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The Art Story Homepage Artists Cy Twombly Art Works

Cy Twombly Artworks

American Draftsman, Painter, and Sculptor

Cy Twombly Photo

Born: April 25, 1928 - Lexington, Virginia

Died: July 5, 2011 - Rome, Italy

Artworks by Cy Twombly

The below artworks are the most important by Cy Twombly - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Untitled (1954)

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.

Leda and the Swan (1962)

Leda and the Swan (1962)

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."

Discourse on Commodus (1963)

Discourse on Commodus (1963)

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.

Untitled (1970)

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.

Quattro Stagioni. Part I: Primavera (1993-1994)

Quattro Stagioni. Part I: Primavera (1993-1994)

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.

Untitled (2007)

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.

Related Artists and Major Works

Annette with Chariot (1950)

Artist: Alberto Giacometti (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Although sculpture is the medium for which Giacometti is best known, he was also an accomplished painter and draughtsman. This 1950 oil work shows his skill at creating an impression of profound depth on a flat surface. The subject here is the artist's wife Annette, who is composed of the same lines and strokes used to depict the surrounding room, as if she herself were just another object. Nevertheless, like Giacometti's sculptural stick figures, Annette does subtly emerge from the composition, asserting her humanity amidst the otherwise bland order of the room. Much as some of the leading Existentialist thinkers of the time noted, Giacometti's mature work was an antidote to abstraction.

Bed (1955)

Bed (1955)

Artist: Robert Rauschenberg (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

One of Rauschenberg's first "combines," Bed transcends the line between painting and sculpture through its Dadaist assemblage of traditional materials and the detritus of everyday life. Rauschenberg coined the term combine to describe a series of works from the 1950s and 1960s that literally combine the media of painting and sculpture within a single, three-dimensional art object. Apocryphal or not, the legend behind the combine states that one day Rauschenberg ran out of canvas and turned instead to his bed linens, first scribbling on the pillow, sheets, and quilt with pencil, then rapidly dripping and spilling paint on them. He then stretched the bed linens over a rectangular wooden support, in the place of a canvas, and attached the pillow and quilt in a way that made it appear as if the bed was made with only one corner un-tucked. He applied the paint in a loose, dripped, gestural fashion that calls to mind the authorial marks of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. However, the brushstroke in the combine was no longer a mark indicative of the artist's psyche, but an appropriated symbol designating a shift towards the external world within the avant-garde. The found objects present more of an accurate portrait of Rauschenberg than the dripped paint, as they were items that he owned and used in his daily life, rather than an aesthetic sign borrowed from a previous generation.


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