Unprecedented in its originality, an inspirational source of Cy Twombly's inventive works in three dimensions that extend throughout his life, Untitled (New York) proclaims its essential forms and material surfaces. Cast in bronze, a common practice throughout his sculptural output--the first original and second bronzed version, of which the present work is an iconic example--these twinned sculptures were exhibited often side by side. For Twombly, casting in bronze evoked the all-over effect of the white house paint washes he originally used in an effort to bring unity to his assemblages, where encasing disparate forms and surfaces in a single medium creates a lively surface counterpoint. The present work also shares with Twombly's other sculptures an intimate scale, a choice Twombly made not simply for aesthetic, but also for practical reasons: "I did them a certain scale so I could carry them around. Small, because I like to be able to look at them. Most of these things could be of any scale; what they are is what is important" (C. Twombly, interview with N. Serota, The Guardian, June 3, 2008).
In Untitled (New York), the bronzed outer layer, dusted with Twombly's characteristic white pigment, suggests the unifying, light-reflecting surfaces of the original. Tensile, erect, a play of light over roughened surfaces, its exterior reveals the volatile materiality of the original cloth, twine, and wood. All but un-manipulated by the artist but for their grouping and placement, these elements evince no trace of the carving or modeling found in traditional sculptural practice, but rather stand as they were found, worn remnants of their banal use in the everyday, an everyday that records Twombly's peripatetic life. Conceived during the artist's first investigations into assemblage--the years from 1946 through 1959 (interrupted for a year's military service, 1953-54), and resumed once again 1976--the present work speaks to the productive association with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg during and after years of study and travel together. A photograph taken by Rauschenberg of Twombly in the former's Fulton Street Studio shows Twombly with several sculptures that in their materials and formal elements are foundational for the present work. The scale, verticality, bundling, along with use of wood and twine, foreshadow Untitled (New York), a work possibly made in the same studio space (or in the rented studio on William Street, secured in the fall of 1954).
Mysterious, arresting, Twombly also has described the process of making such sculptural works as a "...whole other state" from painting, as "a building thing" (C. Twombly, interview with David Sylvester, "C. Twombly Writings 2," www.cytwombly.com). In Twombly's Untitled (New York), we see evidence of the artist's hand, not in the traditional sense of a marking's indexical trace, but in the physical gestural effect of, for example, the repetitive action of binding. For Untitled (New York) records a moment of becoming, in which the action of the artist is remaindered. Twombly engages here in what he has described as an intuitive process: "It's the instinct for the placement where all that happens. I don't have to think about it.... It's the instinct and the motion and the whole all together. And it functions in different directions. It's not the focus. It goes beyond" (Ibid.). Constructed of five wood laths, wrapped and bound around a central vertical upright rising from a wooden plinth, each "tongue" or "fan," sprouting organically out of the base had been wrapped by the artist in remnants of fabric, the surplus folded over the top ends and each tightly bound by twine. Wedged together, the tongue-like forms seem to struggle within their confinements. Originally positioned on a black square plinth (see ibid. fig. 10, p. 36), Twombly later refashioned the base into a gently tiered bevel-edged pedestal and then overpainted the entire work in white wash. The physicality of this work is palpable in the contracting force of the wide swath of banding that positions the five laths above the single rising support. Springing apart as a result of the jute's grasp, each lath is itself bound by twine. The work embodies both in fact and as metaphor the act of constriction, a forced compression that reifies the artist's obsessive and uncompromising binding, and in turn, its obsessional affect. Form arises from material here, which in turn suggests content. The psychological and emotional associations cannot be denied.
By the mid-1940s, Twombly had begun what came to be a lifelong passion. Initially working with objet trouvé, these early sculptures came to bear a striking affinity with the paintings in terms of their dialogue with ancient Roman and Greek history, their themes, and artifactual content. Excavating materials from the banal everyday, in particular worn object remnants was a strategy Twombly adopted early on, following modern European Dadaists and Surrealists for example, Kurt Schwitters in his assemblages and collages. The anthropomorphic character, however, of much of the younger artist's production demonstrates the influence of Alberto Giacometti. While the process is reminiscent of Schwitters' collaged detritus of modern society, Twombly's focus shifts from present day to ancient past, from palpably used objects to artifacts of use. Implicit in works such as Untitled (New York) is the archetype, evincing a totemic sensibility, as if it was meant to be carried in procession. The vegetal biomorphic curves defeat the notion of frontality, while spatial distances--conveyed by an intimacy of scale reminiscent of Giacometti's various walking and standing men and women--suggest a perspective not only of physical expanse, but also of an extension in time. Hovering over its flattened base, Twombly's "figure" derives its vertical momentum from this foundational structure, integrated as it is into the work, in an echo of Giacometti's striding figures.
An early exhibition in 1953 at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery came at the invitation of Nick Carone, the assistant director, who had seen Twombly's work at the Sam Kootz Gallery in New York. Offered a solo exhibition, Twombly accepted only on the condition that he share it with his friend Rauschenberg. What Carone had seen in Twombly's paintings "looked like a combination of Franz Kine calligraphy and that duality of Ryder's--painterly and glowing. They had a [sic] real plastic sensibilities" (N. Carone, "In Conversation: The Stable Gallery," Brooklyn Rail, Early Summer, 2002, www.brooklynrail.org). That "plastic sensibility" could be seen, too, in the eleven sculptures that were included in the exhibition, which went virtually unremarked in the context of the enthusiastic reception given to the black and white enamel house paint paintings from that year. The poet and critic Frank O'Hara remarked on the "witty and funeral" aspect of the works, and also suggested that Twombly would benefit "from being seen alone and on his own terms" (in K. Schmidt, "Looking at Cy Twombly's Sculpture," Cy Twombly: The Sculpture, Basel and Houston, 2000, p. 35). The sculptures--found objects, fragments of wood slathered in roughly surfaced plaster and white paint or cast in bronze--were abstract in form, yet rich in their associative meanings, their allusion to mythological subjects, artifacts from ancient civilization, and fetishistic reliquaries. Comparing the present work to Rauschenberg's Fetish of two years earlier, made when he and Twombly traveled in North Africa, the relationship of inversion in evidence--dangling discrete tubular "feet" (Ibid., figure 11, p. 37) reversing the rising verticality of Twombly's "fronds"--suggests a shared ritualistic spirit, an imaginative reworking of the fetish as commemorative object. In contrast to Rauschenberg's overtly fetishistic work, however, Twombly's Untitled (New York) exhibits a classicism of form, a structural clarity that calls up associations with the natural world, plant life in particular, and anticipates his later sensuous, if fragile, flowers and leaves, the vegetal "landscapes" of the 1980s and 90s.
We are moved here by the lyricism and inflected light, surely, but primarily by the self-contained, almost elemental presence of Untitled (New York). Its capacity to compel our attention derives in no small part from its implied totemic effect, its appeal to cultural memory, and its poised and graceful anthropomorphic formation through which we struggle to "square its radical materiality with its undeniable aestheticism" (J. Weiss, Artforum International Magazine, 2008, www.cytwombly.info). A singular expression of Twombly's own recuperation of the mythic, Untitled (New York), is a site of engagement, both with the artist's process and his allegorical imaginings; it stands as an ode to materiality, obdurate and abject, as well as a palimpsest of mythical import.