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Cy Twombly and Los Angeles: A Shaky Relationship

A view of the 1995 Cy Twombly retrospective at MOCA
A view of the 1995 Cy Twombly retrospective at MOCA
Photo credit: Paula Goldman. Courtesy MOCA LA.

The painter Cy Twombly, who died Tuesday at the age of 83, has always, perhaps unfairly, been associated with high culture headiness. Sure, he came of age in New York alongside pop forerunners Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and responded to old school expressionism of N.Y. figureheads Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. But while he continued to exhibit in the U.S., he left the country in 1957 and spent most of his life working near Rome, creating loose, literary paintings inspired by lines of poetry or Greek myth.

Few things are more alienating than an ex-pat with a penchant for poetry -- just think of Gertrude Stein or Ezra Pound. Maybe that's why Twombly's smartly spaced graffiti-like scribbles fared best in the more elite, self-confident New York art world. Los Angeles, a less flexible emerging art capital, barely embraced Twombly. Even as his painting began to appear in art history books and his work cleared the $1 million mark at auction, his presence in L.A. remained sparse.

Twombly had his first L.A. exhibition in 1969, at Nicholas Wilder Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. "He had been around for a while by that point," says Katie Bishop Crum, who worked with Wilder and has since written about the early Los Angeles art scene. "I know Nick didn't do well with that show and I don't think anyone else would have. By '69, the bottom was just about to fall out of the L.A. market."

Even major collectors with a cosmopolitan vision wavered when it came to buying Twombly's work. It was one of the only times Wilder pushed an artist. "Nick was not that kind of dealer," recalls Crum.

Cy Twombly: Untitled 1972, pencil and wax crayon on paper
Cy Twombly: Untitled 1972, pencil and wax crayon on paper
Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

The show received only one review, a half-hearted paragraph write-up from L.A. Times critic Henry J. Seldis, who said the paintings resembled "chalky blackboards, partially erased." To Seldis, they seemed like "denials of classroom learning but, in all likelihood, this is only a peripheral notion to this highly skilled painter." Seldis, and many critics who followed, would write off Twombly as more stuffy than seductive.

In fact, Twombly wouldn't receive truly glowing praise from an L.A. newspaper critic until 1996, when David Pagel championed what was only Twombly's second gallery show in the city, a series of abstracted photographs shown at Gagosian in Beverly Hills.

"Frankly," says Paul Schimmel, chief curator at MOCA, "for every artist working in the legacy of Pollock, there's always been a kind of criticism of its conservatism. We like our breakthroughs to be radical. But, hey, painting is a long tradition."

Cy Twombly: Untitled (Bolsena), 1969, house paint, oil, crayon and pencil on canvas
Cy Twombly: Untitled (Bolsena), 1969, house paint, oil, crayon and pencil on canvas
Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Schimmel was curator of exhibitions at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Orange Country in 1982, when the museum hosted a traveling exhibition of Twombly's drawing. Later, in 1995, after he'd moved to MOCA, Schimmel helped arrange a second visiting exhibition, this time a major retrospective organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art. "Both at MOCA and at Newport, it was similar," Schimmel explains. "There's a lot of respect for the work. It's demanding, though, and his exhibitions have a small audience, an audience of connoisseurs."

Twombly came to Los Angeles in the mid-90s at the time of the retrospective, and he spent a week immersed in the city. "He would dress a little bit like a dandy," remembers Schimmel. He'd go to old Hollywood parties hosted in his honor, then explore the city's seedier areas. "He was always wavering between high and low. He liked L.A."

When Schimmel curated the exhibit "Hand-Painted Pop" in 1990, he traveled to Rome to meet Twombly and talk to him about participating. Twombly's more classical work would hang alongside the hard-edges of Roy Lichtenstein or pithy paintings by Andy Warhol. "There was a restaurant we went to in the French Quarter that was his restaurant. He knew everyone," says Schimmel. "He kept peppering me with questions about [L.A.] artists he'd heard I had worked with, like Chris Burden and Mike Kelley." For someone as immersed in Greek and Roman antiquity, says Schimmel, "He was boisterously grounded in contemporary culture."

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