‘I really enjoy being in the studio now,’ Cy Twombly told Nicholas Serota, then director of London’s Tate museums, in 2008. ‘I enjoy painting… It’s very fast, particularly the Bacchus paintings... It was just very physical.’
Twombly often responded to the violence of contemporary political events with works that drew on classical history and literature. His paintings of Achilles and Troy from the 1960s and 1970s, for example, have frequently been interpreted as meditations on the Vietnam War. In 2003, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, the then 75-year-old Twombly embarked upon what became known as his Bacchus paintings, named for the Roman god of winemaking, fertility, madness and religious ecstasy.
In the catalogue essay that accompanied their 2005 exhibition, art historian Malcolm Bull argued that the abiding theme of these paintings was that of a force of madness rising, like a ‘fire that rises from the depths of the sea’.
Collectively marking the culmination of Twombly’s 50 years of painterly practice, the series comprises three distinct sets. The first of these — six eight-feet-high portrait-format paintings — was completed in 2004. The second, the largest group from the series, includes eight landscape-format paintings. A further six were completed in 2008; three of these were presented to Tate Modern that year.
Towering over its viewer at more than 10 feet (3.25 m) high and 16 feet (4.94 m) wide, Untitled, executed in 2005, is the largest example from the second set of Bacchus paintings. On 15 November, the masterwork will lead the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York.
The massive piece was executed using a pole to which was affixed a brush drenched in rich vermilion paint. Its bright red spirals seem to both climb and fall; Twombly allowed each of his marks to run down the canvas, suggesting the dripping of wine — or blood.
‘His madness is a circle of fire, an unbroken circuit of excess, each attempt at containment spilling into the next’ — Art historian Malcolm Bull on the Bacchus paintings
The painting’s basic looping motif was a recurring theme in Twombly’s art. This form fascinated him for many years: in the meandering scrawl of the ‘blackboard’ paintings of the late 1960s, he explored its capacity to convey, through repetition, a sense of a single, continuous field of energy. Here, Twombly revisited and developed this line on an epic scale.
The character of Bacchus, too, featured repeatedly throughout Twombly’s career. Bacchus (known as Dionysus in Greek myth) makes an explicit appearance in a 1975 collage entitled Dionysus; in a 1977 series on the theme of Bacchanalia; and in a 1981 triptych entitled Bacchus. Indeed, there is something of Bacchus in Twombly’s approach to the act of painting itself. ‘To paint,’ he noted in 1957, ‘involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release.’
As Malcolm Bull wrote in 2005 of the Bacchus paintings, ‘Dionysus, it emerges, is a double movement. His madness is a circle of fire, an unbroken circuit of excess, each attempt at containment spilling into the next.’ In its fiery grandeur, Twombly’s Untitled expresses something epic and elemental.