“By moments, all sense of the concrete is lost in the movement of an invisible, spellbinding, received spaciousness – and the imagery appears as enlarged details of a storehouse of distant apparitions and flux.”
Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III, 1966- 1971, Munich, 1994, p. 32
In the summer of 1969 Cy Twombly worked in isolation on the shores of Lago di Bolsena, about eighty miles north of Rome, to create a cycle of grand, epic paintings that have long been recognized as an outstanding and seminal series of his oeuvre. As definitively attested by the present work, which steadfastly remained in the artist’s own collection for over four decades, the Bolsena canvases are unlike anything else of his groundbreaking 1960s output. Executed during a “long and often lonely siege of work” – clearly catalyzed by a fevered and inexorable will to innovate in the summer heat of central Italy - this painting marks a significant departure from the predominant trends of repetitive elegiac inscription and tonal solemnity of the so-called ‘blackboard’ paintings that occupied much of his attention during the latter part of the decade (Kirk Varnedoe, ‘Inscriptions in Arcadia,’ in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, 1994, p. 43). As with the very best works by Twombly, this painting signals an urgent and fractured transmutation of diverse stimuli through its lyrical fits of stuttering marks, numbers, fluttering forms and explosive scribbles. Yet, this work is also entirely archetypal of the specific characteristics of the Bolsena series, as precisely defined by Nicholas Cullinan “Flow, segmentation, sequence and lateral speed assume centre stage… Tumbling forms, calculations and scribbled-out numbers like incorrect sums proliferate...[The] topic of ascent and descent is particularly applicable to the Bolsena paintings.” (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern (and travelling), Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, 2008-09, p. 112)
Much of the radical shift in Twombly’s oeuvre embodied by the Bolsena works can perhaps be accounted for by his ceaseless travel during this time: an apparently insatiable wanderlust, which concords with the markedly different aesthetic characteristics and pictorial traits of the various series he produced during this entire period. At the end of 1967, the thirty-nine year-old Twombly travelled by boat from New York to Naples, but by May and June 1968 he was back in New York, working in a studio on the Bowery where he created the Orion and Synopsis of a Battle pictures, and the first large-scale version of Treatise on the Veil and Veil of Orpheus. He spent August 1968 in Castel Gardena before returning to New York City for the autumn. In December he was in Captiva Island, Florida, where he worked on a series of collages, as well as in Los Angeles where he had his first exhibition at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery. From there he travelled to California and then on to Mexico and he spent the month of January 1969 on the Caribbean Isle of Saint Martin. Thus his arrival in Bolsena in May 1969 marked the end of a period of enduring transition, and he would remain in the ancient Italian town in comparative solitude for six months until October. A small town infused with the rich shadows of an endless history, Bolsena provided Twombly an environment of certainty and longevity, which so often sparked his ability to create breathtakingly unprecedented art. Thus as with other works executed in Italy, Untitled is a reflection of a place that Twombly perceived as being lost to history. Forged in an inherently classical environment, this painting is inevitably a personal manifestation of ancient landscapes, though through Twombly’s vision this becomes a metaphysical landscape that is limited only by the imagination. As Cullinan has noted, Bolsena would have been known to Twombly through Raphael’s fresco The Mass at Bolsena (c.1512-13) in the Stanza di Eliodoro of the Vatican Palace (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern (and travelling), Op. Cit.) Through the summer of 1969 Twombly worked in the Palazzo del Drago in Bolsena, which had been built as an imposing palace in 1543 for Tiberio Crispo, a nephew of Pope Paul III. In these magnificent surroundings Twombly created some of the most innovative works of art of the post-war period, beautifully summarized by Heiner Bastian: “The series of large-format light canvases Untitled painted between May and September on the shore of the Lago di Bolsena, transform the reduction and discipline of the grey paintings into the gesture, citation and fragmentation of pliability and transparency. In these paintings reside real as well as imagined confrontations, lit by the reflection of actual things as if by a radiance cast by marvelous happenstance; and all within freely changes temper as it navigates pathways warped by a reeling, gravimetric tow.” (Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III, 1966- 1971, Munich, 1994, p. 32)
Untitled encapsulates Twombly’s signature technique and tremendously influential aesthetic wherein the traces of creation and erasure are left bare on the face of the composition: the narrative of addition and subtraction builds up like archaeological strata to create an artwork of endless intrigue. As explicated by Bastian, “By moments, all sense of the concrete is lost in the movement of an invisible, spellbinding, received spaciousness – and the imagery appears as enlarged details of a storehouse of distant apparitions and flux.” (Heiner Bastian, Op. Cit.) Twombly often speaks of “irresponsibility to gravity” as being central to his work, describing his interpretation of Classical mythology as a realm of shadowless imagination without weight or constraint. As Twombly enters into a physical dialogue with the corporeal and unseen, myth is manifest as sensually tangible experience. Expressed through the violent metamorphosis of mutating, ever fateful identities and thoughts, the poetry and mythology of Classical antiquity - its sense of tragedy and transformation – emerge invigorated and renewed. With an incomparable surface and cascading sense of destabilized forms, the surface of Untitled pulsates with a frenzied sensuality that reaches beyond allegory to the absolute itself. Sumptuous in opposites and allusion, Untitled offers an allegorical appeal to form and its ongoing transformation. The agitation of Twombly's hand and gesture stands in opposition to the solidity of objects: the imperceptible growth of a tree branch and the challenged stability of stone architecture are suggested by the frenetic pencil graphite and oil paints that are applied with an aggression that is more akin to erasure than creation. It is in this space between negation and suggestion that Twombly's works find their powerful resonance. And through the opposition of these binary qualities, Twombly gives new possibilities to the expressiveness of painting.