Lot 110
  • 110

Cy Twombly

1,200,000 - 1,500,000 USD
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  • Cy Twombly
  • Untitled
  • signed and dated June 71 on the reverse
  • housepaint and wax crayon on card
  • 20 1/2 by 14 3/8 in. 52.1 by 36.5 cm.
  • Executed in 1971, this work will be included in the Catalogue RaisonnĂ© of Cy Twombly Drawings being prepared by Nicola Del Roscio.


Galleria Gianenzo Sperone, Turin
Private Collection, Turin
Cheim & Reid, New York
Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
Acquired by the present owner from the above


This work is in very good condition overall. There is evidence of light wear and handling at the edges, resulting in faint fingerprint smudges at the top center, at the top left corner and at the bottom left corner of the top portion of the sheet, which appear to be from the artist's hand. There are two small and unobtrusive vertical abrasions along the left edge of the sheet, approximately 8 ½ inches from the bottom and one at the top left edge. The work is hinged verso to the matte, intermittently along the edges. Framed under glass.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Cy Twombly’s lyrical swirls and loops lithely move across the composition in Untitled from 1971, pulsating with energy and life. The blue scrawls, layered one on top of another and segmented into rows, appear at first to be an incessant text written in script. The lines are infused with a manic, wild liveliness that are undeniably his, and became as much of Twombly’s personal stamp as his signature or handwriting. Art critic Roberta Smith encapsulates the contradictions of Twombly’s aesthetic:

“Confronted with one of Twombly’s paintings or drawings, one is always struck by their sense of abandon. Their various combinations of scrawls, graffiti, paint smears, letters, numerals, words, word fragments, diagrams and signs have the visual effect…of seeing ‘an overeducated bibliophiliac suddenly – graphically, nearly obscenely – speaking in tongues.’ Conversely, it can seem that a primitive or an insane artist has got his hands on one of culture’s classics and is telling us what really happened, in the most vivid and yet abstract sense.” (Roberta Smith in Harald Szeemann, ed., “The Great Mediator,” Cy Twombly, Munich, 1987, p. 15)

Twombly’s work evolved greatly throughout his 50+ year career, yet the artist never abandoned his trademark scribble, dominating the present work. Ever the draughtsman, Twombly elevated drawing to the status of painting, often fusing the two techniques. This graphic gesture evolved from an expressive line to the presence of actual words embedded in the composition. Even in his paintings, Twombly approached the paint application as if he were drawing; the large, drippy swirls of the Camino Real series from 2010 repeat the same distinct and recognizable motif of the early drawings. As an heir to the Abstract Expressionist legacy, Twombly regarded his blank canvas as an “arena in which to act,” just as Harold Rosenberg suggested of the Abstract Expressionists decades earlier. (Rosenberg in Art News 51/8, Dec. 1952, p. 22) Twombly internalized the methodology of his New York predecessors and appropriated them in his own signature style by harnessing their painterly gesture and reducing it to the essential line. Working in an era of appropriation, alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Twombly's adaptation of the Abstract Expressionist process embodies the zeitgeist of his time.

In 1957, Twombly relocated to Rome, where he became reinvigorated by the Mediterranean landscape, the ruins of Antiquity, and Renaissance masterpieces. Twombly’s oeuvre in his time abroad drew on these themes explicitly by incorporating imagery and titling his works after ancient mythology, injecting his simple line and scrawls with the weight of art history. While touring Europe, Twombly was particularly affected and stimulated by the obtrusive graffiti splashed across ancient landmarks. The drippy, expressive spray painted messages undoubtedly informed his increasingly abstracted and handmade aesthetic. Twombly acknowledged graffiti’s impression in his own work: “Graffiti is linear and it's done with a pencil, and it's like writing on walls. But in my paintings it's more lyrical.”

Always looking towards history and his forbearers, Twombly closely followed Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of wind and water patterns, which he created circa 1550. The dramatic clouds, unruly waves and fierce wind gusts of Deluge, drawn lithely with his able hand, move fiercely across the paper in torrential swirls. Twombly’s Untitled from over four centuries later, appropriates Da Vinci’s expressive gesture and repeats it endlessly. Though both drawings are ultimately studies of motion itself, Twombly’s composition eliminates the narrative implicit in Da Vinci’s drawing and isolates the impact of the singular swirling motion to highlight and amplify its power.

While Twombly’s compositions were highly practiced and deliberately composed, they retain an air of spontaneity and chance. Roberta Smith remarks: “The out-of-control quality of his drawing techniques, which are rife with intimations of the deepest unconscious make his seem like the most sustained automatist career, bringing to fruition effects only hinted at by Miró and the Surrealists.” (Roberta Smith in Ibid., p. 16) Indeed, his line appears to flow straight from his psyche onto the page, involuntarily and candidly allowing the unconscious to guide his hand. The Surrealists were fascinated by this so-called Automatism and practiced automatic drawing as a way to gain insight into the inner depths of the unconscious. Surrealist André Masson would place his pen on the paper, without any premeditated plans and allow his hand to direct the composition. The end result often portrayed suggestive swirls of body parts and vaguely recognizable symbols, similar to Twombly’s early works. Twombly’s paintings and drawings of the 70s eliminated figuration, but still maintained a raw, energetic and impulsive gestural quality.

In the present work, Untitled from 1971, Twombly begins by drawing pulsating horizontal bands of loops in blue wax crayon on two attached sheets of paper. Then, he coats the paper in gray housepaint, draws another layer of drawn swirls in his crayon, turns his paintbrush around and uses the blunt wood end to add more loops across the page. By “drawing” with the other end of his paintbrush, Twombly peels away the paint to reveal the layer underneath, essentially excavating his own drawing. The result is frenetic, pulsating, writhing bands of graphic scrawls, more subdued and controlled at the top and becoming increasingly aggressive and uninhibited towards the bottom of the sheet. There is only line, there is only gesture, reducing Twombly’s vast repertoire of drawing to these repeated, iconic swirls that are mesmerizing, dizzying and enthralling to the eye. Ever so simple and elementary, yet with a sophisticated elegance and unique style, the present work seems to understatedly encapsulate Twombly’s unparalleled capacity to marry the elemental and the complex, the simple and the expressive, the primitive and the intellectual. “No other artist has such a gift for open-endedness…words become lines expressive of feeling, lines become tones, tones become tensions, white becomes resolution. All this happens with the flowing naturalness of handwriting… This work seems to us both primeval and innovative, like memory itself and its energies.” (Harald Szeemann in Ibid., p. 12)