Untitled illuminates Twombly’s vigorous amalgamation of media. In this work, oil paint, pencil and wax crayon compete in a chaotic, layered process of image-making: explosive brushstrokes and paint clusters in muted tones of green, brown and ochre form a veil that pass over and under frenzied pencilwork. Significantly, Twombly left just enough white space on the surface of Untitled to make the absence of mark-making as profound as the markings themselves. The artist asserts that the white monochrome background “persists as the landscape of my actions,” and alludes to “the classic state of intellect, or a neo-romantic remembrance” (Cy Twombly cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, 1994, p. 27). Scratched over the white surface of the canvas, the pencilwork is further reminiscent of the black veins that run through Italian marble, while a certain elegance pervades the present composition in its homage to antiquity and classical Rome. Thus Twombly’s visual orchestration lies at the intersection between past and present, yearning to be both of today and timelessly ancient. In his endeavour to trace the past in terms of the present, Twombly claims: “What I am trying to establish is – that Modern Art isn’t dislocated, but something with roots, tradition and continuity. For myself the past is the source (for all art is vitally contemporary)” (Cy Twombly cited in: Exh. Cat., Paris, Centre Pompidou, Cy Twombly, 2016, p. 99).
The aerated space and light of the present composition’s monochrome ground is violently punctuated with the embellishments that Twombly reproduced continuously throughout his oeuvre. Circles of grey pencil scratchings and rhythmic sequences of thick, impasto pigment furiously mark the canvas with sporadic intensity. While Twombly used a brush throughout his complex painterly technique, he also used his own hands, passionately smearing paint with his fingers across the lower left edge and the bottom right of the canvas. The composition is dated 1961 and ‘Roma’ is inscribed in pencil nearby, yet most significantly, Twombly’s name is lyrically signed on the surface of Untitled in an explicit assertion of the artist’s presence. Here typology becomes reductive iconography, and the notion of writing becomes a central and compelling element of abstract painting. Professor Mary Jacobus notes that in Twombly’s work, “quotations and phrases appear as gestures, exclamations or sighs, expressions of pleasure or regret. This tendency to read Twombly’s graphic practice as primarily self-expressive coexists with a contradictory critical tendency – to read his work as the repository of humanistic, holistic and timeless form of engagement with cultural memory” (Mary Jacobus, Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, Princeton 2016, p. 3).
Where the city of Rome informed the ideological framework of Twombly’s oeuvre ever since he first moved to Italy in 1957, it also offered a sense of privacy and isolation. As an American, his expatriation permitted the artist to distance himself from Abstract Expressionism, as well as the milieu of the New York School in the 1950s and '60s which was dominated by such artists as Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. While Twombly’s paintings might not fit neatly into the history of American art during the post-war period, his allusion to epic narrative, grand myth and ancient history provides a profound link between conceptualism, minimalism and Abstract Expressionism. The result is a highly individual and enigmatic body of work, of which Untitled plays an inextricable part.
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