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One of the famous series of Blackboard paintings that Cy Twombly made between 1966 and 1971, this large, over six-feet-long by five-feet-high painting of a tumultuous and burgeoning progression of spiraling lines is one of a magnificent group of lasso-loop paintings made in this year that mark the culmination of this dramatic and singular period in Twombly’s career.
In 1966 Twombly’s art had undergone a radical change when the artist embarked on an entirely new direction marked by the first of what was to become a highly celebrated series of works now often known as his Blackboard paintings. Distinguishable for their strict graphic regularity, severe formal restraint and often apparent emptiness, these, in some ways, Minimalist-looking works were ones that marked a significant departure from the schismatic and spontaneous lyricism of the artist’s earlier, predominantly white-ground paintings rooted in the history, mythology and emotion of the Mediterranean landscape.
Executed between 1966 and 1971, the Blackboard paintings were so-named because they appeared to have been inspired by the notion of the classroom blackboard or the child’s primer as a temporal and highly graphic conveyor of information. As in Untitled of 1970, these paintings were also predominantly painted on a series of swiftly executed dark grey oil-paint backgrounds that resembled the slate of a blackboard.
With its swirling field of looping scribbles seeming to build into a frenetic, volatile and tempestuous sea of energy, this 1970 painting marks a significant development from the first lasso-loop Blackboard paintings that Twombly had begun in 1966. Translating the forms of these dramatic earlier works into a more cohesive, pulsating, graphic field of energy, this painting is one that takes this singular motif to new heights. Seeming to exist on the very borderlines of the formal structure that underpins the logic of its own creation, the tumult and swirling energy of the repeated loops of this painting appear to combine to form an ambiguous but almost uniform space or field, where the individual and specific become subsumed in the collective. In this way, the painting is a unique spatial and—as a rhythmic record of Twombly’s actions—also temporal field where the singular, formal mark of Twombly’s intuitive, erratic, but always controlled, line appears to transcend its own nature and become a cohesive expression of pure energy and infinite space.
Painted on the artist’s return to Rome from New York City, Untitled is one of a series of works made in the latter part of 1970 that revisited with a renewed vigor the lasso-loop motif with which Twombly had inaugurated this Blackboard period in 1966. Following his first paintings of spirals of 1966, Twombly’s work had since been distinguished by a prolonged period, between 1968 and 1970, in which, he had abandoned the loose scrawl of these works in favor of sparse, mathematical, geometric forms on grey and white backgrounds that were inspired, he said, by all the talk and drama about space-time and calculation that accompanied the late-1960s’ space race and the moon landings. In the early months of 1970 in New York, Twombly just as suddenly again abandoned this hard-edged and seemingly rational aesthetic, founded on calculations and measurements, to return once again to a more free-form expression of a space-time field of scribbles in a series of works that simultaneously appeared to both look back to great paintings like his Panorama of 1955 and to anticipate the ethereal, melancholic all-over field of his 1971 Nini paintings. Moving on again from these new spatial-field pictures towards a re-adoption of the structure of his first lasso-loop Blackboards of 1966, Twombly marked his return to Rome in 1970, with the series to which Untitled belongs, where, until the summer of 1971, he reworked this motif in a way that seemed to take it to the very limits of its possibility. Twombly’s first Blackboard paintings had been made after a year-long break from painting following the traumatic debacle of 1964, when the Baroque exuberance and expressionism of his Nine Discourses on Commodus series had been savagely attacked by American critics. Reviewers of this exhibition such as Donald Judd and Michael Fried, had criticized these paintings for being indulgent, outmoded and irrelevant in the face of the then-prevailing, cool, Minimalist aesthetic of New York. When the spiraling loops of Twombly’s first Blackboard paintings were first shown at the Galleria Notize in Turin in 1967 and, later, at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, their comparatively austere, grey-grounds and simple graphic forms were seen as much more in keeping with the times. Greeted as a necessary purging of his former Baroque elaboration, these works were immediately hailed as a much-needed return to form. The critic Robert Pincus-Witten wrote, for example, 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 Witten 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, unpaginated).
Using the graphic process of writing, and translating its continuous flow of a single line into a painterly language, Twombly adopted a strict formulaic procedure in order to produce these looped-line works. It is a process that closely echoes the Palmer method of teaching handwriting that in America was often taught to schoolchildren. Indeed, this extremely strict, near-mechanical technique, which required pupils to practice handwriting drills on a daily basis moving neither fingers nor wrists but only their arms, was the technique that Twombly himself had been taught. Interestingly, this method was often accompanied, in Virginia at least, by a teacher shouting out a count time in accordance with the rhythmic nature of the loops that the student was obliged to make. In this way, time, line and the spatial field of the blackboard all became synchronized and integrated into one singular and repetitive discipline.
Now, working in the opposite direction to the children who learned to impose such a rigid order and a rational discipline on their hand, Twombly adopted the technique of a perpetual repetition of a looped line as a means of increasing the fluid and graphic energy of his line while still maintaining a continuum throughout. In Untitled, as in several of the 1970 series, the integrity and rhythm of Twombly’s sequential looping of line establishes a febrile equilibrium that here has been brought to the point of disintegrating. Hovering on the edge of indistinguishableness in places, four burgeoning horizontal lines of force draw on the innovation and power of Twombly’s increasingly erratic line to build and pulsate like the steady, uniform surge of four oncoming waves.
The nuance and strength of expression that Twombly manages to inflect in his line while still maintaining a continuous rhythm and flow is what makes these lasso-works truly exceptional. Twombly’s incisive and idiosyncratic line simultaneously manages to express both a continuity and a fracturing of this flow, which generates a pervasive sense of dynamic independent movement caught up in a collective progression caused by an irresistible, insistent and perpetual force. In this, the lasso-line paintings reflect something of Italian Futurists’ use of the dynamic rhythm of disjunction to suggest motion, energy and simultaneity. Predating the advent of Fascist art and the Stalinist Realism of the 1930s and 40s, the motion studies of the Futurists were largely untainted by recent political history and 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 that also followed the example set in the 15th century by Leonardo. Twombly is also known to have been looking closely at Duchamp at this time, in particular, his early Futurist works, such as Nude Descending a Staircase and Sad Young Man on a Train, although it is perhaps the French artist’s Three Standard Stoppages that is most resonant in connection with such measured and yet poetic explorations of line as those that Twombly’s Blackboard paintings present.
With its dramatic over lacing of many irregular looping lines, Untitled is an elaborate, even flamboyant example from Twombly’s series of lasso-line paintings. It is a work in which the raw energy and singularity of Twombly’s magical line, though miraculously maintained throughout, seems, in places, frenetic and almost on the point of scrambling out of control. Calling to mind Jackson Pollock’s precarious balancing act and extraordinary control of his whole composition, even when caught up in the individual drama of his drip, here Twombly’s frothing line appears to articulate one continuous pulsating field of energy. Written, rather than painted, in wax crayon over a grey-oil ground, the perpetual and burgeoning swirl of Twombly’s repetitive calligraphy becomes painterly here, in spite of the fact that it is essentially the expression of the perpetual, irresistible momentum of a series of seemingly single lines. In this particular painting, Twombly achieved the rich gray surface by using a cloth soaked in dilutant, often rubbing it into the canvas which removed paint before he painted over it again. This achieved a range of beautiful paint variations, resulting in an almost blue-hue.
In response to criticism of the apparent crudity or untutored rawness of his line—something that the artist had, in fact, worked hard to effect—Twombly replied that it was a “child-like” line but not a “childish” one. He is known in the 1950s, for example, to have sat up late at night drawing in the dark so as to untrain his hand from its trained conventions and habits and to awaken the raw, untutored mark of expression and feeling, instinctive in a child. Such “child-like” quality to his line, Twombly once pointed out, is in fact, “very difficult to fake, to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child’s line. It has to be felt” (Cy Twombly quoted in Hayden Herrera, “Cy Twombly, A Homecoming,” Harper’s Bazaar, no. 3393, August, 1994, p. 147).
In a large-scale painting like Untitled of 1970, which was painted upright with the artist standing, facing it at close proximity, this all-important “feeling” of the line would also have involved the motion of the artist’s whole body. The act of painting or drawing such a work, therefore, becomes a powerful and exhausting physical act in which the act of painting/drawing becomes a repetitive and rhythmic dance. In this way, too, the entire process of making the work and the resultant form that Twombly’s line takes as a result of this process is a graphic expression of this, not just mental, but bodily act of feeling. It is, Twombly once explained to David Sylvester, something that comes “through the nervous system. It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning. It’s like I’m experiencing something frightening, I’m experiencing the thing and I have to be at that state because I’m also going. I don’t know how to handle it. Pollock, when you see him working...to me, Pollock is the height of American painting. It’s very lyrical. Gorky, who is very passionate, can copy a drawing or take a drawing and copy it exactly as a painting, and Miro can too, it’s amazing. Miro can do a drawing to paint and that’s another training in a sense. So there’s a certain mannerism that comes in both of them, and probably everything becomes obvious in time. But I don’t have that. The line is illustrated or the colour. I’m sure it has great feeling when they’re doing it, but it’s more towards defining something. It has a certain clarity because it’s a complex thing. I’m a painter and my whole balance is not having to think about things. So all I think about is painting” (Cy Twombly “Interview with David Sylvester” in David Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2001, pp. 178-179).
As in Boccioni’s painting States of Mind, for example, and even more particularly in some of the drawings for this famous tripartite painting in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s collection, the sense of individual or autonomous form in Untitled, ultimately, is undermined as each element comes to be presented as interdependent on the others. It is in this way, through the clever integration of a sense of the single line, the multiple line and of the whole, that Twombly’s painting comes to present a not dissimilar graphic approximation of a sense of journeying, of odyssey and also, therefore, of the multiple-layered mystery of human existence. Presenting what appears to be the path of a single line, but which is in fact many layers of both revealed and obliterated but continuous lines fluctuating along the same directional path, Untitled is a work that articulates a strong existential sense of 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 comes to stand as a powerful metaphor for the single but also, ultimately, integrated path that an individual life takes within a similar multiple, diverse but ultimately united whole.