Cy Twombly Gallery
Emerging from the New York art world of the early 1950s, Cy Twombly brought a distinctive approach to painting and sculpture that evaded precise affiliation with the predominant movements of the twentieth century, including Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism. Inspired by ancient Mediterranean history and geography, Greek and Roman mythology, and epic poetry, Twombly created—sometimes on a grand scale, in multiple-panel works—a sometimes-inscrutable world of iconography, metaphor, and myth. The breadth of Twombly’s imagination and his interdisciplinary approach to subjects traverse vast distances, resulting in works that are at once baroque and spare, modern and ancient.
A collaboration between the Menil Collection, the Dia Foundation, and the artist himself, the Cy Twombly Gallery reflects not only the de Menil family’s commitment to working with key contemporary artists, but also to a standard of presentation that provides visitors an intimate, unmediated experience of an artist’s work. The works on view in the Cy Twombly Gallery comprise a veritable retrospective of the artist’s career that includes a number of large canvases, sculptural works, and suites of paintings and drawings.
“ The fundamental esthetic qualities are the same: the luminosity, the lightness of the energy of the form, the air of spontaneity, the nervousness of touch, the casual-looking execution, here the line that is flowing and yet taut, there a trembling stillness . . . (The sculpture) transmits delight –delight in things and in how light delights in things and things in light.”
–David Sylvester Just off the entrance lobby, a small gallery displays a group of Twombly’s sculptures. The main floor plan consists of eight rooms, where paintings, sculptures and works on paper are organized both thematically and chronologically. In the building’s central room are six examples of his “gray ground” or “blackboard” paintings. In the surrounding galleries are five paintings featuring subtle graphic notations on luminous white grounds, painted in 1959 in Lexington, Virginia; the lushly textured and vividly colored Bay of Naples and Triumph of Galatea, both from 1961; five paintings dedicated to the German Romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke from 1985; and the untitled “green paintings” shown at the 1988 Venice Biennale. An entire room is given over to the vigorous and monumental Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), 1994, which measures more than 13 feet high and 53 feet long.
Commissioned by Dominique de Menil and opened in 1995, the Cy Twombly Gallery is architect Renzo Piano’s second U.S. commission (the first being the main building of the Menil Collection). Based on an initial sketch by Twombly himself, the building features an exterior of pre-cast, scored concrete (the façade is meant to resemble stone blocks). Turned demurely away from the street, the entrance faces a great live oak tree on the east lawn. Like the main building across the street, the Cy Twombly Gallery possesses a sophisticated roofing system of filtered glass and steel louvers. Described by Piano as “a butterfly alighting on a firm surface,” a grid of white steel seems to float over the entire building. Throughout the 9300 square-foot interior, canvas sailcloth ceilings further modulate the Texas sun, with light playing softly on the galleries’ plaster walls and white-oak floors.
Born in Lexington, Virginia in 1928, Edwin Parker Twombly Jr. (known by his father’s nickname, Cy) grew up as a quiet child with artistic inclinations. As a boy he was a voracious reader, checking out books from the Washington and Lee University library; he also ordered art kits from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. At 12 he began to take private art lessons with the Spanish modern master Pierre Daura, who had moved to the U.S. following the outbreak of World War II.
In 1948 Twombly attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, developing an interest in aspects of Dada and Surrealism, especially the art of Kurt Schwitters and Alberto Giacometti. After a year at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, he moved to New York City to study at the Art Students’ League, where he first met Robert Rauschenberg. Encouraged by his fellow artist, Twombly enrolled in Black Mountain College near Ashville, North Carolina, where he studied under Franz Kline, Ben Shahn, and Robert Motherwell (who soon came to consider Twombly “the most accomplished young painter and one of the most ‘natural’ artists of his generation”). That same year, Twombly had his first solo show in New York, at the Kootz Gallery; some saw in Twombly’s work an affinity with Kline’s black-and-white gestural expressionism and with Paul Klee’s innocent, childlike imagery.
Seeking to “experience European cultural climates both intellectual and aesthetic,” as he wrote in his grant application, Twombly was awarded a travel fellowship by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1952, and, with Rauschenberg, set off for North African, Spain and Italy. Twombly would later write of his journeys that the experience was “like finding many wonderful rooms in a house that you never knew existed.” For the rest of the 1950s, Twombly traveled back and forth between New York and Italy, making art; he also served in the U.S. Army as a cryptologist.
Twombly settled in Rome at the end of the decade and began exhibiting his paintings and sculptures throughout Europe, where he achieved the degree of renown accorded his closest contemporaries back in the U.S., Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. He has ever since divided his time between Virginia and Rome.
Twombly was invited to show his work at the 1965 Venice Biennale (the artist has had a long and distinguished history with the exposition, creating the suite of “green paintings” for the 1989 Venice Biennale, and winning the 2001 Golden Lion award). The Milwaukee Art Center mounted the first retrospective of his work in 1968. Other major exhibitions include retrospective at the Kunsthuas Zürich in 1987, the Musée National d’ Art Moderne, Paris, in 1988, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 1994. On February 10 of the following year, the artist joined Dominique de Menil and Renzo Piano in Houston, for the dedication of the Cy Twombly Gallery. In 2000, Kunstmuseum Basel and the Menil Collection presented Cy Twombly: The Sculpture. In 2005 the exhibition Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper, organized by and originating at the Menil Collection, traveled to MoMA. In the summer of 2008, Tate Modern presented Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, the first major retrospective since the 1994 MoMA exhibition.