- Cy Twombly
- Blue Ridge Mountains Transfixed by a Roman Piazza
- oil paint, wax crayon and lead pencil on canvas
Galleria Paolo Sprovieri, Rome
Galerie Karsten Greve, Cologne
Private Collection, Vancouver
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Exh. Cat., London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters, 2011, fig. 3, p. 21, illustrated in color
The artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, 2008, p. 46
Executed when the artist was in his thirty-fourth year, Cy Twombly's sublimely evocative Blue Ridge Mountains Transfixed by a Roman Piazza of 1962 is a large-scale, early painting that exhibits the reductive essence of his aesthetic and reveals a specific personal narrative that is rarely made so explicit in his oeuvre. The title makes reference to the artist’s tenure at Black Mountain College, the esteemed liberal arts school that lies in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. Twombly attended the College during 1951 and 1952, having been encouraged to do so by Robert Rauschenberg. During his time there the influential teaching faculty counted Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Charles Olson and Robert Motherwell among its number. In 1957 Twombly moved to Italy, where he remained for the most part aside from his frequent travels. He had established a studio in Rome that overlooked the Colosseum, and thus the “Roman Piazza” of the title also alludes to the diverse experiences of his life. Hence this painting fuses together two discrete places that were of enduring significance to the artist, and by extension the associations, histories and memories of these disparate sites. Twombly’s evocation of somatic, emotional and psychological states here conjures an almost surreal mood of recollection; a yearning almost for an impossible destination that would combine his beloved Italy with the legacy of his American heritage. The double meaning of “transfixed,” literally designating the state of being pierced as well as implying the condition of being engrossed, further invests the composition with powerful yet indeterminate meaning, almost as if to declare that for Twombly these imprecise places nevertheless remain ever-present and inescapable.
This work was created during a notably prodigious period of Cy Twombly’s long career. At the beginning of the 1960s he introduced thick and florid color into his work, along with multiple classical references, and during the summer of 1961 he reached a chromatic crescendo in the Ferragosto paintings. From 1961 to 1963 mythological motifs appeared with increasing insistence, such as Leda and the Swan, Venus, Apollo, and Achilles. This line of investigation culminated in 1963 with the series Nine Discourses on Commodus, an obscure portrait of the Roman emperor conceived while Twombly was reading the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet and looking at the paintings of Francis Bacon. Executed at the heart of this prolific outpouring, Blue Ridge Mountains Transfixed by a Roman Piazza exhibits all the visceral and urgent mark-making, serene color, and graphic and textural drama that have become synonymous with Twombly's output.
Arching incisions are richly scratched and gouged in the impasto surface, recalling Frank O'Hara’s description of how "a bird seems to have passed through the impasto with cream-colored screams and bitter claw-marks… this new development makes the painting itself the form.” (Frank O'Hara, 'Cy Twombly,' ARTnews, vol. 53, no. 9, January 1955, p. 46) Meanwhile ethereally delicate pencil strokes recede in stark perspectival linearity towards a distant vanishing point, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the orthogonal formalism of Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ or the great portraits of urban topography by Canaletto. This painting beautifully unites the two pillars of Twombly’s practice, painting and drawing, with emphatic dynamism and assured economy. As attested by Nicholas Cullinan, “If Pollock had set the pace for how Twombly's generation should paint, then Twombly's rejection of the brush in favour of the pencil liberated him from the former's drips and splatters. Through them, Twombly was able to move away from the machismo of the stereotypical ‘action painter,’ and to neuter this with indecision, hesitancy and doubt, thus brushing aside the belligerence of Abstract Expressionism.” (Nicholas Cullinan in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern (and traveling), Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, 2008-09, p. 58) With the work’s title scrawled banner-like across the bottom of the canvas, Twombly’s composition embraces an unremittingly free association between painting and language, delivering a distinctly lyrical union of abstraction and figuration. As ever, Twombly questions the assumptions of conventional visual vocabularies, frames of reference, and sign systems. Consequently, as the great literary critic and philosopher Roland Barthes comments, "What happens on the stage Twombly offers us is something which partakes of several kinds of event." (Roland Barthes in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, 1979, p. 9)