Overview

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Cy Twombly (b. 1928)
Property of a Private German Collection
Cy Twombly (b. 1928)

Untitled

Details
Cy Twombly (b. 1928)
Untitled
oil and wax crayon on canvas
19¾ x 23 7/8 in. (50 x 60.6 cm.)
Painted in 1961.
Provenance
Galleria La Tarturuga, Rome
Karsten Greve, Cologne
Waddington Galleries, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1979
Literature
H. Bastian, Cy Twombly Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Vol. II, 1961-1965, Munich, 1993, p. 117, no. 62 (illustrated in color).

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Lot Essay

"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 indulgencies 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 K. Varnedoe (ed.), Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 1994, p. 27).
Lyrical, energetic marks race across the surface of Cy Twombly's Untitled, bearing all the hallmarks of his unique brand of mark making. Twombly created a highly distinctive and complex iconographic structure, resulting in a strange and mystical visual language. He did this by combining recognizable and imagined ciphers that tussle and vie with each other for our attention. Twombly took several trips to Italy and North Africa in the 1950s, and the sights and senses of the timeless Mediterranean world influenced him. They inspired him to liberate his mind, free himself from traditional artistic constraints and develop a unique cryptography, resulting in a new visual language, one of the most emotional and expressive ever created.
In Untitled, Twombly constructs his unique code out of a rich combination of marks made directly onto the freshly painted surface as well as flashes of fiery red wax crayon which he uses to adorn the lower portions of the canvas. These marks, some wild and unrestrained, some more controlled and recognizable - including a series of numerals that run along the lower edge and what appears to be the reductive form of a window -- build up to produce a maelstrom of excitable and expressive inscriptions. This period of Twombly's career contained some of his most impressive and emotionally wrought works, as he instilled energy and vivacity in works. The pristine clarity of his marks against a background had been a central theme of his work since the late 1950s. His palette's purity during this time came about because he was studying the works of the French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé. On his second trip to Italy, Twombly wrote to his dealer Eleanor Ward that he was "reading Mallarmé seriously." The 19th Century poet conceived of the white page as a vital spatial and temporal void, which a poet charges with meaning through the "play" of words upon it. Mallarmé asserted that poets established most meaning in this area between words, through the words' play with one another and the connotations and ideas this stimulated. Mallarmé's poetry is notoriously difficult to translate because its phonetics play strongly on the ambiguity and similar sound of words, intentionally establishing multiple meanings and strange, seemingly miraculous associations in the mind of the reader. Similarly, Twombly explored in graphic form the fluid interchange of elements in this multi-dimensional and poetic form, incising into a thick, white, void-like background in his paintings, simultaneously intermingling, obfuscating and revealing the borderlines between writing and drawing, drawing and painting, language and meaning, space and time, thought and action.
We find the essence of Cy Twombly's art in that most basic act for an artist, the physical process of making a mark on a surface. Twombly had been fascinated with the centuries of graffiti scrawled on the Eternal City's marble surfaces, ever since his first visit to Rome with Robert Rauschenberg in 1953. After this trip, Twombly worked hard to "untrain" his hand by practicing free drawing in the dark, so as to allow his hand to create without either sight or conscious thought intervening - to "show things in flux", as Twombly said, and to attain physical marks that reflected what Roland Barthes once described as the "hand's desire". Twombly described the kind of scribbles that evolved from this practice as a rhythm that conveyed "the deeply aesthetic sense of eroded or ancient surfaces of time" (K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, MoMA, New York, 1994, p. 29).

But unlike the ancient writings that had originally piqued Twombly's interest, he did not mean particular marks to have any literal meaning or sense of composition. Kirk Varnedoe, one of the few articulate and intelligible writers on Twombly's work, explained the early paintings like Untitled. "[I]n the area of graffiti, (the artist) was less drawn to particular pictograms, as evidence of universal elements of mental life, than to the look of accretively scarred walls, with their layers of overlapping marks that subsume individual moments of expression into dense accumulations." These "models," Varnedoe wrote, "allow for a style based not on the ideal of the wholeness of a unique individual temperament, but on the intuition of the self as a society of feelings and impulses that can disgorge themselves, independently and interdependently, into the act of creation; they speak not in the buried code of a dark, primitive consciousness, but in the common inflections that have marked pictorial street slang at least since the walls of Pompeii" (Ibid, p. 24).

Untitled masterfully expresses Cy Twombly's unique pictorial structure: inherently modern, yet heavily permeated with palpable antiquity. The free-flowing forms and distinctive iconographic structure belong to the tradition of Abstract Expressionism, yet they transcend its distinctly American origins. Twombly's marks introduce the timeless; they became ancient and universal, and in doing so reflected how Twombly perceived what it meant to be an American living in the ancient city of Rome. This great city captivated Twombly, it having once been the center of one the greatest empires the world has ever known, he being the product of the "new empire" of the United States. These two great civilizations collide in his work, which itself perceptively examines the differences and similarities between ancient and modern society, "In life as in art, Twombly's responses never entail mere antiquarian nostalgia, but rather a desire to hold the past and present simultaneously. It is the living continuity between the heights of antiquity and the common orders of the day that forms the texture of his experience and the stuff of his work" ( Ibid, p.36).

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