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From ‘fiasco’ to hero: the rise and rise of Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, Coronation of Sestostris: panel V (2000)
Cy Twombly, Coronation of Sestostris: panel V (2000)
Cy Twombly is now so revered that it is difficult to imagine a time when his work prompted derision. But when he first showed his painting cycle Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963) at the Leo Castelli gallery in New York in 1964, critics dismissed them. Among the most strident was Donald Judd, who was then helping define Minimalism as the next great American art movement. Noting that it had been three years since Twombly, by then based in Rome, had last exhibited in New York, Judd wrote: “Twombly has not shown for some time, and this adds to this fiasco.” He added: “There isn’t anything to the paintings.”

In an excellent essay in the catalogue for the Centre Pompidou’s new career survey, the first major posthumous show of Twombly’s work, Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, writes that the savaging of the nine paintings by New York critics was a chauvinistic response to an expatriate sending exports from “old Europe”. Even Twombly’s dealer Castelli reflected later that the paintings were “Europeanised and precious”—especially in a US art scene in thrall to Pop and Minimalism.

It is precisely because of Twombly’s unique combination of European sensitivity and American bravura that the Nine Discourses are celebrated today. His work is seen as a link between the heroic past and the more uncertain present. The works in that series, which tell the story of the murder of the Roman emperor Commodus in AD 192, reflect Twombly’s deep engagement with the classical world after he moved to Rome in 1957. But they were also made in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in a phase in Twombly’s painting that reflected a broader anguish indicated by his use of blood-red colours.

More than half a century after their creation, the Nine Discourses are one of three painting cycles at the heart of the Pompidou show. The two others are similarly inspired by the ancient world: Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) is a ten-painting installation from the Philadelphia Museum of Art based on Homer’s descriptions of the last 50 days of the Trojan War; the other series, Coronation of Sesostris (2000), from François Pinault’s collection, is also in ten parts and is named after the Egyptian pharaoh described by Herodotus. Though made across 40 years, they each contain the hallmarks of Twombly’s style, with moments of violent expression and lyrical reverie, graffiti-like scrawls and sensuous impasto. This sublime meeting of poetry and paint marks him out as one of the indisputably great painters of the latter half of the last century, and the first decade of this one.

• Cy Twombly, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 30 November-24 April 2017
Venue details
Centre Pompidou
19, rue du Renard
Paris 75191
France
www.centrepompidou.fr
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