Lot 20
  • 20

Cy Twombly

6,000,000 - 8,000,000 USD
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  • Cy Twombly
  • Poems to the Sea
  • (i), (vii) and (xxiv) signed and dated Sperlonga July 1959 on the reverse
  • oil-based house paint, pencil and wax crayon on paper, in twenty-four parts
  • each: dimensions variable: 12 x 12 1/8 in. to 13 5/8 x 12 1/8 in. 30.3 x 31 cm. to 34.6 x 31 cm.


Galerie Änne Abels, Cologne
Private Collection, Cologne (acquired by 1965)
Siegfried Adler, Montagnola (acquired by 1973, until at least 1975)
Rudolf Zwirner, Cologne (acquired by 1976)
The Lone Star Foundation, Inc., New York (acquired from the above in July 1976)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in August 1980


Krefeld, Museum Haus Lange; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Freiburg, Der Kunstverein Freiburg, Cy Twombly, October 1965 - February 1966, cat. nos. 64-87, illustrated (nos. iv and xi)
Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel, Cy Twombly: Zeichnungen 1953-1973, May - June 1973, cat. no. 32, p. 37, illustrated (nos. iii, v, x, and xxi)
Düsseldorf, Stadtische Kunsthalle, Surrealitat - Bildrealitat 1924 - 1974, December 1974 - February 1975, cat. no. 365, p. 152 (nos. xxiii, xvi, and vii) 
Hannover, Kestner- Gesellschaft, Cy Twombly, May - June 1976, cat. no. 1, pp. 17-30, illustrated (nos. ii, iii, v, viii, ix, x, xiv, xv, xvi, xvii, xviii, xix, xxi, and xxiv) 
Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, ARC 2, Cy Twombly – Dessins 1954-1976, June - September 1976, cat. no. 14, illustrated (nos. xi, xxiii, and vii) 
Bonn, Städtisches Kunstmuseum Bonn; Barcelona, Centre Cultural de la Fundació Caixa de Pensions, Cy Twombly: Serien auf Papier 1957-1987, June 1987 – January 1988, cat. no. 2, pp. 25-32 and 167-70, illustrated in color (Bonn); pp. 51-8 and pp. 175-8, illustrated in color (Barcelona), and pp. 15 and 17 (text)
Bridgehampton, Dia Art Foundation, Cy Twombly: Poems to the Sea, May - June 1988, pp. 6-29, illustrated
Houston, The Menil Collection; Des Moines, Des Moines Art Center, Cy Twombly, September 1989 – June 1990, cat. no. 8, n.p., illustrated in color
London, Tate Modern, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, June - September 2008, pp. 78-81, illustrated in color, p. 70, illustrated in color (no. xxii, detail), and p. 73 (text)
Houston, The Menil Collection, Extended Loan, September 2008 - April 2013


Manfred de la Motte, “Cy Twombly,” Quadrum, no. 16, 1964, pp. 40-41, illustrated (nos. iv and xi)
Manfred de la Motte, "Cy Twombly," Art International, IX, no. 5, June 1965, p. 33 (text) 
Heinz Ohff, "Cy Twombly," Das Kunstwerk, XXIV, no. 6, November 1971, p. 21 (text)
Exh. Cat., Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania (and travelling), Cy Twombly: paintings, drawings, constructions, 1951-1974, 1975, pp. 9, 14, 20 and 24 (text) 
Christian Prigent, “Twombly ou l’entredeux,” NDLR. écriture/ peinture, no. 2, Autumn 1976, p. 36, illustrated (nos. vii, xi, xxiii)
Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Poems to the Sea, Munich, 1990, n.p., illustrated in color
Klaus-Peter Busse, Cy Twombly: Hero and Leander, 1994
Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, 1994, figs. 24 and 25, p. 32, illustrated in color (nos. x and xx), and pp. 31-2 (text)
Richard Leeman, Cy Twombly: A Monograph, London and Munich, 2004, pl. 100, p. 104, illustrated in color (no. xv) 
Claire Daigle, “Lingering at the Threshold,” Tate Etc, Issue 13, Summer 2008, p. 66, illustrated (no. xv)  
Jeffrey Weiss, “Cy Twombly. Tate Modern, London,” Artforum, October 2008, p. 370, illustrated in color (no. xv) and p. 370 (text)
Exh. Cat., Amsterdam, Huis Marseille Museum for Photography, Cy Twombly: Photographs 1951 – 2007, 2008, fig. 24, illustrated (no. xix), and p. 23 (text) 
Exh. Cat., Rome, Galleria Nazionale D’Arte Moderna, Cy Twombly, 2009, pp. 84-7, illustrated in color
Nicola Del Roscio, Cy Twombly Drawings, Catalogue Raisonné Volume 2: 1956-1960, Munich, 2012, cat. no. 114, pp. 136-48, illustrated in color


The 24 sheets of this work are in excellent condition. There are very light handling marks to the edges and some minor undulation in a few places to the sheets, consistent with the nature of the medium and the artist's working process. Very close inspection shows a number of extremely minor hairline creases in places towards a small number of edges and corners of sheets i, iii, iv, v, vi, xii, xiv, xix, xx, xxi, and xxii, again likely consistent with the artist's process. The edges of the sheets are variously hand cut and deckled resulting in various dimensions from 12 x 12 1/8" to 13 5/8 x 12 1/8". Very close inspection shows a very small number of minute brown flyspecks to sheet numbers i, ii, v, vii, viii, x, xi, xiii, xviii, xix, xx, and xxi. As to be expected with the nature of the medium and the condition of the work's execution, there are some extremely thin minuscule drying cracks, less than ΒΌ" long, to some areas of the impasto, and a small number of short hairline drying cracks to impasto areas in sheets viii, xiv, xvi, and xxi. Close inspection shows minute pinhead size losses to areas of the impasto at sheets iv, vi, vii, xiv, xv, xviii, and xxi. Each sheet is hinged at intervals to ragboard in a white painted wood strip frame under Plexiglas.
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 historic suite of twenty-four drawings, Poems to the Sea of 1959, invokes an aesthetic grandeur that is as intangible and ethereal as it is impressive and utterly irresistible. Widely exhibited internationally for almost half a century, Poems to the Sea has long been recognized as among the artist’s foremost triumphs, and is respected as a critical early touchstone for the subsequent evolution of his entire career. Executed at the beginning of a new chapter in the artist’s life, immersed in the prospect of a permanent existence in his newly adopted Italy, this revered masterpiece sits at the head of Twombly’s lifelong dialogue with the classical past, legends of the gods and the myths of ancient civilization. Permeated with the artist’s utterly inimitable, tremulous handwriting and exigent mark making, Poems to the Sea combines a transcription of immediate lived experience with a fresh reinterpretation of ancient history. Here, immersed in the Mediterranean land and seascapes, Twombly masterfully scribes an epic paean to the Sea itself, extending the spirit of Homeric and Ovidian legend yet by the means of an entirely unprecedented vocabulary.

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.