In our new monthly column, The Big Picture, Cody Delistraty will travel across Europe—from Copenhagen to Dublin to Berlin to London—searching out essential artworks and exhibitions that speak to a wider cultural context, such as our desire for wanderlust or the complexities of artistic romances. In this first segment, he explores the complex burden placed upon the lovers, close friends, and heirs of famous artists after they die.
During a recent retrospective of Cy Twombly, Nicola del Roscio walked through the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, looking at “Coronation of Sesostris” (2000), a ten-panel series that depicts the ancient Egyptian myth of the sun’s movement from morning to night. The series is a mélange of disparate marks, Expressionist painting, and poetic quotes that begins with frenzied childlike scratch marks before ending on a somber, more formalist tableau that suggests a reflection on death. Del Roscio wore a green sweater with a dark, many-buttoned petticoat, and his hands were pushed deep into his pockets. He was quiet as he regarded the birth-to-death work of the man he’s spent his entire adult life assisting and advising, and—after the artist died in 2011 and del Roscio became the president of the Cy Twombly Foundation—celebrating and protecting.
Del Roscio has small bags under his eyes, but his smile is genuine and his charm and vulnerability are that of someone much younger than his seventy-three years. “There’s something magic about Nicola,” said David Baum, the Cy Twombly Foundation’s secretary. “You want to pick him up and put him in your pocket.” And yet, charming as he is, del Roscio is a keeper of secrets. Twombly was a cipher even to close friends, but to del Roscio he was a confidant and an intimate.
“Fiercely private” is how Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, described Twombly. “Unquestionably a private person who cultivated a certain shy remove,” the photographer Sally Mann, a close friend of his, also told me. “Always a loner,” wrote Dodie Kazanjian, in her 1994 Vogue profile. But Twombly was not so with del Roscio. “There was a kind of, I won’t say intimacy, but a kind of confidence, a trust between me and Cy,” del Roscio told me. “Artists are very sensitive and very special persons, and I had a sympathy for him. He trusted me, I suppose, more than anyone else.”
Del Roscio first met Twombly when he was a twenty-year-old university student living in Rome. “I had my table by the window that was opposite Cy Twombly’s apartment and the road between was quiet narrow, and I always saw very interesting people passing by—movie directors, famous writers, actors who I’d seen photographs of in newspapers,” said del Roscio, in an almost whisper, with the slightest trace of an Italian accent. “They’d all stand looking at something, commenting very excitedly. I was very interested in seeing what all these famous people were looking at, and I couldn’t ever see his face in his apartment; I could only see him, standing. But one day, I was finally invited over. I saw that the room was a wonderful room, full of drawings. And him.”
Del Roscio, who was seventeen years younger than Twombly, stayed close to the artist for over fifty years. Twombly married the Italian baroness Luisa Tatiana Franchetti, in 1959, and welcomed their son Cyrus Alessandro Twombly later that year; but Franchetti, an aristocrat and a talented painter in her own right, led a particularly independent life. When she died, in 2010, Twombly was on his own deathbed with del Roscio by his side.
Since Twombly’s death, many have looked to del Roscio as the portal to the artist’s genius. But are those who were once close to artists or are descended from them capable of being their mediums? It’s an especially important question given that so much of the art world—critics, academics, historians, curators, specialists—often looks to the descendants and the partners of artists as the de facto experts on their works and personalities.
Joan Punyet Miró, a grandson of the Spanish Surrealist Joan Miró, is almost physically identical to his grandfather (save for the grandson’s penchant for sharp three-piece suits and thick, tortoiseshell glasses). He believes his grandfather is a part of him. “He runs through my veins,” Punyet Miró told me on a rainy evening in Santander, Spain. “I was born in it. I was with my grandpa for fifteen years. I know what he was thinking. I know how he was working. I’ve seen this person’s creativity. I was handling paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics.”
Diana Widmaier-Picasso, a granddaughter of Pablo Picasso and a specialist on his sculptures, disagrees that descendants can be a direct link to their family-member artists. Artists, she said, are too mercurial to pin down; even close family members can’t fully comprehend their fractured psyches. “I would have loved to know him, of course,” she said over tea in Paris, but “he’s a man of many faces. So even if I knew him, I’m not quite sure which face he would have shown me.”
Whether they feel deeply connected or not, descendants and partners are often put in a position where they must shape the legacies of artists. They run their foundations, curate or help curate their exhibitions and gallery shows, answer questions about them in the press, and shape the present and future perception of their art.
Maintaining the legacy of major artists has become big business, and the task has become increasingly professionalized. Just a few years ago, the concept of “artistic legacy consulting” was essentially unheard of, but now, companies are popping up to assist with what can be a particularly complex and specific set of legal and fiscal circumstances. The New York–based firm Art Legacy Planning, for instance, employs a combination of art advisers, art historians, art lawyers, and financial planners to help heirs mount shows, create comprehensive catalogues raisonnés, and pay the lowest possible taxes.
When Picasso died, in 1973, he had not written a will, and it took roughly thirty million dollars in legal fees and six years to reach the settlement in which his forty-five thousand works were distributed across his seven heirs. When Salvador Dalí died, in 1989, having not specified any heirs, his works quickly became open to forgery. Ever since, the market for his work has struggled.
“When there’s a large sum of money to be made and a large number of people involved, it becomes a real problem,” Conor Macklin, who owns and directs the Grosvenor Gallery in London, said at the Art Dubai Modern Symposium last year. “It’s become increasingly important for galleries to work with estates to advise and secure the legacy.”
Perhaps most famously, Mark Rothko, before overdosing on barbiturates and slashing his wrist in 1970, wrote a will that established a foundation with three executors. After his wife died just months later, the executors let the Marlborough Gallery sell nearly all of the works at cut-rate prices—prices that were likely intentionally depressed via market saturation. In exchange, the executors received an inflated 50-percent sales commission for the works. Rothko’s then-twenty-year-old daughter, Kate, who wasn’t named as an executor, sued the executors for more than nine million dollars, claiming they sold the works for a fraction of their true market value as part of “a plan and conspiracy to defraud the estate.” After six years, Kate won the case, the foundation was restructured, and the children were given half of Rothko’s estate. But most of the works had already been sold. She won the money, but not all of the art could be restored to her.
There’s a delicate balance between having professionals handle a legacy and having family and partners do so. In many ways, you need both. In a recent lecture given at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, Henry Lydiate, an international art lawyer, advised artists to appoint a combination of executors. Most of the time, family members or partners won’t already have the skills to manage a trust, but it’s important to maintain at least a few family members or partners (or at least those who can vote for them) on foundations and boards in order to make sure the artist’s wishes are fulfilled. Often, the best-case scenario is when a descendant or partner can become an expert in art law, art appraisal, and finance—although this can be a gargantuan, lifetime task.
When Rainer and Flavin Judd, the children of Donald Judd, were named executors of their father’s estate in 1994, they were relatively young and inexperienced—only twenty-three and twenty-five, respectively. Although Rainer and Flavin (named after Judd’s close friend Dan Flavin) each inherited three hundred thousand dollars, they also inherited millions of dollars in debt and were quickly tasked with solving a no-win situation in which they had little expertise: Judd had stipulated in his will that his properties in Marfa, Texas, and in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood be maintained in the way that he had painstakingly installed them; given their financial situation, however, the children couldn’t immediately accomplish this. They could sell some of his works, but doing so would lead to a scattering of the pieces at suboptimal prices. In 2006, they decided to sell thirty-six of their father’s works at Christie’s in New York, selling twenty-five in just one night. Marianne Stockebrand, Judd’s partner near the end of his life, who was the other executor, thought the sale foolhardy. “I didn’t like the idea [of selling] all those works at auction,” she told Artnews. “I thought that it was too many and it came too quickly, and I resigned from the Judd Foundation board when that decision was made, because I didn’t want to be responsible for it.”
But it seemed the children hardly had a choice. In order to fulfill their father’s will, they had to find the money for it somewhere; with their hands tied, they did what seemed to be the only thing they could do. Today, with Judd’s market at a relatively high price point, his legacy firmly entrenched, and the foundation accruing annual revenue of around five million dollars on an operating budget of around three million, it seems they made the right call.
Joan Miró established his own foundation in Barcelona in 1975. After his death, in 1983, Punyet Miró took over the foundation, established another in Majorca in 1992 (per Miró’s will), and, says, just this year, he will be opening a third. Representing his grandfather has become his life, and he’s taught himself the ins and outs of its intricate requirements.
“It’s a tough job because you have to be able to have a little knowledge of copywriting law, exhibitions, history, art history, giving speeches in public, giving, of course, talks in galleries, being a curator, writing, publishing every once in a while,” Punyet Miró said. “With a master like this, it’s about the fact that his works belong to humanity. So I mostly just want to make sure that when I die everything is done. I want the foundation to run, the collection to be set up, the books to be published.”
Widmaier-Picasso took a more circuitous route. “I studied art history, and, at the time, I think I did want to have my own identity,” she said, noting the difficulty of growing up in Picasso’s shadow. But after studying Renaissance art, she turned back toward her grandfather’s work. “With Picasso, I realized there was some work to be done in the field of sculptures because every time there was a sculpture coming up for sale at auction or in a gallery, they needed more information. They need more about the dating, about things that I related to because, having studied seventeenth-century art, I had done a lot of research in the archives,” she said. “For me, it was a way to find an identity.”
Artists like Picasso, Miró, Rothko, Judd, and Twombly have a posthumous fame that has made them larger-than-life icons. So is it fair to expect people like Widmaier-Picasso, Punyet Miró, Kate Rothko, Rainer and Flavin Judd, or del Roscio to speak for them?
Today, del Roscio lives mostly in Gaeta, the coastal Italian city where Twombly resided for much of his adult life. An avid gardener and botanist, del Roscio spends much of his time in his gardens. Comprising a series of fifteen terraced landscapes on the hill above the house, the gardens are what Twombly once called stanze segrete, “secret rooms,” and each stanze is defined by different trees and flowers: lindens, laurels, irises, orchids, lemon and orange trees, and the like. Today there are 142 species of palms from across the globe and six acres of land surrounding the house. Twombly kept so much secret during his lifetime: the words on his drawings, his feelings about his upbringing, his most personal desires. Like so many great artists, he loved playing with secrecy: he created palimpsests, both coy and serious, in which the past was always just beneath the surface. It is only those like del Roscio, who knew him with unmatched depth, who can see how his subconscious bubbled through his work.
The hope is that maintaining a legacy never becomes burdensome. Even amidst all of the new consulting businesses and executorial possibilities, heirs and lovers hold a key to the secret rooms. While most of us tend our own Voltairian gardens, their work keeps them close to these artists, even in—perhaps especially in—death.
Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic in Paris.