Lot 132
  • 132

CY TWOMBLY | Untitled

1,200,000 - 1,800,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Cy Twombly
  • Untitled
  • signed and dated 70 on the reverse 
  • oil, wax crayon and graphite on paper
  • 27 3/8 by 34 3/8 in. 69.7 by 87.4 cm.


Lucio Amelio Gallery, Naples
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1970

Catalogue Note

“Unreadable missives…are their own category in Twombly’s art, the 'writing' that isn’t just imagined by the viewer, but named by the artist, one that calls to poets and writers with the seduction of all that could be said but isn’t. That never will be. These signs without attachments. Is this a love letter or one of pleading for forgiveness? Is this a note about the weather in Rome or the hunger for flesh? Is this for us or for another?”
Joshua Rivkin in Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly, New York 2018, p. 194

A stunning example of Cy Twombly’s distinguished Roman Note series, Untitled from 1970 translates onto paper the artist’s signature gesture, as liberated swirls of wax crayon merge and attenuate in a magnificent conflation of the graphic and the painterly. The formal restraint that characterized the lasso-loops of Twombly’s earliest “Blackboard” paintings here gives way to tempestuous scrawls of cerulean blue that threaten to froth out of control, prefiguring his widely lauded series of Nini’s Paintings, executed the following year. Five loose rows of calligraphic scribbles cover the sheet, denying any central compositional motif or subject matter, each register progressively unraveling as apparent erasures, revisions, and overwriting complicate the surface. Twombly’s apparently spontaneous curvilinear marks create the illusion of a looping script, yet transcend legibility to become an abstract visual language of pure melodic sensation. In Untitled, the omnipresent dichotomy within Twombly’s oeuvre of the figurative and the abstract, the written and the painted, the dogmatic and the intuitive, is masterfully displayed. As early as 1960, Twombly had revealed a fascination with Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of water, known as the Deluge drawings. These obsessive and mystical works on paper, in which Leonardo attempted to trace the ephemeral movement of water and wind, inform the energy that suffuses much of Twombly’s work. Leonardo’s concentrated looping lines captivated Twombly and provided an inspiration for his own visual language. In the present work, Twombly’s rolling swells and peaks in azure blue, though not as literally illustrative of a tempestuous sea as Leonardo’s drawings, nonetheless convey the same impression of cresting waves. Like the endlessly crashing ocean surf, Twombly’s repeated progression of lines gains its own lyrical momentum, and its elemental and inexorable energy seems to extend beyond the canvas into infinite space.

To produce these dynamic lines, Twombly translated the graphic process of writing into a unique painterly language. Layers of crayon emerge from and recede into each other with the mellifluous fluidity of a gesture that is neither forced nor forged. Twombly’s scribbles recall the formulaic Palmer method of handwriting, a strict, almost mechanical approach for teaching children to write, in which pupils are made to repeatedly rewrite words and phrases by moving only their arms, so that the gesture became a form of automatic muscle memory. Imitating yet modifying these drills, Twombly’s hand moves rhythmically across the page, exploring space and movement to create expressive gestures that convey urgency yet deny legibility. Aggregations of Twombly's partially-erased, smeared and overwritten scrawls accumulate like geological strata: mnemonic shadows narrating successive past acts of creation. The resultant composition is an unremittingly free association between painting and language, becoming a distinctly lyrical form of abstraction and, quite simply, the archetype of sublime visual poetry.

Following the Baroque exuberance of his previous works from the fifties and sixties, Untitled sees Twombly shed all but the most fundamental elements of his style. Like the work of Minimalist artists who pursued a repetitive, doggedly systematic task—such as Kusama’s looped Infinity Nets, LeWitt’s serial wall drawings, or Martin’s graphite grids—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 opposition 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, he achieves a balletic complexity unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries.

As the swirl of his repetitive calligraphy becomes painterly, Twombly inflects his line with animated nuance and strength, while maintaining an inexorable rhythm and flow, making works like Untitled truly exceptional. His incisive, idiosyncratic script expresses this momentum as simultaneously continuing and fracturing, generating pervasive, dynamic, autonomous movement, caught up in a collective progression, and caused by an irresistible, clamorous, and perpetual force. An exquisite example of this potency, Untitled evinces the artist’s mastery. With the artfully unstudied vitality of illegible graffiti, Twombly invents a transcendent new visual language to interrogate both the most elementary and most sophisticated concerns of artistic creation.

This work will be included in the Addendum to the Catalogue Raisonné of Cy Twombly Drawings, edited by Nicola Del Roscio.