Lot 28
  • 28

Cy Twombly

500,000 - 700,000 GBP
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  • Cy Twombly
  • Untitled
  • signed and dated 71 on the reverse
  • pencil, oil pastel and watercolour on two pieces of card laid down on board
  • 84.5 by 69.2cm.; 33 1/4 by 27 1/4 in.


Galleria d'Arte Emilio Mazzoli, Modena

Alessandro Grassi, Milan (acquired directly from the above in 1983)

Thence by descent to the present owner


Achille Bonito Oliva, Collezione Privata, Milan 1993, p. 60, illustrated in colour


Colour: The colour in the catalogue illustration is fairly accurate, although the overall tonality is deeper and richer in the original and the grey background is slightly darker in the original. Condition: This work is in very good condition. There are artist's pinholes to the extreme edges in places. Close inspection reveals some minor and unobtrusive creases to the corners and one to the top centre edge only visible when the work is unframed. The top sheet is unhinged on the right side.
"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. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Following the rococo exuberance of his works from the late fifties and early sixties, which produced numerous pieces based on violent or erotic mythological subjects, in this untitled work, Cy Twombly returns to a more rarefied mode of depiction, shedding all but the most fundamental elements of his style to create a more considered work. In its reconciliation between text and abstractionist mark-making, and its use of eclectic source material, Untitled (1971) is typically Twombly and a prime example of some of the most celebrated aspects of his oeuvre.

In keeping with the best works of this period, Untitled is a gestural piece at its core. From the measured drawn out horizontal lines, to the cursive semi-legible header and footer, each mark he makes on the grey ground is inextricably linked to its creation. The mood of this work is dominated by the counterpoint between the horizontal lines that blanket the work in swathed numbness and the spidery snippets of text that snag on their surroundings. However, if these contrasting modes of depiction share one quality, it is that they are action-focussed – their appearance unmistakably reveals the intervention of the artist. Twombly’s mark “shares with broken branches in the forest or clues left at the scene of the crime the trace of a foreign presence that has intruded into a previously unviolated space” (Rosalind Krauss in: Rosalind Krauss, et al., Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism: 1945 to the Present, New York 2004, p. 372). Twombly’s movements are emphatic and deliberate, traits made even more obvious by the soft wash of the translucent grey background, which, by contrast, seems almost entirely devoid of human interference.

In the late 1960s, Twombly was exploring a fascination with Leonardo da Vinci’s theories on the depiction of floods; a preoccupation that undoubtedly informed the sense of a seascape that suffuses this work. Born out of the broad pale strokes of the grey ground, and accentuated in the regularity of the relentless black lines punctuated with the flashes of bright marine blue, the impression of the steady wash of ocean waves is unmistakable in this work. Indeed, these abstractions make a worthy comparison with an excerpt of Leonardo’s advice from his treaty On a Deluge and its Depiction in Painting (c. 1515-17): “The crests of the waves of the sea tumble to their bases, falling with friction on the bubbles of their sides: and this friction grinds the water into minute particles… and at last it rises into the air and is converted into clouds” (Leonardo da Vinci, 'On a Deluge and Its Depiction in Painting' cited in: Jean-Paul Richter, Ed., The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. I, London 1939, p. 606).

It is entirely possible that Twombly had this very passage in his mind when creating these repeated lines; he often relied on classical and renaissance source material to inspire his work and imbue it with cultural authority. Just like the waves of Leonardo’s deluge, the horizontal hatchings of Untitled appear both to rise and to fall with at once immutable force, and steady calmness. These undular associations lend a sense of infinite momentum to the work and show Twombly musing on the impact of man – in this case the gestural intervention of the artist – against the unstoppable passage of time.

1971 was a particularly poignant year for Twombly to muse on the passage of time. In the same year Nini Pirandello, the wife of Twombly’s Roman gallerist and a dear friend, died unexpectedly and inspired the hauntingly elegiac and widely celebrated series, Nini’s Paintings. There can be no doubt that, in this context, human mortality in the face of the all-consuming passage of time would have been at the forefront of Twombly’s mind in the execution of this work and is expressed equally in the short blips of cursive script and the elongated strokes that dominate the composition. Untitled  is then a work charged with pathos and inspired by grandiose Renaissance source material, in which Twombly deploys his virtuosic abstract style to create a powerful expression of artistic gesture.