Invoking the visceral urgency, soaring scale, and intoxicating drama of an Hellenic epic, Cy Twombly’s Untitled from 1964 unfolds before the viewer to present a compelling portrait of a virtuosic creative mind at the pinnacle of its expressive powers. Achieving an exquisite balance between a furious gestural dynamism, a deeply sensual mastery of material, and an enduring engagement with classical influences, Untitled demonstrates the profound force of Twombly’s abstract lexicon at its most emphatic and inspired. Executed in 1964, the present work marks a crucial interstitial moment within the artist’s career: while invoking the mythic corporeality of his early 1960s canvases, the searing graphite lines and sensuous forms of Untitled achieve new levels of lyrical precision and restrained grace, articulating an Apollonian intellectualism unprecedented in his earlier work. Held in the same distinguished European collection for almost four decades, Untitled triumphantly joins in perfect concert the ethereal graphite forms, furious graffito lines, and visceral bursts of vibrant pigment to perform the equivalent of visual poetry before our eyes.
In its grandiose architectural schema and gestural drama, Untitled powerfully attests to Twombly’s enduring and intense engagement with the mythic landscape of classical antiquity. As exemplified in the present work, Twombly’s Baroque-inspired paintings, created in the years following his permanent move to Rome in 1957, reveal the enormous influence that the ancient city’s crumbling citadels, High Renaissance tableaux, and enlightened scenes of Neoclassicism enacted upon his abstract vernacular. Suzanne Delahanty notes the inspiration Twombly found in “the majestic panoramas, classical landscapes and love cycles from the High Renaissance and the Baroque, that satisfied both Twombly’s temperament and his new need for pictorial scale…Raphael’s The School of Athens and also his frescoes of Galatea’s triumph, in the Villa Farnesina, a five-minute walk from Twombly’s residence, and perhaps Galatea’s descendants by Carracci and Poussin, were at the forefront of his visual memory.” (Suzanne Delehanty, “The Alchemy of Mind and Hand,” 1975 inNicola Del Roscio, ed., Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich, 2002, p. 64) Inspired by the antiquarian splendor which surrounded him, Twombly’s paintings grew increasingly connotative of place as he graphically articulated his emotional and creative response to his new environs; indeed, the soaring windows of the present work, surrounding the central forms to fill the upper register of the canvas, are particularly evocative of Twombly’s ornate, high-ceilinged studio in the centro storico of Rome. From Twombly’s new home, the entire field of Mediterranean culture—from the cosmic dramas of the Greek gods to the serene beauty of Hellenistic sculpture—acquired a new and magnificent significance for his life and work. Typifying Twombly’s extraordinary graphic lexicon, in which fact and fiction, history and myth, are blurred and fused in a semantic unity, a scrawled ‘88’ above the artist’s furious signature in the present work suggests the enticing promise of further inference; perhaps an enigmatic gesture towards Ancient Roman General Sulla’s infamous march upon and subsequent capture of Rome in 88 BC, a pivotal event within the narrative of internal conflict that would eventually lead to the destruction of the Roman Republic and establishment of Julius Caesar as dictator, Twombly’s ultimate meaning is, as ever, elusive. As Nicholas Cullinan has described: “To encounter the past is to put into question the present. This sense of awe and perplexity at overlaid tenses and times and encountering places only previously known in the imagination…offered for Twombly a palimpsest of past, present and future; layered, intertwined and interpenetrating each other like archaeological strata.” (Nicholas Cullinan in Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, Tate Modern, London 2008, p. 74) Drawing upon the all-encompassing scale and light-filled splendor of such spaces as the Colosseum and the Roman Theatre, Untitled is transformed into a monumental arena, within which Twombly gives expression to the philosophical space that his paintings occupy: between corporeality and intangibility, figuration and abstraction, signifier and signified.
Exuding a gestural ferocity and irrepressible corporeality barely restrained by Twombly’s exacting abstraction, Untitled marks a pivotal moment between the impassioned, Dionysian abandon that typifies the artist’s early, myth-centric paintings and the increasing restraint and graphic pre-eminence that came to define his canvases of the late 1960s. Describing Twombly’s paintings of this period, Roland Barthes reflects: “Twombly’s art consists in making us see things: not those which he represents… but those which he manipulates: a few pencil strokes, this squared paper, this touch of pink, this brown smudge. This is an art with a secret.” (Roland Barthes, ‘The Wisdom of Art’, in: Exh. Cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, 1979, pp. 9-10) Colliding at the heart of the canvas, a fiercely combative battle between furiously scribbled graphite forms and combustive clumps of pigment unfolds with fierce intensity; surrounding this explosive flurry of mark-making like an Apollonian backdrop upon the stage, four scrawled windows fill the blank upper register of the canvas, overlooking and containing the histrionic fray below with simplified solemnity. In contrast with the sweeping expanse of white canvas, this sumptuous tempest of medium and mark is all the more vitalized, as Twombly’s aesthetic of excess is held in tension with that of restraint. Scholar Pierre Restrany describes Twombly’s abstraction as being, “As full of ambiguity as life itself...its murmuring penetrating to the very depths of things. The marks are elusive since they instinctively make for the essential. This figuration, which breaks through white emptiness with all kinds of potential meanings, is rich in intention and content." (Pierre Restany, The Revolution of the Sign, 1961, in Writings on Cy Twombly, ed. by Nicola Del Roscio, Munich 2002, p. 47) The rich expanse of canvas in the present work conjures allusions to the ‘symbolic whiteness’ of Stéphane Mallarmé, French symbolist poet and pivotal conceptual influence for Twombly, who championed the importance of the white page as a vital spatial and temporal void upon which creative energies can find expression; filling the blank upper register of the canvas, Twombly’s scrawled windows are equally evocative of Mallarmé’s conception of windows as, like the page, blank spaces, through which the poet – or artist—contemplates his own creative interior. Window or page, canvas or arena, in Untitled, Twombly exercises the profoundly expressive might of his abstraction to manifest creativity as viscerally tangible experience. Indeed the extraordinary experience of Untitled is perhaps best described by Roland Barthes, who advises that the viewer observe the painting “as a kind of traditional stage: the curtain rises, we look, we wait, we receive, we understand; and once the scene is finished and the painting removed, we remember: we are no longer what we were: as in ancient drama, we have been initiated. What I should like to do is consider Twombly in relation to what constitutes an Event.” (Roland Barthes, “The Wisdom of Art,” Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings, 1954-1977, Whitney Museum of American Art, April 1979, p. 9)
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