Cy Twombly – A profound peregrinator? Or ponderous pretence?

Cy Twombly – A profound peregrinator? Or ponderous pretence?

(April 25, 1928 – 2011, 83 years)


A curious case, adored by some heavy critics, but a Martian might wonder. The sustained elaborate dressing up in the Classical sets warehouse seems like ponderous pretence?

wse to 28th july 2015

  • Mr Twombly’s assiduous pursuit of Classical and historical subjects through his abstract images cultivated a faux-gravitas and seems ponderously pretentious, seeking to trade off, capitalise on the cachet of this deep iconic heritage?
  • Thus objectively the relationship between the titles of many images and their visual content seems tenuous, obscure, at best.
  • Thus the effusive approbation roused in many art critics seems more a matter of faith than evidence since their opinions resist objective verification.
  • Beyond that, most of his images – in terms of color, composition, abstract motifs and style – seem to lack any particular aesthetic attraction or allure or original distinction? Though this of course is one viewer’s opinion, and largely subjective, again given the near resolutely abstract oeuvre.
  • Eschewing the figurative is a valid career choice, but it does restrict artistic achievement possibilities?
  • Mr Twombly was prolific, across a long career, but restricted himself to a narrow range of painterly style? His oeuvre is near all abstract, adding some calligraphical content, but only a dash of the figurative. No portraits or landscapes or genre scenes. Even quasi-abstract. His painting journey was relatively steady, with shifts but nothing too abrupt, becoming louder and more colourful near the end.



Cy Twombly (CT) is nothing if not controversial? He is one of the more controversial of prominent recent (post ww2) artists, especially because his work is near all abstract, subjective, technically easy to execute (“child’s play”!): all scribble, splash, smear, rub. But much of it comes bearing florid elaborate Classical references. And he is lauded by many Serious Critics, the art establishment.

But stepping back it is hard not to read CT as determinedly pretentious. Even fustian! ”Pompous, pretentious”. Even if he was likely not coldly, consciously focussed on this.

This is especially because how he sought to invest, load so much of his work with faux-gravitas, profound import, by investing it with references to classical or historical characters and events, through the titles and then reinforced in many cases by incorporating relevant text in the art images.

This thematic career mission was in turn reinforced not least by him moving to Italy in 1957 (ie at 29), and, barring travel, for good, the next 56 years, living in Rome and later at Gaeta, on the Italian coast, south, between Naples and Rome.

Also Twombly’s comparative silence, his insouciance, his reluctance to intervene with his own commentary to assist any understanding by his viewing public, only stoked curiosity. He once over egged the pudding by associating himself with Poussin!? “I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time.” Why stop there? Why not Rembrandt? Malevich?? The distance between CT’s art and Nicolas Poussin seems like from Earth to Pluto, other than that they both aimed to paint or interpret Classical subjects.


Three takes on “scribbling”: Rembrandt, Self portrait, engraving 1630, and CT 1955 (a) and 1957 (b)

110 111 112

a/ 1955 Free Wheeler, Oil, crayon and pencil on canvas. 174 x 190 cm

b/ 1957 Blue Room, Oil based house paint, wax crayon and pencil on canvas, 143 x 182cm.

The problem: the taste test. Would CT pass a blind tasting?

Take almost any CT work blind, anonymously, stripped of its title, and its full context, including its authorship, and ask, What does it really tell you?

Then add back the title, and ask, does it tell us any more?

Thus take Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963). One critic writes: “It would take many years for the true impact of the Commodus paintings to become apparent. Today.. [after they were received controversially on gallery debut in 1964] …. the strength of Twombly’s painting is no longer obscured by such polemics. The Commodus paintings – previously seen as peripheral …. now clearly occupy a unique and central position in the history of postwar painting.” (Nicholas Cullinan, 2009).

Really? That is hard- impossible? – to evidentially justify, other than by referencing other approbatory opinions?

Would the images mean any more even to historians informed about the Emperor Commodus? If at a blind tasting you asked these historians to which Roman Emperor do the images pertain, would any choose correctly?

Critics associate the work with the darkening mood of the early 1960s, which witnessed the Cuban Missile crisis [Oct. 1962] and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy [Nov. 1963]” (Carmen Giménez, 2008), though the works date from winter 1963 and therefore pre-date JFK’s death.

But this draws a long bow? Even if it’s difficult to relate the images to the life of Commodus, one wonders what contemporary 20th C relevance attaches to the career of this largely unimportant, incompetent if colourful, self-absorbed and dissolute 3rd rate Emperor?

Or take the Coronation of Sesostris (2000, 10 large panels, ~ 2 x 1.5 metres)? Sesostris, from writings by Herodotus was even more obscure, to the point of being semi-fictional. But apparently the series is about “an ancient Egyptian myth of the sun’s journey from morning to night”, if extravagantly – pretentiously? – labelled. The critic continues: “the sequence begins with a big image of the sun that looks as if it was drawn by a 4-year-old with a red crayon…. the sun acquires wheels and is then carried by a boat… The sixth panel presents a poem about the departure of the gods by Patricia Waters…. the program closes with words from a classical poem: ”Eros weaver of myth, Eros sweet and bitter, Eros bringer of pain.”. Mr. Twombly’s quasi-scholarly erudition and calculated faux-primitivism can seem off-puttingly mannered; there is a certain Romantic grandiosity.. Still, the panoramic narrative as a whole is persuasive. Vigorously raw in some places, luminously beautiful in others, it offers a fine combination of emotive urgency and decorative elegance(Ken Johnson, NY Times, 2001). That gives Mr Twombly the benefit of the doubt!

Or take the later Bacchus series? One large (most over 3 x 4 metres) cursive red scribble / scrawl / drip drapeau upon another! The Tate (2008) remarks: The exhibition also explores how Twombly is influenced by antiquity, myth and the Mediterranean, for example the violent red swirls in the Bacchus 2005 paintings which bring to mind the drunken god of wine.” Really!? Or the melee of a battle? Or Alexander lost in Makran, the Persian coastal desert?


The problem: verifiability? CT’s worth is unprovable, mostly a matter of faith?

The ultimate problem with the earnest applause for CT’s work, bordering on the hagiographical, is that like religion it cannot be verified or falsified. It’s largely a matter of faith. It’s true because it’s true.

Thus Wikipedia writes: 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.”

What “subtle narratives”?


The appeal of CT? The mind (the thirst for intellectual cum spiritual nourishment), and the pocket (money)?

Why is he so popular with many serious critics? The art establishment leaders?

Two reasons? First, Man’s appetite for intellectual cum spiritual nourishment, in a wide sense, specifically religious or more broadly secular, and, second, more prosaically, money. Means to feed the cat.

Man is predisposed, wired to seek “spiritual enlightenment”, refreshment, nourishment, diversion, distraction, whether specifically, doctrinally religious (eg down to and including Scientology), or in some vaguer, mysterious, quasi secular fashion? Man, the conscious curious Man, yearns for a greater understanding of his Total Predicament, given, not least, awareness of his mortality, evident since Adam, and, more recently, the dramatic revelations of hard working empirical science, ie that we are one species on one planet in one solar system in one of perhaps 170 billion galaxies, in this universe, which may not be the only one. Thus he is is vulnerable to gullibility, to manifold cultural offerings which press the right buttons, which pander to, rouse and feed his “spiritual” desire.

And the total CT experience – his life and total oeuvre – is one such appealing package. CT’s long journey (after Odysseus! Who he left unremarked?) delivers a relentless, singular, carefree, diverse, detailed, and prolific opacity, an impenetrable obscurity, his “candid flailing”, Une Mystere Enveloppant, which keep him forever timeless!

His “best works are permanently embroiled in the present tense of their making” (Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, 2005).

He becomes a seductive labyrinth? Something there for everyone? And once inside the oeuvre it is like the Minoan construct, hard to escape, especially for art critics soaked in art history. They cannot get enough of him. He turbocharges their quills to a torrent of articulate convoluted tangled engagement.

Surrendering to Twombly’s best art entails an odd transaction: confessing fundamental bewilderment in return for being granted a flare of exaltation…

As a type of artist, Twombly most closely approximates the classic dandy: provoking and impenetrable. (“He wants to produce an effect, but at the same time he couldn’t care less,” Barthes says.). Yet his manipulative aestheticism is prone to all manner of breakdowns, in shifting ratios of self-absorption and empty rhetoric…” (Peter Schjeldahl).

But if it works for these people who’s to say it’s any less valid for that. So long as we understand the wider context.

So it’s like many films, or operas, or just about any cultural work? Check your disbelief (and firearms) at the cloakroom before entering upon the relevant arena, the cinema or museum.

And the Money. Many such commentators are conflicted through earning income from their engagement, bringing a vested interest. The Art Establishment – galleries and museums – have a big vested interest in promoting CT, in fanning his reputation. And his controversy! So their judgements are often enthusiastic but not independent.

So they like too the controversy stoked by “.. his huge faux-naïve paintings” (Edmund White, 2015). It’s good for business. So they like to play to the “layman’s” caution, scorn for CT’s “scribble”, the trite “kids could do this” So CT becomes a convenient cue to try to “help” explain why it really is art, that while his art might look simple this belies profound thought, complexity and insight if only you know how to detect and decipher it. Thus supporters stress it’s not childish scribble, rather it’s really really profound interaction with the past, his classical surroundings in Italy.

CT tried to differentiate himself too: “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…. 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.”

But objectively it still looks like “graffiti”? And “childlike”? Whatever the intention. Whatever the critical opinions.

A wry coda to the matter of money here is the fight which erupted over the substantial estate! Now that would be worth a painting? Arthur Boyd would have salivated at the prospect.

The oeuvre: resolutely abstract, adding the calligraphic n a dash of figurative

His output over a career of near 60 years (c1950-2010) is almost totally abstract, with more than some calligraphical elaboration, and only occasional figurative gestures. So his painterly range in terms of style is relatively narrow.

He began in the early 50s with coarse abstract pictographic images, much like some of the (other) Abstract Expressionists, then switched abruptly in 1955 (with Academy, Panorama etc) to a fine scribbling calligraphical style, largely colorless, monotone, but – importantly for any ambitious artist – distinctive!

Color crept back by 1960 and first half of the 60s he broadene to a more colourful busy abstraction, splodgy, scratchy, usually filling the canvas, except one important 9 panel series in 1963 (Nine Discourses on Commodus) which retreated to pairs of coloful whorls.

From c1966 he returned to monotone cursive calligraphical scribbling later through to about 1973.

Distinctively too from about the late 1950s he added scratchy untidy text to many images, and especially from later in the 1970s.

And 1970s he returned to scratchy colourful abstraction, with some figurative motifs. Like 50 Days at Iliam (1978).

Later in the 1980s and especially 1990s the abstraction becomes denser and more colourful, still using text and odd figurative references, to 2005 when with the Bacchus series he unleashed large panels of thick red cursive scribbling.

2007-08 he abruptly switched to large circular floral daubs.

Finally his 2009 Paphos series saw a return to crude figurative abstraction, but more colourful, and his final major series Camino Real, in 2010, returned to ropey colourful scribbling.

Color mostly came later? We see signs by about 1960, gathering speed in 1963 with Commodus et al, but not before the 1990s did it show much boldness.

And his scratchy, scribbly style, often incorporating text, is distinctive. Not hard to pick.

His output was prolific – partly because his images were not technically difficult to execute? – and includes a number of “blockbuster” series (eg Sesostris etc, Iliam etc, Lepanto etc, and Bacchus)

Many of his images are LARGE! In common with many of his early AE brethren. So – especially if stitched into series – he can easily fill a room, make a statement, become an anchoring attraction.

There are no portraits, no landscapes, no town or urbanscapes, no genre scenes, no still lives?

In particular, though many images are Untitled, through most images he inhabited, inveigled, exploited, tapped, mined, ransacked, cloaked his career and much of his work with ….. classical and other historical references, some iconic: eg 50 Days at Iliam (1978, 10 panels), Bacchus (2005); and some obscure: eg Coronation of Sesostris (10 panels, 2001, from old Egypt, from a story by Herodotus of mysterious Egyptian Pharoah who ventured north into Asia Minor), Nine discourses on Commodus (1963) (whose failed Roman emperorship started the 3rd C Time of Troubles), Lepanto (1571 battle of).

And he also dared to dance with JMW Turner, and embellished by tapping literature, eg quoting Mallarme, Rilke, and Keats.

But in craving meaning and gravitas for his abstract works by adopting intriguing titles tapping the Classics he was not alone, learned it around 1950 in NY from a number of his fellow AE painters.

Thus Rothko and Barnett Newman both campaigned hard to fashion Meaning from and for their relatively simple abstract utterances.

Only in a few images are relevant sketchy figurative elements in evidence (eg Lepanto) so near all his work is abstract and therefore very subjective, mostly splash and dash, scratch and scribble and daub and splodge, so any specific relationship of the image content to the appended elaborate titles is usually abstruse, obscure, in the eye of the beholder.

So in many images the classical reference is emphasized, clarified by added words or texts, more or less, scratchy and untidy, in “his ecstatic response to history, literature and other art, and the raw emotionalism that his mark making conveyed.” (Roberta Smith, 2011).


Critics: many cannot get enough. In Heaven

Katharina Schmidt (2011, catalogue Dulwich exhibition): “Cy Twombly’s work can be understood as one vast engagement with cultural memory……His special medium is writing. Starting out from purely graphic marks, he developed a kind of meta-script in which abbreviated signs, hatchings, loops, numbers and the simplest of pictographs spread throughout the picture plane in a process of incessant movement, repeatedly subverted by erasures. Eventually, this metamorphosed into script itself…

And 1994 article by Kirk Varnedoe, rebuffing criticism that “This is just scribbles – my kid could do it”. “the art lies not so much in the finesse of the individual mark, but in the orchestration of a previously uncodified set of personal “rules” about where to act and where not, how far to go and when to stop, in such a way as the cumulative courtship of seeming chaos defines an original, hybrid kind of order, which in turn illuminates a complex sense of human experience not voiced or left marginal in previous art.

And Roberta Smith (NY Times. 2011), in an article reporting Twomb;y’s death, writes of the work “Panorama” (1955, ~ 2.6 x 3.4m) “in which he clearly had one eye on Jackson Pollock’s skeins of dripped paint, Mr. Twombly’s scattered, skittering thatches of chalk lines seemed like extensions of his own nervous system. Accruing randomly, like isolated thoughts or asides, they refused to imply any grand scheme or overreaching rhythm, which contributed to their psychological intimacy.” She concludes: ”His art revealed an enthralling calligraphic and diagrammatic universe teeming with meaning. His ultimate subject was nothing less than the human longing to communicate — to make meaning that others could apprehend and expand. It is an ancient loop, but in nearly everything he did Mr. Twombly exposed its wiring with a new clarity and exultant intensity. Few 20th-century artists corroborated as insistently Schiller’s assertion that “all art is dedicated to joy.””


A life

Born Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly Jr in Lexington, Virginia, April 25th 1928, CT was raised by a supportive family, at age 12 taking lessons with the Catalan modern master Pierre Daura. And he was well educated, studying Boston (1948-49), and at university in Lexington, Virginia (1949-50). Then 1950 to 1951 he studied at Art Students League of NY, where he met Rauschenberg, who encouraged him to Black Mountain College, N Carolina, where 1951-52 he studied with Kline and Motherwell. There the Rector of the College Charles Olson had a great influence on him.

Early influences were Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti, and especially Kurt Schwitters’ collages? Later came Kline and Klee?

Through Robert Motherwell his first solo exhibition was held at Sam Kootz Gallery NY 1951.

In 1952 on a grant he travelled to North Africa (Morocco, with Paul Bowles), Spain, Italy, and France. Mostly with Rauschenberg.

1954, he served in the U.S. Army as a cryptographer in Washington, D.C, travelling to New York during periods of leave.

1955 through 1956, he taught in Virginia, vacationing in NY.

1957, Twombly moved to Rome, met the Italian artist Baroness Tatiana Franchetti – sister of his patron Baron Giorgio Franchetti and 1959 they married NY 1959, bought a palazzo on the Via di Monserrato in Rome. They lived too at a 17th-century villa in Bassano in Teverina, north of Rome. A son, Cyrus Alessandro Twombly was born 1959.

In 1964, Twombly met Nicola Del Roscio of Gaeta, who became his longtime companion. They bought a house and rented a studio in Gaeta in the early 1990s.

He died Rome 5th July 2011.

A taste…. of the oeuvre


     120 121

1951 min-oe, 85 x 100 cm;     1955 academy, oil-based house paint, lead pencil, colored pencil, and pastel on canvas 191.1 x 241 cm



           122 123

1960, Untitled,                                                  1961 Ferragosto IV, Rome. Oil paint, wax crayon, and lead pencil on canvas, 165.5 x 204 cm


             124 125

  1. Commodus 3, oil, wax crayon, pencil on canvas. 204 x 134 cm; 1966. Untitled, Rome Industrial paint, crayon on canvas, 190 x 200 cm

1970s – 1990s

               126 127

1972 Untitled Oil based house paint, wax crayon, lead pencil on canvas, 79 x 102in; 1975 Apollo and the artist Oil paint, wax crayon, pencil and collage on paper


       128 129

  1. Fifty days at Iliam, panel 8, Illians in battle; 1985, Hero and Leander (to Christopher Marlowe), Rome Oil paint and oil based house paint on canvas 202 x 254 cm


Cy Twombly Wilder Shores of Love (Bassano in Teverina) 1985 Cy Twombly Collection   Cy twombly Oil-based house paint, oil paint [paint stick], coloured pencil, lead pencil on wooden panel 140 x 120 cm

Cy Twombly
Wilder Shores of Love (Bassano in Teverina) 1985
Cy Twombly Collection Cy twombly
Oil-based house paint, oil paint [paint stick], coloured pencil, lead pencil on wooden panel
140 x 120 cm



  1. Wilder shores of love. Oil, crayon, and pencil on plywood, 140 x 120cm; 1990. Summer madness. Oil, gouache, pencil, crayon on paper 150 x 126cm

1990s – 2008


132 133

1993-95. Quattro Stagioni Autunno. Acrylic, oil, crayon,pencil on canvas support 314 x 215 cm x 35 mm frame

  1. Coronation of Sesostris, panel 7. Acrylic, crayon, and pencil on canvas.

 134 135


  1. Lepanto 1. Acrylic, wax crayon and graphite on canvas, 216.5 x 311.8 cm;
  2. Untitled VII 2005 (Bacchus). Acrylic on canvas, 317.5 x 468.6 cm


  1. The Rose (IV). Acrylic on plywood, 252 x 740 cm


         137 138

  1. Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves (V). Acrylic on canvas, 267.4 x 212.3 cm.
  2. Camino Real (III). Acrylic on plywood, 252.4 x 185.1 cm

And a bonus…

139 140

  1. 1978. Fifty days at iliam 1. Shield-of-achilles.
  2. 1970. Untitled. Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas. 155.5 x 190 cm (NOTE: sold for cUS$60m October 2014)

“… a major work.. from his famous ‘blackboard’ series.. . This majestic lasso-loop painting.. the first of what was to become a highly celebrated series of works now often known as his “blackboard” paintings. Distinguishable for their graphic regularity, and formal restraint, the works also possess a spontaneous lyricism found in the artist’s earlier paintings rooted in the historical, mythological and emotional landscapes of the Mediterranean. 

“Offering both absolute rarity and absolute quality, Untitled is a dynamic and ravishing work …. Rooted in abstract expressionism but further defined by his life in Italy, landscapes of the Mediterranean, and Greek and Roman mythology. The ‘blackboard’ paintings were his personal and unique gesture and anticipated a new language… declared Laura Paulson, Chairman and International Director for Post-War and Contemporary Art. 

… the ‘blackboard’ paintings were so named because they appeared to have been inspired by the notion of the classroom blackboard or the child’s primer as a temporal and highly graphic conveyor of information…. With its swirling field of loops drawn in white crayon, the surface becomes a tempestuous sea of energy…. Using the graphic process of writing, and translating its continuous flow of a single line into a painterly language, …. .” (Artdependence Magazine, Oct. 2014).


One thought on “Cy Twombly – A profound peregrinator? Or ponderous pretence?

  1. Julian Barnes, in “Flaubert’s Parrot,” has his narrator comment that “you trust Picasso all the way, because he could draw like Ingres.” That narrator is a surrogate for Dr. Bovary. Are you Dr. Bovary? With a Rembrandt thumbnail? Aside from you, does anybody still entertain the notion that the “words” in and on CT’s canvases are references? Or that, because you take them for Classical references, in our dark age, CT’s works are therefore pretentious and pompous? (He might have liked “pompous”–which pertains to solemn, usually funerary, rites.)
    And, can you honestly go on and on fretting over what a painting is “about”? In sum, you seem disappointed that Cy Twombly did not paint the paintings of Jacques-Louis David. I’m amused that the converse is also true.


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