The legendary dealer Ivan Karp was once interviewed about his days at the Leo Castelli Gallery and what the art market was like during the early 1960s. Karp reminisced that although the gallery was becoming famous, it was only through the sales of works by Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein that the gallery was able to stay afloat.
Karp also revealed that, at the time, Cy Twombly's work was considered incomprehensible and generated virtually no sales. But as Karp put it, "I thought he was the greatest! In fact, I cut out a picture of one of his works and pasted it on the cover of my telephone book so I could look at it every day."
When it comes to near-religious devotion, few can match the adulation lavished on Cy Twombly. Yet, he is one of the least known superstars. This is mainly because he spent most of his career living in Italy. Once he left Castelli during the 1960s, he went many years without having an American dealer or regular exhibitions in this country.
It wasn't until recently that the Gagosian Gallery began representing Twombly. The Menil Collection in Houston also recently opened a separate building devoted solely to Twombly's work. As a result, his paintings are currently very much on the minds of collectors and curators. As for Twombly's influence on the art of today, just take a look at Julian Schnabel's latest paintings.
With prices consistently in the millions for major paintings, and works on paper regularly bringing $250,000-$500,000, there are no bargains left in Twombly's oeuvre. Yet, he remains a "Buy" because although the work has probably found its price range for the rest of the decade, it continues to sell consistently for a lot of money. Even his underrated sculpture does well at auction.
Perhaps only the "Roman Notes" -- blue crayon scribbles on sheets of paper with gray painterly backgrounds -- remain underpriced. The last one to appear at auction, Roman Note No. 9, sold for $132,250 (Sotheby's May 2000).
The first time you view a Twombly, it either hits you as a revelation or it provokes enough distress to bring you back for a second look. Eventually, you realize that his compositions of scattered marks and incidents have an uncanny sophistication. You come to understand the indescribable beauty of his art -- an art inspired by the classics, poetry and ancient civilizations. Perhaps Twombly's work should be "read" as poetry, just as one might consider reading abstract painting like a novel and realism like non-fiction.
If you want to buy a Twombly painting, one of your best bets might be to consider looking in Europe. The artist regularly exhibited in Italy and Germany. In fact, the German dealer, Karsten Greve, may single-handily have been responsible for Twombly's emergence as one of the world's highest priced artists. Not only did his gallery produce sumptuous exhibition catalogues, but it also appeared to support the work at auction and exhibit it internationally at art fairs.
If you are priced out of buying a painting, Twombly's prints might be the way to go. Though not a prolific print maker, the relative few that he did produce tend to be of good quality and are reasonably priced. Prints range in price from approximately $2,500 to $25,000. His early etchings from 1967, "Note I-IV," are particularly desirable.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.