In 1966, Twombly's art underwent a dramatic change when the artist embarked on a highly celebrated series of works now known as the "blackboard" paintings. These Minimalist-looking paintings significantly depart from the schismatic and spontaneous lyricism of Twombly's earlier Roman paintings, and are distinguishable for their strict graphic regularity, severe formal restraint and often-apparent emptiness. Executed between 1966 and 1971, these new works were dubbed "blackboard" paintings because classroom blackboards or a child's primer - temporal and highly graphic conveyors of information - inspired them. Twombly also painted them predominantly on dark gray backgrounds that resembled blackboard slate. This untitled work is among the very first of these paintings. Painted in 1967, it was exhibited in the autumn of the same year at Leo Castelli's gallery in New York where, after the recent debacle of Twombly's flamboyantly expressionistic Nine Discourses on Commodus exhibition, critics saw these gray-ground paintings as necessarily purging his previous Baroque elaboration and immediately hailed them as a much-needed return to form. The critic Robert Pincus-Witten, for example, wrote at the time that, "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 ... (and) ... reduced to rudimentary exercises". Constrained, rigid and seemingly a form of self-punishment, it was, Pincus-Whitten concluded, almost as if Twombly were admonishing himself in these works, as if he were writing, over and over again, "I will not whisper in class anymore" (R. Pincus-Witten, "Learning to Write," Cy Twombly, Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., Milwaukee, 1968, n.p.) .
In fact, in 1968 Twombly revealed - in a collage work to which he appended a reproduction of a Leonardo da Vinci's study of the Deluge - the kind of line which these paintings celebrate and which so fascinated him. Leonardo attempted to trace the ephemeral movement of air and water, and Leonardo's Deluge drawings also assert an obsessive and mystical quality, which informs all of Twombly's lasso-loop paintings. In these paintings, Twombly encouraged the sequential progression of looped lines, through repetition, to adopt a lyrical momentum of its own. The unity of energy and continuum in tempestuous water fascinated Leonardo, and he tried to capture it in graphic form, magnificently though ultimately in vain. Twombly also attempted to convey the same inexorable, united, elemental flow of energy in his first "blackboard" paintings.
Twombly used the graphic process of writing, translating its continuous, flowing single line into a painterly language, adopting a strict formulaic procedure to produce these looped-line works. This process closely echoes the Palmer method of handwriting often taught to American children when they are first learning to write. This extremely strict, near mechanical technique required pupils to practice handwriting drills on a daily basis, moving neither fingers nor wrists but only their arms. Indeed, the Palmer method was the technique that Twombly himself had learned. Now Twombly worked in the opposite direction of the children who learned to impose a rigid order and a rational discipline on their hand. He adopted the technique of perpetually repeating a looped line to increase the fluid and graphic energy of his line while still maintaining continuum throughout. In this work especially, Twombly controlled equilibrium, layering the line sequentially, maintaining a regular height and scale in the loops running throughout its horizontal progression. Twombly's strong, innovative and powerful line builds and pulsates like steady oncoming waves.
Twombly defined the form of his late 1960s paintings with a scientific sense of continuum, particularly the space-time continuum of Einsteinian relativity. Earlier Twombly had lyrically explored - in the "Mallarmén" white-ground works from his first years in Rome (1957-1963) - the simultaneous presence of myth and history in contemporary reality. In contrast, the paintings he made between 1966 and 1971 took a colder, more analytical and linear approach to measuring and calibrating the relativity of time, space and motion. He adopted a simple, direct and minimal method in the "blackboard" paintings, and critics have often suggested that Twombly was responding to the cultural climate established by the Minimalist and Conceptual art of the same period. Certainly, the lasso-loop technique employs the sequential repetition and logical formal progression common in Minimalism. In addition, these works, like Minimalist art, place a premium on the objective, subsuming any sense of individual personality within the logic of the whole.
Twombly established a sequential continuum, subsuming the immediacy and uniqueness of each individual mark in his lasso works in an inexorably progressing whole, so that each idiosyncratic mark remains part of a collective motion and an apparently single continuous line, contrasting with the scrawled ciphers and scratches of his earlier painting. Twombly's looped-line progression is a single minimalist entity of infinite variety and nuance, evoking Heraclitus' image of life being a river into which you can never step twice - because it is a single, united but also perpetually changing entity. In this respect, these works infuse the restrictive Minimalist aesthetic with elements of individual psychology and emotion, as did the work of Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, all of whom were working in New York at this time.
Twombly inflects his line with expressive nuance and strength, while maintaining a continuous rhythm and flow, making these lasso-works truly exceptional. Twombly's incisive, idiosyncratic line expresses this flow as simultaneously continuing and fracturing, generating pervasive, dynamic, independent movement, caught up in a collective progression, caused by an irresistible, insistent and perpetual force. In this, the lasso-line paintings reflect the Italian Futurists' use of disjunction's dynamic rhythm to suggest motion, energy and simultaneity. The Futurists' motion studies predated the advent of the Fascist art and Stalinist Realism of the 1930s and 1940s, and so were largely untainted by recent political history. As such, they informed much of the new art in Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Of particular relevance for Twombly were works like Umberto Boccioni's 1911 studies for States of Mind and Giacomo Balla's many studies of air currents and the flight of birds, which also followed the example set in the 15th Century by Leonardo. Twombly also looked closely at Duchamp at this time, in particular Duchamp's early Futuristic works such as Nude Descending a Staircase and Sad Young Man on a Train. However, it is the French artist's Three Standard Stoppages that resonates most with Twombly's "blackboard" paintings' measured and poetic explorations of line.
Among the first of Twombly's lasso-line paintings, this untitled work of 1967 is a relatively constrained example from the series. Twombly maintains the autonomy and singularity of his magical line throughout. The graphic clarity of Twombly's rhythmical marks establishes a fluid, lyrical elegance here, unlike many examples from the series where the over-layering line descends into a cloudy scrawl that threatens to froth out of control. Twombly wrote in wax crayon over a grey-oil ground, rather than painting; the swirl of his repetitive calligraphy becomes painterly in spite of the fact that it essentially expresses continuous and irresistible linear momentum.
Twombly ultimately undermines individual, autonomous form here - like Boccioni did in his painting States of Mind - as Twombly presents each element as interdependent on the other. He cleverly integrates the single line, multiple lines and the whole, in a way that graphically approximates the odyssey of human existence's multiple-layered mystery. He presents what appears to be a single line's path, but which is in fact many layers of both revealed and obliterated - but always continuous - lines fluctuating along the same directional path. This work strongly articulates existential unity and diversity. Reduced to such an apparent unity, "each line" as Twombly once asserted in a rare early statement about his work "is the actual experience" charting "its own innate" - but here also integrated - "history". It does not illustrate, but "is the sensation of its own realization" ("Documenti di una nuova figurazione: Toti Scialoja, Gastone Novelli, Pierre Alechinsky, Achille Perilli, Cy Twombly," L'Esperienza moderna, no. 2, August-September 1957, p. 32.). In this way and in this work, Twombly's line stands as a powerful metaphor for the single - but also ultimately integrated - path an individual life takes within a similarly multiple, diverse - but ultimately united - whole.