Lot 29
  • 29

Cy Twombly

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  • Cy Twombly
  • Untitled (New York City)
  • signed and dated NYC 1968 on the reverse
  • oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas
  • 68 x 85 in. 172.7 x 215.9 cm.


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Victor W. Ganz, New York
Christie's, New York, May 6, 1986, Lot 51
Karsten Greve, Cologne
Acquired by the present owner from the above


New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1969 Annual Exhibition: Contemporary American Painting, December 1969 - February 1970, cat. no. 128, illustrated on the cover
Zurich, Kunstahaus; 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. 22, p. 69, illustrated in color (Madrid); cat. no. 26, n.p., illustrated in color (London, Düsseldorf, and Paris)
Cologne, Galerie Karsten Greve, Paintings of Cy Twombly, 1989
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Under Development: Dreaming the MCA's Collection, April - August 1994


Exh. Cat., Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Beuys zu Ehren,  1986, p. 531, illustrated
Heiner Bastian, ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III, 1966-1971, Munich, 1994, cat. no. 46, p. 117, illustrated in color



Catalogue Note

Following a brief period of creative drought in the mid 1960s, 1966 saw Cy Twombly abandon the emotive use of colour to embark upon a cycle of matte grey canvases in search of a leaner, altogether more expressive clarity. Extraneous literary and historical concerns were cast aside as Twombly sought to channel the vitality of his wrist towards exploring the expressive possibilities of autonomous rhythmic repetitions. Unlike the static, semi-figurative black and white paintings of Twombly’s formative years in the early 1950s, these new grey canvases saw the centrifugal energy and erotic charge of Twombly’s Baroque-inspired early 1960s paintings (see lot 21) transferred into a rhythmic discourse of mood and movement. The resulting canvases, such as Untitled (New York City), are some of the most powerful and lyrical works of his career.

In Twombly’s grey paintings, the duality of script and painting and the primacy of line emerge invigorated and refined. Seeking to shatter form and negate its concomitant narrative and intellectual concerns, these paintings possess an unprecedented universal lyricism which pulsates across the canvas in sublime visual poetry. Like some of Twombly’s earlier compositions founded upon the musical theory of Counterpoint, the rhythmical harmony of Untitled is animated by a symphony of non-descript linear forms which dance across the canvas, recalling Palmer handwriting drills or Paul Klee’s Pedagogical exercises.  In Untitled (New York City), the ghostly white and light blue figure-of-eight figures twist and expand their way across the grey surfaced canvas in a way that is at once elementary and sophisticated. Like a natural entity instinctively feeling its way, Twombly’s line ventures into time and space with a self perpetuating motion and energy and is invigorated by the graffiti-like rawness of his early work. The atmosphere of the composition is charged with an intensity and richness to rival any of Twombly’s white paintings. Like a psychological landscape projected through time and space, the seismic turbulence of the jagged line as it moves from left to right charts a labyrinth of conflicting forces and emotions. Lines of varied length and weight capture the essence of being and the vagaries of form as they jostle for attention against Twombly’s vibrant brushwork in the tantalisingly impenetrable background.

In Untitled (New York City), Twombly smears and drips thin washes directly onto the canvas in a way that evokes the liberal energy of Jackson Pollock’s action painting. The auspicious movements of his guileless hand across the dark background cast an infinite spectrum of blacks and greys, upon which the incised motif is rhetorically reflected as if a passing apparition. The process of drawing for Twombly embodied the paradox of time and the convergence of many seemingly dissimilar elements here into a single composition disclosing the intricacies of his profound visionary awareness. The reduction of form to its most elegant and elementary essence seduces the viewer into the hidden complexity and depth of the image. With an all-over but low pressure imagery similar to Jasper Johns’ grey paintings like No or Tennyson, Twombly’s Untitled (New York City) accommodates a perpetual rhythm of tiered fluid washes. Loaded with dripping, diverse washes of colour, ranging from dark greenish-black to light bluish steel grey, every layer of sensuously applied colour exudes a similar primitive intuition and sense of urgency to Twombly’s earlier graphic vocabulary of forms. Each gesture is electrically charged, enlivened with its own ambiguous identity and self perpetuating history that incites a continuum of perpetual processing and constant reassessment.

From within a violent deluge of passionate marks, like a ghost appearing out of a moonlit mist, Twombly’s fluctuating line meanders diagonally across the windswept expanse of the canvas. In undertaking the challenge of capturing movement in time and space, Twombly aligned himself to the godfather of the Avant Garde, Marcel Duchamp. Like the shadows of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, the ethereal figure of eights - borrowed perhaps for their mathematical associations with infinity - multiply, recede and climb through the surface of the canvas. The parabolic curves of these musical forms crescendo in a dramatic weave of undulating line and allegorical study of light and shadow and a vehicle for disciplining the natural left to right direction of Twombly’s hand.

The gestural rawness of Twombly’s handwriting style is here released upon a far larger landscape than in his earlier work. A repetitious flurry of energetic white and blue lines is sent tumbling diagonally across the picture surface, weaving their way in leaping bulges and plunging ellipses. The linear repetition of Twombly’s grey paintings recalls Futurist investigations into the cinematic decomposition of forms in motion. While this represented a new departure in Twombly’s work, the Futurist principle of movement in space had been of utmost importance to the artistic investigations of a whole generation of Italian artists for over a decade. However, whereas the Italian revival of Futurism was predominantly for its rational, semi-scientific dissection of movement,  Twombly seems to have reacted more intuitively to the dispersion of forms in which analytic precision collides with a spontaneous, energetic flux. Like Umberto Boccioni and later Francis Bacon, for Twombly the fractured dissolutions of movement became a metaphorical means of conveying agitations of the soul.

Twombly’s grey paintings also indicate an inspirational debt to the scientific notebooks drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Like Joseph Beuys, Twombly saw within the Renaissance master’s innumerable scientific formula, scattered drawings and codes a private poetry of obsession; something driven by an irrational demon of secret knowledge which struck a chord with Twombly’s own aesthetic. Above all though, perhaps it was the realisation that the Renaissance clarity and light so often used to describe Italian art were balanced by a darker, neurotic intensity. This is reflected by the destructive and turbulent themes of Leonardo’s work to which Twombly was consistently drawn in the late 1960s: those of maelstroms and cataclysms. Stormy landscapes, such as Rembrandt etched in The Three Trees (1643), recur throughout art history as the ideal genre in which to capture primal elemental nature, and the instinctive, intuitive nature of Twombly’s composition in Untitled (New York City) reflects just such a combination of form and effect.

In spite of the undisputable Italian influences, Twombly found in the relative coolness of the dark-ground style an appropriate form of work to pursue in New York. Working from studios on the Bowery, the relative chasteness and severity of his new aesthetic compared to the sensual pleasures of the early 1960s seemed more in sync with contemporary trends in America. At Twombly’s first one man show in the United States in 1968, critic Robert Pincus-Witten approvingly labelled this new departure, “heroic,” going on to say that Twombly “casts down all that was grandiose in his mature style, rejecting a lush manner for simple and stringent exercises.” However, to wantonly link the grey paintings to the systematic asceticism of Conceptualism and Minimalism would be to spuriously overlook the intrinsic tonal variety and expressive layered complexity of their thinly washed surfaces, and deny urgency to the individual fluctuating energies of their intensely worked linear forms. Seductive both in its complexity, depth and surface directness, the aura and myth surrounding Cy Twombly’s Untitled stems from the singularity and enigmatic diversity of its execution.