The magisterial sweep of Cy Twombly’s enigmatic mark-making in Untitled marks a radical shift in the artist’s unique painterly style. Part of the artist’s Bolsena suite of paintings, it signals a significant move away from the hypnotic gestures and tonal solemnity of his Blackboard paintings and unleashes a much more vibrant and animated form of artistic language. Painted in Italy in the summer of 1969, just as man was about to take his first steps on the surface of the moon, Untitled becomes a combination of the ancient and the modern; of the history and traditions of the artist’s beloved Italy joined with the technological advancements of the modern age. During this period, Twombly fell under what Heiner Bastian described as the “spell of numbers…, ” and as can be seen in this monumental painting, the artist’s numeric gestures are unleashed with full force. “By moments,” Bastian continues, “all sense of the concrete is lost in the moment of an invisible, spellbinding, received spaciousness—and the imagery appears as enlarged details of a storehouse of distant apparitions and flux” (H. Bastian, Cy Twombly. Catalogue Raisonne of The Paintings, Volume III 1966-1971, Munich, 1994, p. 32). Twombly’s Bolsena paintings are considered to be among the artist’s most accomplished and are located in many of the world’s premier public and private art collections, including the Kunstmuseum Basel and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. These grand, epic paintings have long been recognized as being some of the most outstanding and seminal works in the artist’s oeuvre and works such as Untitled become a consummate example of what makes Twombly’s work truly unique.
In Untitled, upon an expanse of off-white canvas, Twombly assembles an oblique torrent of enigmatic and evocative motifs; the artist’s familiar scrawls and scribbles are joined by sequences of numbers, equations and geometric shapes which coalesce into a waterfall like torrent that traverses across the surface of this majestic canvas. Here, the repetitious loops and swirls of his earlier Blackboard paintings have evolved into a more sophisticated language of various shapes and scores. Intense bursts of harried scribbles hover incongruously above the traces of linear shapes, curved dotted lines and seemingly related mathematic calculations. Remnants of cylinders, triangular prisms, and cubes occupy this space before, finally, open squares and amoebic forms begin populate the lower left portion of the canvas and the composition unlocks itself to explore the entire surface of the work. Furthermore, it is not only the surface of Untitled that conveys all this artistic activity, as clearly visible under this exterior façade is an internal layer of seemingly architectural structures veiled underneath, and only made visible when excavated by the reductive action of the artist’s hand removing layers of wet paint. In the process Twombly reveals strata of underpainting.
This oblique flow of painterly activity and mark-marking is typical of Twombly’s Bolsena paintings from this period, but none displays this quality as successfully as the present work. The origins of the new painterly language began to appear soon after the artist complete his Orion paintings from 1968 (in which luscious hemispheres of white paint reflect the artist’s interest in the poetry and secret language of Leonardo’s drawings). Twombly spent part of the winter on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten where he produced a series of drawings that first evoked the organic shapes and begins to introduce this new sense of flow into his work. Nicholas Cullinan, writing in the catalogue for Twombly’s major 2008 retrospective at Tate Modern in London, concludes that the tussle played out over the surface of works such as Untitled also plays into Twombly’s interest in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. He observes “A tension between left and right, horizontal and vertical, remembering and forgetting, movement and stasis, and rising and falling. A battle for supremacy between Eros and Thanatos, or the oscillation between Apollonian tendency of order and reason that always threatens to be eroded Dionysiac indulgencies of sensual release and abandon” (N. Cullinan, “Longitude and Latitude: The Bolsena Paintings,” in N. Serota (ed.), Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2008, p. 111).
A worldlier stimulus might also be found in the Apollo space missions of the late 1960s. Painted on July 10, 1969, Untitled was completed in the week leading up to the famed Apollo 11 mission which resulted in man’s first landing on the surface of the moon. Although not an allegory of that event, Twombly told Heiner Bastian that he had closely followed the coverage of the moon landings and that there are numerous references to the events of that summer in his Bolsena paintings. The arcing trajectory of the artist’s gestures, the calculations and strings of numbers that appear through this painting may reflect the scientific, astronomical and propulsion talk that filled the airways and front pages during this historic period. Against a background of much scientific talk about vectors, orbits and distances in space and time Twombly formulated these pictures—which also deal, albeit loosely and more poetically, with the concept of space-time—in such a way that, inevitably, through a process of osmosis, direct references to the Apollo mission, both oblique and overt, found their way into the paintings.
Indeed, Twombly was not the only artist to be captivated by the events of the Apollo moon landings. The artist’s friend, Robert Rauschenberg was also caught up in the excitement that surrounded the launch. His Stoned Moon Drawing of October 1969 is a large, collaged drawing bursting with images and text, including his own description of the launch: “The bird’s nest bloomed with fire and clouds. Softly largely slowly silently Apollo 11 started to move up. Then it rose being lifted on light. In its own joy wanting the earth to know it was going. Saturated, super-saturated, and solidified air with a sound that became your body. For that while everything was the same material. Power over power joy pain ecstasy there was no inside, no out. Then bodily transcending a state of energy. Apollo 11 was airborne, lifting pulling everyone’s spirits with it” (R. Rauschenberg, quoted in Art in Context: Stoned Moon Drawing, www. http://shuffle.rauschenbergfoundation.org/exhibitions/cantor/essays/stoned-moon-drawing [accessed April 11, 2015]). Rauschenberg, along with Twombly’s impressions of that historic event contains a mixture of trepidation and wonder that conveys the technological and astronomical sublime.
The Bolsena paintings provide confirmation that during this period Twombly was at the height of his gestural powers. After the disappointing critical reaction to his Discourse on Commodus show at the Castelli Gallery in New York in 1964 (in which the artist’s presented a series of nine paintings on the theme of the psychotic Roman emperor Commodus), Twombly’s art seemed, in comparison to the pervading fashion for Minimlaism and Conceptualism, hopelessly outdated. However, far from disappointed, Twombly declared himself to be “the happiest painter around” because, he explained, “for a couple of years: no one gave a damn what I did.” When he resumed a more regular painting practice in 1966, the paintings that appeared marked a significant change in direction. Predominantly executed on dark grey grounds, Twombly’s paintings of the late 1960s reflect the artist’s increasing interest in the concepts of time, space and measurement as well a concern with the systemic development of line. In works such as Night Watch of 1966 for example, Twombly describes in raw white outline against a dark grey background, the process of a cube turning in space. In other works on a dark ground—now known colloquially as “blackboards”—Twombly developed the concept of writing into a spiraling cyclical progression in which systemic repetition and nuance generate a poetic sense of a journey through space and time.
Untitled was painted during Twombly’s stay at Palazzo del Drago, the soaring Renaissance palace on the shores of Lago Di Bolsena in Italy. The artist had settled in the picturesque Tuscan hills after a two-year period of peripatetic activity traveling between Italy, New York, Florida and the Caribbean. He would stay in the town in a state of comparative solitude for almost six months, and this new found sense of stability seemed to have unleashed in Twombly a sense of innovation and painterly adventure. Bolsena also provided Twombly with a sense of certainty and longevity, which had so often sparked his artistic abilities in the past. Surrounded by the history of Italy and absorbed in the historic events of July 1969, Twombly reacts to history in the making. “In these paintings reside real as well as imagined confrontations,” writes Heiner Bastian, “lit by the reflection of actual things as if by a radiance cast by marvelous happenstance; and all with freely changes temper as it navigates pathways warped by a reeling, gravimatic tow” (H.Bastian, ibid, p. 32).
In Untitled, Twombly’s fascination with the interpretation of Classical mythology collides with 20th century modernity. The result is a painting which seemingly travels from order into chaos or from a trickle into a flood using a tactile and intuitive graphic approach. Twombly’s fusion of painting, writing, and spontaneous, impulsive mark-making spectacularly echoes his own hero Leonardo da Vinci’s earlier, more measured, analytical and observational approach at pictorially tackling the same natural mystery. Yet, painted as the space race reached its ultimate climax, Twombly’s Untitled takes him to a radical new place, and starting a journey which Heiner Bastian describes as a “…lordly procession taking place in a landscape broaching a distant sky”(H. Bastian, op. cit., p. 32).