Painter Cy Twombly dies aged 83

American artist who swam against the tide

Cy Twombly, one of the last great American painters of the abstract expressionist era, died on Tuesday at the age of 83. He is understood to have been suffering from cancer for some years. During his varied career he divided critical opinion, and it was not until a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1994 that he garnered proper recognition in his homeland. That exhibition laid the foundation for his lasting place in the pantheon of 20th- and 21st-century art; the years since then saw what the Financial Times critic Jackie Wullschlager has described as “one of the most astonishing, original, wrenchingly beautiful series of late work in art history”.

In 2008 a magnificent retrospective at Tate, the artist’s first in 15 years, showed the full range of this remarkable oeuvre, with subsequent showings at the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome in 2009. Two years before, Twombly had been invited to paint the ceiling of the Salle des Bronzes in the Louvre in Paris, only the third contemporary artist to be allowed to make work there. And an exhibition of Twombly paired with the French 17th-century painter Nicolas Poussin has just opened at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, a link across the centuries that showcases the intense vision of the American artist, an iconoclast towards his own era who was absorbed by the classics and artists of the past.

Edwin Parker Twombly was born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1928, where his father taught sports (the “Cy” was a tribute to the baseball player Cy Young). It was on a scholarship to New York in 1950 that he first encountered the other artists who were to become his often more celebrated peers – Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he shared a studio for some years, Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns and others. In 1959, however, after several years immersed in the vibrantly creative New York art scene of the time, Twombly moved to Rome. There he married Tatia Franchetti; they have one son.

As his fellow American artists moved into the brash, sleek styles of the next decade, and pop art and conceptualism came to rule supreme, Twombly held himself apart, pursuing a style that was restrained, elegiac, and steeped in classical allusion and even quotation. The early 1960s saw him revisiting classical themes such as Leda and the Swan or the Birth of Venus again and again; it was an obsession that never left him, as shown in his “Bacchus” series of 2005. The work of the early 1970s included the “Grey Paintings”, intense, often monochromatic works scrawled with obscure symbols; the bolder letterings that run across his work from this time onwards – and which failed to impress some critics – include snippets of poetry by Keats, Rilke and Alexander Pope, for example, or, on one series, the word “happiness” scored again and again with a ferocity that belies its meaning.

Wild, almost violent landscapes counterpointed the coolly meditative “Green Paintings” made for the Venice Biennale of 1988, now among the holdings of one of the most important collections of Twomblys, the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas; similarly, the ferocity of the 1960s “Ferragosto” series, all fiery reds and impassioned swirls that convey the searing heat of a Roman August, contrasts with the extreme restraint and airy delicacy of some parts of his “Seasons” cycles. The charged mood of these series is summed up by the Rilke lines that Twombly quotes in “Spring”: “And you who have always thought/of happiness flowing would feel the/emotion that almost overwhelms/when happiness falls.”

It was a magnificently productive career – Twombly also made sculptures, usually of found materials painted white – but one that was oddly shaped in terms of worldly acclaim. A vicious review in 1968 ushered in a couple of decades in which the artist was relatively under-appreciated. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate and curator of the 2008 show, put this down partly to Twombly’s choice to live in Europe just at the moment when all the contemporary art-world action was in New York. “He was seen as European,” Serota said. “A bad thing to be in those days. He’d left.”

Larry Gagosian, one of the art world’s most powerful dealers, has launched each of his new European venues, including the recent Paris gallery, with a Twombly show. In the past days he has said of the artist he championed so passionately: “The art world has lost a true genius and a completely original talent, and for those fortunate enough to have known him, a great human being. We will not soon see a talent of such amazing scope and intensity.”

More informally, a few months ago, Gagosian told the FT in an interview that “one of the greatest joys of my life has been working with Cy”.

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