Peter Doig meets Kazimir Malevich?


A serendipitous similarity – 1991 meets 1908.


FEATURED: Look, Vistula is Near! Poster. 1914. Lithograph. 51.3 x 33.40 cm.




Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). Landscape with Yellow House. 1906-1907. Oil on cardboard. 19.2 x 29.5 cm The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.


Peter Doig (b. 1959). 1991, THE ARCHITECT’S HOME IN THE RAVINE, oil on canvas, 200 by 250 cm (source: Sothebys etc)


There is some striking similarity between this small early (1908) “Impressionist” Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), just before his Russian-hued Cubo-Futurist adventures, and this distinctive much larger 1991 work by Peter Doig (b. 1959), which just sold for Stg14.4m through Sothebys.

Mr Doig is now feted by the feverish mainstream commercial art market- and not without reason, for works which are distinctive, colorful and figurative enough to lure visually curious sentient- where “discovered” painters become Big Bucks, fuelled by:

1/ the global wealth generated by the ever growing modern economies (especially now Asian economies, with an aggregate population now near 3 billion?),

2/ thus by collectors accessing this vast wealth to indulge in a little psychologically rewarding Narcissistic-flavoured Conspicuous Consumption (T. Veblen? Cf JK Galbraith’s books),

3/ and by art fashions they succumb to, validate, with a little earnest financially incentivised help from the commercial art houses.




Jean-Michel Basquiat: ‘Mind-blowing’ art? Well certainly a mind-blowing commercial transaction.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)


Untitled” (1982), acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas, 183.2 by 173 cm, just sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction on Thursday 18th May in New York, bought by a Japanese fan, Yusaku Maezawa , a fashion entrepeneur.

It’s mind-blowing,” said “collector” Mr. Larry Warsh.

Yes clearly a “mind-blowing” commercial transaction.

But “mind-blowing”art?

Well certainly it’s art, but it’s also fashion.

And as they say, money – and fashion – do funny things to people, and the more the money the funnier.

Like the sustained hyberbolic, hagiographical overdrive in Sotheby’s on-line write up of the art work, which dare one say does not come with an obvious disclaimer, ie their vested financial interest in this auction outcome, and in any relevant auctions in the future.

This self-serving commercial market phenomenon – involving dealers, auction houses, museums and collectors – applies to many other artists, usually dead but sometimes still alive. The late Cy Twombly is another prime example.

Yes Mr Basquiat’s work is eye-catching, distinctive.

And this seeds initial interest. But once he is “discovered”, and prices start to move up, the self-perpetuating promotion process takes hold and prices rise ever higher, a virtuous-circle, the process fuelled by its own exhaust.

Thus compare the painting of the moment with five broadly similar works for sale now though Sotheby’s in Paris in June 2017, all in a colourful animated neo-expressionist style, but estimated to sell for between only 10,000 and 200,000 Euros (US$11.2-224k), or 0.01-0.2% of Untitled (1982).

But Untitled (1982) is bigger – and scarier! – so say its art is “worth” 400,000 Euros, then that’s 0.4% art and 96.4% fashion.

On the other hand if Untitled (1982) is worth that much maybe Mr Appel et al are cheap?

Interestingly much the same commercial outcome has happened with the New York Abstract Expressionist (AE) school. Works of the main protagonists were executed soon after WW2 and some have sold for US$50-100m or more. A Pollock sold for US$140m in 2006.

But abstraction was alive and well in Europe at the same time, but these works sell for a tiny fraction of the priciest AE works.

The role of fashion in the matter is highlighted or emphasized by the AE school comprising markedly different abstraction styles, eg compare a Pollock gestural “drip” classic with Barnet Newman’s main works, in a stark simple geometric style. Thus what matters now is not so much the style and content of the painting as the now collectively celebrated specific historic early postwar artistic and commercial experience it was part of.

Compare …………

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) 1982, Untitled,  acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas, 183.2 by 173 cm,  SOLD FOR US$110.5 million, 18 May 2017, Sotheby’s New York.

 And five similar works for sale in Europe …………..


Karel Appel (1921 – 2006). 1958, UNTITLED, oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm;                 ESTIMATE 40,000 — 60,000 E


Karel Appel (1921 – 2006). 1958. BATAILLE D’ANIMAUX , oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm;  ESTIMATE 150,000 — 200,000 E


Robert Combas (born 1957), 1989. UNTITLED. acrylic on canvas, 122 x 136,5 cm;  ESTIMATE 15,000 — 20,000 E


Toshimitsu Imaï (1928 – 2002), 1963, SOLEIL oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. ESTIMATE 30,000 — 50,000 E


Carl-Henning Pedersen (1913 – 2007), 1975, THE BLUE EYE AND RED FACE. oil on canvas, 101,2 x 83,5 cm;  ESTIMATE 10,000 — 15,000 E

Saint Cy (Twombly)? Why the in crowd love him: “religion” and money


Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly

(April 25th, 1928 – July 5th, 2011, 83 years)


Saint Cy? Why the in crowd love him: “religion” and money.


Adored by some heavy critics, seduced by the package of prolific idiosyncratic abstraction and Classical allusions.

But for the vested interests the plaudits are fuelled by money.

And the sustained rummaging of the long ago for subjects can be superficial attention-seeking pretence?


CY TWOMBLY: apposite and revealing case study for the high end commercial contemporary art market?   Thus his record market price is US$70m for 4 sq metres of monotone scribble on a “blackboard”.



1/ Overbaked?

A sceptic’s view: yes he hooks interest but hard to overlook the assiduous pretence?

  • Arguably in his quest for a novel path Mr Twombly’s relentless resort to Classical and historical subjects for many of his abstract / quasi-abstract images cultivated a faux-gravitas, a superficial profundity, and seems pretentious, in seeking to lever off, capitalise on the caché of this august iconic heritage.
  • Objectively the relationship between the often obscure titles of many images and their visual content seems tenuous at best, problematic, elusive, obscure. Except of course those labelled “Untitled”.
  • Beyond digging up long ago history for subjects / titles the artist developed two distinctive, trademark expressive visual devices – scratchy textual adornment, and repetitive cursive scribbling – which, together with the quirky titles, became his artistic “thing”, and therefore handy for his market promoters.
  • The effusive wordy approbation roused in many art critics by Mr Twombly’s art seems more a matter of faith than evidence, of hagiography over balanced analysis, a triumph of hope over experience, of wishful thinking over reality since their opinions resist meaningful objective verification.
  • And then there’s the money as a propelling motive. “Vested interests”. Laudatory hyperbole by promoters warms up potential customers. And they don’t mind popular controversy over someone stumping up $70 million for “blackboard” scribble if it helps sell their man.
  • Objectively one might argue that many of Mr Twombly’s images seem to lack any particular aesthetic attraction or allure or original distinction? In terms of color, composition, abstraction motifs and style.
  • Oddly enough perhaps his last decade or so – into his 70s – was his purple patch? This valedictory period may harbour his most interesting works? Like the Lepanto, Seosostris, and Paphos series (each dancing obscurely, distinctively with the figurative), like the big bold colourful cursive “lasso” images (eg the Bacchus and Camino Real series), and like his big bold colourful floral motif works (like the Peony and Rose images).
  • Though this is one viewer’s opinion, and largely subjective, given the near completely abstract oeuvre.


2/ Why they rave

So WHY do many critics, market professionals rave? “Religion” and money.

Saint Cy? His art a seductive labyrinth? An enticing brew of intellectual even quasi-spiritual nourishment?

And it sells.

Good question.

First, there’s plenty to play with. He was industrious, over a working span of around 60 years.

Second, though the output is near all abstract or quasi-abstract, there is enough variety (including a dash of the figurative) to be interesting. And many works (especially later) are fashionably large, and grouped in series.

But, third, and most importantly, his oeuvre is cleverly distinctive. Mr Twombly cultivated his “thing”, his angle, and stayed with it for decades, through a lethal combination of four factors:

  • First, his oeuvre is near all abstract, but with a tempting and constructive occasional flavour of the figurative.
  • Second, he developed an idiosyncratic informal, scratchy, scribbly style, including the repetitive cursive calligraphical device;
  • Third, and more important, he frequently resorted to informal allusive text additions;
  • Fourth, and also important, he relentlessly indulged recourse to the past for subjects, especially to the Greco-Roman classics, the learned atmosphere reinforced by the artist being based in Italy much of his working life, and also by him remaining inscrutable, keeping his own counsel on whatever his work might mean.

This mutually reinforcing quartet of characteristics – especially anchored by the plenitude of allusions to the past, the Classics – becomes a powerfully attractive cocktail for receptive minds.

This tickles the art patrons’ palates, high and low, and the thirst for intellectual nourishment disables objective scrutiny, leads cultural pilgrims into quasi- spiritual paddocks.

For some it’s the divine blush of an Alpine sunset, or dietary supplements. For others it’s Saint Cy’s enchanting visual brew.

And then there’s the money. When a few square metres of scratch and scribble on canvas can fetch north of 50 million dollar units the quills of the complicit will relax a little.

And here Mr Twombly’s trademark idiosyncrasies work to fan the market, when they make it easy even for the uninitiated to know, yes that’s a Twombly.


3/ The menu

The oeuvre: prolific, near all abstract, but above all distinctive.

  • Mr Twombly was prolific, across a long career, but notwithstanding the abundance of images, arguably he restricted himself to a relatively narrow range of painterly styles? His oeuvre is near all abstract, adding some calligraphical, cursive content, with only small recourse to the figurative, the representative. No portraits or landscapes or cityscapes or genre scenes. Even quasi-abstract. His painting journey was relatively steady, with shifts but nothing too abrupt, staying within a relatively narrow band.
  • Largely eschewing the figurative is a valid career choice, but it does restrict artistic / aesthetic achievement possibilities?
  • The oeuvre. After following the New York Abstract Expressionist crowd around 1950 with coarse “glyphic” abstraction Twombly found his mojo circa 1955 with fine diaphanous scratchy abstracts, non-geometric scribbling, through to Poems to the Sea of 1959. From around 1960 he shifted to colourful, splash, scratch, splodge and scribble. Bolder and more colourful, like the Ferragosto series of 1961, and Nine discourses on Commodus of 1963.
  • Then from 1966 through circa 1971 he shifted abruptly to the “blackboard” paintings, to monotone cursive abstract.
  • Distinctively too, starting in the late 1950s, he added scratchy untidy text to many images, especially from later in the 1970s. This was trademark Twombly.
  • Through the 1970s to 1990s the abstraction becomes more varied, exploratory: denser and more colourful, more conventionally expressive (ie dense, coarse, bold and colourful), sometimes using ragged floral-like motifs, still adding informal untidy text and figurative references, eg the important series, Coronation of Sesostris of 2000 (10 panels) and Lepanto of 2001 (12 panels).
  • In 2005 he unleashed large panels of thick red cursive scribbling, thence large reddish circular floral daubs, and finally (around age 80) he returned to crude colourful figurative abstraction, and ropey colourful cursive scribbling.


CY AND THE CURSIVE – two recent sales


1/ Two 1968 paintings from Cy’s ‘Blackboard Jungle’….


  1. Untitled (New YorkCity), oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 173 x 229 cm (NOTE: sold at Sotheby’s NY for US$70.5m Nov. 2015, a record auction price for the artist).


1968 Untitled (New YorkCity), oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 152.4 x 173 cm. (NOTE: sold Sotheby’s NY 11th May 2016 for US$36.7m. Interesting, suggests a “softening” in the market?)


2/ Is it Art? Sure.

Yes, applying a broad definition.

Ostensibly it looks like repetitive monotone scribbling on a canvas, one white, one blue.

But it becomes art when to a viewer it in some ways means more than that, for whatever reason.

Yes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.


3/ But it’s also a business.

These works are commercially traded. And for a lot of money. The painting on the left sold for a record US$70m November 2015.  And on the right for around US$37m May 2016.

Yes it’s a business, so opinions, judgements on a work come with powerful vested interests. No harm in that provided we keep that condition in mind.

Thus the relevant Catalogue Note for the May 2016 auction for Untitled (New YorkCity (1968) is a feat of sustained, superheated, hyperventilating, take-no-prisoners, hyperbolic prose, a Force 10 panegyric (edited with emphasis added):

 “Cy Twombly’s majestic Untitled (New York City) of 1968 is the enduring material triumph of a simply unrepeatable moment in the history of art…. An unparalleled exemplar of the artist’s most hallowed series of ‘Blackboard’ paintings…  the phenomenal vestige of an exceptional epoch. ..  Twombly forges a new visual language and ultimately achieves a visual poetry that is beyond sublimeUntitled (New York City) stands as tangible testimony to Twombly’s staggering innovation and inimitable abstract aesthetic …. It is, in short, the very pure manifestation of Cy Twombly’s indisputable genius…….. seemingly frenzied dispersion of graphic mark-making is in fact the result of finely-honed technical precision: the progressive march of elliptical repetitions is expertly rendered to achieve an irresistibly hypnotic urgency. .. The variegated tonal architecture of grisaille hues functions like geological strata…. the sheer force of this painting’s dynamic energy marks it apart from all contemporaneous examples of the grand cycle, and results in a panoramic expanse pulsating with the expansions and contractions of a certain organized chaos… Despite a residual yearning to decipher these written marks as an inherently human need, Twombly’s visual language has neither syntax nor logic…… and function as a compulsory sensual and intellectual catharsis that is both universal and particular to the individual… .. The six magnificent horizontal bands of loops increase in volume and expressive abandon, as the artist progresses down the length of the canvas.. …..At moments, the line is tight and dense; at others, Twombly loses control and his cursive energy drives off course, a high-speed choreography in which individual events of personal expression are sublimated into a greater whole of dense accumulations. Within this dichotomy lies the very brilliance of Twombly’s painting: reveling in the contradictions between the systematic and the irregular, the unruly and the cerebral, the premeditated and the intuitive, Twombly achieves a balletic complexity unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries…. In the lattice of tiered lateral ovals scoring the canvas, Twombly’s own gestural abandon erupts from the structural balance of the composition; while more precise and mathematical than the automatism of the Surrealists or the impulse of the Abstract Expressionists, Twombly’s subjectivity seeps through what appears to be mechanical labor. .. Twombly’s loops … bely in subtle disobedience a totally objective geometric precision. With the rigid syntax and rudimentary forms of the grey-ground paintings, Twombly appears to deny the insouciance of personality; however, the tremulous inflections of each parabolic rise and fall inevitably give way to the signature intensity of the artist’s own hand..”  (Sotheby’s catalogue for auction 11th May 2106, New York).

This is all possible. But objectively it can still look like “graffiti”? Still look “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.

But for many people it may remain curious repetitive scribbling on a “blackboard”.


4/ The “Blackboard” images and Twombly’s Cursive.

Cy Twombly’s first “Blackboard” painting seems to be Cold Stream executed Rome, 1966, not New York. It’s very similar to the two Sotheby’s paintings of 1968 but a bit bigger. All three feature 6 horizontal lines of repetitive cursive lasso scrawl.



1966, Cold Stream, Rome, oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 200 x 252 cm.


1966 Untitled, Rome. Industrial paint and crayon on canvas, 190 x 200 cm.

Then two other paintings from Rome in 1966 are broadly similar, both of similar size, but with different markings, both with square box-like cursive scrawl (Night Watch, distemper and crayon on canvas, 190 x 200 cm, and Untitled, industrial paint and crayon on canvas, 190 x 200 cm, see above).

A number of other similar images followed, Untitled (1968, oil-based house paint and crayon on canvas, 173 x 216cm, MOMA), Untitled (1968, oil, chalk and tempera on cloth, 172.7 x 215.9 cm), Untitled (1970, distemper and chalk on canvas, 70.5 x 100 cm), Untitled (Rome) (1970, 155.5 x 190 cm, sold by Christie’s November 2014 for $69m, similar to the two Sotheby’s paintings, but only 4 lines of cursive scrawl. See below), Untitled (1970, distemper and chalk on canvas, 345.5 x 495.3 cm, ie larger, four lines of less regular cursive scrawl, see below), and Untitled (1971, distemper and chalk on canvas, 198 x 348 cm).

So the two Sotheby’s paintings have some company.


1970, Untitled (Rome), Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 155.5 x 190 cm (NOTE: sold for cUS$60m October 2014);


1970, Untitled, Rome? Distemper and chalk on canvas, 345.5 x 495.3 cm


1970, Untitled, distemper and chalk on canvas, 70.5 x 100 cm.


1971 Untitled, distemper and chalk on canvas, 198 x 348 cm.

But the cursive visual device stayed with Twombly, now and then.

It returned in 1982 with Suma (oil, crayon etc,143 x 128cm) and Untitled (oil stick etc, 100 x 70cm), both red whorls.

And in 2005 with Notes from Salalah, now dripping bold white scrawl on black, and especially with the important Bacchus series, now big (panels over 3m by near 5m) bold red tangled loops.

Finally it returns in two late works, Untitled of 2008, three unusual panels (all c265 x 145cm) of ragged white loops on royal blue, and then his very last series, five colourful epressive panels of Camino Real, all thick dripping loops of red and orange against a middle green, a world away from the flimsy monotone of over 40 years earlier.



1982 Suma, Oil paint, crayon, gouache, graphite, and color pencil on paper, 142,5 x 127,5 cm


1982 Untitled, oil stick, pencil, colour pencil on paper, 100 x 70 cm.


2005 Untitled IV, (Bacchus).  Acrylic on canvas


2005-07, III Notes from Salalah, Note III, Acrylic on wood panel, 243.8 x 365.8 cm


  1. Camino Real (III). Acrylic on plywood, 252.4 x 185.1 cm


1/ Pretentious?

Cy Twombly is nothing if not controversial, 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 and rub, and now sells for plenty. Much of his work also comes bearing florid elaborate Classical references and the total package is lauded by many Serious Critics, the art establishment.

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

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

This thematic career mission was in turn reinforced not least by him moving to Italy in 1957 (ie at 29), and, barring intermittent 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 studious insouciance, reluctance to intervene with his own commentary to assist any understanding by his viewing public, only stoked curiosity.

Rather his comment might just polish his association with history’s achievers. So one time he 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? Though the gap between Mr Twombly 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 van Rijn, Self portrait, engraving 1630, and Cy Twombly  1957



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


2/ Empirical day dreaming. A taste test. Would Twombly  pass a blind tasting?

Take almost any Twombly work blind, anonymously, stripped of its obscure title, 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.. [soon 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 tautologically, by referencing other approbatory opinion?

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

Some 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).

Except 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 2nd C AD Emperor, incompetent if colourful, self-absorbed and dissolute.

Or take the Coronation of Sesostris (2000, 10 large panels, each ~ 2 x 1.5 metres)? Sesostris, from writings by Herodotus was even more obscure, to the point of being semi-fictional, musing that this putative pharaoh led his soldiers north as far as Asia Minor and Greece! But here 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, by the Persian coast?


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

The ultimate challenge for the earnest applause for Twombly’s work, straying into the hagiographical, is that like religion it cannot be verified or falsified. It’s largely a matter of faith. For the converts 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”?




1/ The appeal of Cy Twombly? Religion and money.The mind (the thirst for intellectual cum spiritual nourishment), and the pocket (money)?

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

Two reasons?

First, the wondering Man’s instinctive appetite for intellectual cum spiritual nourishment, which propels wide-eyed intelligent observers into quasi-religious submission?

And second, more prosaically, money. Means to feed the cat.


2/  ……. The product

First, there’s plenty to play with. He was industrious, over a working span of around 60 years.

Second, though the output is near all abstract or quasi-abstract, there is enough variety (including a dash of the figurative) to be interesting. And many works (especially later) are fashionably large, and grouped in series.

But, third, and most importantly, his oeuvre is cleverly distinctive. Mr Twombly cultivated his “thing”, his angle, and stayed with it for decades, through a lethal combination of four factors:

First, there’s plenty to play with. He was industrious, over a working span of around 60 years.

Second, though the output is near all abstract or quasi-abstract, there is enough variety (including a dash of the figurative) to be interesting. And many works (especially later) are fashionably large, and grouped in series.

But, third, and most importantly, his oeuvre is cleverly distinctive. Mr Twombly cultivated his “thing”, his angle, and stayed with it for decades, through a lethal combination of four factors:

  • First, his oeuvre is near all abstract, but with a tempting and constructive occasional flavour of the figurative.
  • Second, he developed an idiosyncratic informal, scratchy, scribbly style, including the repetitive cursive calligraphical device;
  • Third, and more important, he frequently resorted to informal allusive text additions;
  • Fourth, and also important, he relentlessly indulged recourse to the past for subjects, especially to the Greco-Roman classics, the learned atmosphere reinforced by the artist being based in Italy much of his working life, and by him keeping his own counsel on whatever his work might mean.


3/  ……. The market: the mind

Man is predisposed, wired to seek “spiritual enlightenment”, refreshment, nourishment, diversion, distraction.

Some choose the specifically, doctrinally religious, ranging from old fashioned Christianity to more recent man-made help yourself creations like Scientology.

Other stay secular but vulnerable to uncritical quasi-religious loyalty.

Man, the conscious curious Man, yearns for a greater understanding of his Total Predicament, given awareness of his mortality, evident since Adam, and, more recently, the 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 Twombly experience – his life and total oeuvre – is one such appealing package.

Twombly‘s long journey (recalling 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 appealing and 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 pens unto a torrent of articulate convoluted 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 op.cit.).


Mr Twombly’s mutually reinforcing quartet of visual characteristics – his visual fingerprint – becomes a powerfully attractive cocktail for receptive minds, especially as anchored by the plenitude of allusions to the past, the Classics.

This tickles the art patrons palates, high and low, thirsty for intellectual nourishment, but beyond even unto the spiritual paddocks?


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.


4/   ……. The market: the money

Many commentators are professionals conflicted through earning income from their engagement, bringing a vested interest. The art establishment – dealers, galleries and museums – have a big vested interest in promoting Mr Twombly, in fanning his reputation. And his controversy!

So their often enthusiastic judgements are not independent.

When a few square metres of scratch and scribble on canvas can fetch north of 50 million George Washingtons the quills of the complicit will relax a little.

And here Mr Twombly’s trademark idiosyncrasies work to fan the market, when they make it easy even for the uninitiated to know, yes that’s a Twombly.

So they like the controversy stoked by “..  his huge faux-naïve paintings” (Edmund White, 2015). It’s good for business. They like to play to the layman’s caution, the layman’s scorn for the “scribble”, the trite “kids could do this” So Twombly 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.

Twombly 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.”




The total oeuvre: resolutely abstract, but incorporating the calligraphic and a small but important figurative component.

Cy Twombly’s output over a career of near 60 years (c1950-2010) was almost totally abstract, but more than some calligraphical elaboration, including text, and a small but important component of the figurative.

So his painterly range in terms of styles and subjects remained relatively narrow.


A chronology

He began in the early 50s with coarse abstract pictographic “glyphic” images, much like some of the (other) Abstract Expressionists, then he switched abruptly in 1955 (with Academy, Panorama etc) to a fine scribbling calligraphical style, largely colorless, monotone, through to Poems to the Sea of 1959. Restrained but distinctive!

Finding his own way. This was – and remains – important for any ambitious artist, the satisfaction of revealing an original contribution, but also striving to be noticed, not least to sell the product.

Color crept in after c1960 and in the first half of the 1960s he broadened to a more colourful busy abstraction, splodgy, scratchy, usually filling the canvas, like the Ferragosto series of 1961. The important 9 panel series in 1963 (Nine Discourses on Commodus) was simpler, retreated mostly to pairs of colorful whorls, some dripping.

From 1966 he shifted abruptly to images of monotone cursive calligraphical abstract, through to about 1971, the “blackboard”paintings.

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

In the 1970s he returned to scratchy colourful abstraction, less ordered, using more and bolder scratchy text, with some figurative motifs, like in 50 Days at Iliam (1978).

Through the 1980s and 1990s (the artist now 50-70 years) the abstraction approach becomes generally more colourful and expressive: coarse, bold and colourful, sometimes using ragged floral-like motifs (eg varous Untitled), still adding informal untidy text and using some loose figurative references, eg the important series, Coronation of Sesostris of 2000 (10 panels) and Lepanto of 2001 (12 panels).

In 2005 with the Bacchus series he returned to the cursive with gusto, unleashed large panels of thick red cursive scribbling, which recall his monotone repetitive cursive scribbling starting 1966, from c40 years earlier.  Then 2007-08 he abruptly switched to large colourful (mostly red) circular floral daubs.

Finally (now 81) 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.



The subject range is narrow.

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

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.

His output was prolific, in part, practically speaking, because his images were not technically difficult to execute?

And it 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 Abstract Expressionist brethren. So – especially if stitched into series – he can easily fill a room, make a statement, become an anchoring attraction at an exhibition.

Only in a few images are relevant sketchy figurative elements in evidence (eg Lepanto) so near all his work is abstract and therefore even more 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.

But the figurative / representational content is important, and perhaps more potent because its use is rationed.


His “thing”: the scratchy text, cursive scrawl, and the august subject allusions.

Like many contemporary artists Mr Twombly developed his “thing”, his differentiating angle.

Visually he did this above all by disordered scratchy textual adornment, and by repetitive cursive scribbling, both of which became distinctive, trademark expressive visual devices for Twombly.

A third important distinguishing angle was frequent recourse to the distant past for subjects and titles, to history and to the Greco-Roman Classics.

In particular, though many images are Untitled, in 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); 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), and Nine discourses on Commodus (1963) (whose failed Roman emperorship started the 3rd C Time of Troubles); and some just history, like the Lepanto series (2001), re the famous 1571 sea battle between the Ottomans and some European countries.

And he also dared to dance with JMW Turner (Temeraire), and to embellish images by tapping literature, eg quoting Mallarme, Rilke, and Keats.

Not accidentally the textual additions reinforce the profound Classical allusions of the subjects. So in many of Twombly’s images the classical reference is emphasized, clarified by added text, 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).

In seeking to make his mark – be noticed, recognised (especially in the commercial art market) through cultivating a distinctive visual thumbprint – he was not alone, cf Matisse, Picasso, Pollock. His “thing” is readily appreciated by the interested layperson, the voting public, so it remains vitally helpful for art professonals keen to promote the artist.


But not alone

But in craving meaning and gravitas for his abstract works by (in his case) adopting intriguing obscure titles tapping the Classics he was not alone.

Around 1950 in New York a number of his fellow Abstract Expressionist painters used the same tack. Thus Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman both campaigned hard to fashion Meaning from and for their ostensibly relatively simple abstract utterances.


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, rebuffed 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.””

And to the list we can add the relevant Sotheby’s catalogue authors (eg above).



A life: some moments.

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 in NewYork. In 1959 they 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……….. Top 13


1951, Zyig, 41 x 51.5 cm;



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



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



  1. Cold Stream, Rome, Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 200 x 252 cm



1978. Fifty days at Iliam, Illians in battle, panel 8; Oil, oil crayon, and graphite on canvas, 299.7 x 379.7 cm



1989, Untitled.



           1990, Liri, oil stick, pencil, color pencil



1993-95 Quattro Stagioni Primavera, Acrylic, oil, crayon, and pencil on canvas support, 313.22 x 189.5 cm, Tate Modern



2000 Coronation of Sesostris, panel 5, Acrylic, crayon, and pencil on canvas, 206 x 156.5 cm


bb10 Untitled VII 2005 (Bacchus). Acrylic on canvas, 317.5 x 468.6 cm


TWOMBLY - Untitled [from Blooming. A Scattering of Blossoms and Other Things] (2007)

TWOMBLY – Untitled [from Blooming. A Scattering of Blossoms and Other Things] (2007)

2007 Untitled, (Peony Blossom Paintings), Acrylic, wax crayon, pencil on wood, 252 x 551.9 cm (From blooming, a scattering of blossoms and other things)                                



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



           Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves (V). Acrylic on canvas, 267.4 x 212.3 cm.




Barnett (“Spruiker”) Newman – The curious peregrinations of the modern art market………

Black Fire I (below), a painting by Barnett Newman completed in 1963, sold for US$84.1 million, sorry $84.2 million, in May 2014 in New York. And apparently the much larger Anna’s Light (1968) changed hands in October 2013 for a record price for the artist of US$105.7 million. Onement VI (1953) sold May 2013 for US$43.8 million.

Camera 360


On the face of it these were not technically difficult images to create and the visual content is simple, even very simple. Passable reproductions of the images seem within the capacity of most adults with the right brushes and paint (and masking tape?), and the time and the will.

As such for a viewer peering through detached “empiricist” Lockean spectacles – “what you see is what you get” – the values conferred on the paintings by the current art market seem extraordinary.

This is far from a luminously original observation but given the money and images involved it’s hard not to ponder the matter.

Barnett Newman (1905-1970) was an intriguing artist.

Born in Manhattan, New York City, of immigrant Polish Jewish parents (who had left then Russian Poland) he trained in art early and in 1931 started teaching art, as a substitute teacher. Apparently he also started painting in the 1930s but nothing survives. His earliest surviving work dates from 1944 (at age 38) by when he was deep into the NY art scene. Friends included (now) famous painters Rothko, Sill, and Pollock. And in 1945 he met important gallery owner Betty Parsons in 1945.

He was busy painting, he helped organise shows, and he was also a keen writer, like art reviews and forwards for catalogues. He was lively, gregarious and opinionated. Thus in 1938 he organised a protest exhibition of art works after “failing” official art exams, a gambit from which of course the French Impressionists famously benefited. By the late 1940s he was painting prolifically and from 1947, in a bold move, he quit teaching to paint full time, supported by his wife “for the next 17 years” (cf Barnett Newman Foundation). Yes a brave move, but, with hindsight, a profoundly prescient uxorial commitment.

His entire (surviving) work, his complete oeuvre – apart from a few early “gestural” abstract pictures – features his trademark Color Field / “zip” style paintings – ie areas of usually uniform colour separated by one or more thin vertical lines he called “zips”. This style started to emerge in 1946 (eg oil painting, Moment) and arrived 1948 with Onement I, a small (69 x 41cm) oil painting. Variations on this approach was pretty much it for his remaining 22 years.

He is usually described as an “Abstract Expressionist” painter but this term is very confusing because it includes two quite distinct approaches to abstract images, one being the dense expressive crowded “gestural”, “action” images typified by Pollock and de Kooning (who, in another complication, included figurative components), and the second being the quieter, cleaner, geometric, flat coloured area images typified by Rothko and also Newman, the so-called Color Field style, using large areas of generally uniform color.

Though his signature images began in the late 1940s, alongside the famous names like Pollock and Rothko, critical approval came slowly for Newman and for three years (1952-55) he even withdrew from showing in galleries altogether. It was not until the early 1960s, over a decade later, that he began to get traction, by which time the contemporary art scene had moved on, but ironically had moved on in part to the simpler colourful geometric abstraction with which Newman’s work easily affiliates.

Barnett Newman had plenty to say, not least about art and his work, and was avowedly polemical, if abstruse, seeking to carve an ambitious intellectual edifice to support, justify his corpus of apparently simple art.

However given the simple stark abstraction in his work it is perhaps unsurprising that his writings were mostly oblique or allegorical or even vague and elusive. But paradoxically his earnest if mercurial and grandiloquent utterances may be an important reason his paintings now sell so dearly. We are buying the package.

Thus in “the Plasmic Image” (1943-1945, as quoted in “Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics”, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990) he wrote:

“The present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extend his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life which is its sense of tragedy.”
The present painter can be said to work with chaos not only in the sense that he is handling the chaos of the blank picture plane, but also in that he is handling the chaos of form. In trying to go beyond the visible and the known world he is working with forms that are unknown even to him. He is therefore engaged in a true act of discovery in the creation of new forms and symbols that will have the living quality of creation.”
“ …it can be said that the artist like a true creator is delving into chaos. It is precisely this that makes him an artist for the Creator in creating the world began with the same material, for the artist tries to wrest truth from the void….”
The new painter is therefore the true revolutionary, the real leader who is placing the artist’s function on its rightful plane of the philosopher and the pure scientist who is exploring the world of ideas, not the world of the senses… …so the artist is today giving us a vision of the world of truth in terms of visual symbols…”

And in ‘The Sublime is Now’, in “The Ides of Art, Six Opinions on What is Sublime in Art?”, Tiger’s Eye (New York), No.6 (15 December 1948), pp. 52-53, he argued for his own back yard:

The failure of European art to achieve the sublime is due to this blind desire to exist inside the reality of sensation….. I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it… We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings….. without the nostalgic glasses of history.

Grand visions indeed from the florid spruiker!

And notwithstanding that abstraction was not then unknown in earlier “European art”!

Even stark unambiguous between-the eyes abstraction not inconsistent with the “sublime”, like Malevich’s square from 1915 and Mondrian hammering away singularly for a couple of decades after 1920 with his colourful grids.

And what specifically does any of what he writes have to do with Barnett Newman’s paintings, other than he was the author of both? Mr Newman’s musings could easily apply to the output of other abstract painters.

Dare one say it approving disciples of Mr Newman’s work seem to be approaching their task with an uncritical self-serving quasi-religious mindset.

Postwar Europe (and also Canada) as well as post war New York was busy with abstract painters, of which category the now famous New York Abstract Expressionists (diverse a group as they are), anointed royally by the commercial art market, are a subset.

Just as artists after World War 1 reacted strongly, extravagantly to that numbing catastrophe (ie Dada and beyond) so was this total group after World War 2 apparently coming to grips with the shattering improbable reality of a second catastrophe within a generation.

Which is far fetched. Be interesting to run “blind tastings” of all this early post WW2 art and see how many viewers smell global combat catastrophe there.

And intriguing too is that the images content of the famous few like Pollock is not drastically different from that pertaining to work by any artists known only to afficionados and art market professionals, except that the images of the famous few are generally larger.

But of course now given the disproportionate values bestowed by the commercial art market on a small coterie of abstract painters (and also to a handful of the later Pop Art practitioners), there are relevant vested interests vigorously defending these dramatic market values.


Behold the “abstraction” / “quasi-abstraction” one can whip up one afternoon with a simple digital camera and associated image-fiddling software, all slotting somewhere between the poles of “Color Field” and “Gestural expressive”.

Wse, Sunday 30th November 2014, and Saturday 3rd Jan. 2016