“Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate—it is thesensation of its own realization. The imagery is one of the private or separate indulgences rather than an abstract totality of visual perception.”
“The imagery is one of private or separate indulgencies rather than an abstract totality of visual perception.”
“Here, the chaste austerity of Twombly’s New York monochromatic paintingsis becalmed, softens and dissolves into classical whiteness still slightlytainted by the traces of long-lost polychromy; language unravels into line and syntax is corroded into contour.”
“The edges of the works, especially at the top and bottom, become significant activity, and this along with the drift, evokes the sensation that a gentle wind lifts and deflects the long, grass-like strokes as they rise across these surfaces. Gravity and its absence become, more than ever before, an issue at play.”
Cy Twombly’s Sunset is the personal evocation of a sublime summer that the artist spent in Italy in 1957, a time that marked the beginning of one of the most successful and prolific periods of his career. The suite of marks and gestures that Twombly assembled in this canvas would come to play a vital role in subsequent paintings, including early traces of the leftto-right compositional drift that would become one of his signature marks. Classical, ethereal, and poetical, these marks stand as deeply felt expressions of the influence of his new home and life in the Eternal City of Rome, and represent the beginnings of a body of work that responds to classical history, architecture, literature, and poetry. Investing paint, pencil, and colored crayon marks with a vital energy and controlled emotional charge, Twombly’s scrawled, scratched, scribbled, and smeared interventions, applied directly to a blank white canvas, exist as complex reflections on the creation of the work itself, and of the odyssey of human existence.
The richness of Twombly’s canvas is distinguished by the remarkable range and quality of the gestures that the artist arranges across its textured surface. Executed in paint, wax crayon, colored, and graphite pencil, these lyrical marks range from graceful arcs of gold, crimson, and warm yellow to scrawled graphite cyphers that appear to be semi-recognizable letters or symbols that struggle to disclose their actual meaning, before being subsumed under washes of translucent white pigment. A thin horizontal line traverses the lower edge of the canvas, acting as a horizon of sorts, anchoring the painting in the physical world while the rest of the markings suggest the encroachment of the spiritual. Above this low line of graphite, the artist introduces a plethora of delicate graphic marks; a series of hearts executed in gold crayon populates the lower left corner of the work, next a series of dramatic red striations race up from the lower edge of the canvas. Elsewhere, the elegant loops that would become synonymous in much of Twombly’s later work emerge in a maelstrom of gesture. Sometimes actual words appear, such as “Morte” (the Italian term for death), which appears in the upper right portion of the painting, one of the few moments in the painting when the earthly world encroaches on Twombly’s Arcadian idyll.
Painted in 1957, Sunset was a marked departure from the more frenzied mark-making that had occupied Twombly in New York just a year earlier. In the present work, the gestures coalesce into distinct clusters, rather than filling the entire picture plane as in his earlier works, thus allowing for more space between these passages of flowing activity. The poetic nature of these new forms is enhanced by the creamy smooth surface, which was the result of the artist’s adoption of cementite (a domestic primer) as his primary painting medium. According to Kirk Varnedoe, the consequence was fields that are “newly aerated, with a sense of space and light—and color, in crayon passages of yellow, orange, red, and ochre… More important than previously,” Varnedoe adds, “the edges of the works, especially at the top and bottom, become significant activity, and this along with the drift, evokes the sensation that a gentle wind lifts and deflects the long, grass-like strokes as they rise across these surfaces. Gravity and its absence become, more than ever before, an issue at play” (K. Varnedoe, “Inscriptions in Arcadia,” in N. del Roscio, (ed.), The Essential Cy Twombly, New York, 2014, p. 68).
This marked shift in Twombly’s painterly style was caused in part by what Roland Barthes dubbed the “Mediterranean Effect,” the result of the artist’s move from the U.S.A. to Italy in the spring of 1957 (R. Barthes quoted by N. Cullinan, “Et in Arcadia Ego,” in N. Serota, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 2008, p. 71). He spent that summer on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples; here in two beautifully white rooms overlooking the sea he embarked on a series of intimate, highly textured white paintings, in which the only formal register is the impasto encrusted onto the surface. It is these works that act as a direct precursor to Sunset.
Later that year, after making various contacts within the art world, Twombly decided to stay in Italy, renting an apartment facing the Colosseum in Rome. Here he would complete some of the most accomplished paintings from this period, including Arcadia and Blue Room, alongside Sunset. His new environment would have a profound effect on him, “…the chaste austerity of Twombly’s New York monochromatic paintings is becalmed, softens and dissolves into classical whiteness still slightly tainted by the traces of long-lost polychromy; language unravels into line and syntax is corroded into contour” (N. Cullinan, “Et in Arcadia Ego,” in N. Serota, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 2008, p. 71).
A further distinguishing feature that characterizes Twombly’s paintings from this period is what Nicholas Cullinan calls the “pentimenti and palimpsests of fragmented lines and words, half-surfacing and partly concealed like archaeological strata” (Ibid). In Sunset, this can clearly be seen throughout the painting, and transparent upper layers allow us to see the process by which the artist constructed his canvas, highlighted by the low “horizon line” and the series of overlapping quadrilaterals that emerge through the upper painterly layers in the lower left corner. In equal measure, these are then hidden and revealed by Twombly’s disruption of the painted surface by both ends of his paint brush, applying and removing paint in order to evoke the spirit of the Classical world.
1957 was the year that whiteness became a central feature of Twombly’s work. Inspired, in part, by his reading of the work of Stéphane Mallarmé (the French poet and philosopher who was famous for his Symbolist poetry), the artist began to see whiteness as a form in and of itself, rather than as the depiction of absence. “I’ve been reading seriously Mallarmé and Pound,” he wrote to his gallerist Eleanor Ward that year, later adding, “Whiteness can be the classical state of the intellect, or a neo-romantic area of remembrance—or as the symbolic whiteness of Mallarmé” (ibid.). Twombly embraced the Frenchman’s view that “the blankness of the white paper; a significant silence that it is no less lovely to compose than verse” (E. de Waal, “’White, white, white’”: Cy Twombly’s Sea,” in J. Storsve (ed.), Cy Twombly, exh. cat., Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2017, p. 236).
In his studio overlooking Rome’s great vestige of the Classical world, the artist painted Olympia, a sister work to the present example, in which the warms ochres of the monument’s travertine walls begin to creep into Twombly’s previously bleached palette. In addition to the introduction of subtle traces of color softening of his palette, the compositional layout of Twombly’s paintings changes too. Sunset begins to show the first signs of the morphing of his frenzied all-over marking that characterized his Lexington paintings of the previous year, to the more graceful arcs that would set the tone for his paintings for the next several years. Moving from the frenetic energy of New York City to the divine nature of the Eternal City, the artist’s mood changed from “stuttered expletives” of Academy (painted just two summers earlier), to a more romantic and poetic aesthetic as inspired by his new home. In Rome, color seeps back in; the blanched light of his summer in Procida remains, but autumnal Roman colors begin to invade his atmospheric canvases.
Having grown up in Virginia, immersed within the world of the South, which still had ghostly shades and echoes of its antebellum existence, Twombly was acutely aware of the poetry of memory and of history. In Rome, he found it in a condensed form and distilled it directly into the surface of his paintings. There, the sometimes emphatic gestural abstraction, which he had already explored in his earlier works and which owed so much to painters he had come across, such as Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, gave way to the gossamer-like scrawls as seen in Sunset. The looming forms of some of his earlier works and those of his older contemporaries were replaced by the eloquent fragility of the pencil and crayon marks that articulated the painted surfaces of his paintings. That fragility itself was emphasized by the range of effacements that are so in evidence in the present work: Twombly has sometimes erased or painted over the marks he has created. This use of white paint on the already white surface, sometimes accumulating in drips and gloopy emanations, introduces an ambiguous physicality: the luminous mirage-like composition appears to be slipping back and forth across the borders of existence. The combination of the use of pencil and this white-on-white adds to the sense of intangibility and delicacy that suffuses this painting. A 1957 photograph of Twombly in Pompeii demonstrates how receptive he was to the idea of history and the past coming together, as standing among the ruins the eternal history of city collides with the present, the entombed city and its inhabitant representing the suspension of history.
Often thought of being inspired by the ancient graffiti that he’d seen scrawled on the buildings of Rome, Twombly’s work is perhaps above all concerned with creating an expressive pictorial language of action, gesture, feeling, and experience. “To paint involves a certain crisis or at least a critical moment of sensation or release” he once wrote in early statements of his painterly intentions. “Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate—it is the sensation of its own realization. The imagery is one of the private or separate indulgences rather than an abstract totality of visual perception. This is very difficult to describe, but it is an involvement in essence no matter how private, into a synthesis of feeling, intellect etc. occurring without separation in the impulse of action” (C. Twombly, quoted in “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). Essentially material traces of the artist’s actions as he entices permanent form from physical sensations, each of Twombly’s connections with the canvas records the deep sentiment he felt towards his beloved surroundings, and to the timeless, mythical landscape of antiquity.