Jerry Saltz Celebrates the Life and Art of Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, a giant of post-war American Art, died 5 July 2011 at 83. Along with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, he moved painting beyond the heroic domains of Abstract Expressionism. Where his predecessors worked in brawny swaths of paint, Twombly focused on the delicate, scratching and scribbling, fusing looping calligraphic line, odd marks, raw smudges, blackboard-like scrawls, and gorgeous visceral color with intimations of myth, narrative, and a Whitman-esque feel for effusion and the erotic. (Roland Barthes once wrote that Twombly’s marks conjure “English colleges, Latin verses, desks, notations in finely written pencil.”)

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t a New York creation. In the fifties, the young Twombly traveled with Rauschenberg to Italy and North Africa, and — whether through the travel or the close contact with the titanic talent of Rauschenberg, who had a way of imbuing those around him with genius — Twombly soon erupted with a series of tantalizing, orgiastic scenes of scrotal shapes, flying vaginas, floating pudenda, abstract anuses, and a liquidity that art critic David Sylvester once compared to stains left on bed sheets after lovemaking. These paintings are aphrodisiacal abstract seas wafting with ironic distance. You immediately know that they aren’t just action paintings or accidental splatters but are born of mind as much as body, and they put Twombly on the art-historical map.

Almost perversely, as soon as the American art world exploded in the sixties, with Twombly positioned near the center of it all, he left America for good. Moving to Italy made him less a contemporary artist and more of a living legend — a sort of American Balthus, almost never heard from. By the turn of the millennium, he hadn’t had a New York gallery show in almost 30 years. His work grew to seem exotic and once-removed.

Then he exploded again. Over the final decade of his life Twombly equaled his original work and surpassed it, making tremendous late abstract works that tell vast tales of ancient armies, otherworldly invasions of burning suns and radiating chrysanthemums. Works from this period invoke twelfth-dynasty Egyptian pharaohs; armadas of barges at sea; chariots of color; exoduses, love, loss, and longing. Convulsive brushstrokes, surging bursts of light, handwritten scribbles, epic format, and luxuriant saturated color, combine to create something majestic, almost like fresco painting. Twombly not only didn’t go gentle into any good night — he’d embarked on a voyage to some painterly place where uncontrollable feelings, experience, expectation, dreams, and love become one.

He gave me a part of my artistic life, too. Twombly’s fusing of thought, mark-making, narrative, history, myth, and formalism made me see that there is no such thing as purely abstract or representational art. He’s the artist who made me see that all art is equally abstract and that something as simple as handwriting and scribbling, unleashed, can be art. Twombly’s paintings allow one to rise to the heights of Abstract Expressionism without the air being so thin. His art gave me my first true abstract representation of sex, allowing me, as Patti Smith said of the Rolling Stones, to begin “thinking between my legs.”

About the author

Jerry Saltz is the Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine. Formerly the senior art critic for The Village Voice, Saltz has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism three times. He served as a judge in the 2010 Bravo series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.


  1. Patrick Durston says:

    A brilliant emphasis you’ve given Rebecca to a late, great artist who will be remembered for the artistic elements and thinking that were unique to himself. He is a true master. Thanks for the awareness you’ve given in this article. He inspires me massively as he does to you too.

  2. Patrick Durston says:

    As this is probably the most relevant place to put this headline, Lucian Freud has died at the age of 88. How many more great, significant artists are going to pass away? Cy Twombly recently, and now Lucian Freud?

  3. John Rula says:

    Is his name” Rebecca Jerry Saltz”?????? funny thing Patrick I thought it was just JERRY…peace

    • Patrick Durston says:

      John, there is no need for you to be patronisingly smug, because when this article was first published, it said it was written initially by Rebecca Wilson as a matter of fact! Excuse me if I praised Rebecca at first instead of Jerry (before this silly mistake was indeed altered, although I’m not sure how it occured in the first place however so they are to blame for making me look like an idiot), considering you hadn’t read the article when it first came out, so you have no room to talk I’m afraid. So, I think I deserve an apology from both you and Saathci’s representative’s whoever they are for this confusion and humiliation that I’ve been put upon, however small this may seem.

  4. Rebecca Wilson says:

    The Saatchi Online administrators made a mistake – the article is indeed by the wonderful Jerry Saltz.

  5. Jb it's k says:

    Well written j
    ‘brawny swaths of paint

    Excitingly soo,
    love in particular the second paragraph –
    ‘aphrodisiacal abstract seas” wafting with ironic distance’

    Love your words ‘what could you do with a paintbrush ?

  6. Jb it's k says:

    ‘unleash more on us “

  7. john rula says:

    @ P Durston, a thousand pardons I was just being playful didn’t mean to insult , your words are beautiful and very enjoyable…sorry …peace

  8. liliyam says:



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