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Artist Cy Twombly Dies At 83

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Artist Cy Twombly Dies At 83

Remembrances

Artist Cy Twombly Dies At 83

Artist Cy Twombly Dies At 83

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American artist Cy Twombly died Tuesday in Rome. He was 83. Melissa Block speaks with Josef Helfenstein, the director of the Menil Collection in Houston, where much of Twombly's art is on display.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The American artist Cy Twombly died today in Rome. He was 83. Twombly is perhaps best known for his loose, looping paintings that look like graffiti on a chalkboard. Much of his art is on display at the Cy Twombly Gallery, part of The Menil Collection in Houston where Josef Helfenstein is the director.

And Mr. Helfenstein joins us to talk about Cy Twombly's work.

Mr. Helfenstein, welcome to the program.

JOSEF HELFENSTEIN: Thank you.

BLOCK: And Italy had been Cy Twombly's home for many, many years. It was also, I gather, a big inspiration for his art; both the culture and the myth.

HELFENSTEIN: Yes. I think that's true. I believe he left for Italy in '57 and has therefore spent, you know, half a century there. And he was always - his work was very much - deals with passage across time and cultures and memory, and he was very interested in mythology, in antiquity, in Roman myths and stories and, yes, therefore, Italy has been a very fruitful, you know, territory for him and his work.

BLOCK: Were there also literally influences that came to bear?

HELFENSTEIN: He was a totally ferocious reader. Cy, he had a great collection of books. He read the, you know, the ancient writers, Homer and so on. He was a very, very broadly interested sort of unusual artist in that regard.

BLOCK: And what characterizes Cy Twombly's art for you?

HELFENSTEIN: He's - on the one hand, he's really the - one of the last living sort of heroes of that generation. Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Twombly, Warhol, you know, most of them are gone now. But on the other hand, he was always very independent, and that made him both forgotten and sort of underrecognized for a long time, and then later on, all the more appreciated. I think today, he must be one of the most influential living artists, so I was very sad when I heard about his death.

BLOCK: Yeah. We should say, though, that Cy Twombly was not always loved by critics.

HELFENSTEIN: No.

BLOCK: I was reading a review of a show of his from 1964. The artist Donald Judd said this: There are a few drips and splatters and an occasional pencil line. There isn't anything to these paintings.

HELFENSTEIN: Yes. And that was always the case, not so much anymore in the past 10 years, maybe - to maybe the surprise of many, because now - recently, he's been extremely successful and very productive as well. But that's true. He was always a kind of a divisive artist and - or for a long time. It was actually in Europe where his work was first shown, broadly shown, and then respected and then collected by museums, and then the U.S. followed.

BLOCK: I gather Cy Twombly did not do that many interviews, didn't talk a whole lot about his art.

HELFENSTEIN: Yes. Absolutely. No. He did not do interviews. He did one three years ago, which is a big exception. We did a videotape with him here at the Menil because we do it with every artist of which we have important works of art. And he didn't want to be seen on that videotape, so you only hear the voice, but he was an absolutely wonderful man. He was really a gentleman in the best sense and not interested in popularity, in being accepted by the critics or so. And that was a way for him to keep his independence and to remain really creative.

BLOCK: Well, Josef Helfenstein, thanks so much for talking with us.

HELFENSTEIN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Josef Helfenstein is the director of The Menil Collection in Houston. We were talking about the American artist Cy Twombly, who died today in Rome. He was 83.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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