Cy Twombly: Painter who divided critical opinion but was widely regarded as a key figure in 20th century art

Cy Twombly was one of the key figures in 20th century art. His pictures combined painting and drawing techniques, repetitive lines, scribbles and the use of words and graffiti. He is often linked to his fellow-Americans, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who he met as a student in New York in the early 1950s, but he never enjoyed an easy ride from the critics, some of whom questioned whether his work was worthy of a place at the high table of abstract art.

Though recognition came late – and he was often overshadowed by the famous company he kept – Twombly was commissioned to paint a ceiling at the Louvre in 2010, the first artist given the honour since Georges Braque in the 1950s. For that work he chose something simple: a deep blue background punctuated with floating disks and emblazoned with the names of sculptors from ancient Greece, apt for a gallery of bronzes. "I got into something new in old age," he said of his unexpected choice of colour. Twombly said he was inspired by the colours he found in a Chinese print as well the blue of the early Italian Renaissance artist Giotto, who used paint made from lapis lazuli.

"I was just thinking of the blue with the disks on it, it's totally abstract," Twombly said. "It's that simple."

Simple or not, his work fetched millions: an untitled Twombly painting set an auction record for the artist at a 2002 Sotheby's sale, fetching £5m. Less than two months ago a Twombly work from 1967, Untitled, sold for $15.2m at Christie's in New York.

His canvases also ignited the passions of his followers. In 2007, a woman was arrested in France for kissing an all-white canvas he had painted, worth about $2m. Restorers had trouble getting the lipstick off, and she was ordered to pay hundreds of euros to the owner and the gallery – and one euro to the artist.

He was born Edwin Parker Twombly in Lexington, Virginia in 1928, the son of a baseball player for the Chicago White Sox who had been nicknamed Cy after the celebrated pitcher "Cyclone" Young. Eventually Twombly Jr. was accorded the same nickname. Between 1942 and 1946 he studied modern European art under Pierre Daura, a Spanish artist who was living in Lexington. In 1950, he won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York, where he was exposed to the works of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and others. There, he met Rauschenberg, who was a few years his senior but was also a student at the League. On Rauschenberg's advice, Twombly enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the experimental school whose alumni constituted a veritable who's who of contemporary arts.

He had his first solo exhibition at the Seven Stairs Gallery in Chicago in 1951 and a year later sailed from New York with Rauschenberg for his first trip to Europe – which would eventually become his home – and North Africa. In 1954, he was drafted into the US Army, training as a cryptographer. While serving, he would practise the Surrealist technique of drawing in the dark – and the practice was later evident in his work.

Three years later he moved to Rome even as the art world was heading in the opposite direction, from Europe to New York. It was a move the New York Times called "the most symbolic of his idiosyncrasies". He never really left the city, though later in life, he spent more time in the seaside town of Gaeta, south of Rome. In 1959, he married the portrait painter Tatia Franchetti, the sister of his patron Giorgio Franchetti; they had a son, Alessandro Cyrus, who himself went on to become an artist.

From 1962 he produced a cycle of works based on subjects from history, such as Leda and the Swan. Erotic and corporeal symbols became more prominent, while a greater lyricism developed in his "Blackboard paintings". Between 1967 and 1971 he produced the "grey paintings", terse, colourless scrawls reminiscent of chalk on a blackboard. For those Twombly sat on the shoulders of a friend, who shuttled back and forth along the length of the canvas, allowing him to create his fluid, continuous lines.

From 1976 Twombly produced sculptures, lightly painted in white and suggesting Classical forms. Like earlier sculptures, they were assembled from found materials suchas pieces of wood or packaging, orcast in bronze and covered in white paint and plaster. In the mid-1970s, in paintings such as Untitled (1976), he began to evoke landscape through colour, written inscriptions and elements of collage.

In 1978 he worked on Fifty Days at Iliam, a 10-part cycle inspired by Homer's Iliad; since then he had continued to draw on literature and myth, as in his Gaeta canvases and the monumental "Quattro Stagioni", or "Four Seasons", series.

Twombly won a series of awards, including France's Legion of Honour, which was bestowed at the inauguration of the Louvre ceiling. He won Japan's most prestigious art award in 1998, the Praemium Imperiale prize, which honours fields not covered by the Nobel Prizes, while in 2001 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.

The same year, he opened his first major sculpture show, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The exhibit was still able to ignite the old controversy about whether what he made was really art and whether what he possessed was really talent. To some it looked like the debris in a carpenter's shop with planks and crudely nailed boxes slathered with white paint and plaster. For others, it was an eloquent reminder of the ancient Mediterranean.

A week before Twombly died, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London launched an exhibition juxtaposing some of Twombly's work with that of the 17th century painter Nicolas Poussin, inspired by Twombly's remark that, "I would've liked to have been Poussin, if I'd had a choice, in another time." The exhibition runs until 25 September.

Eve Thomas

Edwin Parker "Cy" Twombly, Jr, artist: born Lexington, Virginia 25 April 1928; Golden Lion award, Venice Biennale 2001; Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur 2010; married 1959 Tatia Franchetti (died 2010; one son); died Rome 5 July 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?