No artist of the twentieth-century has dramatized so expressively or incisively the range and force of the drawn line as has Cy Twombly. Over the course of six decades, as Twombly wrote, "Action must prove from time to time the realization of life. Act is therefore the primary sensation" (C. Twombly, in L'Esperienza Moderna, 1958, rpt. in C. Vivaldi, "Cy Twombly tra ironia e lirismo," La Tartaruga, February 1951, n.p.). Exploding in a cacophony of repetitive marks coursing through pictorial space, Twombly's lines metamorphose from physical trace to material form with a grace and muscularity rarely seen in the postwar period. Richard Serra remarked that Twombly makes markings "count" in ways distinct from other artists: "It is a kind of exaltation in his own activity and he celebrates right in front of you" (R. Serra, "Audio Program Excerpt," Museum of Modern Art, 2008). Twombly's performative marks, as well as his telling coloration, are nowhere more in evidence than in Untitled, 1964, a work that displays the artist at the height of his expressive powers. Conceived in the creative aftermath of his seminal cycle of nine paintings titled Discourse on Commodus, 1963, now in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Untitled carries over all the ambition of the entire series of paintings. As in the cycle based on the oppressive rule of the Roman emperor Aurelius Commodus (AD 161-192), Untitled further extends the violent conflict in two clashing orbs of black, scarlet and royal purple, incised with highlights of white, causing the image to burst from its surface in a fracas of excitation. Graphite calligraphic marks hover above and below as if hurled into space beyond the fray, but for all the world, a full participant in the tumult. As Heiner Bastien writes in the Twombly catalogue raisonné, there is a "majesty of atrocity," which carries into the radical materiality and heightened expressivity inhering in the present work-extending the cycle's discourse on the emperor's brutal fanaticism and lapse into insanity, even to the point of assuming the identities first of Hercules then Romulus, the founder of Rome--all of which ended in his death by strangulation.
Twombly moved permanently to Rome in 1957 and his works through the next decade reflect his physical separation from the American art scene, with its rising interest in Minimalism and Pop Art as a counterbalance to the virtual hegemony of the Abstract Expressionists of earlier decades. While deeply influenced by the painterly freedom and rich textures of the work of earlier artists, Twombly counteracted this tendency through a series of calligraphic ideograms, clearly etched on bare canvas, a relatively neutral field within which Twombly foregrounds the physical immediacy in the act of mark making. This is not to say that Twombly sacrificed emotion to physicality, but rather that his marks are made with great speed and transparency, moving in response to physical impulses, which themselves are emanations of great expressive power.
With Rome as his base, Twombly became inspired by its foundational literature, the myths and histories of classical antiquity in particular, which focused his creative powers. A work close in time and style to Untitled is Leda and the Swan--in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art--based on a Greek myth of ravishing sensuality and violence. Thrashing feathers are conceived as fine lines, savagely coursing back and forth over the canvas. In like manner, fiery, vehement streaks in two clusters sear a channel of repetitive scrawls, which enact the artist's own presence while creating a frisson of tension and opposition as high-keyed reds clash with the luminescence of purple shaded in black. Twombly creates here a tableau of opposition, a narration of violence fusing colors and markings in a crescendo of deepening densities toward the center of each whorl. Rhythmic dynamism is created by bare canvas against densely worked images. The somewhat off-center placement of the larger cluster of purple, black and red weighted toward the left is balanced by the high-key red, leading up and to the right as marks dissipate into graphite and fuse with the white of the canvas, which emphasizes a diagonal movement across the surface. The shift from density to sparseness, from concentrated color to splashes of pinks and reds that fuse into loose graphite markings is also characteristic of Twombly's oeuvre. In Untitled such progressions create the sense of instability and chaos that echo the artist's fuller narration of Commodus's demise.
From his early days in military service drawing in the dark during breaks from lessons in cryptology to his later responses to the art brut style of Jean Dubuffet, Twombly sought to remove himself from his innate drawing talent and acquired artistic skills. Like Willem de Kooning's production of what are termed "Blind Drawings"--drawings the elder artist made with eyes closed or while watching television--Twombly strove to teach himself to "de-skill," to, in effect, eradicate the "habits of history [by] disconnecting his hand from his eye" (J. Lawrence, "Cy Twombly's Cryptic Nature," in Cy Twombly: Works from the Sonnabend Collection, London and New York, p. 13). The point of this exercise in Twombly's case was to distance himself from intention, to return, in a visceral sense, to the act of making marks on paper and canvas for their own sake, as chance procedures informed by what immediately came to hand, catalyzed by whatever came to mind. Twombly's marks are about tactility, about an urge toward the feel of a marking instrument responding to and expressing physiological and psychic impulses: "It's instinctive in a certain kind of painting, not as if you were painting an object or special things, but it's like coming through the nervous system. It's like a nervous system. It's not described, it's happening" (C. Twombly in an interview with D. Sylvester, "Cy Twombly (2000)," in Interviews with American Artists, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 179).
Untitled is a significant example of Twombly's desire to defeat tradition even as he engaged with it. After all, immersing himself in ancient Greek and Roman literature--here, in a continuation of the expressive impulses deriving from a masterful series of paintings on the theme of authoritarian cruelty--is a strong statement about the breadth of the artist's cultural immersion in his Mediterranean surroundings. Combining the freer forms of Jackson Pollock's canvases with Jean Dubuffet's art brut gritty surfaces, Kurt Varnedoe identified in Twombly's canvases from the 1960s a "carnal liquidity" and "expansive and exuberant colorfulness," a result of his "exposure to what he has called the "infantile" indulgence given to sensory life and instinct in Mediterranean culture" (K. Varnedoe, "Your Kid Could Not Do This, and Other Reflections on Cy Twombly," Museum of Modern Art Publications, No. 18, Autumn-Winter, 1994, p. 20-22). Inhering in Untitled is a complete statement of Twombly's aesthetic, a conflation of affective responses with artistic expression--an origin story made manifest through expressive and material means inspired by the arc of ancient history.