‘After the capitulation of a vast style, Twombly has learned to write again’
(R. Pincus Witten, ‘Learning to Write’, 1968, quoted in N. del Roscio (ed.), Writings on Twombly, Munich, 2002, p. 57).
‘I never really separated painting and literature’ (C. Twombly, ‘History Behind the Thought’ Interview with Nicholas Serota, 2007,
Cy Twombly. Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat. Tate, London, 2008, p. 45).
‘Each line is the ‘actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate - it 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.)
‘Here...the legacy of Abstract Expressionism is at issue: Twombly ventures into the area of an engulfing abstract sublime that Pollock had defined, and that had seemed off-limits to the art of the 1960s...(He)... replaces the coloured organicism of Pollock with colourless lines whose steady, progressive rise and fall insists on their attachment to the drier constraints of writing, will, and culture’ (K. Varnedoe, quoted in Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., MoMA, New York. 1994, p. 43).
‘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’ (C. Twombly, quoted in Hayden Herrera, ‘Cy Twombly, A Homecoming’, Harper’s Bazaar, no 3393, August, 1994, p. 147).
Painted in New York in 1970, this untitled work is one of the last of the famous series of ‘blackboard’ paintings that Cy Twombly made in a dramatic and distinctive burst of creativity between 1966 and 1971. A large, nearly two metre-long, shimmering, grey-ground spatial-field of elegantly lilting and layered scrawl ‘handwritten’ over a highly painterly surface, the picture is a hypnotic and mesmerizing work that intentionally breaks down the borders between painting and drawing. It is also a work that marks the final, climactic phase of this singular period in the artist’s career and its fusion into a unique style of painting which, between 1970 and 1971, was to characterize many of the grandest, most ambitious and monumental of all Twombly’s paintings.
Originating in 1966, Twombly’s ‘blackboards’ are a series of paintings that signified a radical new direction in the artist’s work. Distinguishable for their strict graphic regularity, severe formal restraint and often apparent emptiness, these, in some ways, Minimalist-looking pictures, were ones that marked a startling departure from the schismatic and often Baroque lyricism of the artist’s earlier, predominantly white-ground pictures, rooted in the history, mythology and emotion of the Mediterranean landscape. Instead, Twombly’s ‘blackboards’ appeared to demonstrate the artist’s return to and renewed interest in the primacy of drawing and in the use of line as a conveyer of the human imagination.
Made, more or less consistently between 1966 and 1971, Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ paintings are so-named because, when they were first exhibited, they appeared to the critics of American art magazines such as Artforum and ArtNEWS to have been inspired by the notion of the classroom blackboard or the child’s primer as a temporal and highly graphic carrier of information. As in this example from 1970, these paintings were also predominantly, though not always, made on a series of swiftly executed dark-grey oil-paint backgrounds that resembled the slate of a blackboard. In the case of Untitled (New York City), its ground has been made using broad sweeps of a large brush. Here, the dark grey paint has been allowed, even encouraged, to drip and splash in places so that it generates an organic, unformed and dynamic surface that contrasts openly with the linear logic, regularity and continuum of the ‘writing’ in oil crayon which, in the main, has been applied over the top of its irregular surface. In some places, both ground and ‘text’ have, however, been inter-layered into one another. Here, Twombly has obscured earlier writing by painting over it with a brush before subsequently adding further lines and layers of lines. In this way the painting becomes a kind of palimpsest where both the drawn and the painted elements of the picture appear interwoven and interdependent. As a consequence, Twombly’s ‘writing’ almost magically appears to be both emerging from and simultaneously dissolving into the picture’s dark, monochromatic ground.
Between 1966 and the climactic end of this distinctive series of works in 1971 when they effectively evolved into another epic series of paintings known as Nini’s Paintings, around three or four distinct types of ‘blackboard’ paintings can be identified. Each of these ‘types’ signified a different and developing exploration of the graphic language of representation using only the simplest, most reductive and restrained of pictorial means. Growing out of the very first of these works - paintings such as Problem now in the Moderne Museum für Kunst, Frankfurt and Nightwatch of 1966 - were a series of sparse and comparatively empty, grey-ground, paintings that centred on forms of the very simplest geometry, executed in the manner of chalk diagrams on a classroom blackboard and shown, as if moving, transforming or even evolving in space. Preoccupied with the linear depiction of measurement, geometry, form and space, these works were to evolve, under the influence of the Apollo moon-landings of July 1969 and all their talk about space-time calculation into paintings (the Bolsena and Treatise on the Veil pictures) that attempted to render the monochrome picture plane as if it were an Einsteinian field of space-time through which drawing and written notation moved. Along with his preoccupation with space and the graphic, hand-drawn line, the element of time is a central theme that runs through all of Twombly’s ‘blackboards’. Twombly’s languid, flowing line does not just articulate a division of form and space in these paintings but is also a rhythmic and graphic delineation of speed and duration and therefore also of time. Untitled (New York City), with its suggestion of half-formed letters and glyphs combining together to establish a uniform sense of an energized field of graphic activity, asserts itself in this context as if it were some kind of balanced but indecipherable equation that occupies just such a space-time realm. Its fluid linguistic lines magically seem to emerge, Belshazaaar-like, from the dark impenetrable surface of the painting as if they were some kind of seismographic recording in space and time of the passage of language through the history.
Belonging to the final ‘type’ of ‘blackboard’ paintings that Twombly made, Untitled (New York City) is a work that evolved out of perhaps the most distinctive and symptomatic of all the series - the so-called ‘lasso-loop’ pictures - in which, within the strict, rectangular format of the canvas, Twombly set out to push a simple and deliberately constrained system of mark-making to its limits, or even beyond them. For these works, Twombly repeatedly and methodically drew out in crayon a single, repetitive and seemingly endless flowing progression of loosely-scrawled, looping lines. Effectively the product of one continuous line that overlaps itself to the point where it almost dissolves into a single, holistic, energized spatial field of graphic activity, the lasso-loop paintings often appear to hover on the very borderlines of the formal logic and structure that has given rise to them. By pushing this logic to its limits, these are pictures that both explore the innate quality of line as an articulation of form and space and expose the precise point where line also becomes integrated into a wider, collective field of expression and meaning. Most importantly perhaps, with regards to Untitled (New York City) of 1970, these are works that begin to reveal the exact moment or place where the graphic art of writing and drawing starts to fuse into and become the more cohesive, plastic art of painting. For, it is exactly this aspect of these works that Twombly set out explore the similarly formatted ‘blackboards’, he began in New York in 1970, and of which Untitled (new York City) is one of the first examples.
Painted not in Italy, but in what Twombly himself described as the ‘relatively cooler’ (more restrained) atmosphere of New York in 1970, where the aesthetics of Minimalism and Conceptualism then prevailed, Untitled (New York City) is a work that follows the same formal logic of the early lasso-loop ‘blackboards’ but extends it away from their repetitive looping progression into the realm of written language and its use of line as a carrier of codified meaning. Instead of the repetitive, but essentially meaningless, progression of line in the lasso-loops, Twombly now attempted to translate the instinctive, unconscious, near-habitual and gestural impulses of the hand, when writing, into the creation of a single integrated field of form.
Marking a coming together therefore, between the reductive logic of his ‘blackboard’ paintings and the intuitive impulse of his earlier white-ground pictures, Twombly has in works such as Untitled (New York City), taken the Surrealist technique of automatic writing and the free-form gestural field of play that Jackson Pollock made out of it and turned it back on itself. Pollock’s open gesture here becomes a graphic form of self-inquiry. Writing in a freeform, impulsive and unconscious flow that makes use of the hand and the mind’s instinctive desire to express and to form, Twombly has here, using his whole body, gesturally written in such a way that it is the innately human, intellectual impulse towards writing that comes to be expressed. Taking care only that the painting remain wholly abstract - that such writing does not fall into habit, convention or recognisability, but remains indecipherable - that no clear letter, number or other interpretable symbol should, like a representational image come to disturb the apparently continuous flow of impulsively arrived-at abstract form - Twombly uses the restrictive format of the blackboard to create a uniform field of energy that stands also as a kind of illustrative landscape of the human mind. Seeming to be both embedded in and emerging from the painterly surface of the work, this energized ‘field’, with its powerful graphic suggestions of thought, gesture, expression and of the passage of time, appears, like a palimpsest, to entrap within itself something of the essence of the human intellectual impulse and of our inner need to externalize, formalize and materialize such thought.
It is in this respect that Untitled (New York City) marks Twombly’s return to and reinvestigation of a kind of handwritten mark that the artist had frst explored in the mid-1950s while sharing a studio with Robert Rauschenberg in Fulton Street, New York. There, inspired by the then dominant examples of Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet but also by the work of John Cage whom, with Rauschenberg, he had encountered at Black Mountain College, Twombly had embarked on an ambitious series of large ‘handwritten’ black and white paintings. Throughout much of 1954 and 1955 Twombly had worked on these large-scale, free-form and highly ambitious paintings before ultimately abandoning and destroying them. Only one masterpiece - the three-and-a-half metre-long painting Panorama of 1954 now survives from this major series. Seeming, like Untitled (new York City) in fact, to be simultaneously expressive of both emptiness and fullness, these paintings reflected Twombly’s interest in the written fragment, the glyph, the cypher and the impulsive creative gesture as elementary forms or archetypes - things indicative and revealing of something both primordial and innately human.
Caught between what Nicholas Cullinan has described as ‘rebus and ruin’, these paintings were a startling combination of stasis and flux, of fixed sign and fluid gesture born out of a combination of the fragmented use of words, space and graphic form in the poetry of Stephane Mallarmé and Ezra Pound, as well as Twombly’s own experience of cryptography during his military service. (Nicholas Cullinan, quoted in Twombly and Poussin Arcadian Painters exh cat. London, 201, p. 94) These ‘black and white’ paintings evidently did not prove satisfactory to the artist however, and, after abandoning them - his first series of paintings on a dark ground - Twombly rarely returned to the themes they had addressed until the creation of the ‘blackboards’.
It appears that it was the re-evaluating experience of making the ‘blackboard’ paintings in the late 1960s and the pared down, restrictive logic of these works that ultimately encouraged Twombly, in 1970, to embark, in works such as Untitled (new York City), on a revisiting of the same territory he had abandoned in New York fifteen years earlier. As in 1955, Twombly’s re-embracing of such fluid and impulsive mark-making almost immediately gave rise to a creative explosion and a dramatic increase in the scale of his pictures until soon, he was making some of the largest and most ambitious paintings of his entire career. Once again venturing into what Kirk Varnedoe described as ‘the area of an engulfing abstract sublime that Pollock had defined,’ works like Untitled (New York City) led swiftly onto the creation of a sequence of truly monumental examples of this style in ‘handwritten’ paintings that measured between four and over six metres long. (Kirk Varnedoe quoted in Cy Twombly: A Retrospective. exh. cat. MoMA, New York. 1994. p. 43). These were works of which Varnedoe was to write: ‘Here, even more than in the earlier Panorama, the legacy of Abstract Expressionism is at issue: Twombly ventures into the area of an engulfing abstract sublime that Pollock had defined, and that had seemed off-limits to the art of the 1960s. The prospect of extending and remaking Pollock’s legacy by changing everything deemed essential to his art might appear as perverse as the notion of a grand subjective expression built on Minimalist reduction, and yet both are here, remarkably realized. Twombly replaces the coloured organicism of Pollock with colourless lines whose steady, progressive rise and fall insists on their attachment to the drier constraints of writing, will, and culture.’ (ibid, p. 43).