Summoning visual poetry from wave upon wave of spiraling lines, Cy Twombly’s Untitled unites paradigms of text and image to mesmerizing effect. Oscillating between the subjectivity of the gesture and the repeated motions of a mechanical exercise, Twombly’s delicate pencil lines seem to vibrate with focused concentration and creative energy. Dating from 1969, the work juxtaposes dark graphite, delicate white gouache and heavily opaque house paint to create a work of striking originality. Describing himself as a draughtsman and pencil as his favorite medium, works such as this were made for and of themselves, never as a preparation for a painting or sculpture. “I don’t do drawings when I paint,” he once said. “It’s another state of mind”. (C. Twombly, quoted n “History Behind the Thought: Interview with Nicholas Serota,” 2007, Cy Twombly. Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat. Tate, London, 2008).
Untitled is unusual in being deliberately divided, very subtly, into two sections. The top portion of the sheet is folded over; leaving a fine horizontal shadow that is created when they meet. The subdivision of the picture plane with a single slender line was a metaphorical device that Twombly had used on occasion before to suggest the relationship between higher and lower realms; between heaven and earth; between sea and sky. “Lines have a great effect on paintings. They give great emphasis. There’s a line in Archilocos, who is my favorite poet, a general, a mercenary: “Leaving Paphos rimmed with waves, rimmed” ...It may not sound interesting to you but it’s central to me. I’m a Mediterranean painter” (C. Twombly, quoted n “History Behind the Thought: Interview with Nicholas Serota,” 2007, Cy Twombly. Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat. Tate, London, 2008).
Although seemingly divided, the composition is united by the vigorous gray lines that loop rhythmically and consistently across the surface of both sheets of paper. Their horizontal rows clip and collide into each other and yet stay distinct, like sentences written across a page. Under the influence of Twombly’s artistic hand, the highly worked surface becomes a multi-layered experience. Upon an initial gray ground, Twombly lays down successive layers of white paint, then while still wet, the artist drags a blunt instrument across the surface causing the loops and swirls to form in the pale upper layer, revealing the gray beneath. In addition once the surface is dry Twombly then repeats the process using a graphite pencil, this time leaving the mark to sit on top of the now dry white paint. Once complete, these three layers become entwined, resulting in a surface that is at once, rich and luxuriant. Akin to handwriting, the motif is formulaic, but it is not mechanical. There are areas where the lines are clear and determined, and there are places where they have become barely visible or have been deliberately obscured. Where the lines have been reduced to mere trace by a white gouache overlay, Untitled becomes a palimpsest. Echoing the sense of ritualized learning techniques evoked by the repeated loops of the motif, the work is reminiscent of a well-thumbed manuscript or a script waiting to be deciphered, rich with the promise of knowledge.
Although born in Lexington, Virginia, by 1969 Twombly had lived for over a decade in Rome. Untitled revives some of the themes—the ascetic, undulating pencil lines and the bold simplicity of the background—that had preoccupied him after his initial move to Italy, in particular the group of drawings he called Poems to the Sea. Made in a small, whitewashed fishing village on the coast of the Mediterranean just after he was married, the series reflects Twombly’s interest in what he described as the “symbolic whiteness” contained within the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé as well as the influence of the sea. “The Mediterranean… is always just white, white, white,” he said many years later. (C. Twombly in an interview with D. Sylvester, “Cy Twombly (2000),” in Interviews with American Artists, New Haven and London, 2001). White continued to dominate his work of the late 1950s and early 1960s—to the point that the marks became subsumed by it—as if he allowed the bright sunlight of his adopted home to seep into his work. Surrounded by sunlit marble columns in Rome, whiteness had become a manifesto and a muse. “White paint is my marble,” he told David Sylvester.
Twombly tethered himself to Rome’s history, which allowed him to maintain a distance from the emotion-led gestures that guided Abstract Expressionism in his native America. Alive to the city’s illustrious past, references to classical mythology, ancient history, Renaissance painting and poetry became increasingly prominent in his paintings. In the early 1960s mythological motifs appeared with increasing frequency—Leda and the Swan, Venus, Apollo, and Achilles—culminating in 1963 with his masterpiece, Nine Discourses on Commodus, now in the collection of the Guggenheim Bilbao. A painting cycle based on the megalomaniacal Roman emperor Aurelius Commodus (161–192 CE) and his eventual assassination; it is a remarkable example of the expressive and visceral quality of paint, managing to convey tension, fear and chaos within the confines of the canvas. It was exhibited the next year in New York, but in a world tuned to Pop art and Minimalism, it was met with incomprehension and derision. Twombly used this lack of interest to his advantage. He said later that it made him ‘the happiest painter around for a couple of years: no one gave a damn what I did” (C. Twombly, quoted at http://www.cytwombly.info/index.html).
Out of the fruitful period between 1966 and 1971 arose a series of works that are among his most celebrated. Like Untitled, they are characterized by continuous chains of ellipses set against a sparse background, and sustain a similar strict formal restraint and a pedagogical overtone. Known as the Blackboard paintings, they are more minimalist both in color and in style, and marked a decisive move away from the Baroque themes and vivid colors of the paintings of the immediately preceding years. Typically executed in a reduced palette of white against slate gray, they are named Blackboard paintings after their similarity to those found in the classroom. To create these works, Twombly adopted a strict formulaic procedure that closely echoes the Palmer method of teaching handwriting that was used in American elementary schools, and that was taught to the artist himself. It was a daily drill, often accompanied by a teacher counting time. The motif therefore resembles these exercises, but adeptly translates a basic physical movement into a painterly—opposed to a verbal—language. Exploring the mystery of the written word and of drawing as a creative endeavor, they hark back to Twombly’s time as a cryptographer in the US army in the early 1950s, when he simultaneously attempted to unlearn any skill he had acquired as a draughtsman, by drawing in the dark, for example, or at oblique angles. Critics at the time interpreted this as a reaction to the reception of his other work, a way of exerting self-control and reverting to basics. However, it was more a way to realizing one of his earliest stated beliefs that: “Each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate—it is the sensation of its own realization.” (C. Twombly, quoted in “Documenti di una nuova figurazione: Toti Scialoja, Gastone Novelli, Pierre Alechinsky, Achille Perilli, Cy Twombly,” L’Esperienza moderna, 1957, p. 32.)
Tellingly, the year prior to making Untitled, Twombly made a collage work that included a reproduction of a Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of deluges and floods. Leonardo’s drawings, which attempted to trace the ephemeral, convulsive movements of air and water, contained the kind of line that fascinated Twombly. The rise and fall of the repeated script in Untitled reflect Leonardo’s own attempts to rationalize a mystical momentum; Twombly too aims to express that which is innately understood but remains indescribable. His drawings contain the rudiments of meaning and the potential for understanding, but they refuse to articulate anything specific. Rather, they are concerned with broad themes of time passing, energy exerted, and of a striving to improve. They set the stage for a narrative, but the subject presented is always elusive. As John Berger put it: “I know of no other visual Western artist who has created an oeuvre that visualizes with living colors the silent space that exists between and around words. Cy Twombly is the painterly master of verbal silence” (J. Berger, “Post-Scriptum. Audible Silence: Cy Twombly at Daros”, 2002, accessed at: http://www.cytwombly.info/twombly_writings8.htm).