In the autumn of 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. His wife, Jackie Kennedy, was wearing a strawberry pink suit at the time. She famously insisted on wearing it – still stained with his blood – during the swearing-in of Lyndon B Johnson and for the flight back to Washington DC with the president’s body.

It was this pivotal event – and sartorial detail – that the late American painter Cy Twombly devoted a cycle of paintings to immediately after. The 1963 series Nine Discourses on Commodus would go on show the following spring at Leo Castelli’s gallery in New York. As the story goes, Twombly didn’t travel with the works and they were installed without him in the wrong order. Critics vehemently derided the exhibition. Donald Judd wrote a ‘killer review’; others proclaimed they were ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘too European’.

‘Volubilis’, 1953. Courtesy of The Menial Collection. © Cy Twombly Foundation

Now, these remarkable works are on display at the Centre Pompidou as part of a definitive retrospective opened in Paris, the first since the artist’s death in 2011. Centred on three major cycles – the aforementioned Nine Discourses on Commodus; Fifty Days at Iliam (1978); and Coronation of Sesostris (2000) – the survey spans Twombly’s 60-year career through some 140 paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures mapped out chronologically.

Born in 1928 in Lexington, Virginia, Edwin Parker Twombly adopted his father’s nickname, ‘Cy’ (after the baseball player Cyclone Young). His affinity for art formed early on, nourished by the guidance of the Spanish artist Pierre Daura. By 1950, Twombly found himself studying in New York, where he would meet artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns; the trio would forge a deep, lifelong friendship, influencing each other’s artistic practices. (In serendipitous symmetry, Rauschenberg is also the current subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern in London).

‘Blooming’, 2001–2008. Courtesy of Archives Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio. © Cy Twombly Foundation

The show opens with a painting exhibited at Twombly’s first solo exhibition at Stable Gallery in New York in 1955. It’s a work that the artist kept all his life, ‘unique’ in its semi-figurative nature. Among the graffiti-like scrawls, an eye stares down visitors at the entrance. As curator Jonas Storsve explains, ‘The visitor watches the painting, at the same time the painting looks back.’

It’s a sentiment that carries throughout the show. Personal anecdotes of love, sex and death pervade Twombly’s works, but the cryptic artist always deftly deflects, citing various real-world events or Greco-Roman influences.

The retrospective closes with works produced at the end of Twombly’s career, in his studio in Gaeta. © Centre Pompidou. Photography: Philippe Migeat

Twombly’s artistic transformation is explored in earnest at the Centre Pompidou. Along the way, visitors also get a glimpse into other lesser-known facets of his practice – an array of his sculptures perfectly punctuate the exhibition halfway through, while his Polaroids are a revelation. (The enigmatic Twombly photographed quite extensively throughout his career, but only first revealed these images in the 1990s.)

In 2005, at the height of the Iraq War, Twombly embarked on an epic series of paintings in his Gaeta studio. Returning to the characteristic writing he had explored in the Black Paintings of the late 1960s, the Bacchus series serves as the show-stopping finale; potent, swirling canvases of blood-red paint allude to wine and death at once. Twombly’s evolution is complete.

‘Sans titre (A Gathering of Time)’, 2003. Courtesy of Udo et Anette Brandhorst Collection. © Cy Twombly Foundation

The Centre Pompidou retrospective – comprehensive, but arguably incomplete – does an immense service to Twombly’s oeuvre, unfurling the complexities of an artist oft maligned in his time, but certainly not now.

RELATED TOPICS: PAINTING, PARIS EXHIBITIONS