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.

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