- Cy Twombly
- signed and dated Roma 1962
- oil and graphite on canvas
Galleria Gian Enzo Sperone, Rome
Acquired from the above by the present owner in the 1970s
Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume II, 1961 - 1965, Munich 1993, p. 153, no. 82, illustrated in colour
‘Blood, Flesh, Earth, Mirror, Clouds’: Cy Twombly’s Untitled from 1962 pictures the space between terra firma and firmament, word and image. In this work a symbolic key of text and its formal equivalent is placed in opposition to the fragment of Sapphic verse that lines the painting’s lower edge. Written in the artist’s cursive hand, ‘Sappho: But then heart turned cold + they dropped their wings’, conjures the distant echo of an ancient mythological language. What lies between is the artist’s palette, and within the palette’s curvilinear border sits the miraculous and malleable matter of painting itself. This work forms an extraordinary treatise on the poetic portent of the artist and his craft; it is a self-portrait that offers a contemplative image of a creative mind at the height of its power. Born of an incredibly fertile moment in Twombly’s career, Untitled gives expression to the philosophical space that his paintings occupy: between corporeality and intangibility, between signifier and signified. Anchored by Sappho’s melancholic expression of lost love, Twombly here ruminates on the very nature of his art.
The early 1960s denote the most significant and consequential phase of Cy Twombly’s revolutionary artistic career. By the winter of 1960 the American artist and his new Italian wife – Tatiana Franchetti – had settled in a new apartment, a large seventeenth-century residence on via Monserrato, near the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, and by the following winter Twombly had taken up a studio in Largo del Biscione, near Campo de’Fiori. It was between these two locations that the artist brought to life the most decisive paintings of his Italian period: encompassing the feverish Ferragosto paintings, the amorous Leda and the Swan works, the nine-part Discourse on Commodus and other masterpieces such as School of Athens, Bay of Naples, and Birth of Venus, the works produced between 1961 and 1963 are today considered the very best of his career. Untitled from 1962 emphatically belongs to this period of pioneering achievement.
The words ‘Blood’, ‘Flesh’, and ‘Earth’ touch upon scatological themes of violence and Eros in arcadia – concerns that had utterly dominated Twombly’s output for the entirety of the previous year – as does the application of correlative pigment: smeared and thrown marks notably made with the artist’s bare hands. In opposition to these distinctly terrestrial attributes, the word ‘Mirror’ rests below an oval of silvery graphite. By invoking the ultimate vehicle of self-reflection, Twombly alludes to the art historical canon of self-portraiture and the tradition of artist self-images typically painted in front of a mirror. That the French nineteenth-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé also wrote in front of a mirror was surely not lost on an artist for whom language and image were utterly indivisible; indeed, for Twombly, Mallarmé’s poetic elevation of ‘symbolic whiteness’ was of crucial importance. The notion of linguistic silence and its pictorial equivalent – blank space and white paint – brings us to the final facet of Twombly’s key here rendered in brilliant white: Clouds. The supplementary adage ‘white for diluting dreams’, which appears as an annotation next to the central palette, posits a distinctly ethereal and elevated realm of poetic otherworldliness, invoking the mythological gods in their firmament. Lodged between heaven and earth, this painting delivers a metaphysical insight into Twombly’s thoughts on painting.
On the occasion of Cy Twombly’s 2008 retrospective at Tate Modern, art historian Claire Daigle used Untitled as a visual key to decrypt the symbolic driving forces behind Twombly’s illusive and elusive life’s work. As an academic who wrote her thesis on Barthes and Twombly, Daigle’s introduction and its use of the present painting in her article, 'Cy Twombly: Lingering at the Threshold Between Word and Image', for Tate Etc provides an extraordinary entry point into this artist’s beautiful, yet highly esoteric, abstract works, works, no less, that reside in and explore the inchoate space between language and image:
"In 1962 Cy Twombly (born 1928 in Lexington, Virginia) painted a work that illustrates many of the abiding engagements of his practice. Untitled is divided into two zones by a horizontal line about two thirds of the way up. Across the bottom edge of the canvas, Twombly has scribbled a textual fragment gleaned from the poet Sappho: ‘But their heart turned cold + they dropped their wings.’ The phrase, suggesting a hovering between higher and lower realms, conjures up a distant classical realm, even as the grappling, awkward hand renders the words materially present. In the upper third of the canvas, the artist provides a code for viewing: a white circle swirled with pink is labelled ‘blood’; an aggressive red ‘x’ reads ‘flesh’, a glutinous dollop of brown paint, ‘earth’ or possibly ‘youth’; a delicate disc of wispy white paint, ‘clouds’; and a shiny coin-shaped form in graphite pencil, ‘mirror’. Beneath this code, Twombly has rendered, within a drawn frame, an array of possibilities for mark-making per se, as though to set them apart from the more direct references of words. The elements of the code come from three distinct experiential fields: the elemental (earth and clouds), the somatic (flesh and blood) and the subjective (mirror). And they can be mapped on to three corresponding traditional genres of oil painting, respectively: landscape, figure and self-portraiture. In Untitled we see Twombly’s invocation of myth and poetry, his wavering between high and low and his sustained dwelling on the threshold where writing becomes drawing or painting. Perhaps most importantly, we see in this painting how marks and words – in collaboration and counter-distinction – construct meaning differently. As John Berger has written, Twombly ‘visualises with living colours the silent space that exists between and around words’.
Although his work resonates strongly with generations of younger artists, ranging from Brice Marden to Richard Prince to Tacita Dean to Patti Smith, it has a general propensity to polarise its audience between perplexity and unbridled admiration. (Remember the incident last summer of a woman planting a lipstick kiss on a Twombly canvas on show in Lyon?) Additionally, the critical and historical reception has seemed to describe two Twomblys – one about form, the other about content. Some writers have concentrated on the materiality of the artist’s mark as aggressive, often illegible graffiti; others have followed the classical allusions to ferret out the references. Two elements might serve as metaphors for the predominant interpretations: the floating disc of white paint labelled ‘clouds’ standing for the poetic and mythological aspects, and the scatological heap of brown paint designating ‘earth’. However, Twombly’s painterly palimpsests trace the progressions through which form and content, text and image are inextricably linked" (Claire Daigle, ‘Cy Twombly: Lingering at the Threshold Between Word and Image’, Tate Etc., No. 13, Summer 2008, online).
Untitled marks an interstitial moment between the impassioned and scatological use of paint that typifies works directly inspired by bloody or amorous mythological tales, and the increasing restraint and graphic pre-eminence that came to characterise the works of the mid-to-late 1960s. Moving into the next phase of his career, fervent bodily evocations and base matter give way to the predominance of the pencil and graphic line, and thus we see a transition from Dionysian physicality into an Apollonian intellectualism. As Twombly stated in 2008 to Nicholas Serota, “… paint is something that I use with my hands and so all those tactile things. I really don’t like oil because you can’t get back into it, or you make a mess. I mean it’s not my favourite thing, pencil is more my medium than wet paint” (Cy Twombly in conversation with Nicholas Serota, ‘History Behind the Thought’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern (and travelling), Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, 2008-09, p. 48). In the present work the physicality of exuberant pigment – its thrown, smeared, finger-printed impasto application – is perfectly balanced against the lyrical pre-eminence of written passages, graphic lines, and Mallarméan silence.
The presence of Sappho is here significant. Imbued with unbridled eroticism and yet surviving only in the form of translated fragments and salvaged scraps, her lyrical poetry offers an analogue for Twombly’s interest in the space between language and its translation. Sapphic verse is therefore proto-Mallarméan in its pauses, caesuras, and ultimately in its silence. As illuminated by Professor Mary Jacobus in her recent book, Reading Cy Twombly: Poetics in Paint: “… reference is never abstract when it comes to the erotic associations of Sappho’s poetry. Twombly elsewhere quotes the fragment, ‘But their heart turned cold and they dropped their wings’. These memorable lines and phrases are all the more tantalising for the hiatuses in the Sapphic text… As with Twombly’s fragmentary ‘writing’ we can never really know what linked these fragments, or what lies in their interstices: we can only guess at the words, thoughts, and emotions whose absence is constitutive of Sapphic poetics” (Mary Jacobus, Reading Cy Twombly: Poetics in Paint, New Jersey and Oxford 2016, p. 90). The erotic power and fragmentary nature of what survives of Sappho’s work is brought to the fore in this painting, which itself refers back to Twombly’s earlier use of Sapphic verse in the imposing yet spare suite of 24 works on paper, Poems to the Sea (1959) – works that also comprise the same bisecting horizon line present in Untitled.
Perhaps the most telling part of Untitled, however, is the presence of the crossed out words: ‘Artist’s Studio’. Resting just below the horizon line and just above the painter’s palette, these words immediately conjure images of iconic artists’ studios – for example, the deep strata of oil paint on Lucian Freud’s studio walls, the paint smeared door and compost of fragmented source imagery that comprised Francis Bacon’s working environment at 7 Reece Mews, and the drip-marked floor of Jackson Pollock’s Long-Island work space. These preserved environments – in their own way portraits of their authors – today inhabit the realm of the memento mori; the absence of their occupants serves to emphasise transience and the onset of time. In this way, Untitled is a consummate self-portrait of Cy Twombly: at once artist’s studio and reflective mirror it holds the key to unlock and decode the master of cryptic allusion on canvas.