Lot 21
  • 21

Cy Twombly

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  • Cy Twombly
  • Untitled (New York City)
  • signed and dated NYC 1968 on the reverse
  • oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas
  • 60 by 68 1/8 in. 152.4 by 173 cm.


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC #57)
Acquired from the above by the present owner in January 1969


Heiner Bastian, Ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III, 1966-1971, Munich, 1994, p. 127, no. 52, illustrated in color


This work is in excellent condition. Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at (212) 606-7254 for the report prepared by Terrence Mahon. The canvas is framed in a stained wood frame with gilt silver facing and a small float.
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 majestic Untitled (New York City) of 1968 is the enduring material triumph of a simply unrepeatable moment in the history of art. An unparalleled exemplar of the artist’s most hallowed series of 'Blackboard' paintings, the present work stands as the phenomenal vestige of an exceptional epoch. Untitled (New York City) reflects a period of great convergence in postwar art, when the titanic modes of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop Art proposed competing philosophies for the grand trajectory of progressive innovation. Twombly’s reverberating loops refract these overlapping spheres of influence. Aesthetically, his painting announces a subjective and emotive expressivity; conceptually, it embraces a cerebral and minimalistic rationality; and in its essential spirit it broadcasts a new communicative universality. Within the remarkable arena of this specific canvas, Twombly forges a new visual language and ultimately achieves a visual poetry that is beyond sublime. Untitled (New York City) stands as tangible testimony to Twombly's staggering innovation and inimitable abstract aesthetic at this point in his career, as explicated through the work's visceral imagery, stunning color, compositional economy, and graphic intelligence. Having remained in the same collection for over forty years since it was acquired from the artist immediately after it was executed, Untitled (New York City) has never been loaned for exhibition, nor seen in public. The narrative of the painting’s acquisition affirms its rarity: upon introduction from a close artist friend, the present owner visited Twombly’s studio on The Bowery in Manhattan's Lower East Side, and personally chose Untitled (New York City) from among a selection of paintings that Twombly had unrolled for his viewing. In the same year that Twombly painted Untitled (New York City), he opened his first one-person museum exhibition in the United States at the Milwaukee Art Center—a pivotal period of artistic maturity that heralded his triumphant return to painting following a hiatus in his production from 1964-66. Crucially pre-dating a fundamental shift in Twombly’s status from promising young artist to established modern master, the present work enshrines an attitude of unadulterated innovation and artistic discovery. It is, in short, the very pure manifestation of Cy Twombly's indisputable genius.

Spectacularly rare for the serenely beautiful blue color of its endlessly lyrical circular lines, and boasting a superb provenance, this canvas is unquestionably positioned as one of the great achievements of Cy Twombly's career. Spanning an immersive expanse of over twenty-eight square feet, it sits amongst an elite cadre of large-scale works of the series, and invites the spectator to become engulfed within its epic drama. Many of the paintings comparable in scale and execution belong to the world’s most renowned museums and institutions, including: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Menil Collection, Houston; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Benesse House Museum, Naoshima. However, unlike every other 'Blackboard' painting that bears white loops, the rare colored marks here resound with great vivacity and drama—the present work is the only painting from the series executed in blue. The seemingly frenzied dispersion of graphic mark-making is in fact the result of finely-honed technical precision: the progressive march of elliptical repetitions is expertly rendered to achieve an irresistibly hypnotic urgency. This stark, graphic linearity cascades across a highly seductive gray ground rendered through a forceful assault of brushwork. The variegated tonal architecture of grisaille hues functions like geological strata, having trapped within its oil layers the shadows of drips, smears and strokes. Indeed, the sheer force of this painting's dynamic energy marks it apart from all contemporaneous examples of the grand cycle, and results in a panoramic expanse pulsating with the expansions and contractions of a certain organized chaos. The torrent of luscious vertical drip marks that cascade down the lower left quadrant of Untitled (New York City) enhance the expressiveness of the painting. This vigorous action results in a surface that exposes Twombly’s process of inscription and erasure, possessing a composition of loops that reveal their own creation. 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.

Four years after the artist's death and with ever increasing perspective on the monumental arc of his six-decade career, it is possible today to reflect more substantively on the nature of his incomparable contribution to art history. Following his work as a cryptographer in the United States Army, it is clear from the nature of his early mark-making that he was fundamentally captivated by terms of visual communication, and determined to interrogate associative sign systems and Saussurian semiotics. According to the black and white paintings of the later 1950s, he was evidently drawn to boundaries between the figurative and the abstract, following the course of Picasso and de Kooning in charting an individualistic lens onto the natural world around us. His breakthrough in 1959 with Poems to the Sea, executed in a sudden cathartic outpouring in Italy, demonstrated his definitive debt to the great lessons of history, with European Antiquity and the Renaissance proving the ultimate benchmark and springboard to his art thence forth. This grand inquiry into the past was continued through the ecstatic Baroque paintings of the early 1960s, ultimately culminating with the cycle Nine Discourses on Commodus (Guggenheim Bilbao Museo), completed in the winter of 1963 following Twombly's return from an extended trip to Egypt, Sudan, and Italy. This group of nine canvases based on the murder of the Roman emperor Aurelius Commodus was shown in New York in 1964; the exhibition was received by scathing critical reviews, after which Twombly severely slowed his production. The artist made only 20 canvases in 1964 and none in 1965—a period of radically halted output from which the artist later emerged with a cycle of phenomenal grey-ground paintings.

Twombly’s series of 'Blackboard' paintings—as they would come to be known following Robert Pincus-Witten’s seminal text in 1968—revived the artist’s career following a troubling period in the early part of the decade. In 1966, Cy Twombly abandoned the emotive use of color that had defined much of his earlier output to embark upon a cycle of gray canvases in search of a more expressive clarity. As Heiner Bastian has deftly explained, "Cy 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 the vitality of his wrist towards exploring the expressive possibilities of autonomous rhythmic repetitions. He was fascinated by the musical theory of Counterpoint, Palmer handwriting drills, André Masson's automatic drawing and Paul Klee's Pedagogical exercises. The repetition of forms also recalls Futurist investigations into the photographic and cinematic decomposition of forms in motion, such as those exemplified in Umberto Boccioni's States of Mind III: Those Who Stay, and indeed by others such as Marcel Duchamp's with his kinetic Nude Descending a Staircase. Owing inspirational debt to the scientific notebook drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, Twombly saw within the Renaissance master's innumerable scientific formula, scattered drawings and codes, a private poetry of obsession; something driven by an irrational demon of secret knowledge which struck a chord with Twombly's own aesthetic. Above all though, perhaps it was the realization that the Renaissance clarity and light so often used to describe Italian art were balanced by a darker, neurotic intensity. This is reflected by the destructive and turbulent themes of Leonardo's work to which Twombly was consistently drawn in the late 1960s: those of maelstroms and cataclysms.

Twombly approached the issue of movement and time within pictorial space by reconsidering artists like Leonardo, Duchamp, and the Italian Futurists, who would conceive mythology and history through abstract principles. With his 'Blackboard' paintings, Twombly investigated the development of time and space within the picture plane; the spectacular scale of the present work and the exuberance of the blue crayon amplify the torrential storm of Twombly’s whirlwind shapes. Especially against their gray ground, the blue oval scrawls emerge from and recede into another in dense relief, teetering on the threshold of legibility while electrifying our sight with their vivid hue. Pulsing with an ineffable rhythm as the oblong loops splinter across the canvas, Twombly here investigates the definition and physical nature of a simple geometrical element in space as it erupts within the picture plane with cataclysmic graphic narrative. The six magnificent horizontal bands of loops increase in volume and expressive abandon, as the artist progresses down the length of the canvas—Twombly’s lassoed lines progressively lose regularity  and control, resulting in thrillingly increased drips, smears, and spatters toward the bottom of the picture. While the Futurist principle of movement in space was centered on the rational, quasi-scientific understanding of transformation and duration, Twombly appears to have reacted to the dispersion of forms in which painstaking precision comes into contact with an energetic abandon. 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.

The surface of Untitled (New York City) evokes a graffiti-scarred wall, characterized by accretive layers that in their very build-up and lush tonal variety divulge a sense of temporal progression. Atop a lustrous silvery ground of oil-based house-paint, Twombly used a blue wax crayon to impress a torrent of overlapping lassoes into the thin wet surfaces; his impressions are both positive and negative, oscillating between additive mark-making and reductive incisions tangled and together suspended in fractured continuum. In Untitled (New York City), Twombly hovers between inscription and erasure—the record of his process is captured in the luscious drips of diaphanous paint that spatter and cascade from the six horizontal bands. Pentimenti punctuate the surface of his painting like a chalkboard, resulting in a constant state of flux between writing and effacement, possessing a ripe wetness that lends the surface the urgency of the here and now. This graphic, primitive mode of expression is at once imbued with Twombly’s fascination with archaeological surfaces corroded over time, together with the schematic economy of prehistoric art. Moreover, the scrawled spirals invoke a sort of proto-handwriting: a primitive form of expression that strives toward resolution and legibility but is suspended in a perpetual territory of formal symbolism, akin to our contemporary reading of classical mark-making. Twombly said, “Generally speaking my art has evolved out of the interest in symbols abstracted, but never the less humanistic; formal as most arts are in their archaic and classic stages, and a deeply aesthetic sense of eroded or ancient surfaces of time.” (the artist quoted in Nicola del Roscio, Ed. Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich, 2002, p. 199)

Twombly was conscripted to the military from November 1953 – August 1954. During these years of service, the artist was assigned first to Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and then the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It was there that the artist worked as a Cryptologist, studying the art of writing and solving codes. The artist often drew at night after lights out, producing a group of works that initiated his motif of ‘scribbling’ and laid the foundation for much of his subsequent work. Drawing in the dark excised the sense of reason and rationality associated with the eye; instead, Twombly liberated his graphic activity from optical control and made his hand alone responsible for form, thereby encouraging instantaneity and the unanticipated. Such techniques evolved out of Surrealism—abandoning inhibitive self-consciousness, blind composition was a method of automatism taught by leading figures such as André Breton and André Masson. Around this time, Abstract Expressionist artists seized on the influence of European Modernism and adopted considerable interest in glyphs and modes of primitive communication. This attention to the symbols of archaic societies and their inherently expressive power were a natural point of departure for these New York School painters, for whom the power of simple expressive abstract signs to communicate held clear associations to their own modes of gestural abstraction at the time.

Twombly found, in the relative coolness of the dark-ground style, an appropriate form of work to pursue in New York. Working from studios on the Bowery and Canal Street, the relative chasteness and severity of his new aesthetic compared to the sensual pleasures of the early 1960s seemed more in sync with contemporary trends in America. The present work ushered in a rediscovered Americanness in Twombly’s work, reflecting the contemporary artistic discourse in marked contrast to the Europeanness of his earlier works. In Untitled (New York City), the freedom of movement of course evokes the liberal energy of Jackson Pollock's action painting, while the all-over but low-pressure imagery is similar to Jasper Johns’ grey paintings. The immersive nature of vast canvas expanses and, as critically and uniquely broadcast in the present work, submersion in the force of color, afforded an experience comparable to that generated by Rothko and Newman. The pared-down aesthetic of this painting and an unobtrusive cool objectivity also owes a significant debt to the protagonists of Minimalism including Judd, Andre and Flavin. The resulting canvases, such as Untitled (New York City), are considered without a doubt the most powerful and lyrical works of his career. Chromatically sparse and formally reductive, the gray-ground pictures demanded new modes of reading Twombly’s work with relation to the artistic developments pulsing through New York City. The present work stands apart, however, for the vibrancy of its blue palette; a characteristic that reflects the artist’s richly colorful and expressive compositions from the first half of the 1960s known as Baroque Paintings. Kirk Varnedoe explains, “Just as those earlier pictures had represented a cooling shift away from painterly and erotic energies, these new canvases were lean and unemotional, in contrast to the baroque color and violence of the work of the early 1960s… That temporal aspect was then extended through the gray-ground works of the next few years, in the frequent imagery of analytically segmented movement… Twombly’s previous attraction to the evidence of deep, slow, ‘vertical’ time, in scarred surfaces, here is translated into a fascination for the forms of ‘lateral’ speed, forms and forces rushing by with their proliferation of marks more rationally divided than confoundingly layered.” (Kirk Varnedoe, ‘Inscriptions in Arcadia’ in Nicola del Roscio, Ed., Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich, 2002, pp. 215-6)

These are forms that insist on a progressive linear continuity, but simultaneously concede to isolated bursts of irregular activity. Unlike Twombly’s earlier canvases, in which episodes of personal expression are scattered across the picture plane, the artist here constricts his activity to a gestural framework—nevertheless, the lassoed bands give way to expressive subjectivity in their vigorously imprecise execution. Like the work of Minimalist artists who pursued a repetitive, doggedly systematic task—such as Kusama’s looped Infinity Nets, Lewitt’s serial pencil-drawn lines on the wall, or Uecker’s intricately nailed surfaces—Twombly’s painting experiments with the unplanned personal inflections that can arise from following strict conventions, a departure from ideals of purely spontaneous expression. At moments, the line is tight and dense; at others, Twombly loses control and his cursive energy drives off course, a high-speed choreography in which individual events of personal expression are sublimated into a greater whole of dense accumulations. Within this dichotomy lies the very brilliance of Twombly’s painting: reveling in the contradictions between the systematic and the irregular, the unruly and the cerebral, the premeditated and the intuitive, Twombly achieves a balletic complexity unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries. Twombly recalls being taught to write using the Palmer method, a strict technique of teaching handwriting that required pupils to repetitively practice rote drills keeping their fingers and wrists rigid while only moving their arms. In the lattice of tiered lateral ovals scoring the canvas, Twombly’s own gestural abandon erupts from the structural balance of the composition; while more precise and mathematical than the automatism of the Surrealists or the impulse of the Abstract Expressionists, Twombly’s subjectivity seeps through what appears to be mechanical labor. Like the individual strokes of encaustic that burst forth through the predetermined grids and formats of a Jasper Johns painting, Twombly’s loops similarly bely in subtle disobedience a totally objective geometric precision. With the rigid syntax and rudimentary forms of the grey-ground paintings, Twombly appears to deny the insouciance of personality; however, the tremulous inflections of each parabolic rise and fall inevitably give way to the signature intensity of the artist’s own hand. Varnedoe comments, “As before, Twombly courts the accusation that there is no mind involved—previously, because the manner seemed chaotically subjective, without sufficient ordering control, too episodic and too little marked by work; and now, because it seems mechanically rote and impersonal, too monotonous and too completely a matter of work. No familiar evidence of heroic spontaneity or intuited compositional judgment, nor any universal coordinate such as geometry, anchored the pictures’ claim to attention.” (Kirk Varnedoe, “Inscriptions in Arcadia” in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, 1994, p. 42)

For Twombly the 'Blackboard' paintings represented emancipation from the associative constrictions of his preceding oeuvre: a new dawn in his epic art 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) Almost five decades after its creation, this remarkable triumph of twentieth-century Art History remains still an enduring means of "beginning again."