - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Quattro Stagioni. Part I: Primavera (1993-94)

Quattro Stagioni. Part I: Primavera

Each painting in the Quattro Stagioni (A Painting in Four Parts) depicts a different season within the ongoing cycle of life, a frequent theme in the Classical and Renaissance work that Twombly so admired. In Primavera (Spring), Twombly applies bright red and yellow paint layered over lighter whites to suggest the vitality of spring's renewal. The image as a whole resembles the stem, leaves, and blossom of a flower. Individually, the curved shapes in red recall Egyptian rowboats, a motif he integrated into several paintings and sculptures after spending time in Egypt in the 1980s. Such boats would be appropriate here, as they were used in ritual for the deceased's transport to the afterlife and were thus a symbol, like spring, for new beginnings. The artist also includes the word "Primavera," along with joyful excerpts of poetry that he used to inspire himself to paint the colorful forms.

Acrylic, oil paint [paint stick], wax crayon, colored pencil and lead pencil on canvas. 123 x 74 3/4 in. - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

Untitled (2007)


In this work, from a series of peony paintings, each on six connected panels, Twombly turned to bursts of vibrant, expressive color and recognizable imagery. For these works, he drew inspiration from Japanese art, which can be seen in the motif of the blossom and the six divisions of the large-scale panel recalling the painted screens of the Edo period. The peony's emblematic associations are rich. Like the chrysanthemum, it is an ancient symbol of aesthetic contemplation commonly associated with Japanese art. While Twombly's later work moved away from the graffiti-like scratches of his earlier paintings, writing and drawing remained integral to his work: the painting is also inscribed with haiku poetry: "Ah! The peonies for which Kusunoki took off his armour." Here Twombly refers to the 14th-century samurai warrior Takarai Kikaku, who, inspired by the beauty of the peonies, laid aside his armor for a moment of quietude and joy. The exuberantly painted deep red blossoms float calmly but authoritatively against a bright yellow background, and are cut by the edges of the painting, suggesting their proliferation and continuity. The red vertical lines help to visually support these blossoms (as would stems) at the same time that they suggest their disintegration and transient nature as part of the life cycle.

Acrylic, wax crayon, lead pencil on wooden panel. 99 1/4 x 217 1/4 in. - The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Cy Twombly Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Jun 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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