Simon Schama in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper, 2005, p. 15
An effulgent tempest of inspired visual lyricism and explosive gestural bravura across three remarkably large-scale works on paper, Silex Scintillans from 1981 powerfully articulates the full force of Cy Twombly’s extraordinary abstract lexicon. Titled after and inspired by Welsh poet Henry Vaughan’s text Silex Scintillans, a body of devotional poetry published in 1650, Silex Scintillans exemplifies the increasingly romantic, pastoral sensibility of Twombly’s output of the early 1980s. While the artist’s overall oeuvre is defined by the remarkable reconciliation of text, gesture, and form, the concomitance of these signifiers in the scarlet and pastel hues of Silex Scintillans achieves an unprecedented level of visual poetry. A rare example of a work on paper presented in the triptych format, Silex Scintillans was included in the 1987-1988 landmark exhibition Cy Twombly: Paintings, Works on Paper, Sculpture, which traveled to Zurich, Madrid, London, Düsseldorf, and Paris. Embodying a visceral energy that reconciles dynamic abstractionist mark-making, a deeply sensual mastery of material, and a profound conceptual absorption of classical influences, the present work is a superb example of the most salient and celebrated aspects of the artist’s corpus of works on paper.
In its signature juxtaposition of haphazard handwriting, bold gestural ferocity, and expressive painterly language, Silex Scintillans epitomizes Twombly’s unique formal vocabulary, in which the boundaries between painting and writing have been obliterated in favor of a semantic unity of sign and form. The irresistible sensation of lateral motion inherent to the present work is deeply evocative of the automatism embodied in the reverberating loops of the Twombly’s revered Blackboard paintings, which dominated the artist’s oeuvre in the late 1960s. Commenting upon the Twombly’s trademark kinetic dynamism, scholar Katharina Schmidt describes the stacked scrawls in Silex Scintillans: “As wide color formations composed of thick, irregularly placed lines, they push out of the lower left corner into the bright background, which in some works they occupy halfway or more. Their contour, swinging diagonally from upper left to lower right, resembles colorful, irregularly vibrating bands extricating themselves from the field, otherwise integrated by the intervention of oil paint.” (Katharina Schmidt, “The Way to Arcadia: Thoughts on Myth and Image in Cy Twombly’s Painting,” in Exh. Cat., Houston, The Menil Collection, Cy Twombly, 1989, p. 29) Executed in an exquisitely balanced palette of bold tones and softer, pastel tints, however, Silex Scintillans enacts a profound departure from the chaste severity of the monochrome Blackboards, drawing instead upon the incendiary hues and dazzlingly rich corporeality of the paint surface in Twombly’s paintings and drawings of the 1970s. A rare example of Twombly’s work on paper presented as a multi-part group, Silex Scintillans is particularly reminiscent of the artist’s historical ensemble Fifty Days at Illiam of 1977-78, a group of ten monumentally scaled canvases inspired by Alexander Pope’s romantic treatment of the Trojan War, as articulated in his translation of Homer’s Iliad. In those canvases, as in the present work, the histrionic drama of Pope’s lyrical text is re-enacted in Twombly’s flurry of vibrant hues and violent mark-making, while the occasional scrawled word or name boldly conjures the tragic ghosts of Homer’s mythic narrative. A rare triptych, Silex Scintillans is further distinguished by the fluid continuity achieved through the synthesis of all three segments; rather than existing as distinct aesthetic entities, the present work is invigorated by a unifying sense of lateral velocity reminiscent of Twombly’s most iconic gestural marks. Exuding an irresistible kinesthesia in every vibrant scrawl, daub, and smear, Silex Scintillans is a singular summation, not only of Twombly’s deeply sensual mastery of material, but of the remarkable visual dynamism which characterizes the entirety of his inimitable oeuvre.
In his unique fusion of frenetic painterly abstraction with the metaphysical implications inherent to his scrawled text, Silex Scintillans exemplifies Twombly’s work of the early 1980s, in which the artist increasingly embraced an arresting, atmospheric lushness and romantic approach to the pastoral in his large-scale works. During this period, inspired by such canonical painters of nature as Claude Monet and J.M.W Turner, Twombly’s art became increasingly rooted in the universal themes of love, fate, and the divine. By inscribing the title Silex Scintillans upon the leftmost panel of the triptych, Twombly invokes the enlightened spirituality of Henry Vaughan’s seminal text Silex Scintillans, Or, Sacred Poems And Private Ejaculations, published in 1650. In this collection of 129 devotional poems, Vaughan abandoned the dominant secular verse of his contemporaries to render, in word and rhythm, a version of the natural world fully imbued with divine presence. Inscribed in Twombly’s characteristic, childlike scrawl, the title of Vaughan’s poem appears to title the gestural cacophony of scarlet, periwinkle, and amaranthine marks which cascades across the tripartite work; as we move from left to right, the four rows of scrawled text to the left give way to the slanting date of the central panel before, in the rightmost panel, the composition is entirely ceded to vibrant smears of incandescent pigment. In a manner reminiscent of the bloodstained canvases of Fifty Days at Illiam, the urgent mark-making of Silex Scintillans viscerally embodies the tangible sense of sound, motion, and profound vitality ingrained in Vaughan’s poem itself: “I see the use: and know my blood / Is not a sea, / But a shallow, bounded flood, / Though red as he; / Yet have I flows, as strong as his, / And boiling streams that rave / With the same curling force, and hiss, / As doth the mountain'd wave. / But when his waters billow thus, / Dark storms, and wind / Incite them to that fierce discuss, / Else not inclin'd, / Thus the enlarg'd, enragèd air / Uncalms these to a flood; / But still the weather that's most fair / Breeds tempests in my blood.” (Henry Vaughan, “The Storm,” Silex Scintillans, 1650, n.p.) Noting the significance of Twombly’s textual reference in Silex Scintillans, Schmidt reflects, “the vibrant, layered colored sections in Twombly’s piece could be understood as the surging, energetically pulsating movement of self-containment and self-relinquishment, an interpretation underscored by the use of the literary genre designation poem.” (Katharina Schmidt, “The Way to Arcadia: Thoughts on Myth and Image in Cy Twombly’s Painting,” in Exh. Cat., Houston, The Menil Collection, Cy Twombly, 1989, p. 30) Within the balanced confines of Twombly’s symmetrical triad, the opposing forces of text and form, mark and void, nature and the divine, collide with an expressive force as, enacting a physical dialogue between corporeality and the unseen divine, poetry is manifest as tangible visual matter.
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