Through the late 1950s Twombly travelled more and more to Italy, developing extensive networks of friends and acquaintances there. In April 1959 he married Tatiana Franchetti at New York‘s City Hall, and was thereafter formally integrated into his new wife’s Italian family. Following their honeymoon in Cuba and Mexico, in July and August 1959 the newlywed couple rented an apartment in the coastal town of Sperlonga, a small whitewashed fishing village between Rome and Naples. The town’s origins were Saracen and the Emperor Tiberius had built his summer villa there and this proved the arena where Twombly would radically transform his artistic development.
The ready access to the Mediterranean provided Twombly with a repository of classical ruin and reference, and the fabric of his immediate surroundings found its way into his art. As Nicholas Cullinan has described, “To encounter the past is to put into question the present. This sense of awe and perplexity at overlaid tenses and times and encountering places only previously known in the imagination…offered for Twombly a palimpsest of past, present and future; layered, intertwined and interpenetrating each other like archaeological strata.” (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, 2008, p. 74) In addition to this, the very meteorological conditions of his new environment evidently also suffused Twombly’s output, as detailed by Roland Barthes: “The inimitable art of Twombly consists of having imposed the Mediterranean effect while starting from materials (scratches, smudges, smears, little color, no academic forms) which have no analogy with the great Mediterranean radiance. [He evokes a] whole life of forms, colors, and light which occurs at the frontier of the terrestrial landscape and the plains of the sea.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, 1979, p. 16) Further still, Kirk Varnedoe has explained the simultaneous importance of a methodological breakthrough that occurred at this time: “That summer, during which it became evident that Tatiana was expecting their child, was immensely important for Twombly as an artist. In a notable change, he abandoned the house paint that had till then been his preferred medium, and began using oil paint from tubes, with its wholly different physical properties. Instead of flowing, this material issued forth in discrete mounds that stood off the surface with a smooth, plump integrity, and required pressure to flatten and spread…. The series of Poems to the Sea used this cool, linen white matter as an independent element of line, shape, and low relief against the drawn indications of open horizons and largely wordless writing.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, 1994, p. 31)
Indeed, it becomes clear that Poems to the Sea is a work that encapsulates a transformative juncture. Executed in a single day, it represents a sudden outpouring of a new, unrestrained creativity. The twenty-four drawings expose their startlingly bleached surfaces, with overlaid accumulations of globular paint partially obscuring and revealing fugitive traces of undulant pencil lines, a proliferation of numerical progressions and occasionally identifiable words such as ‘Sappho’ the legendary ancient Greek female lyric poet from the island of Lesbos. Of course, Twombly’s art is replete with allusion to literary heritage, but there is another specific reference that is particularly germane to this groundbreaking suite of drawings. In 1957 Twombly had penned a short statement for the Italian art journal L’Esperienza moderna, which was to remain the sole published reflection on his own work until 2000, when he was interviewed by David Sylvester. He wrote “Whiteness can be the classic state of the intellect, or a neo-romantic area of remembrance – or as the symbolic whiteness of Mallarmé” (L’Esperienza moderna, 1957, p. 32, cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, 2008, p. 73), and Poems to the Sea certainly conjures something of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry, such as his celebrated meditation on whiteness in The Swan of 1885: “All his neck will shake off this white death-agony / Inflicted by space on the bird which denies space / But not the horror of the earth where his wings are caught. / Phantom whom his pure brilliance assigns to this place.” Poems to the Sea also initiated Twombly’s use of a literary title, by which he offered to dismantle the constrictive divisions between painting and literature, drawing and writing, viewing and reading. In this respect this work anticipates other major breakthroughs such as Nine Discourses on Commudus of 1963 (Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao), Letter of Resignation of 1967, and Treatise on the Veil of 1968.
Poems to the Sea stands as tangible testimony to Twombly's staggering innovation and inimitable abstract aesthetic through the work's visceral imagery, compositional economy, and graphic intelligence, traits that appear so instinctive yet seemingly arbitrary. His frantic erasures and explosive gestures - highly corporeal and savage marks – are juxtaposed against the cool palette and determined compositions, forging “a potent hybrid between the gestural painting of Abstract Expressionism and the erotic abandon of Surrealism.” (Nicholas Cullinan and Xavier F. Salomon, ‘Venus and Eros’, in Exh. Cat., London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters, 2011, p. 113) Despite a residual yearning to decipher these written marks as an inherently human need, Twombly's visual language has neither syntax nor logic: in the words of Pierre Restany, it is comprised of "furtive gestures, an écriture automatique," (Pierre Restany, The Revolution of the Sign, 1961) and function as a compulsory sensual and intellectual catharsis that is both universal and particular to the individual.
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