The largest and most comprehensive survey ever held in the United States of the work of American abstract artist Cy Twombly (b. 1928), Cy Twombly: A Retrospective comprises nearly 100 works, including paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, which reveal the panoramic range of subjects and emotions addressed in his art. The exhibition redefines Twombly’s place as a singular master in postwar art, and establishes the critical role his work has played in the international development of contemporary art.
Installed chronologically in the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture galleries on the Museum’s third floor, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective ranges in date from 1946 through the present, and includes fifty paintings, thirty-seven works on paper, ten sculptures, and two prints. Only sixteen of these works were also shown in Twombly’s previous American retrospective, in 1979 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. A number of works in the current exhibition are on view for the first time in this country; these include little-known early works, key masterpieces of monumental scale, and several recently completed paintings. In presenting the full range of Twombly’s work, the exhibition demonstrates not only the consistent themes that mark the artist’s oeuvre, but a variety and diversity that are perhaps unexpected in an artist who has been, until recently, more widely appreciated and exhibited in Europe than in his native country.
Unlike his contemporaries and friends Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Twombly chose to cultivate the legacy of the Abstract Expressionists. He has pursued a form of painting that combines elements of gestural abstraction, drawing, and writing in a personal manner that is seemingly remote from the media-saturated world of contemporary culture. Suffused with references to poetry and the Mediterranean heritage that has surrounded him since his move to Italy in 1957, Twombly’s art bridges literary and painterly sensibilities, and links contemporary art to a rich cultural past of antiquity and Romanticism.
In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, curator Kirk Varnedoe writes, “For all the complex linguistic structure of [Twombly’s] aesthetic and the rich web of his references, what his achievement may ultimately depend upon most heavily is the power he has drawn from within himself and from so many enabling traditions, to isolate in a particularly raw and unsettled fashion that primal electricity of communication in his apparently simplest acts of naming, marking, and painting.”
Cy Twombly: A Retrospective opens with assemblage sculptures from the late 1940s, which reveal the artist’s early interest in Dada and Surrealism, and paintings and graphic works from the early 1950s. These include two major paintings, Tiznit and Volubilus, made in 1953 following Twombly’s return from the trip he made to Europe and North Africa with Rauschenberg. Named after North African villages, these pictures show Twombly scratching and scoring wet paint in order to create a scarred, bristling surface. His next body of works, such as The Geeks, Free Wheeler, and Academy (all of 1955), further blurred the distinction between painting and drawing, and show the deliberate, repetitive piling up of abstract scoring and partially legible letters and words that would become a hallmark of the artist’s mature style.
Following Twombly’s move to Rome in 1957, his work becomes less encrusted and less harshly striated. Examples like Olympia (1957) are characterized by a new space, light, and color that yield a canvas that is at once reticent and expressive. The letters and words that Twombly inscribed on the pale ground of Olympia place his work at the nexus of art, language, and writing.