The current of the propulsive linearity in Untitled vehemently traces through three determinate bands of increasing size, in a configuration akin to a typography that denies legibility. Covering the canvas ground with varying transparent strokes of dusky hues, Twombly then applied dramatic, fluid white loops in a continuous movement, dripping and oozing in a visceral manner, and interwoven with hints of contrasting and layering colors. These chromatic slippages both dilate and vivify tones making Untitled a case study in the artist’s extraordinary ability to manipulate both light and dark hues and cool and warm tonalities. The act of erasure that the process of over-painting provides theatrically prevents lexical recognition. Tantalizingly approaching the precipice of linguistic familiarity, these signifying referents are ultimately denied any form of complete signification. The intriguing outcome is a work that freely oscillates between the faculties of painting and language to create a markedly lyrical and unique form of abstraction. Appealing to the visual and the psychological; the intellectual and the visceral; and the conceptual and the aesthetic, Untitled unremittingly stands as a tour de force of Twombly’s unprecedented universality.
Twombly began to investigate the possibilities of his sweeping signature lasso loops in 1952 after a series of trips with Robert Rauschenberg to Northern Africa, Spain, Italy and France. There he became fascinated by the ancient forms of graffiti he found scrawled on historic monuments, making him question the connection between man’s place in the world and the physical records he leaves behind. On his return to America, Twombly was drafted into the army where he trained as a cryptographer, constantly examining and deciphering codes. Immersed in this cryptic, lexical sphere, at night Twombly would make drawings in the dark echoing the surrealist technique of automatic writing articulated in the drawings of Andre Masson, the ‘dream pictures’ of Joan Miró and the frottages of Max Ernst. Drawing on the semiotic potential of the line in Twombly’s work, Roland Barthes commented, “I love the traces of graphic activity, whether they are in Oriental calligraphy, in a certain kind of painting we might call ‘semiographic’, for example, Masson, Réquichot, or Cy Twombly.” (Roland Barthes in conversation with Claude Jannoud, in Linda Corverdale, Trans., The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, Berkeley, 1985, p. 193)
A formative period for the artist, during the 1960s Twombly became preoccupied with Leonardo da Vinci’s intriguing studies of water. Indeed, Twombly even appended a reproduction of da Vinci’s study of the Deluge to one of his collaged works in 1968. The galvanic and obsessive quality of Leonardo’s tempestuous twists and swirls which attempted to translate air and water into line, finds resonance in the undulating loops of Untitled and Twombly’s earlier blackboard paintings. These works also owe much to the scientific notebooks of Leonardo. Just as Joseph Beuys had done before him, Twombly found in the Renaissance master’s scrawls and obsessive streams of poetry, something of an irrational, secretive quality; an aesthetic that can be seen in the profoundly personal lexicon of the pre-linguistic cresting loops that dance across the canvas of Untitled.
Animated by linear forms that recall the Palmer handwriting drills used to teach American children how to write and Paul Klee’s pedagogical exercises, Untitled draws upon a symphony of contemporary cultural references. Capturing both time, in the way that Untitled’s nascent curves forcefully stream across the canvas, and space as the translucent strokes of paint variously multiply, retreat and navigate the painting’s terrain, the present work is closely aligned to that of Marcel Duchamp. In particular, this phenomenon is clearly articulated in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase where shadow is manipulated to give a sense of both space and time by visualizing where the figure has come from. The overwhelmingly poetic and evocative use of the line in Untitled also finds referent in the older master’s extraordinary piece Three Standard Stoppages. The rhythmic pulsations of Untitled, however, recall the Futurist investigations into the cinematic breakdown of forms in motion. Born in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century and as such largely apolitical, the Futurists' rational exploration of space informed much of the new Italian art of the 1950s and early 1960s. Eschewing the rationality that the Italians seized upon, Twombly found inspiration in the fractured dissolution of movement prevalent in Futurism, specifically that in Umberto Boccioni’s States of Mind III: Those who stay and Giacomo Balla’s rigorous studies of air currents and the paths of birds across the sky. The energetic flux that underpins these pivotal works is at the very heart of Untitled’s beating rhythm.
In formal terms, the reduced palette and sequential continuum of Untitled shares much with the black and white blackboard paintings that Twombly executed between 1966 and 1971. Many critics have suggested that the reduced palette of these works should be seen as a response to the climate established by Minimalism; however, such an overarching statement overlooks the rich tonalities and expression achieved by Twombly’s thinly applied layers of washes. Rather, both the artist’s blackboard paintings and his later reinvigorations of the subject in works such as Untitled, should be understood in terms of emancipation, a liberation from his preceding oeuvre. As Robert Pincus-Witten confirms, "handwriting has become for Twombly the means of beginning again, of erasing the Baroque culmination of the painting of the early 1960s... beautiful writing has been submerged within a Jasper Johns-like gray field. Put bluntly, it has been drowned in a schoolmaster's blackboard." (Robert Pincus-Witten, "Learning to Write," in Nicola del Roscio, ed., Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich, 2002, p. 56)
That Twombly decided to ‘begin again’ by reworking his handwriting motif at the end of his career attests to the artist’s extraordinarily enduring desire to broaden his ideas and the fecundity of his imagination. Untitled finds its place alongside some of the artist’s most enigmatic mature works, prefiguring as it does the chromatic explosion of the Camino Real series that ultimately came to be the artist’s final artistic offering. Neither aimless outpourings nor mechanical exercises, the bold touches in Untitled encapsulate both rich content and strong signifying purpose. For what is remarkable about Twombly, and is perfectly embodied by the present work, is how he empowered the brushstroke with the capacity to both delineate and to represent the flux of visual expression. As Harald Szeeman concludes, “no other artist has such a gift for open endedness… words become lines expressive of feeling, lines become tones, tones become tensions, white becomes resolution. All this happens with the flowing naturalness of handwriting… this work seems to us both primeval and innovative, like memory itself and its energies.” (Harald Szeeman, ed., Cy Twombly, Munich, 1987, p. 12)
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