When Cy Twombly left in 1957 to work and live in Italy, during the late years of Abstract Expressionist painting and the beginnings of new responses to it, he set himself apart from the center of contemporary American art. Far from the frenetic activity of New York he created a singular artistic idiolect, forged from an inscrutable vocabulary of scrawls and symbols and a fascination with epic poetry and the myths of antiquity. Earlier in the decade he had made paintings that reflected his time at Black Mountain College, where in 1951–52, along with Robert Rauschenberg, he studied with Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell: primitivist forms in black and white rendered in industrial paint, then with added strokes in crayon and pencil on canvases that were gouged and pocked. After the move to Rome, Mediterranean colors began to emerge, along with small, sometimes erotic figurative elements and classical allusions in series devoted to Leda and the Swan or Nine Discourses on Herodotus, in frenzies of scribbled abstraction. Beginning in 1966 and continuing through the early 1970s, he initiated his so-called “blackboard” paintings, filled with loose lyrical scrawls or strokes across a gray ground. At first difficult to inscribe within the practices of American art in the 1960s and 70s, his work began to influence a younger generation of artists who rediscovered it in the 1980s. Since that time, and until his death in 2011, he has held a place among the great painters of his era.
The Whitney Museum of American Art played an important role in the reintroduction of Twombly’s work to American audiences with its 1979 retrospective exhibition Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954–1977. More recently, in 2005, the retrospective Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper was presented at the museum. Twombly’s work was first shown at the Whitney in its 1967 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture, and has been included in more than twenty exhibitions to date. Ten of his works are held in the museum’s permanent collection: the large “blackboard” painting Untitled (1969), three sculptures in bronze, four prints, and two drawings.
Untitled (1971) is related to the series of “gray-ground” or “blackboard” paintings and drawings Twombly made during the period 1966 to 1972, when he was spending long periods in New York City. These works began to reflect the more austere surroundings of his loft studio space there as well as the Minimalist and Conceptual work being produced by fellow American artists at the time. Here, the gestural markings in white wax crayon on a dark gray ground are obsessive, random repetitions of an angular form. The hypnotic tracings seem to elude all reference: the inspiration might relate to anything from Italian Futurists’ attempts to convey directionality through time or space to Greek mountains or Roman architecture. But the quivering lines, with their shifts and partial erasures, may mean nothing outside the act of their own making. In a rare statement he made in 1957, Twombly explained that each line represented simply the experience of making it: “It does not illustrate. It is the sensation of its own realization” (Cy Twombly in L’Esperienza moderna, 1957, cited in Randy Kennedy, “American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Past,” New York Times, 6 July 2011, A1).