Great Works: That Which I Should Have Done, I Did not Do, 1998 (36cm by 37cm by 27.5cm), Cy Twombly

Private collection

Cy Twombly, who died this week at the age of 83, is better known for his painting than his sculptures. Indeed he is hardly known for his sculptures at all. Squiggly lines across the canvas, with words, extracts of poetry and the paint smeared on by finger, that is what he is known and admired for. And yet he pursued sculpture through most of his working life. And it shows, even more than his two-dimensional work, the wit, the literary references and the sense of the past which made him such a creative and evolving artist.

That Which I Should Have Done, I Did Not Do, from 1998 and now on display for the first time ever at the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition of his work set against that of his hero, Nicolas Poussin, is a case in point. It's a work combining many materials – velvet, wood, stone, bronze, brass and metal screws – and even more allusions. The base is a wood box covered in faded purple velvet. It supports a stained stone on which is placed a bronze rose. On the base is the legend that gives the piece its title.

The overall intention, not least the memorial plaque but also the use of bronze and supporting base, is clearly to mimic the sense of the memorial. And in that sense the piece can be interpreted precisely as that. The rose is the symbol of beauty that fades but it is metamorphosed into permanence by its transfiguration into bronze, just as in the memorial casts of the dead in previous centuries. The stone is the basic material of the mausoleum, but it is also given life by the stain and corrupting smear upon it. A man who chose to live in Italy for most of his life and knew intimately their classical remains and funeral art, Twombly also liked to subvert it by place the sepulchral against the mundane.

The legend could refer to the artist himself, the work an illustration of just how short he felt he had fallen in trying to achieve the art he wanted. It is actually taken from an Ivan Albright painting in the Art Institute of Chicago, which Twombly knew. But it also contains a nod, and a riposte, to Poussin's most famous dictum: "Je n'ai rien négligé" ("I have neglected nothing."). Poussin was the artist of the precisely prepared, the perfect detail. Twombly was a creator of the spontaneous, the smudged, the questions left open.

You can over-interpret works such as these. It may be interesting to know that the bronze rose is cast from a plastic rose, a form he used in a number of his sculptures, but it doesn't necessarily aid your appreciation. Yet in Twombly's case, there is a deliberate playing with audience expectation and an intentional ambiguity of meaning, which owes something to his early enthusiasm for the art of Paul Klee but also an influence of surrealism. Twombly is usually cast as an abstract artist, a friend of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In reality, although close friends with these and other artists of the New York Abstract School, he deliberately diverged from their ambitions of pure abstraction in colour to introduce drawing, words and different materials. He practiced free-hand drawing at night when he could not see where the line was going. He sat on the shoulders of an assistant so that he could draw continuous lines across huge canvases.

His ambition was huge. He wanted to gather in past and present, literature and painting, classicism and unconscious creation all together. But he sought to do so by making his works, even the largest, deliberately unmonumental: by playing with the line, by undercutting the force of the paint with the delicacy of pencil and confusing the abstract with words from his favourite poems. Always he sought to give his works a sense of the fragile, the indeterminate and the unresolved – in other words, what makes us human.

He kept this particular work in his studio for over a dozen years. Whether he intended it as his epitaph, it does describe his life – both an artistic career worked against the grain of his times and a cheerful admission of the gap between human endeavour and its fulfilment.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Edwin Parker "Cy" Twombly, 1928-2011, was one of the outstanding figures of American post-war art, famous for introducing pencil drawing, words and literary references into abstract art and for painting vast canvases. A devotee of classical art and literature, he spent most of his life in Italy.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape