In early 1960 Twombly and his family had moved into a grand new home on the Via di Monserrato in Rome. His everyday life was infused with the antiquarian splendor and colorful sights and smells of the classically Arcadian Roman campagna. Denoting a movement away from the measured rhythm of the artist’s earlier 1950s production, the present work signals an urgent and fractured transmutation of classical stimuli and the mythologically evocative Roman landscape. Through a syntax of sinuous lines, urgent scrawls, frenetic numbers, and expressive bursts of color, Untitled enunciates a fragmented vision and reimagining of the ancient myths that permeate the culture of this historic city. Discussing another example from this series, Nicholas Cullinan has observed: “By the early 1960s… the languor and lightness of Twombly’s first works following his move to Italy subsided, and began to be increasingly replaced by a newfound emphasis on anxiety, violence and an ever-more baroque aesthetic of painting.” (Nicholas Cullinan, "Insinuating Elegance: The Anxiety of Influence," in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, 2008, p. 84) Situated at the heart of this aesthetic and conceptual pivot, the present work invokes the full historical weight of the city that inspired it through Twombly’s direct and prominent inscription of ‘Rome’ at the very center of the composition.
Untitled broadcasts Twombly's staggering innovation and inimitable abstract aesthetic through its visceral imagery, compositional economy, and graphic intelligence, traits that intriguingly appear both instinctive and seemingly arbitrary. Indeed, Untitled presents a mesmerizing paragon of Twombly's pioneering interrogation of semiotic sign systems, a device strongly allied with Roland Barthes' observation that "What happens on the stage Twombly offers us (whether it is canvas or paper) 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) In accordance with Twombly's best output, Untitled mediates the boundary between figuration and abstraction, continually enticing the viewer with elusive meaning and challenging the deductions inherent to signifier-referent equations.
Twombly's tableau of signs in Untitled is entrenched within a wealth of classical archetypes. As explained by Heiner Bastian: “The heroic gods of antiquity represent energy (libido) as a psychic entity which is variously and ambivalently expressed in the disposition of human nature: symbol of the antithesis between Mars and Venus, between sexual and aggressive impulses, between productivity and destruction.” (Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Paintings 1952-1976 Volume I, Berlin, 1978, p. 42) The present work connotes such a balance between male and female, destruction and creation through a pseudo-unconscious automatism: Twombly’s frantic erasures and explosive marks juxtapose abstracted renderings of both male and female anatomy, and his mode of execution imbues the canvas itself with an irrepressible corporeality. As Bastian again explains: “He smears the color on with his fingers or applies it directly from the tube onto the canvas as a physical act: color becomes raw condition or ‘materia nuda’, human presence of gods and heroes like flesh and blood in pink and red.” (Ibid., p. 43) The highly corporeal and savage marks that punctuate the surface of Untitled forge an extraordinary collusion between the gestural action 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). Here the stuttering and violently fragmented deployment of gendered parts barely contained within the picture plane communicates a vision of classical Eros seen through the prism of modernity - the lack of hegemony and corporeal wholeness of which are irrefutable visual signals for the evisceration and loss of the classical ideal in art. Permeated with the artist’s idiosyncratic tremulous handwriting and automotive mark making, Untitled combines a transcription of immediate experience with a fresh reinterpretation of the classical past: here, Twombly masterfully metamorphoses Arcadia and the Ovidian ideal by means of an entirely new symbolic language.
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