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Cy Twombly: The Sculpture



This exhibition, on view from 6 May to 29 July 2001 at the National Gallery of Art (West Building), presents fifty-eight examples of Cy Twombly's sculpture, works that range in date from 1946 to the present. Composed primarily of rough elements of wood coated in plaster and white paint, or cast in bronze, these sculptures are fundamentally abstract, yet harbor complex meanings. Through poetic inscription or association the works often allude to mythological subjects or to artifacts of the ancient past: temples, chariots, altars, reliquaries, and ruins.


Cy Twombly was born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1928. While he is best known for profoundly original paintings and drawings, he began to make sculpture at a young age. The earliest works in this exhibition demonstrate his prodigious talent and interest in modern European art, particularly the dada and surrealist movements as embodied by Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp, and Alberto Giacometti. These artists emphasized the intuitive and irrational, as is reflected in their assemblages of disparate and anti-aesthetic materials, collages arranged by chance, and abstract organic forms.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, Gaeta 1993, painted iron pot, paper bag, and dried flower, 30 3/4 x 14 1/4 x 14 5/8" (78.1 x 36.2 x 37.1 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

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Early Years and Education


When Twombly was fourteen, he began to study modern art with Spanish artist Pierre Daura. After spending the summer of 1947 at an artist's colony in Maine, Twombly attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston through 1948, then returned to Lexington in 1949 to study art at Washington and Lee University. In the fall of 1950, he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York, where he met Robert Rauschenberg, who encouraged him to take classes at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Twombly studied at Black Mountain in 1951 and 1952, when artists in residence included painters Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Ben Shahn, as well as photographer Aaron Siskind, composer John Cage, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. It was at this renowned school for the arts that Twombly honed his distinctive visual language.


In an application for a travel grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in early 1952, Twombly wrote: "What I am trying to establish is--that Modern Art isn't dislocated, but something with roots, tradition, and continuity. For myself the past is the source (for all art is vitally contemporary). I'm drawn to the primitive, the ritual and fetish elements, to the symmetrical and plastic order (peculiarly basic to both primitive and classic concepts, so relating the two)." This prescient statement characterizes the focus and complexity of his entire sculptural oeuvre. He won the grant, which enabled him to travel with Rauschenberg in fall 1952 and winter 1953: to Italy, where he visited Etruscan tombs; to North Africa, where he examined Roman ruins; and to Spain.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, New York 1954, wood, palm leaves, twine, house paint, cloth, nails, and wire, 54 3/4 x 23 5/8 x 4 7/8" (139 x 60 x 12.4 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

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Sculpture of the 1950s


Following his return to New York in spring 1953, Twombly executed a number of works that bear witness to this attempt to graft the classical and the ritual. One of these, Untitled of 1953, has a columnar structure, and its coating of wax and yellowing house paint lends a veneer of great age. Like a related work of 1959, this sculpture corresponds to a panpipe, and its latent eroticism and relationship to the male body manifest Pan himself, an Arcadian deity of fertility and carnal desire. The artist had made a series of wall hangings in Italy, and fabric plays a meaningful role here. The trussing and tying seen in much of Twombly's sculpture of the 1950s speak to his interest in African art. One can see a strong relationship between Twombly's forms and Kongo ritual objects, with their entwined fibers, mirrors, and the many nails--emblematic of magic and exuding power--that pierce their wooden surfaces. Binding, whether with fabric, cord, or wire, is prevalent in Twombly's approach to the construction of his sculpture even today.

(left) Cy Twombly, Untitled, New York 1953, wood, wire, twine, nails, house paint, and wax on cloth, 15 x 9 7/8 x 4" (38.1 x 25 x 10.1 cm), Collection of Robert Rauschenberg

(right) Cy Twombly, Untitled, Rome 1959, wood, cloth, cardboard, house paint, and nail, 26 3/8 x 13 3/8 x 10 3/8" (67 x 34 x 27 cm), Kunsthaus Zürich

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The Written Word


A photograph taken by Robert Rauschenberg in his Fulton Street studio in 1954 records paintings and sculptures by Twombly that have since been altered or destroyed. He is shown presenting a version of his 1954 sculpture Untitled, with its loosely rendered scrawl of graphite, which he later veiled with a patina of white house paint and fabric. The photographed version and the paintings in the background highlight Twombly's impulse toward graffiti. The inspiration to "write" his paintings was in place by the early 1950s when he made images akin to pictographs.


By 1955 he was inscribing both sculpture and painting with symbols and scrawls approaching language. Through their dense accumulations of marks, these works recall Jackson Pollock's skeins of dripped and thrown paint, yet Twombly's aggressive signs effaced his painted surfaces. By the early 1960s the written word--and particularly references to poetry and myth--had a prominent role in Twombly's work. In light of his enigmatic practice of including yet often obscuring language, it is perhaps relevant that during his U.S. Army service from 1953 to 1954, Twombly was assigned to cryptology, the study and deciphering of codes.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, New York 1954, wood, palm leaves, twine, house paint, cloth, nails, and wire, 54 3/4 x 23 5/8 x 4 7/8" (139 x 60 x 12.4 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

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Materials and Metamorphosis


From 1959 to 1976 Twombly's work on canvas and on paper absorbed his attention, and he produced no sculpture between those years. When he again began to work in three dimensions, he executed an entirely new series of telescoping minimal forms made only from cardboard shipping tubes, fabric, and paint, such as Untitled of 1976. His range of sculptural materials extends from the pedestrian (the tops of olive oil barrels, wooden crates and boxes, broom handles) to the ephemeral (dried African lilies). In using wood, his primary ingredient, the artist judiciously combines the textures of found objects with the rawness of unprocessed or weathered woods. While the disparate components that constitute these assemblages retain their distinct character, they are unified by Twombly's coatings of plaster and white paint.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, Rome 1976, cardboard tubes, cloth, house paint, and paper tape, 76 1/4 x 6 5/8 x 6 5/8" (193.6 x 16.8 x 16.8 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

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Cycnus of 1978 lyrically represents the wealth of layered meanings suggested by even Twombly's simplest assemblages and elucidates the significance of transformation. Its title alludes to a tale from the Metamorphoses of Ovid (43 BC-AD 18) of a warrior who at death became a swan. The use of a palm leaf--signifying eternal life--demonstrates the artist's frequent incorporation of organic material for symbolic effect. The structure of the leaf calls to mind an unfurled wing yet also evokes the folds of classical drapery. Thus in subtly suggesting both the bird and the man, the work seems to exist in a nebulous dimension between the two--perhaps the very instant of metamorphosis itself.

Cy Twombly, Cycnus, Rome 1978, wood, palm leaf, paint, and nails, 16 x 9 3/4 x 2 1/4" (40.6 x 24.7 x 5.7 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

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White Paint and "Marble"


Twombly was no doubt aware of French symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé's 1885 poem "The Swan," with its emphasis on wintry whiteness. He wrote of his own work in 1957: "Whiteness can be the classic state of the intellect, or a neo-romantic area of remembrance--or as the symbolic whiteness of Mallarmé." Certainly the swan's pallor appealed to Twombly, who had shrouded his sculptures in white paint since 1948. This veil of paint casts a stillness over the works, lending the sculptures a spectral air. Yet Twombly's whiteness is not pure. The hues in these works range from stark to yellowing, and their surfaces exhibit a patina of wear and age.


Beyond the wide spectrum of white, intense color does occasionally appear in Twombly's work. A bright aquamarine blue is revealed beneath the forms that rise from Anadyomene of 1981; traces of a darker blue and lettering mark its surface. The title refers to Aphrodite Anadyomene, the goddess born of sea foam who is traditionally depicted emerging from the waters. This work conjures the Mediterranean--the brightness of the sea and sky, the whiteness of the marble--and its architectural structure is reminiscent of a temple dedicated to the goddess.

Cy Twombly, Anadyomene, Bassano in Teverina 1981, wood, nails, crayon, paint, cloth, and screw eye, 18 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 29" (47 x 57.1 x 73.6 cm), Private collection, Rome

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Architectural Forms


Twombly, who married an Italian in 1959, has lived in Italy since 1957. His interest in landscape and architecture has been enhanced by the Italian homes he has refurbished and lives in: an apartment in Rome, a Renaissance palazzo north of Rome in Bassano in Teverina, and a house in Gaeta with a lemon grove and a studio view of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The importance of place to Twombly is emphasized by the titles of his works, which invariably include the location of their making: while many sites are Italian, others reflect the artist's extensive travels. Twombly refers to white paint as his "marble"--in relation to the sculpture and architecture of Italy--but there is an inescapable American quality to his whitewashing. It is not merely his use of white paint over wood, the "classical" American building material, but its seeming erosion, which poignantly recalls the decaying antebellum grandeur of the architecture of the American South.


In addition to architectural references, Twombly's works often feature geometric forms, numbers, graphs, and arcs, alluding to systems of measure but remaining enigmatic. Untitled of 1981 is such a work. The object deploys a fanlike format of wooden laths in a sequence that suggests the continuation of movement over time. The effect relates closely to late nineteenth-century chronophotography, the photographic record of figures in motion that so influenced artists of the early twentieth century.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, Formia 1981, wood, nails, cord, paint, and screw eyes, 59 7/8 x 34 7/8 x 13 1/4" (152 x 88.4 x 33.6 cm), Private collection, Rome

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Chariot and Ship Motifs


Both movement and stasis are indicated by Twombly's chariot imagery, which derives from his interest in the Homeric epic The Iliad. The stylized chariot (or its wheel) has often served as visual shorthand for warfare in the artist's work, and there are five examples of chariots in this exhibition. Anabasis is titled after Greek soldier/historian Xenophon's fourth-century BC chronicle of an arduous military campaign. Its heroic elegance recalls ancient battle chariots, as does Untitled of 1978, which in its makeshift simplicity is also reminiscent of a child's toy.

(top) Cy Twombly, Anabasis, Bassano in Teverina 1980, wood, clay, plywood, metal strips, nails, paint, cloth, casters, paper, and staples, 46 x 19 1/4 x 19 1/2" (116.8 x 48.9 x 49.5 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

(bottom) Cy Twombly, Untitled, Rome 1978, wood, cloth, wire, nails, and paint, 17 1/4 x 87 1/2 x 7" (43.8 x 222.2 x 17.8 cm), Cy Twombly Gallery, The Menil Collection, Houston

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Several chariots of 1979 employ plaster and sand for a very different effect, and their rough surfaces recall the deliberately crude materiality of paintings by Jean Dubuffet, a postwar French artist whose work was well known to Twombly. The crumbling edges of these sculptures lend an appearance of worn frailty, even when the work is cast in bronze.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, Bassano in Teverina 1979, cast Rome 1979, bronze, edition 4/6, 18 3/4 x 18 x 9" (47.6 x 45.7 x 22.8 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

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The ship--another elegiac symbol of transport--is a prevalent motif in Twombly's work of the last twenty years. His boats derive from notable sources in ancient Egyptian art: tomb paintings of the voyage of the dead across the Nile to the afterworld, and wooden model boats that served as burial offerings. Winter's Passage: Luxor of 1985, with its succession of horizontal planes, employs the Egyptian practice of rendering the water beneath these funerary vessels as a narrow rectangle. The gentle curve of this masted "ship" thus appears to float on tranquil water with a stateliness appropriate to its mortal cargo. Twombly's interest in Egypt is not merely metaphorical; he first visited in 1962, and this sculpture was made following a 1985 sojourn in Luxor, where temples and tombs adjoin the Nile.

Cy Twombly, Winter's Passage: Luxor, Porto Ercole 1985, wood, nails, paint, paper, glue, and traces of copper sulphate, 21 1/8 x 41 3/8 x 20 1/8" (53.5 x 105 x 51 cm), Kunsthaus Zürich

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The profound influence of Egyptian art and architecture is widely felt in Twombly's sculpture. Its purity of form based on fixed proportions and rigid planar representations of the human body translates beautifully in Twombly's reductive visual language. Thin wooden boards joined at sharp angles suggest the geometrically derived stride of Egyptian statuary as in two works of 1980, Untitled and Untitled, 1980.

(left) Cy Twombly, Untitled, Bassano in Teverina 1980, wood, nails, paint, wire, and metal strapping, 107 1/2 x 16 3/8 x 25 1/2" (273 x 41.4 x 64.8 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

(right) Cy Twombly, Untitled, Bassano in Teverina 1980, wood, nails, clay, metal, and paint, 79 7/8 x 23 1/4 x 15 5/8" (202.7 x 59 x 39.7 cm), Private collection, Rome

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Unlike the strict formal grids to which such statuary adheres, however, Twombly's assemblages can seem imprecise, with segments slightly awry, as though they have begun to decay. This is also true of many of his sculptures that refer to architectural ruins. In the case of Ctesiphon, Twombly's precarious arch appears as withering and unsteady as its source, the remnants of a Sasanian palace in the ancient city of Ctesiphon, located in modern-day Iraq.

Cy Twombly, Ctesiphon, Gaeta 1987, wood, plaster, metal strips, nails, paint, and wire, 25 3/4 x 35 3/4 x 20 3/4" (65.4 x 90.8 x 52.7 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

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(To F.P.) The Keeper of Sheep of 1992 is a work of slender verticals that suggests the human form. Its attenuated elements rise from a broad, flat "foot," that itself surmounts a rectangular box, recalling the work of another interpreter of Egyptian art, sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Its semblance to a staff is in keeping with the title that serves as a dedication to Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet who composed The Keeper of Sheep, a collection of forty-nine poems, in 1914. The title poem reads in part: "I never kept sheep, / But it's as if I'd done so. / My soul is like a shepherd. / It knows wind and sun / Walking hand in hand with the Seasons / Observing, and following along." The shepherd, in his nomadic freedom and his role as a caretaker, is a surrogate for the artist.

Cy Twombly, (To F.P.) The Keeper of Sheep, Jupiter Island 1992, wood, cloth, plaster, nails, and paint, 76 5/8 x 11 1/2 x 25" (194.6 x 29.2 x 63.5 cm), Collection of the artist, Lexington

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Through inscription or dedication, Twombly often invokes the sister arts of literature and music, and the subtle presence of language is integral to much of his sculptural practice. Of the many luminaries that appear through name or phrase, perhaps none is more important than Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the lyric poet of the German language. There is a felicitous symmetry in Twombly's incorporation of Rilke's elegiac prose, given the role of art in the poet's work. Twombly's Orpheus (Thou unending trace) draws its title phrase from a verse of Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke's 1922 homage to his mythological forebear. The songs of Orpheus, the progenitor of poetry and music, could impel stones and trees to move, and his "unending trace" is the lyric art that lives on despite his death at the hands of the maenads.


Rilke himself is memorialized in Twombly's art by a sequence of works from 1985 that include an apparent altar, Untitled. Though partly veiled by Twombly's ubiquitous white paint, its crimson inscription, "Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair," makes clear its relationship to an important five-part painting of that title. The pigment Twombly uses for the dedication and the plastic petal is the red of blood as much as of roses--appropriate given Rilke's use of the rose as emblematic of love and sensuality, but also of death. The poet's epitaph,"Rose, oh sheer contradiction, / Delight of being, no one's sleep under so many / Lids," surmounts the largest of the five painted panels. Fragments of verse from the early nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi and the thirteenth-century Persian mystic Rumi are borne aloft by the other four. The final panel of this work is inscribed with lines from a Rumi verse, "In drawing and drawing / you his pains are / delectable his flames / are like water." Here, as in many of Twombly's later canvases, paint drips and cascades--like Rumi's elements--from lush, nearly sculptural clouds of pigment.

(top left) Cy Twombly, Untitled, Bassano in Teverina 1985, wood, plaster, plastic leaf, nails, pigment, and paint, 13 x 18 1/8 x 23 3/4" (33 x 46 x 60.3 cm), Cy Twombly Gallery, The Menil Collection, Houston

(bottom left) Cy Twombly, Untitled (Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair) [detail of Rumi verse], panel V of V, Bassano in Teverina 1985, oil, oil/wax crayon, water-based paint, and pencil on canvas stapled to wood panel, gesso and oil/wax crayon on wood panel, 71 1/4 x 44 1/8" (181 x 112.1 cm ), Cy Twombly Gallery, The Menil Collection, Houston (not in exhibition)

(right) Cy Twombly, Untitled (Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair), panel V of V, Bassano in Teverina 1985, oil, oil/wax crayon, water-based paint, and pencil on canvas stapled to wood panel, gesso and oil/wax crayon on wood panel, 71 1/4 x 44 1/8" (181 x 112.1 cm ), Cy Twombly Gallery, The Menil Collection, Houston (not in exhibition)

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Nature is a central aspect of a remarkable series of "Thickets" that refer to Mesopotamia. This "birthplace" of civilization, made up of city-states in the regions of Sumer and Akkad, developed cuneiform writing (the first pictographic writing system). Twombly's first Thicket was inspired by a diminutive Sumerian sculpture--of a ram resting its forelegs on the branches of a slender tree--from a royal tomb in Ur. This object, of around 2500 BC, also relates to his Thicket of 1991, which employs a barren tree limb with a forked stem and branches with eight "leaves," each bearing the name of a Sumerian city-state. The trunk is primitively inscribed "Thickets of Akkad-Sumer," and the vestige of prior growth is suggested by the word "Sumer" that Twombly has written as "summer." This poetic characterization of the flowering of Sumerian civilization (and ultimately its death) is particularly apt, as the sloping walls of their temples, the ziggurats, were likely covered with trees and shrubs.

(left) Cy Twombly, Thicket, Formia-Rome 1981, wood, wicker, plastic flowers, nails, wire, and paint, 48 3/4 x 11 3/4 x 21 1/2" (123.8 x 29.8 x 54.6 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

(right) Cy Twombly, Thicket (Thickets of Akkad-Sumer), Gaeta 1991, wood (tree trunk), cement, wire, twine, paper, wooden tags, paint, nails, and ink, 102 1/2 x 23 x 22 1/2" (260.3 x 58.4 x 57.1 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

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The graceful branches of Twombly's 1991 Thicket rise from a lumpy mass of cement, and a comparable hardened ooze serves as the base for the most recent Thicket, of 1992. Here, fertility is illustrated by a verdant grove of artificial flowers that spring from a kind of primeval plaster. This work, then, links two prevalent motifs of Twombly's sculpture: flora and formlessness. The elegant works that employ cloth or plastic flowers or even a fragile dried blossom (as in the delicate Untitled of 1993), remind one of the ephemeral nature of beauty and the changing seasons of life, while the plaster suggests primordial amorphousness.

(left) Cy Twombly, Thicket, Jupiter Island 1992, wood, plastic leaves, plaster, and paint, 18 7/8 x 13 3/8 x 9 1/4" (47.8 x 33.8 x 23.5 cm), Cy Twombly Gallery, The Menil Collection, Houston

(right) Cy Twombly, Untitled, Gaeta 1993, painted iron pot, paper bag, and dried flower, 30 3/4 x 14 1/4 x 14 5/8" (78.1 x 36.2 x 37.1 cm), Collection of the artist, Rome

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The theme of mortality has pervaded Twombly's sculpture in recent years, through works that represent reliquaries, memorial plaques, or funerary monuments: the most devastating of these are entwined with martial subjects. In Epitaph a mass of plaster elevates a tablet inscribed with the words of ancient Greek poet-soldier Archilochos from a sepulchral box. "In the hospitality / of war / We left them their dead / As a gift / to remember / us by." The inexorable horror of the prose is leavened by a grim irony, and Twombly echoes Archilochos in presenting us with a reliquary gift box that cannot entirely contain its archaic dead.

Cy Twombly, Epitaph, Jupiter Island 1992, wood, plaster, plywood, and paint, 16 x 15 1/4 x 15" (40.7 x 38.7 x 38.1 cm), Cy Twombly Gallery, The Menil Collection, Houston

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A poignant paean to military honor, Thermopylae of 1991, bears the name of the mountain pass where the Spartan king Leonidas and his entire army perished defending Greece against the invading Persians in 480 BC. The work is inscribed with lines from modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who was similarly inspired by the illustrious battle. Twombly often makes bronzes of his "white originals," and particularly in its cast rendition Thermopylae relates closely to a fifth-century BC battle helmet. The mounded dome from which four tulips rise calls to mind another ancient association, an Etruscan tomb with burgeoning vegetation.


As poet and critic Frank O'Hara suggested in 1955, Twombly's sculptures are both "witty and funereal"; they are also elegant and coarse, fragile and monumental, visual and literary, and above all, ancient and contemporary. Metamorphosis is an essential aspect of Twombly's works, and these dualities highlight the depths of meaning contained in their often quotidian forms. Twombly's spare wooden constructions--or their bronze surrogates--distill archaic sources and present them in a uniquely modern language of form.

(left) Cy Twombly, Thermopylae, Gaeta 1991, plaster on wicker, coarsely woven cloth, graphite, wooden sticks, and plaster-coated cloth flowers on plastic stems, 54 x 35 x 26" (137 x 89 x 66 cm), Cy Twombly Gallery, The Menil Collection, Houston

(right) Cy Twombly, Thermopylae, Gaeta 1991 (cast Meudon 1992), bronze, edition 3/3, 54 x 35 x 26" (137 x 89 x 66 cm), Cy Twombly Gallery, The Menil Collection, Houston

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