Cy Twombly's work can be understood as one vast engagement with cultural memory. His paintings, drawings and sculptures on mythological subjects have come to form a significant part of that memory. Usually drawing on the most familiar gods and heroes, he restricts himself to just a few, relatively well-known episodes, as narrated by poet-historians, given visible shape by artists and repeatedly reinterpreted in the literature and visual art of later centuries.....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.
Twombly was born in Lexington, Virginia, on April 25, 1928. Twombly's father, also nicknamed "Cy", pitched for the Chicago White Sox. They were both nicknamed after the baseball great Cy Young who pitched for, among others, the Cardinals, Red Sox, Indians, and Braves.
At age 12, Twombly began to take private art lessons with the Catalan modern master Pierre Daura. After graduating from Lexington High School in 1946, Twombly attended Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, and studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1948–49), and at Washington and Lee University (1949–50) in Lexington, Virginia. On a tuition scholarship from 1950 to 1951, he studied at the Art Students League of New York, where he met Robert Rauschenberg with whom he had a relationship. Rauschenberg encouraged him to attend Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. At Black Mountain in 1951 and 1952 he studied with Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Ben Shahn, and met John Cage. The poet and rector of the College Charles Olson had a great influence on him.
The Art Institute of Chicago hosts an ongoing exhibition, "Cy Twombly: Sculpture Selections, 1948–1995". The exhibition features examples of Twombly’s sculptures made between 1948 and 1995, composed primarily of rough elements of wood coated in plaster and white paint. The Institute also holds prints, drawings, and paintings by the Artist in its permanent collection.
Arranged by Motherwell, Twombly's first solo exhibition was organized by the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery in New York in 1951. At this time his work was influenced by Kline's black-and-white gestural expressionism, as well as Paul Klee's imagery. In 1952, Twombly received a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts which enabled him to travel to North Africa, Spain, Italy, and France. He spent this journey in Africa and Europe with Robert Rauschenberg. In 1954, he served in the U.S. Army as a cryptographer in Washington, D.C. and would frequently travel to New York during periods of leave. From 1955 through 1956, he taught at the Southern Seminary and Junior College in Buena Vista, Virginia, currently known as Southern Virginia University; during the summer vacations, Twombly would travel to New York to paint in his Williams Street apartment.
After his return in 1953, Twombly served in the U.S. army as a cryptologist, an activity that left a distinct mark on his artistic style. From 1955 to 1959, he worked in New York, where he became a prominent figure among a group of artists including Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he was sharing a studio, and Jasper Johns. Exposure to the emerging New York School purged figurative aspects from his work, encouraging a simplified form of abstraction. He became fascinated with tribal art, using the painterly language of the early 1950s to invoke primitivism, reversing the normal evolution of the New York School. Twombly soon developed a technique of gestural drawing that was characterized by thin white lines on a dark canvas that appear to be scratched onto the surface. His early sculptures, assembled from discarded objects, similarly cast their gaze back to Europe and North Africa. He stopped making sculptures in 1959 and did not take up sculpting again until 1976.
In 1957, Twombly moved to Rome, where he met the Italian Artist Tatiana Franchetti – sister of his patron Baron Giorgio Franchetti. They were married at City Hall in New York in 1959 and then bought a palazzo on the Via di Monserrato in Rome. In addition, they had a 17th-century villa in Bassano in Teverina, north of Rome. They had a son, Cyrus Alessandro Twombly (born 1959), who is also a Painter and lives in Rome.
Twombly often inscribed on paintings the names of mythological figures during the 1960s. Twombly's move to Gaeta in Southern Italy in 1957 gave him closer contact with classical sources. From 1962 he produced a cycle of works based on myths including Leda and the Swan and The Birth of Venus; myths were frequent themes of Twombly's 1960s work. Between 1960 and 1963 Twombly painted the rape of Leda by the god Zeus/Jupiter in the form of a Swan six times, once in 1960, twice in 1962 and three times in 1963.
Twombly was invited to exhibit his work at the Venice Biennale in 1964, in 1989 and in 2001 when he was awarded the Golden Lion at the 49th Venice Biennale. In 2010 he was made Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur by the French government. During fall 2010 Tacita Dean produced a film on Twombly, entitled "Edwin Parker".
Erotic and corporeal symbols became more prominent, whilst a greater lyricism developed in his 'Blackboard paintings'. Between 1967 and 1971, he produced a number of works on gray grounds, the 'grey paintings'. This series features terse, colorless scrawls, reminiscent of chalk on a blackboard, that form no actual words. Twombly made this work using an unusual technique: he sat on the shoulders of a friend, who shuttled back and forth along the length of the canvas, thus allowing the Artist to create his fluid, continuous lines. In the summer and early autumn of 1969, Twombly made a series of fourteen paintings while staying at Bolsena, a lake to the north of Rome. In 1971, Nini Pirandello, the wife of Twombly’s Roman gallerist Plinio De Martiis, died suddenly. In tribute, Twombly painted the elegiac "Nini’s Paintings".
In 1968, the Milwaukee Art Museum mounted the first retrospective of his art. Twombly had his next retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979, curated by David Whitney. The Artist was later honored by retrospectives at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1987 (curated by Harald Szeemann), the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, in 1988, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1994, with additional venues in Houston, Los Angeles, and Berlin. In 2001, the Menil Collection, the Kunstmuseum Basel, and the National Gallery of Art presented the first exhibition devoted entirely to Twombly's sculpture, assembling sixty-six works created from 1946 to 1998. The European retrospective Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons opened at the Tate Modern, London, in June 2008, with subsequent versions at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome in 2009. At the Tate Modern retrospective, a text read:
In the mid-1970s, in paintings such as Untitled (1976), Twombly began to evoke landscape through colour (favouring brown, green and light blue), written inscriptions and collage elements. In 1978 he worked on the monumental historical ensemble Fifty Days at Iliam, a ten-part cycle inspired by Homer's Iliad; since then Twombly continued to draw on literature and myth, deploying cryptic pictorial metaphors that situate individual experience within the grand narratives of Western tradition, as in the Gaeta canvases and the monumental Four Seasons concluded in 1994.
His later sculptures exhibit a similar blend of emotional expansiveness and intellectual sophistication. From 1976, Twombly again produced sculptures, lightly painted in white, suggestive of Classical forms. Like his earlier works, these pieces are assembled from found materials such as pieces of wood or packaging, or cast in bronze and covered in white paint and plaster. In an interview with critic David Sylvester, on the occasion of the large exhibition of his sculpture at Kunstmuseum Basel in 2000, Twombly revealed that, for him, the demands of making sculpture were distinctly different from those required of painting. “[Sculpture is] a whole other state. And it’s a building thing. Whereas the painting is more fusing—fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere.”
Twombly was a recipient of numerous awards. In 1984 he was awarded the "Internationaler Preis für bildende Kunst des Landes Baden-Württemberg" and in 1987 the "Rubenspreis der Stadt Siegen". Most notably, he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale in 1996.
In 1989, the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened permanent rooms dedicated to his monumental 10-painting cycle, Fifty Days at Iliam (1978), based on Alexander Pope’s translation of “The Iliad.”
In 1990, a Christie's auction set a record for Twombly, with his 1971 untitled blackboard painting fetching $5.5 million. In 2011, a Twombly work from 1967, "Untitled", sold for $15.2 million at Christie's in New York. A new record was made in May 2012 for the 1970 painting "Untitled (New York)" at Sotheby's, selling for $17.4 million (€13.4 million). In November 2013 a record price of $21.7 million for "Poems to the Sea" (1959), an abstract, 24-part multimedium work on paper, was achieved at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Sale.
In 1993, at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, an exhibition of Twombly's photographs offered a selection of large blurry color images of tulips, trees and ancient busts, based on the artist's Polaroids. In 2008, a specially curated selection of Twombly's photographic work was exhibited in Huis Marseille, the Museum for Photography, Amsterdam; the exhibition was opened by Sally Mann. For the season 2010/2011 in the Vienna State Opera Cy Twombly designed the large scale picture (176 sqm) Bacchus as part of the exhibition series Safety Curtain, conceived by museum in progress. In 2011, the Museum Brandhorst, mounted a retrospective of Twombly's photographs from 1951 to 2010. It later was passed over to the Museum für Gegenwartskunst at Siegen and the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels.
However, in a 1994 article Kirk Varnedoe thought it necessary to defend Twombly's seemingly random marks and splashes of paint against the criticism that "This is just scribbles – my kid could do it".
In 1995, The Four Seasons entered the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art as a gift from the Artist. A recent (1998–1999) Twombly work, Three Studies from the Temeraire, a triptych, was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for A$4.5 million in 2004. In 2010, Twombly’s permanent site-specific painting, Ceiling was unveiled in the Salle des Bronzes at the Musée du Louvre; he is only the third Artist to have been invited to do so. The other two were Georges Braque in the 1950s and François Morellet in 2010. In 2011, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, made a large acquisition of nine works worth about $75 million. The Bacchus series and five bronze sculptures were gifted by Twombly's estate to Tate Modern in 2014.
The prosecution, described that act as "A sort of cannibalism, or parasitism", but admitted that Sam was "visibly not conscious of what she has done", asking that she be fined €4,500 and compelled to attend a citizenship class. The art work was worth an estimated $2 million. In November 2007 Sam was convicted and ordered to pay €1,000 to the painting's owner, €500 to the Avignon gallery where it was exhibited, and €1 to the Painter.
Twombly's will, written under U.S. law, allocated the bulk of the artist's art and cash to the Cy Twombly Foundation. The foundation now controls much of Twombly's work. It has reported $70 million in assets in 2011, and $1.5 billion in the following two years. In 2012 it purchased a 25-foot-wide Beaux Arts mansion on 19 E 82nd St, Upper East Side Manhattan, planning to open an education center and a small museum. There is an additional foundation office on the Gaeta property. The four board members were divided in a lawsuit, settled in March 2014.
Some of his work was also shown in an exhibition named Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings which ran from 22 June to 28 October 2012 at Tate Liverpool.
A new price record was set at Christie's Contemporary Art Sale on November 12, 2014, an untitled 1970 painting from his ‘Blackboard’ series with "lasso-like scribbles" fetched far beyond the $35 million to $55 million estimate, selling at $69.6 million (£44.3m).
In November, 2015, "New York City" (1968) set another new price record for Twombly. Per ArtNet News, "Covered with his trademark looping white scribbles on a slate-gray background, the work recalls his experience as a cryptologist at the Pentagon."