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In Untitled (New York City), Twombly’s cylindrical forms reverberate within their own echo chamber, refracting into seeming infinity whilst elegantly contained within the parameters of the canvas. Twombly here investigated the definition and physical nature of a simple geometrical element in space as it erupts within the picture plane with cataclysmic graphic narrative, pulsing with an ineffable rhythm. The six magnificent horizontal bands of loops increase in volume and expressive abandon as the artist progressed down 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. Especially against their grey ground, the oval scrawls emerge from and recede into one another in dense relief, teetering on the threshold of legibility. The painter leaves behind any didactic meaning of his intervention, abandoning the safe haven of mythological symbols and reverting to the most primal usage of the line as an almost naïve yet extremely potent transmitter of space, duration, and motion. As explained by Heiner Bastian: “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)
When Leonardo da Vinci painted his whirlwinds, storms, and floods, he sought to capture a subject that could be written about but was nearly impossible to be painted. Da Vinci’s cataclysms and maelstroms were a considerable influence for Twombly’s all-engulfing abstraction, a muscular study of colossal light and shadow that in its tempestuous intensity evokes da Vinci’s sublime storms. Twombly approached the issue of movement and time within pictorial space by reconsidering artists like Leonardo, Marcel Duchamp, and the Italian Futurists, who would conceive mythology and history through abstract principles. Suzanne Delehanty described the critical moment in Twombly’s practice during which he painted the present work: “Around 1967-1968, Twombly isolated the abstraction of movement, whether at rest or in motion, and its coefficient, space-time; the passionate centrifugal motion of Galatea is transformed into the supreme poetry of movement which intrigued Leonardo throughout his life… It is as if Twombly entered Leonardo’s mind to envision the affinities between natural and human processes—to see the drawn line, like a natural phenomenon, unfold in space and time.” (Suzanne Delehanty, "The Alchemy of Mind and Hand" in Nicola del Roscio, ed., Writings on Cy Twombly, p. 68) The painting reflects the artist’s supreme introspection and affinity for draftsmanship, here magnified through an exceptional scope. With expressive clarity and sobering gravity, Untitled (New York City) exudes the ineffable vitality and cadence of the most resplendent written or musical compositions. The enigmatic plasticity of the matte paint, coupled with the operatic calligraphy orbiting the surface’s grisaille expanse, seduces in its rich, impassioned reduction. The spectacular scale of the present work amplifies the momentum of Twombly’s cyclical shapes, which unroll along a rectilinear axis with unparalleled rhythm. Twombly complied with the canvas’s perimeter, as evident by the bounded edges of each lassoed line; this nuanced formal restraint is challenged as Twombly grappled with controlling an irrepressible energy that reached a riveting crescendo in the seismographic jolts of accelerating scale and intensity along each band.
The Blackboard works marked Twombly's abrupt abandonment of the richly colorful and expressive compositions from the first half of the 1960s known as Baroque Paintings, giving rise to works that would employ a visual language of pure austerity and sublimity. 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. However, unlike the static, semi-figurative black and white paintings of Twombly's formative years in the early 1950s, the inimitable gray works of the 1960s saw the centrifugal energy and erotic charge of Twombly's Baroque-inspired early 1960s paintings transferred into a rhythmic discourse of mood and movement. In the same year Twombly painted Untitled (New York City), he opened his first one-person museum exhibition in the United States at the Milwaukee Art Center; upon the occasion of the show, Robert-Pincus Witten praised Twombly’s heroic development: “Handwriting has become for Twombly the means of beginning again, of erasing the Baroque culmination of the painting of the early 1960s… it has been drowned in a schoolmaster’s blackboard. It has been reduced to rudimentary exercises… With it, Twombly casts down all that was grandiose in his mature style, rejecting a lush manner for simple and stringent exercises.” (Pincus-Witten cited in Nicola del Roscio, ed., Ibid., p. 216) This new series revived the artist’s career following a troubling period in the early part of the decade. In the winter of 1963, Twombly completed the painting cycle Nine Discourses on Commodus (Guggenheim Museum Bilbao), a group of nine canvases based on the murder of the Roman emperor Aurelius Commodus. The lushly impastoed yet highly esoteric paintings were shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery 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; he returned to painting in 1966 with a series of grey-ground works from which the cycle of Blackboard paintings emerged. With 1966 paintings like Problem I, II, III (Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt) and Night Watch (Private Collection), Twombly eschewed the literary and mythological undercurrents of his earlier works in favor of pure geometry and abstracted line to advance a similar expression of temporal development and motion.
Although the first of the grey-ground paintings were made in Rome in the spring of 1966 and shown in February 1967 in Turin, the artist himself noted that New York proved to be a more suitable location for them because of its relative “coolness.” Twombly spent the greater part of the years 1967 to 1970 in New York, working in studios on the Bowery and on Canal Street; Untitled (New York City) exudes a metropolitan severity and urban grit reflective of the artist’s surroundings at the time. 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. Minimalism had become the dominant strain in contemporary art, and it was in the mid-1960s that artists such as Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Sol Lewitt were pioneering aesthetic developments toward a stark and austere form of art that dominated the city. In 1966, Primary Structures opened at the Jewish Museum; organized by Kynaston McShine, the exhibit was the first to group the major artists working in similar modes of production under the umbrella of Minimalism. Moreover, two years later in 1968, the Paula Cooper Gallery opened its doors with the now legendary exhibition “Benefit for The Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam,” bringing together work by 14 artists including Andre, Judd, Lewitt, and Flavin, in addition to Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, and Bill Bollinger. Chromatically sparse and formally reductive, the grey-ground pictures demanded new modes of reading Twombly’s work with relation to the artistic developments pulsing through New York City. Kirk Varnedoe explained: “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 grey-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., Ibid., pp. 215-6)
The rhythmic harmony and balanced composure of voluminous loops that sprawl across the surface of Untitled (New York City) recall Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook and Palmer Method handwriting exercises. 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 canvas, the artist here constricts his activity to a gestural framework—nevertheless, the lassoed bands give way to expressive subjectivity in their vigorously imprecise execution. Twombly recalled 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 appeared 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 commented: “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) Like the work of Minimalist artists who pursued a repetitive, doggedly systematic task—such as Yayoi Kusama’s looped Infinity Nets, Sol Lewitt’s serial pencil-drawn lines on the wall, or Günther Uecker’s intricately nailed surfaces—Twombly’s painting experimented 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 abandoned 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 achieved a balletic complexity unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries.
Twombly was conscripted to the military from November 1953 to August 1954, and 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 here that Twombly 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 like 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 held clear associations to their own modes of gestural abstraction at the time. Jackson Pollock’s Stenographic Figure and Adolph Gottlieb’s various pictographic structures come to mind as critical starting points for the intersection between cryptology and painting that occupied Twombly during this formative period.
The artist arrived in New York in September 1950, precisely at a critical moment in the city’s development as the nucleus of the most significant artistic breakthroughs of the century. This is the year that Jackson Pollock dripped his most revered paintings, among them Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), Number 1 (Lavender Mist), and One: Number 31, 1950; Willem de Kooning had begun work on Woman I; Mark Rothko had moved away from his earlier Multiforms to develop the stacked zones of color he is best known for today; and Barnett Newman had just painted his first ‘zips’. Enrolling in the Art Students League following two years at the Boston Museum School, Twombly’s landing in New York coincided with the height of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. His Blackboard paintings, executed 15 years later, bridged Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop, akin to his pioneering peers Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Together these three artists embraced, questioned, and advanced the formal and conceptual progressions enacted by the preceding generation of painters and sculptors. Twombly met Rauschenberg at the Art Students League in New York in the beginning of the 1950s, and it was Rauschenberg who suggested Twombly study at Black Mountain College. The two artists later journeyed to Europe and North Africa from fall 1952 to the spring of 1953, in part enabled by a grant Twombly received from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Upon his return to New York, and whilst sharing a Fulton Street loft with Twombly, Rauschenberg completed his body of black paintings, composing layers of newspaper and dense, glossy black paint on a two-dimensional surface. The thickly built-up surfaces reveal Rauschenberg’s preoccupation with collage, while the highly articulated inky paint evokes gestural expressionism and the monochromatic surface anticipates the advent of Minimalism. Rauschenberg said that he wanted his Black paintings to possess “complexity without their revealing anything.” Like Rauschenberg, Twombly brought the outside world into his abstract paintings by way of a highly self-aware detachment, suffusing them with his own personal brand of subjective mark-making.
In undertaking the challenge of capturing movement in time and space, Twombly aligned himself to the godfather of the avant-garde, Marcel Duchamp. Like the shadows of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, the ethereal loops multiply and overlap across the surface of the canvas. Katharina Schmidt noted: “During these years Twombly’s interests ranged beyond the Leonardo drawings mentioned and his draping studies to all those artists and movements in art at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century that sought new, more adequate forms for the representation of space and movement in a changing world. Eadweard Muybridge, Marcel Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase II, 1912, and the formal and spatial concepts of the Russian Constructivists should all be mentioned here, as well as his investigation of the Futurists, Balla, Boccioni, and Russolo.” (Katharina Schmidt, “Way to Arcadia: Thoughts on Myth and Image in Cy Twombly’s Painting,” in Nicola del Roscio, ed., Op. Cit., p. 154) The linear sequences of layered frames in Untitled (New York City) recall the Futurist explorations into forms in motion, and its chronicling of a contemporary psychological landscape.
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 presented an entirely novel visual language that innovatively explored both the most elementary and the most sophisticated concerns posed by the genesis of creativity. Heiner Bastian expounded on Twombly’s representation of time and spatial progression, exemplified in the geometric planes that vibrate across Untitled (New York City): “Twombly’s understanding of space had developed through his experience of form. The definition of individual forms led to the dramatic imagining of space as surveying and distance, as movement and the prism of this movement in temporal progressions and static sequences. In place of the total figure, which also takes a firm place in the movement at a given moment, there follow representations in which the figure, split into parts, becomes a dynamic configuration. From this lining up of movement sequences, Twombly moves to the problem of the permanence of pictorial impressions... Time and space blend in the idiosyncrasy of a constant Present. 'Spatial time' is fixed through the dissolution of all substantive, physical impressions. Perception, memory, and progression coincide in the darkness of the moment that is just transpiring. The attempts to render it transparent are energetically flowing lines and sweeping movements.” (Heiner Bastian cited in Katharina Schmidt, “Way to Arcadia: Thoughts on Myth and Image in Cy Twombly’s Painting,” in Nicola del Roscio, ed., Op. Cit., pp. 155-156)
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 pearlescent 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's gestures hover 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 erasure, and possessing a ripe wetness that lends it the urgency of the here and now. This graphic, primitive mode of expression is at once imbued with Twombly’s fascination by archaeological surfaces corroded over time, together with the reductive 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 cited in Nicola del Roscio, ed. Op. Cit., p. 199) His marks, in this way, escape any fixation in time; the temporality exists within the primacy of the line, embroiled in the narrative, history, and rhythm of its own unrolling across the canvas. The development of each loop traces its own history and charts the narrative of its own realization, existing forever both in the moment that Cy Twombly applied his crayon to canvas and in each current moment that the painting speeds before the viewer’s eye. With Untitled (New York City), Twombly rendered the past as alive as the present, and makes the present ever more electric and more sensuous in every instant that we are suspended in the painting’s sublime odyssey.
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