Progression of Art
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.
Colored pencil - Collection Cy Twombly Foundation
Leda and the Swan
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."
Oil paint, lead pencil, wax crayon on canvas. 75 x 78 3/4 in. - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Discourse on Commodus
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.
Oil paint, wax crayon, lead pencil on canvas - Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain
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.
Oil based house paint, wax crayon on canvas. 159 1/2 x 252 1/8 in. - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Quattro Stagioni. Part I: Primavera
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.
Acrylic, oil paint [paint stick], wax crayon, colored pencil and lead pencil on canvas. 123 x 74 3/4 in. - The Tate Collection, London, UK
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.
Acrylic, wax crayon, lead pencil on wooden panel. 99 1/4 x 217 1/4 in. - The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica