American Painter Cy Twombly Dies In Rome

Cy Twombly's paintings, sculptures and scribbles — as some of his work's been called — are in major museums all over the world. Twombly died in Rome Tuesday. The 83-year-old artist had cancer.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

American artist Cy Twombly has his paintings, sculptures and scribbles - as some of his work has been called - in major museums all over the world. Twombly was 83 when he died yesterday in Rome, of cancer.

Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes once called Twombly the third man in a triumvirate that included his more famous contemporaries Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

But as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Twombly did not seek the spotlight.

NEDA ULABY: Why should you care about Cy Twombly? Ask Carlos Basualdo. He's a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has entire rooms permanently dedicated to Twombly's work.

Mr. CARLOS BASUALDO (Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art): He really was not only one of the greatest living American artists, but he was one of the greatest living artists.

ULABY: But his work was not easy for critics to digest back in the 1950s. Even when abstract expressionism first became the rage, his seemingly unpolished line and crayon drawings were deemed too chaotic, too unorganized, too outside what was being done at the time, according to the late curator Kirk Varnedoe.

Mr. KIRK VARNEDOE: He's always been fascinated with the extremely simple. Twombly is the ultimate low-tech artist.

ULABY: Varnedoe spoke with NPR 10 years ago. He curated a major Twombly retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art back in the 1990s.

Mr. VARNEDOE: His work, which often looks like graffiti, has a strong scribbling, has a definite infantile character to it. Many of his sculptures look, and are intended to look, like toys.

ULABY: Twombly eventually found fans in the graffiti-inspired artists of the 1980s, like Keith Haring. Jean Michel Basquiat sometimes worked next to an open book of Cy Twombly's drawings.

Twombly himself could not have been any more different from those hyped, young, art world stars. He was born and raised amidst the fated Southern aristocracy of Lexington, Virginia. And in 1957, he removed himself from the exploding New York art scene, for a quieter life in Italy.

Kirk Varnedoe said Twombly had a keen sense of what he wanted to do, and who he was.

Mr. VARNEDOE: Everything he wears comes from thrift shops. He has amazing sense of style. One of the writers who wrote about one of Twombly's homes in Italy said: This is a home that a connoisseur would swoon over, and a thief would leave untouched.

ULABY: Twombly's fondness for the odd and cryptic was honed by his work as an Army decoder during the Korean War. He loved mythology and the poetry of Rilke. And though he trained with famous artists, he forced himself to draw at night in the dark, demolishing connections between eye and hand.

Mr. BASUALDO: He was, I feel, very free in his work.

ULABY: The Philadelphia Museum of Art's Carlos Basualdo says there's a sense of exuberant liberation in Twombly's anarchic scrawls and piled-together sculptures, something Twombly himself wrote in one of his only essays - that the meaning of the work is in the doing of it.

Mr. BASUALDO (Reading): The very experience of the painting, you know, it's always between the sublime and the commonplace.

ULABY: Twombly could make the commonplace a sublime experience.

As for these musicians at a gallery in Houston, surrounded by his paintings and playing a piece inspired by them.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Or most memorably, the woman who in a French museum, was overcome by the beauty of a Cy Twombly painting. She kissed it, leaving bright-red lipstick smears on the huge, white canvas. She was brought to trial and fined 1,500 euros for what she called an act of love.

Twombly's work was like that. It inspired intense reactions.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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