‘Great artist, wonderful man’ – Cy Twombly dies of cancer, aged 83

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The American artist Cy Twombly, whose elegant and evocative swirls, splodges and scribbles made him one of the great figures of modern art, died of cancer in Italy yesterday, aged 83.

His death came just a few days after an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery placed his work alongside the French classicist Nicolas Poussin, an indication of the esteem to which his abstract style is held by even those with more traditional tastes.

Twombly had been ill with cancer for some years but last year had the honour of painting one of the ceilings at the Louvre museum in Paris, offering him a monumental space of 300 square-metres to play with in a way that even his huge conventional canvases never could.

The French culture minister, Frederic Mitterrand, last night lauded Twombly's ceiling – an expanse of deep blue bordered by planet-like circles and the names of sculptors from ancient Greece – saying that it was a "magnificent work".

He added that the artist should be perceived as neither a figurative nor an abstract artist, but instead "just brilliant".

"His work was deeply marked by his passion for Greek and Roman antiquity, and its mythology, which for him was a source of bottomless inspiration," said Mr Mitterrand.

Marie-Laure Bernadac, the Louvre's head of contemporary art, also paid tribute to Twombly by describing him as "not just a great artist but a wonderful man".

"I am shattered by the news of his death," she said. "We have lost a tremendous person, a special and unique artist who was very quickly adopted by Europe."

Indeed, it was in this continent that Twombly not only first found serious acclaim but also made his home for most of his life, taking up residence in Italy in 1957. Prior to that he had studied at the prestigious Black Mountain College in North Carolina, moving away from his birthplace of Lexington in Virginia. He was officially named Edwin Parker Twombly on his birth in 1928, but was quickly nicknamed Cy by his father.

He formed friendships with fellow artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg during his time at college, before settling in the town of Gaeta, nestled between Naples and Rome.

Rapidly finding fans for his work, he maintained a reticence for speaking or appearing in public throughout his life as he preferred to let his art make its impact without the baggage or hindrance of spoken words.

Written words, on the other hand, frequently played a part in his work, which sometimes involved graffiti, incorporating descriptions and messages into his dramatic colours.