Famed artist Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly Jr., who died today in Rome at the age of 83, attended Washington and Lee for only one academic year — 1949-1950. But he and the University (and the city of Lexington, too) had a much deeper history than that single year suggests.
Born and raised in Lexington, Cy Twombly was the son of a Washington and Lee athletic legend. His father, Cy Sr., who took his nickname from major league pitcher Cy Young, was a major leaguer himself who was rumored to have once struck out Babe Ruth. He coached and taught at W&L for more than 50 years, including 39 as the swim coach. He was athletic director from 1954 to 1968 and coached golf beyond his retirement. The University’s swimming pool is named in his honor.
Cy Jr. was born in Lexington in 1928. In an article in the Spring 2007 issue of Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, Pamela H. Simpson, Ernest Williams II Professor of Art History at W&L, writes that his mother, Velma, gave Cy Jr. a book on Picasso when he was 12, and that he knew from that point on that he wanted to be a painter. He created a copy of the painting on the book’s cover, Pam writes, and his parents were so impressed that they arranged lessons with Pierre Daura, the modern artist who had moved here from Spain. (Here is a pdf of the Shenandoah article.)
After graduating from Lexington High School, Cy entered the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. But when Marion Junkin ’27 founded the art department at W&L in 1949, Cy Sr. told his son to come back to Lexington and study at the University.
“Cy was here for the first year that the program was running,” Pam said. “Junkin told me that Cy was so advanced when he got him that he couldn’t do very much but give him a place to work and encouragement and direction.”
During his year at W&L, Cy worked as an editorial assistant on two issues of Shenandoah, which published two of his paintings. Tom Wolfe ’51 was one of the magazine’s editors.
When he left W&L, Cy went to the Art Students League in New York, partly with a grant that Junkin had helped him get from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He also studied at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, and won the Virginia Museum Traveling Scholarship in 1952, using it to visit Italy and North Africa.
Although several of the obituaries that began showing up on line Tuesday indicate that Cy had “settled permanently” in Italy, Lexingtonians know better. The fact is that Cy had owned a home not far from the W&L campus since the early 1990s. He had built a studio behind it and spent springs and summers in Lexington.
“Cy was a delight,” Pam Simpson said. “I saw him regularly, as did many others here in Lexington. He loved to go look around town at everyone’s art and talk about it with them.”
In her Shenandoah article, Pam recalls the time that Cy showed up without warning in her office one day. “He sat down on my couch and pulled several books from my bookshelf and began to page through them,” she wrote. “We chatted about the books for a while and then he got up and wandered off.”
Pam also notes that for a time, Cy helped Harry Pemberton, philosophy professor emeritus, with a class on aesthetics, but he didn’t want to be pinned down to any regular schedule.
Cy received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from W&L in 1993. The citation read, in part: “For the last forty years Cy Twombly has been delighting, and occasionally puzzling art audiences with his work. An internationally famed painter, he is, nonetheless, equally well known locally as the son of E.P. ‘Cy’ Twombly Sr. . . . Often classified as a ‘second-generation Abstract Expressionist,’ his work, like that of his friends Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, has pushed the limits of that definition. The canvas for him has been a writing surface in which he has explored with a remarkably subtle calligraphic gesture the nature of signs and memory. It is poetic and elusive marking that dissolves and re-emerges like memory itself. These graffiti-like scrawls, scribbles, and notations form an all-over pictographic ensemble that has earned him lasting fame.”
Here are links to several of Cy Twombly’s obituaries (some articles may require registration):
New York Times: American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Path
New York Times: Cy Twombly, Idiosyncratic Painter, Dies at 83
New York Times: The Art of Cy Twombly (slide show)
The New Yorker: Remembering Cy Twombly
Wall Street Journal: Painter Drew Upon Mythology for Singular Abstract Images
Washington Post: Cy Twombly, influential Va.-born abstract artist, dies at 83
The Telegraph: Cy Twombly
Guardian: Knockout. Hero. Genius: Cy Twombly
Los Angeles Times: Cy Twombly dies at 83; internationally renowned American artist
San Francisco Chronicle: Cy Twombly, known for signature scrawl, dies at 83
National Public Radio: Artist Cy Twombly Dies At 83
Roanoke Times: World-class Lexington artist Cy Twombly dies in Rome
Richmond Times-Dispatch: Painter Cy Twombly dies at 83
PBS Newshour: American Painter Cy Twombly Dies at 83