No artist of the twentieth century has dramatized the line per se--the range of its expressiveness and force--as has Cy Twombly. Marking space with grace and elegance, in Untitled (Rome), 1987, the line metamorphoses from physical trace into material form in a transgressive reimagining of one visual language into another, of flattened mark into spatial volume, a translation that is foundational for Twombly's approach to art. Emerging from a double plinth of stacked rectangular forms, a single plant, the poppy pod, rises several feet from its foundation--originally a sand-and-plaster mixture that in its delicate incline suggestively mirrors the spatial angle created by two vertical slender supports. The gentle curve of the single stem evokes a lithe slenderness, the sense of being suspended in space in kinetic tension between fragility and forcefulness, stasis and dynamism. Monumentality and volumetric meagerness are coupled in tension, as are anthropomorphic and vegetal traits. While quite literally a cast plant, a dried and preserved seedpod on its stem, the slight incline, the gentle bow over the stalk affixed to the vertical wooden upright, suggests a head bent forward on its neck and torso, carried forward on striding legs, a highly stylized human form, captured in mid stride.
The formal parallel with Alberto Giacometti's equally attenuated vertical striding form, his celebrated Walking Man I, 1960, cannot go unmentioned. Cast in bronze and supported on a rectangular plinth, Giacometti animates his iconic human figure with a richly worked surface, reflecting the forward energy with which it seems to move through space. An artist Twombly deeply admired, Untitled (Rome) might almost represent the abstracted inverse of Giacometti's achievement. But while formally a surrogate for the earlier work--both artists are concerned with essential forms and their relationship to surrounding space--Twombly's concerns are less in hewing out or building up dynamic forms than in combining disparate elements to convey a single unified statement. Twombly's expressive and formal vocabulary derives from the synthesis of natural forms and their relation to line, surface, and volume. The delicate balance of several elements--upright to diagonal, open stance to vertical rise, straight to bent, rounded to crooked--create an elegance and stillness that is breathtaking. A classic demonstration of elemental relationships, Twombly's schematic form conveys a sense of motion within stasis, arrested animation proscribed by the confines of the double plinth, which can be associated to ancient Egyptian burial figures or Greek Korai in their uncompromising verticality and their constriction of affect. Further, the stalk and its upright support, exquisitely graceful in its rise, are kept stationary in the "earthen" mound of its foundation.
Cast in bronze, a material canonical in the history of Western sculpture, Untitled (Rome), is mimetic of the form found in nature, expressive of its vernal energy, and rawly tactile. Its spatial rhythm, the soft curve of its gravitational incline is counterbalanced by the vertical thrust of the support. Prior to casting in bronze, the base consisted of roughened plaster over a two-tired wood (or cardboard box), and scrap lumber plinths, materials used by Twombly in many of his sculptures during this period. These three-dimensional assemblages from scavenged materials are unified through the white overpainting. Made initially for the artist's private pleasure, such three-dimensional works have the feel of improvisation, a bricolage of fragments at hand improvised into a unified form. Several sculptures, from the 1950s to the spate of works in the 1980s share with Untitled (Rome), 1987, a radically abstracted association with the human figure--an upright support against which a leaning element reclines at a diagonal (cf.Untitled, Bassano in Teverina,1980 and several from 1983)--as well as a preoccupation with linearity and assertive verticality, where with simplicity and clarity, tall, slender vertical stems rise from their bases to an elevation of five to six feet. Created from found objects, anecdotally selected from what might be considered banal materials, the wood plinths might have been scattered outside his home in Italy, the dried plant scavenged from an outdoor market. But by bringing these materials into aesthetic unity through overpainting and casting, Twombly aesthetizes detritus, and in the process ennobles it.
Botanical elements can be found consistently throughout Twombly's oeuvre, their associations rich in meaning for an artist who immersed himself in his immediate natural surroundings. The motif of the flower emerging from an obdurate worked mass, a motif Twombly turned to again and again, suggest his abiding interest in the ephemeral flower form with its raft of classical associations--from the universal cycle of death and renewal to specific references to ancient narratives. Twombly would have been fully aware of such resonances in his use of a vast variety of plants from lotus flowers to roses and palms, as well as poppies. Cultivated throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, the poppy plant was the attribute of the divinities Hypnos (Sleep), Nyx (Night), and Thanatos (Death). The deity Demeter ingested poppy seeds to induce sleep in an effort to forget the loss of her daughter Persephone to Pluto, while in Ovid's Metamorphoses, poppies were caused to bloom from the blood of the dying Adonis. Portrayed in jewelry, tombstones, and bas-reliefs, the poppy was also used in the making of opium, a drug recorded since ancient times.
In their rough physicality, organic relationships, and recontextualization of found materials, Twombly renews sculptural vocabulary even as his works register their indebtedness to the history of three-dimensional formations. Manifesting a tie to the worn, the abject, Untitled (Rome), 1987, nevertheless pulsates with the vitality that comes from the expressive qualities that inhere in subtle spatial relations. Enlivened by the formal concentration of discrete elements, their disposition also reveals form in negative space. The emphatic open triangle created between upright and diagonal forms calls up associations within Twombly's oeuvre to the pyramidal shapes, which he associated with confrontational aggressiveness, for example the "A" shape in his drawings and painted cycles that refer to Achilles' vengeance on Hector for the death of Patroclus, by which Twombly implies, "phallic aggression-- more like a rocket... a very definite male thrust" (C. Twombly, "Interview with David Sylvester, 2000," in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2001). Barnett Newman's, Here I, 1950, prefigures this thrust in an early formation, which also rises from a mottled foundation set on a rectangular plinth, forcefully proclaiming both its presence and identity.
But here again, the formal similarities belie the present work's complexity of affect and subtleties inhering in its spatial disposition of linear elements. Twombly plays with the notion of transformation, of the metamorphosis of two-dimensional line into its three-dimensional counterpart and the monumental and heroic into their inverse, the attenuated and reticent. This sculpture, in its towing elegance, is also a paradoxical reimagining of the monument per se, refigured as diffident, graceful, and still. Both rigorous and anecdotal, Twombly's full power as an artist of the unheroic yet poignant, the humorous yet whimsical, nonetheless, addresses the spiritual and emotional questions that drive every visual discourse of representation. As Kirk Varnedoe affirms "[Twombly's art, like all progressive art is]...the complete expression of one's own personality through every faculty available and [of] the irrational poetry latent in society's most humble materials." Untitled (Rome), 1987, redefines the syntax for the sculptural language of line, volume, and space to achieve through its monumental, yet lithe form a floral surrogate for renewal and rebirth both in art and life.