Edwin Parker Twombly Jr. was an American artist whose Abstract Expressionist signature lay in “mark-making” through practices of graffiti and calligraphy against color-neutral backgrounds.
Twombly was born in Lexington, Virginia in 1928. His father, with whom he shares his name, was a baseball player and sports coach. His family was both liberal and financially secure enough for young Twombly to receive private painting classes and lectures on art history by Spanish artist Pierre Duara.
After graduating from Lexington High School in 1946, Twombly enrolled at the Darlington School in Georgia. He spent the following summer at an art colony in Maine and, in the fall of 1947, enrolled at the Museum School in Boston. After finishing his initial apprenticeships, in 1950, Twombly attended the Art Students League of New York on a tuition scholarship. The institution was easily the world center of Abstract Expressionism at the time and he was exposed to both the works and personalities of critical darlings Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline.
From 1951 to 1952, Twombly attended the now defunct Black Mountain College in North Carolina, studying under Robert Motherwell as well as rector Charles Olson, whose fascination for classic, emblematic imagery held some influence.
The Influence of Travel
Twombly’s first exhibition took place at the Kootz Gallery in New York. The show was enough of a success for him to receive a travel grant from the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts in Virginia, and in 1952, he set off for Rome and Morocco with his friend and fellow Expressionist Robert Rauschenberg. It is unsurprising that he would choose to visit places of historical interest, as his work often alludes to a longing for times past.
Even though journeying through northern Africa was Rauschenberg’s plan, the tour affected Twombly on a deeper level than he expected. He returned with drawings of ethnic patterns and intricate studies of materials, producing highly emotive canvasses whose titles referred directly to his travels.
Having encountered cultural differences for the first time and in reaction to the biases and superstitions about left and right, Twombly began limiting the movement of his hands while painting, pretending it was his left instead of his right. This was an act that ran parallel to Surrealist ideas — by refusing to make use of his own technical skill, he eliminated control of his own creation.
The Transatlantic Move
Twombly was drafted into the army in 1953 where he worked as a cryptologist, often working in the dark. It was during this time that he held a joint exhibition in New York’s Stable Gallery with Rauschenberg, which was critically panned as one of the poorest shows of the season. He remained true to his muse though, and defiantly added an expletive or two to mostly abstract paintings.
In 1957, he moved to Rome where he met and later married Tatiana Franchetti, an Italian artist and baroness. He settled in a villa on the Via di Monserrato and spent much of his time by the coastline, painting the Mediterranean without a shade of blue. His work at this period is marked by its minimalism and evocativeness.
Over the next decade, Twombly focused on many literary and mythical subjects. A grand lyricism appeared amongst erotic and earthly representations. Between 1967 and 1971, he produced a series on gray grounds that appear to be abrupt, colorless scribbles like that of chalk on a blackboard. But the words themselves are illusory.
Life and Legacy
Despite being compared with Rauschenberg and printmaking artist Jasper Johns Jr., Twombly was distinct in his own right. His craft of “mark making” has been described as primitive with powerful elements of myth and storytelling interweaved in them. After settling in Italy in the late 1950s, Twombly moved away from Expressionism towards large-scale, romantic symbolism.
Twombly was given several awards and honors, most notably the Praemium Imperiale in 1996, the Golden Lion at the 49th Venice Biennale, and the title of Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur by the government of France in 2010.
After a long fight with cancer, Twombly died at a hospital in Rome in 2011. He was 83 years old. His art is permanently housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Musée du Louvre in Paris.
Date of Birth: April 25, 1928
Date of Death: July 5, 2011
Place of Birth: Lexington, Virginia
Occupation: Painter, sculptor and calligraphy artist
Education: Black Mountain College
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