The Expressive Urgency of Cy Twombly's Visual Language

The Expressive Urgency of Cy Twombly's Visual Language

T he singular story of Cy Twombly cannot be told if not by way of his experiences in Italy, and in particular in Rome. Following a trip to Europe and North Africa alongside Robert Rauschenberg, the American artist established himself in the Italian capital in 1957. During the spring of the following year, Twombly had his first solo show at the Galleria La Tartaruga presented by Palma Bucarelli, historical director and superintendent of the National Gallery of Modern Art.

Upon Twombly’s arrival in the late 1950s, Rome became an artistic melting pot and, in the words of Cesare Vivaldi, "the only city in Europe that, from the 1956 to 1965, established ‘serious’ contacts with America, affirming itself as a truly international city on the art scene." The new exhibition program presented by Galleria La Tartaruga was crucial in this sense as it aimed at presenting, for the most part, the work of Post-War artists with a direct connection to the US.

One of the main supporters of the new artistic direction of the gallery, and therefore of the new generation of artists supported by it, was Giorgio Franchetti. The meeting between the artist and the well-known patron, who acquired Untitled of 1964 for his collection, considerably changed Franchetti's involvement with art, while Franchetti in turn offered a unique entry to Twombly into the Roman art scene.

Towards the early 1960s, Twombly moved into a 17th Century palace on Via di Monserrato where the infusion of antiquarian splendour and Mediterranean mythological, philosophical and literary influences rooted themselves into his work. As recalled by Marion Franchetti, the daughter of the collector and Twombly's niece, "In private he is like his art. Entering one of his homes is like entering one of his paintings, the same prevalence of white and void spaces, of the essentiality of presences, with little furniture save for ancient floors full of signs of passage and old rustic chairs placed in some corner, like sculptures."

It was during these years that Twombly developed a revolutionary visual language in reaction to the mythical past that weighed heavy in Rome and his immediate experiences in Italy. His work developed absolutely counter-currently to that of his American contemporaries, who were experimenting in the field of Abstract Expressionism.

Untitled from 1964, a work that has never been publicly exhibited and has remained in the same private European collection since then, is an exceptional example of the new artistic direction undertaken by the artist. The composition of the work unites two great pillars of Twombly's artistic practice: painting and drawing. The materials used, such as graphite, wax crayons, household paint and ink, devoid of any figurative references, demonstrate an organic materiality.

The confluence of lines and shapes that seem to express an emotional urgency, accessible and close to the viewer. As Twombly himself explains in a rare text published in L'Esperienza moderna magazine in 1957: "Each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate – it is the sensation of its own realization." The signs spread over the surface so that points of greater chromatic intensity find harmony, resulting in a poetic balance.

In Untitled from 1964, the sequence of accumulated gestures - numbers, fragments of letters, boxes or windows - creates a crescendo of lateral movement. The inscriptions in Twombly's works have sometimes convinced critics and observers that his art is somehow related to the numerous graffiti marks on the walls and Roman monuments.

Since the cave paintings of the Paleolithic era, to the poetry paintings by Joan Mirò or the imaginary screenplays and hieroglyphics by Paul Klee in the modern days, the idea of writing as an element of abstract painting has been widely experimented. Similarly, literature, poetry, and the simple act of writing have never been totally unrelated to Twombly's practice. Such inscriptions, like graffiti, convey a personal, uncensored expressive urgency.

Twombly did not passively absorb the Mediterranean heritage or suffocate under the weight of its classical past, but rather lived the ancient traditions with a renewed feeling. It was his profound aesthetic sensitivity towards ancient or time-worn surfaces, together with his language of linear signs and his affinity for white, which attuned him to the ruins of Rome.

As in most of Twombly's works, white is the binding element that holds the cacophony of signs together in a creative fusion, and evokes a sense of lightness almost as if the drawing breathes light. Twombly himself stated: "the reality of whiteness may exist in the duality of sensation (as the multiple anxiety of desire and fear). Whiteness can be the classic state of the intellect, or a neo-romantic area of remembrance - or as the symbolic whiteness of Mallarmé."

Untitled from 1964, along with other drawings made that same year, represents a crucial phase in the formal evolution of Twombly’s production in that period, as he further developed his iconographic themes and anticipated his famous monochrome ‘blackboards’ series shortly thereafter.

Twombly has at times left viewers confused, with his references to semi-forgotten myths, to remote heroes and writers of the Western culture, but his art has always been direct and open to those who observe it carefully. Among the criticisms and the praise, perhaps the reason why Twombly continues to resonate so strongly in the history of art is precisely, according to Enrico Crispolti, the existential authenticity of his private and secret dimension.

Contemporary Art
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