Lot 21
  • 21

Cy Twombly

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  • Cy Twombly
  • Untitled (Rome)

  • signed and dated Roma 1961; signed and dated 1961 on the reverse
  • oil paint, wax crayon and graphite on canvas
  • 51 1/4 x 59 1/4 in. 130.2 x 150.5 cm.


Acquired by the present owner directly from the artist circa 1962


Bern, Kunsthalle; Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Cy Twombly: Paintings 1953 - 1972, April - August 1973, cat. no. 9, n.p., illustrated
Zurich, Kunsthaus; Madrid, Palacio de Velázquez / Palacio de Cristal; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery; Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle; Paris, Musée National d'art Moderne, Galeries Contemporaines, Centre Georges Pompidou, Cy Twombly: Paintings, Works on Paper, Sculpture, February 1987 - April 1988, cat. no. 21 (Zurich), frontispiece, illustrated in color; cat. no. 21, p. 2, illustrated (Madrid); cat. no. 13, n.p., illustrated (London, Düsseldorf and Paris)


Heiner Bastian, ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume II: 1961 - 1965, Munich, 1992, cat. no. 9, p. 55, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

"In 1961, only four years after the first Roman paintings, the tow of the Mediterranean world comes to embody an intangible beauty as well as the sense of its forlornness.” (Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly, Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume II 1961-1965, p. 24)

When Cy Twombly first moved to Rome in 1957, he was unaware that it would develop into a permanent sojourn and become his ongoing source of inspiration and provocation for the next four decades. At a time when most American artists of his generation were turning to contemporary popular culture for inspiration, Twombly immersed himself in the most traditional sources of Western art: Greek and Roman antiquity. In Rome, Twombly became enraptured by majestic panoramas, classical landscapes and love cycles of the High Renaissance and developed a highly personal, cryptic style of poetic ‘handwriting’ that was permeated with the grandeur and decadence of the Mediterranean world. Twombly’s graphic language is poetry and reporting, “furtive gesture and écriture automatique, sexual catharsis and both affirmation and negation of the self. As full of ambiguity as life itself… Twombly’s ‘writing’ has neither syntax nor logic, but quivers with life, its murmuring penetrating to the very depths of things.” (Pierre Restany, The Revolution of the Sign, 1961)

Twombly revisited the classical world through painting with sensual immediacy. The spontaneous vitality of his hand and wrist alchemically transformed experience and mythical imagination into an intuitive matrix of illusive signs and ambiguous forms; disparate landmarks on a voyage of self-discovery. Fluctuating between the corporeal and the ethereal, Twombly’s expressive syntax of broken forms, scraps of words and elusive metaphorical signs amounts to a semiotic avowal of the soul. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the series of Untitled compositions executed during the summer of 1961 which mark the creative zenith of Twombly’s early career. “These paintings are amongst the most impressive, most emotionally wrought works of Twombly’s career…. They reach for a higher level of lyricism, and a greater grandiloquence, precisely through their more aggressive release of explicitly defiling messiness. Their insistence on excess is both playful and violently transgressive; when it is joined with glorious colour, aerated white space, and a baroque sense of monumental aspiration and exultation, the result is an unfamiliar merger many will find easier to reduce, either to raw chaos or lyric splash. Yet in all of Twombly’s work, and here most especially, those who focus on the appeal to cultural grandeur but slight the celebration of bodily physicality, or vice versa, miss what is most distinctive about the art: it wants exactly to convey a sense of life energy that yokes these exalted and debased domains together and makes their energies indivisible.”  (Kirk Varnedoe in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, 1994, pp. 34-35)

Twombly had recently begun to experiment with the symbolic significance of colour, employing it as metaphor to enhance the painting’s theme. In the present work, the ravishing pantheon of erotic rose and carmine hues stimulated by blazing highlights of maroon, scarlet, blue and white intimate episodes of violent and tragic love. The immediacy of the flesh tones smeared into action assails the viewer’s creative unconscious, throbbing with a culminating sensuality as forms advance and recede into the mythical depths of the composition like a Dionysian aftermath. As colour and brushstroke become one, the radical expressiveness of Twombly’s fluid gestures liberate colour from its bondage to form, enriching the entire canvas with a deep understanding of the physicality of painting. Dense veils of sumptuous paint overwhelm shattered graphic shards of elucidatory script; scant ‘architectural’ traces fleetingly perceived in a bounteous exchange of creative impulses.

The dazzlingly rich corporeality of the paint surface in Untitled (Rome) derives as much from its application, dabbed, smeared and spattered across the picture surface, as its colour. The rough scramble of fleshy paint violently overpowers the canvas with unprecedented force as the pictorial space is seized by an orgiastic apotheosis of frenzied passion. Concentrated zones of colour are energetically dispersed across the canvas, seducing the viewer’s gaze and evoking a mood of seduction and carnal yearning. The lambent luminosity of the thick, viscous paint scraped and smudged onto the canvas in an unmediated physical act introduces effects found in much of Twombly’s subsequent work, and marks a distinct stylistic break from his clinically diagrammatic paintings of the late 1950s. Although Twombly had sometimes used his fingers in the past when applying paint, he now began to use them as the primary tools of picture making. Clasping dollops of paint in his hands, Twombly was allowed to engage more directly with the canvas through this primordial, direct method of painting. Each creative impulse, instead of passing through the sharp point of a brush, meets the surface sensually with an intuitive choreography. Applied with tactile daubs and broad sweeping caresses of the palm, this uninhibited method of painting discharges Twombly’s most primitive creative desires.

Twombly often speaks of “irresponsibility to gravity” as being central to his work, describing his interpretation of Classical mythology as a realm of shadowless imagination without weight or constraint. As Twombly enters into a physical dialogue with the corporeal and unseen, myth is manifest as sensually tangible experience. Expressed through the violent metamorphosis of mutating, ever fateful identities and thoughts, the poetry and mythology of Classical antiquity - its sense of tragedy and transformation – emerge invigorated and renewed. With an urgency that surpasses nearly all other works within the artist’s oeuvre, the surface of Untitled (Rome) pulsates with a frenzied sensuality that reaches beyond allegory to the absolute itself. Sumptuous in opposites and allusion, Untitled (Rome) offers an allegorical appeal to form and its ongoing transformation. The metaphoric dialogue between body and landscape reverberates through Twombly’s choice of colour and evoke associations of internal and external experience.

The outpouring of fervid colour and energy in Twombly’s paintings of 1961 rejoice in Rome’s mythical and creative freedom. Never falling into the trap of mere antiquarian nostalgia, these pictures embrace both the grandeur and decadence of the city as a visceral experience. Twombly himself has recognised that these paintings drew upon a liberty of indulgent, sensual release that only living abroad afforded him, and it was Rome’s great Baroque spaces and Neapolitan sense of exuberance in particular to which he responded in these large colourful works. In the present work, Twombly reacts directly to the city’s all-encompassing scale and sense of artistic provocation, synthesising the worlds of spirit and sensation in one of his most painterly and powerful mythical ‘landscapes’. Sometimes seen as a resurgence of the artist’s earlier expressionist tendencies, Untitled (Rome) along with other works of 1961 exude the intuitive Surrealism of Gorky and the ecstatic disruptions of Kandinsky’s early abstractions.

The mythology of antiquity – the European pining for Utopia and its promise – finds meditated echo in Twombly’s oeuvre. Flooding the canvas in an ardent deluge of luminous colour, Untitled (Rome) is charged with a feeling of ecstatic fantasy and sensual intensity. Twombly treasures myth as living communications of timeless human experience and seeks to infuse their poetic spirit with the vitality and coarseness of contemporary existence. In the transitory ingenuity of its composition, Untitled (Rome), “symbolises the paradox of the artist as one who experiences – as within a single transmission – beauty and its negation, the discovered past and the lost present, the manifestation of one’s own idiosyncrasy.” (Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly, Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume II 1961-1965, Munich, 1992, p. 24)