Last year, artist Cy Twombly’s “Untitled, 1970” fetched just short of $70 million at Christie’s New York auction, and so many were left scratching their heads. What? How? Why? The old, “My kid could do that!” could be heard echoing across the Atlantic from Wall Street to London’s Square Mile.
In order to understand modern and contemporary artists like Cy Twombly, one really has to study art history and look at artists in a historical, social, and/or artistic context. In order to understand any art movement or artist, a curious soul has to understand what came before, and before that, and before that, and then again after, and after that, and after that. Otherwise, modern and contemporary art just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
People don’t expect to understand a foreign language without first studying it for many years, and that applies to mastery of the lowly fundamentals of grammar and vocabulary. Literature and poetry are another animal, reserved for only the most diligent and committed of students. We all accept this to be true, but in the case of understanding art, there is a double standard. People do expect to understand 10,000 years of art history and theory at a glance, without investing any time or energy in it. This is an unreasonable and slightly flippant expectation.
I don’t love Cy Twombly’s scribbles, but his lofty status is a result of a number of factors. He had a rather unique vision that straddled the ancient, the modern, and the post-modern. He was intrigued by ancient graffiti scratchings on Roman walls, and he began adding caricatures, symbols, words and scribbles to abstract expressionist under-paintings. Painting purists despised his blasphemous scribbles, whereas supporters found them fresh and iconoclastic—the very essence of post-modernism. If there are no rules in contemporary art, then why can’t an artist write words on paintings?
The fact that he continued painting was in itself remarkable when so many contemporaries had dismissed easel painting as an old-fashioned, irrelevant way of working. Twombly just plodded on, somewhat oblivious and indifferent towards new trends. He simply followed his heart and his own artistic vision.
Why has he become so renowned? Well, he was taught and influenced by the likes of Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, giants in American art, taking their modernist leads and extending them into the post-modern—becoming a bridge artist of sorts in the process. And many argue that he influenced a younger generation of artists who took his lead and ran with it. Jean-Michelle Basquiat and Anselm Kiefer, no slouches in their own right, come to mind.
His life and personality added somewhat to his unintentional mystique. He was a bit of an outsider—an American living in Europe—and a tad eccentric and quirky. He had been an encryptor for the U.S. military for some time, which undoubtedly piqued his interest in incorporating his personal, scribbly “code” into his paintings. His juxtapositions of the historic, the literary, the modern and the crass were quite unique, and fodder for endless discussion, speculation and interpretation, the lifeblood of art criticism.
All of this won him shows in important venues and favourable reviews at a relatively young age, and as he continued to explore and exhibit regularly his whole life, his position was secured. Old guard, yes, but always exploring and advancing within his genre.
Then, as we have become all too aware of, the calculating (dare I say manipulating?) gears of the art market kicked in, driving his prices up, up and up. It was all really out of his hands at that point, as he was often quoted as saying. And he’s right.
I can think of so many other artists who I like more, and whom I think are better, but my opinion really doesn’t matter. Twombly was smart, serious, innovative, hard-working and would have, like so many artists, continued to work at his art regardless of fame and fortune. I respect him, and his deserved place in art history.
Oh, and one more thing. He’s dead. The laws of supply and demand are powerful forces in a free market. But, one may ask, will the purchaser of Twombly’s “Untitled, 1970” someday be caught wearing the Emperor’s new clothes, and take a eye-popping hit if he has to liquidate? In the short term, maybe. In the long tern, highly unlikely. Love him or hate him, Twombly is here to stay.