Exhibition banner for Cy Twombly at Tate Modern

Twombly’s ability to bring together American and European influences was evident even in his early works. Their predominantly black and white palette was one of the defining traits of Abstract Expressionism, while what he described as their ‘weathered, corroded and aged surfaces’ already suggests an affinity with post-war European art.  The earliest painting in this room, MIN-OE, was made while he was studying at Black Mountain College. Its symmetrical composition was based on both tribal art and archaic Iranian metalwork known as Luristan bronzes.

In 1951, Twombly travelled to Italy and Morocco with Robert Rauschenberg. Tiznit and Quarzazat, with their scratched and gouged surfaces, were named by Twombly after towns they visited in Morocco, although both were painted later in New York. His early sculptures, assembled from discarded objects, similarly cast their gaze back to Europe and North Africa: Untitled 1953 resembles a pan pipe, formed from a slightly dishevelled row of wooden scraps, rusty nails and soiled bandages.

In 1954, Twombly was conscripted and trained as a cryptographer in the US Army. At night he made drawings in the dark, retracing the Surrealist technique of automatic writing. The experience fed into Criticism, Academy and The Geeks, whose multiple layers of paint and graffiti-like pencil scribbles simultaneously refer to and subvert Abstract Expressionism. The titles were ascribed arbitrarily from a list drawn up in collaboration with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.