In this untitled painting from 1958, a strangely fluid graphic line, scrawled and incised into a ground of white house paint, generates a strange and largely unintelligible landscape of signs, ciphers and letters. These elements are drawn, combined and layered over one another in such a way that the apparently separate realms of which they speak, of written and spoken language as well as of ideas, thoughts and feelings, all appear to merge into a new homogenous graphic form. Looking at first sight like graffiti both embedded within, emerging from and disappearing into the pervasive white void of the background, this seemingly timeless loose scrawl, reflective of what is, in fact, Twombly's light, subtle and highly attuned touch, gives rise to a new, rich, and almost lyrical pictorial language.
Kirk Varnedoe, one of the relatively few articulate and intelligible writers on Twombly's work, explained of early paintings like Untitled, that, 'in the area of graffiti, (the artist) was less drawn to particular pictograms, as evidence of universal elements of mental life, than to the look of accretively scarred walls, with their layers of overlapping marks that subsume individual moments of expression into dense accumulations.' These 'models', Varnedoe wrote, 'allow for a style based not on the ideal of the wholeness of a unique individual temperament, but on the intuition of the self as a society of feelings and impulses that can disgorge themselves, independently and interdependently, into the act of creation; they speak not in the buried code of a dark, primitive consciousness, but in the common inflections that have marked pictorial street slang at least since the walls of Pompeii.' (K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly A Retrospective, MoMA, New York 1994, p. 24).
Untitled was painted in 1958 at the time of Twombly's second visit to Rome, and is one of a small series of paintings that lyrically mark the culmination of this accumulative early style of scribbled and loose scrawled writing. Since his first visit to Rome with Robert Rauschenberg between 1953 and 1954, Twombly had worked hard on 'untraining' his hand by practicing free drawing in the dark so as to allow his hand to create without the intervention of either sight or conscious thought - to 'show things in flux', as Twombly said, and to attain physical marks that reflected what Roland Barthes once described as the 'hand's desire'. Twombly described the kind of scribbles that evolved from this practice as a rhythm that conveyed 'the deeply aesthetic sense of eroded or ancient surfaces of time'. (C. Twombly cited in ibid, p. 29)
On his arrival in Rome in the spring of 1957 Twombly seems to have merged this notion of his own cryptographic script with the same qualities that can there be witnessed on the scarred marble of the Eternal City. In some works from this period classical words such as 'Arcadia' and 'Olympia' are clearly visible, in others, as in this painting, decipherability and meaning hover on the edge of legibility. Only Twombly's large flowing signature and the date, each also forming an integrated part of the composition, here manifest themselves with any clarity. Twombly's practice of writing his signature, the date, and the location in which the work was painted on the front of his canvases and incorporating these factual and personal details into the pictorial logic of his pictures was, at this time, only a recently acquired habit. In these early Roman paintings these details seem to reflect the artist's growing sense of identity with his own work, with the ancient city where he had come to live and also with the notion that the multi-layered graphic language he was developing, operated in a way that both traversed and expressed the flux of space-time. In this work an extended sense of the anchoring of a specific location within shifting space and time is given by the depiction at the centre of the canvas of a crudely drawn window frame.
On this second trip to Italy, Twombly wrote to his dealer Eleanor Ward that he was 'reading Mallarmé seriously'. The French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé, whom Twombly seems to have first got to know through the influence of the painter Robert Motherwell and the poet Charles Olson at Black Mountain College, is often credited with being the source of the white monochrome void on and into which Twombly liked to paint. Certainly, there are several important similarities between Twombly and Mallarmé's work. Mallarmé conceived of the white page as a vital spatial and temporal void that became charged with meaning through the 'play' of words upon it. It was in this area between words, through their play with one another and the connotations and ideas that this stimulated, that most poetic meaning was established. Mallarmé's poetry is notoriously difficult to translate for example, because its phonetics play strongly on the ambiguity and similar sound of words, intentionally establishing multiple meanings and strange, seemingly miraculous association in the mind of the listener or reader. Similarly fluid interchangeable elements of this multi-dimensional and poetic form are explored in graphic form, incised into a thick, white, and void-like background in Twombly's paintings where the borderlines between writing and drawing, drawing and painting, language and meaning, space and time, thought and action, are all simultaneously intermingled, obfuscated and revealed.
Captured in a loose meandering scrawl in which Twombly's hand has navigated the path of making letters more by untutored instinct than habit or any conscious thought, the elongated and spontaneous graphic records of Twombly's erratic and constantly moving hand articulate a vital, raw, almost primitive field of activity. At the heart of this is the painterly monochrome presence of the white void, into and out of which Twombly's incisive spidery graphite lines seem to both descend and emerge. The vague misty texture of this monochrome poured and sloshed across the canvas contrasts with the almost engraved linear precision of Twombly's vital line to establish a strangely moving almost sculptural communion between the painterly and graphic arts.
Twombly's adoption of the white monochrome began alongside Rauschenberg's use of it in his black and white paintings in 1951-2, was seemingly reinforced by his visit to Morocco in 1953, and certainly fitted in well with the prevailing zeitgeist in Italy where it formed a central part in the art of such contemporary Italian artists as Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani. In the summer of 1957 Twombly explained his commitment to 'whiteness' in an article in the Italian magazine L'esperienza moderna. Explaining how it was the essentially ubiquitous and transcendent nature of the white monochrome that appealed to him he wrote, 'the reality of whiteness may exist in the duality of sensation (as the multiple anxiety of desire and fear). Whiteness can be the classic state of the intellect, or a neo-romantic area of remembrance - or as the symbolic whiteness of Mallarmé. The exact implication may never be analyzed, but in that it persists as the landscape of my actions, it must imply more than selection.' (C. Twombly, cited in 'Documenti di una nuova figurazione: Toti Scialoja, Gastone Novelli, Pierre Alechinsky, Achille Perilli, Cy Twombly,' in L'Esperienza moderna, no. 2 (August-September 1957) , p. 32.)
The sense of a domain existing beyond space that such a background generated for Twombly, was of such significance that it actually encouraged, if not determined, the kind of action and mark-making he would make within, rather than upon it. As a 'reflection of meaning', these 'actions had to 'continually bear out the realization of existence' and 'therefore the act is the primary sensation. In painting it is the forming of the image; the compulsive action of becoming; the direct and indirect pressures brought to a climax in the acute act of forming. (By forming I don't mean formalizing - or in the general sense the organizing of a "good painting". These problems are easily reached and solved and in many cases have produced beautiful and even important works of art.) Since most painting then defies the image; it is therefore to a great extent illustrating the idea of feeling content. It is in this area that I break with the more general processes of painting. To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a critical moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state; but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse, or in the process of a painting, run a gamut of states. One must desire the ultimate essence even if it is "contaminated"' (ibid). In this way, Twombly explained, his paintings become actual recordings of feeling, emotion, experience, life, rather than depictions or imitations of it. Each line is, 'the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate - it is the sensation of its own realization. The imagery is one of the private or separate indulgences rather than an abstract totality of visual perception' (ibid).