Riotous and emotive, irrepressibly dynamic and unreservedly arresting, Cy Twombly’s Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V] of 2004 is a singular summation of the impulses and inspirations that define his prodigious legacy. Executed in the final decade of the artist’s life, the present work is one of six total paintings that comprise Twombly’s celebrated Bacchus series. The paintings that constitute this tour-de-force corpus are widely considered the masterpieces of the later years of the artist’s career and can be seen as the ultimate manifestations of the most fundamental motivations of his inimitable artistic journey. Four years after executing Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V], Twombly embarked upon a series of three expansive canvases that utilize the same compositional structure and palette as the present work. All three of these later Bacchus paintings today reside in the permanent collection of the Tate Modern in London, having been presented as a gift to the institution in 2014 by the Cy Twombly Foundation. It is across the monumental faces of the Bacchus paintings that Twombly’s deliberate and forceful exploration of the intersection between the traditionally irreconcilable poles of abstraction and narrative comes to glorious fruition. Though resolutely non-figurative in its composition, Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V] is nonetheless powerfully evocative; each churning whorl of blood-red pigment unleashed by Twombly’s brush across its towering surface appears as if imbued with the very spirit of the mythic figure from whom it takes its name.
As Heiner Bastian describes, “In the myths of the Mediterranean world, in its epics and tragedies, and in the evocation of the imaginable physis of these myths, there lies an alluring animation which has now been alive in Cy Twombly’s works for decades…” (Heiner Bastian, Ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume V, 1997-2007, Munich, 2009, pp. 33-34) The allure of the ancient proved constant and irrevocable for Twombly from the very earliest moments of his career. The second painting recorded in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, executed in 1949 in his hometown of Lexington, Virginia, is titled Ritual; two years later, while a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Twombly executed a painting he called MIN-OE inspired by the doubled forms of Luristan bronzes, dating from the Early Iron Age; six years after that, and following his move from New York City to Rome in 1957, the artist painted two monumental canvases titled Olympia and Arcadia; finally, at the end of this first decade of his mature practice, and at the dawn of a new period of pronounced critical recognition in his career, Twombly executed a monumental ‘history painting’ titled The Age of Alexander in which his signature scrawls, scratches, smears, and graffiti-like text coalesce to convey the epic of Alexander the Great. In the four decades that followed until the creation of Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V] Twombly continued to advance his technique, arriving at new aesthetic innovations with each subsequent series; through it all, the lure of the mythic remained a persistent and incontrovertible leitmotif.
In his late style, Twombly not only revisited but vivaciously reinvented his signature technique by expressively enlarging and exaggerating his line by using a pole affixed with a brush, akin to the technique Henri Matisee utilized in his mural-size paintings. The remarkable, billboard-like scale of Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V] points to the extreme physicality of Twombly’s mature practice, imbuing the work with a palpable sense of the artist behind the brush and how he rigorously ranged across the canvas at any given time. The resultant composition, abounding with the pure painterly force of uninhibited muscular execution, is moreover perfectly in line with the lore of its namesake god. While ‘Bacchus’ is most commonly associated with pleasure, indulgence, and sensual release, the moniker ‘Mainomenos’ historically bears an altogether more sinister and nefarious connotation for its association with debauchery taken to an often violent extreme. Twombly’s signature looping layers of pigment here are brilliantly demonstrative of this dual personality: as the swirling forms in their thickest passages appear lush and euphoric, their uplifting vibrancy quickly gives way to the foreboding downward pull of sanguine drips that dominate the lower half of the composition. It is ultimately this perfect confluence of the joyous and the portentous that positions Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V] within the pantheon of Twombly’s most successful painted works. As described by Heiner Bastian, “Such are these paintings by Cy Twombly, ‘dedicated’ to Bacchus: the imagination of a life force and the certainty that the most profound abyss and the lightest heights represent not a dualism but rather the breath of all things; they are a unity.” (Heiner Bastian in Ibid., p. 46)
Twombly began to investigate the possibilities of his sweeping trademark 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 sketches in the dark echoing the surrealist technique of automatic writing articulated in the drawings of André 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)
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 [Bacchus 1st Version V]. Indeed, in his definitive text on this formidable late series, Bastian alludes specifically to the roiling waters of the sea in describing the sensation of viewing a Bacchus painting: “’Oceanic’ would be one of the words for this emotive, circular, frame-filling movement without a center. Dissonant and harmonic, deforming and real, but also beyond the pure bond of comprehensible ‘beauty.’” (Heiner Bastian in Op Cit., p. 46) Furthermore, numerous examples of Twombly’s work 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 [Bacchus 1st Version V].
Animated by linear forms that recall the Palmer handwriting drills used to teach American children how to write and Paul Klee’s pedagogical exercises, the present work draws upon a symphony of contemporary cultural references to supplement its outwardly apparent historical bent. Capturing both time, in the way that its vigorous curves forcefully stream across the wooden face, and space as the layered streams of red paint variously multiply, retreat and navigate the painting’s terrain, Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V] closely aligns itself with the monochromatic ‘Blackboard’ paintings that Twombly executed between 1966 and 1971. As this seminal series began to enter art historical discourse, a number of critics began to suggest that the reduced, black or gray and white, palette of these works should be regarded as a response to the climate established by Minimalism; however, such a broad assessment overlooks the rich tonalities and expression achieved by the stark tonal contrast elicited by Twombly’s chosen palette. Rather, both the artist’s 'Blackboard' paintings and his later reinvigorations of the subject in works such as Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V], 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) While the color spectrum of the present work is more radiantly ebullient than that of the ‘Blackboard’ paintings, the sensation of artistic action as unfettered expression remains the same. That Twombly decided to ‘begin again’ by reimagining the aesthetic effects of his ‘handwriting’ motif at the end of his career attests to the artist’s enduring desire to broaden his ideas and the fecundity of his imagination.
Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V] finds its place alongside some of Cy Twombly’s most enigmatic mature works, prefiguring as it does the chromatic explosion of the Camino Real series that ultimately came to be his final artistic offering. Neither aimless outpourings nor mechanical exercises, the bold touches in Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V] encapsulate both rich content and strong signifying purpose. For what is remarkable about Twombly, and is perfectly embodied in the present work, is how he empowered his 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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