Lot 4
  • 4

Cy Twombly

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 GBP
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  • Cy Twombly
  • Rome
  • signed and dated 1969 on the reverse
  • oil and wax crayon on paper
  • 70 by 87cm.; 27 1/2 by 34 1/4 in.


Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1971


Munich, Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Roman Notes, 1971


Nicola del Roscio, Cy Twombly Drawings: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 4, 1964-1969, Munich 2014, p. 227, no. 275, illustrated in colour


Colour: The colour in the catalogue illustration is fairly accurate, although there is less purple in the grey. Condition: This work is in very good condition. The work is attached verso to the backing board in several places. There is a media accretion to the bottom right corner, which appears to be inherent to the artist's working process.
"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

Broadcasting a frenetic, irresistible energy through its urgent linearity, Cy Twombly’s Rome is an extraordinary example from the artist’s famed corpus of ‘Blackboard’ works. Executed in 1969, Rome represents a visual counterpart to the Bolsena series of the same year. A flurry of sweeping lasso-lines triumphantly course through six horizontal bands of progressively increasing size; their enigmatic configuration is immediately redolent of the formality of typography yet resolutely denies legibility. Indeed, the ‘all-over’ compositional nature of Twombly’s vital scrawls jubilantly undermines a central focal point or even specific subject matter. The artist’s swooping line at times approaches the boundaries of lexical cognition, with visual suggestions of conventional symbols such as figure-of-eight infinity signs, parabolic curves or alphabetical letters, but ultimately any prescribed attributions of sign referents are consumed by the physical properties of pure form. Ultimately, this is a work of art that fully embraces an unrelentingly free association between painting and language, to become a distinctly lyrical form of abstraction and an exemplar of sublime visual poetry.

Abruptly renouncing the rich, Baroque style of his earlier 1960s work, in 1966 Twombly turned his focus back to the restrained monochrome works that he first embarked upon in the 1950s. In this pivotal series the Mallarméan silence of his early white paintings gives way to vital movement and progression, which offers itself up for comparison with the linear musical scores of Twombly’s contemporary and the minimalist musician, John Cage. Retracing the famed Vasarian paradigm of colore (colour) versus disegno (design) in this series Twombly relinquished all claims to the emotive power of saturated colour, a force that had characterised much of his earlier work, in favour of matte grisaille in the pursuit of a more expressive clarity.

To create the mesmerising surface of the present work, Twombly built up his ground through successive applications of tonally different grey oil paint. After the paint had almost dried, the artist ranged across the tacky surface in a frenzied manner, looping and swirling in a linear fashion with a chalky white wax crayon as though a schoolmaster frenetically scrawling on a classroom blackboard. In doing so, as Heiner Bastian succinctly explains, “Twombly tries to shatter form as well as its concomitant intellectual and narrative history in a kind of relativism, reducing it to a rationality of 'black and white' that is at the same time the structural sum of all movement" (Heiner Bastian, Ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III 1966-1971, Munich 1994, p. 23). Extraneous literary and historical concerns were cast aside as Twombly sought to channel his energy towards exploring the expressive possibilities of autonomous rhythmic repetitions. The resultant works, such as Rome, are amongst the most expressive and powerful pieces in his oeuvre.

Within Twombly’s rich and varied practice, the ‘Blackboard’ paintings symbolise a decisive break from the Baroque works of his earlier oeuvre; and thus announced a new dawn in his extraordinary art. Perhaps most tellingly, when the ‘Blackboard’ paintings were first exhibited at Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, in the autumn of 1967, they were met with critical acclaim. As attested by Robert Pincus-Witten in a contemporaneous review: "Handwriting has become for Twombly the means of beginning again, of erasing the Baroque culmination of the painting of the early 1960s... beautiful writing has been submerged within a Jasper Johns-like gray field. Put bluntly, it has been drowned in a schoolmaster's blackboard" (Robert Pincus-Witten, "Learning to Write," 1968, in: Nicola del Roscio, Ed., Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich 2002, p. 56). Enticingly seductive both in its complexity and compelling directness, the aura enshrouding Rome undoubtedly stems from the enigmatic diversity of its astonishing execution.

Animated by an orchestra of linear forms that dance across its surface, Rome recalls a plethora of visual referents from the liberal energy of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings to the typological Palmer Handwriting drills. Fascinated by capturing both movement and time, Twombly’s practice was quickly aligned with that of Marcel Duchamp. Akin to the ghostly shadows of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, Twombly’s ethereal figure of eights in the present work multiply, recede and climb through the luxuriant surface of the paper. The linear lasso-lines of Rome also recall the Futurist cinematic explorations into forms in motion, specifically Umberto Boccioni's States of Mind III: Those Who Stay, 1911, and its chronicling of a contemporary psychological landscape. While the Futurist principle of movement in space represented something of a novel direction in Twombly's work, it had been at the very forefront of the artistic investigations of a whole generation of Italian artists for over a decade. Where Futurism was centred on the rational, quasi-scientific understanding of movement, Twombly appears to have reacted to the dispersion of forms in which painstaking precision comes into contact with an energetic abandon. For Twombly, as with the enigmatic Francis Bacon, the fractured dissolution of movement stood as though a vehicle for conveying an agitated soul. With all the rough, fractured rawness of street graffiti, Twombly presents an entirely novel visual language that innovatively explores both the most elementary and the most sophisticated concerns posed by the genesis of creativity.