Executed almost half a century ago, Cy Twombly's sensational Untitled (Rome) engages the viewer with an energy that is both desperately urgent and utterly irresistible. It marks the inception of the 1961-65 period when "everything about the paintings", according to Heiner Bastian, "sets them apart from the larger body of artistic theory of the latter half of [the twentieth-] century" (Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, volume II, 1961-1965, Mosel 1993, p. 21). It is seminal to Twombly's renowned canon of Rome paintings, initiated when he moved there permanently in 1957, but which were to find fuller, more mature expression only by the time of the present work.
Twombly arrived in Italy in 1957 and, attracted by the Italian lifestyle, decided to extend his stay. With the artist Toti Scialoja and his girlfriend Gabriella Drudi, whom he met through Eleanor Ward in New York, Twombly rented a house in Procida where he spent the summer. During that summer Twombly built a strong relationship with Scialoja, which is evinced by the provenance of the present work donated by Twombly to his fellow artist. Twombly was introduced to the Roman art scene and shared with Scialoja the same intellectual circle of friends, such as Afro, Gastone Novelli and Plinio de Martiis, the legendary dealer and owner of Galleria La Tartaruga where both artists were showing at the time. In early 1960 Twombly and his family had moved into a grand new home in a seventeenth-century Palazzo on the Via di Monserrato in Rome and in 1961 Twombly had moved his studio into rented rooms on the Piazza del Biscione above a cinema just behind Campo de' Fiori. His day to day world ran the full gamut of antiquarian splendour wedded to the colourful sights and smells of a living city. Living abroad allowed Twombly to experience sensual release and exist beyond the constraints of familiar contexts. Untitled (Rome) does not merely evoke the sentimental idea of metropolitan opulence, but actively conflates the spirits of both past and present in one pictorial experience.
Twombly's staggering innovation and inimitable abstract aesthetic are on full display here through the work's visceral imagery, serene compositional economy, and graphic intelligence. Most immediately striking is the painting's intuitive design, which is at once so instinctive and seemingly arbitrary, yet also deeply satisfying on a formal level. The balance achieved between the corporeal manipulation of impasto plasticity and the ethereal delicacy of the scraped and scratched primed canvas results in total visual seduction. Indeed, the variegated surface of Untitled (Rome) narrates the rich history of its own creation. Bastian has recounted the corporeality of Twombly's working process: "He smears color on with his fingers or applies it directly from the tube onto the canvas as a physical act: color becomes raw condition" (Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Paintings, 1952-1976, Frankfurt/ Main-Berlin 1978, p. 43).
The present work is also a mesmerising paragon of Twombly's pioneering interrogation of semiotic sign systems and accords strongly with Roland Barthes' observation that "What happens on the stage Twombly offers us (whether it is canvas or paper) is something which partakes of several kinds of event" (Roland Barthes in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, 1979, p. 9). Akin with Twombly's best output, Untitled (Rome) mediates the boundary between figuration and abstraction, continually enticing the viewer with implied meaning and challenging the deductions inherent to signifier-referent equations. The catharsis in Untitled (Rome) lies in the central-left motif of the heart: a symbol that is overloaded with cognitive associations, yet here is nothing more than a gathering of scribbled lines. Twombly's disavowal of assumption in this work echoes the maxim of his forerunner, the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé: "Everything happens by shortcut... story telling is avoided".
Kirk Varnedoe has described that during the period leading up to this painting in 1960, Twombly was very anxious that his mark making may have been becoming decorative. Indeed, despite striving for "a wilfully uningratiating originality... the risk of a mannerism... the devil of virtuosity... the sparse linearity could, if unpressured, err into vitiating elegance" (Kirk Varnedoe in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, 1995, p. 34). As a reaction against this perceived tendency, in 1961 Twombly obliterated these traits completely and created paintings that are, according to Varnedoe, "among 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" (Ibid.). The scattering of haptic marks in Untitled (Rome) exactly signposts this release and comprises the most completely realised instance of Twombly's self-abandonment to the unadulterated powers of his creation.
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