In an exuberant conflation of the graphic and the painterly, Cy Twombly’s free loops and curves soar across the surface in free horizontal bands. At center left, a schematic “heart” (a “soft-shaped” motif Twombly associates with female sensuality) catalyzes a kinetic response that becomes looser and more open as it travels, cutting off from view an explosion of linearity that might well extend beyond the framing edge. Twombly’s loose gestures mime the Palmer Method developed for learning to write—in which ruled rows of lower and upper case letters were dutifully copied out—while at the same time defy their logic and legibility. Rather, Twombly’s marks swoop and arc, randomly overlapping and crisscrossing, in wave upon wave of raw kinetic energy.
Twombly’s loose graphic allover markings give new meaning to artistic freedom. To “deskill” to the extent that one’s own “sign” is stripped of its relationship to the learned manual skill taught in art school, was an avant-garde turn whose history goes back to the radical statements of Dada. Yet for fine art, this is an arena rarely inhabited by artists up to 1966 when Twombly began drawing with white wax on a grey ground. While boundaries between art and life were erased, artists in America, most prominently Robert Rauschenberg—a close friend and travel companion of Twombly during 1952, and Willem de Kooning who, in the in 1950s, did “Blind Drawings” made with closed eyes or while watching television—Twombly strove to teach himself to “de-skill,” to in effect, eradicate the “habits of history… [by] … disconnecting his hand from his eye” (J. Lawrence, “Cy Twombly’s Cryptic Nature,” in Cy Twombly: Works from the Sonnabend Collection, London and New York, p. 13). While Twombly, too, with a sly wink at Abstract Expressionist painterly gesture, sought in his own “gesture” to remove himself psychologically and manually from his forebears, he also sought to position himself not only outside that earlier stylistic arena, but to create a more intensely personal relationship with his own production. To put it another way, Twombly sought a personal style that was unique to his own hand, a style that would not only distinguish him from his peers, but would reveal the manner in which his own markings “applied to him alone” (J. Lawrence, ibid.). In this way, Twombly’s marks become an expression of what Harald Szeeman called “[Twombly’s] own presence in the here-and-now, …a new tradition which becomes a new present” (H. Szeeman, “An Appreciation: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1987, http://www.cytwombly.info/twombly_writings13.htm).
What is compelling about Untitled is its sheer materiality—its tactility, the way one wants to take a finger and trace Twombly’s marks—a characteristic Twombly consciously cultivated. “It’s instinctive in a certain kind of painting…. It’s like coming through the nervous system. It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening” (C. Twombly and D. Sylvester, “Cy Twombly (2000),” in Interviews with American Artists, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 170). So that if material or tactile presence confers meaning, it is no surprise that Twombly’s graphic marks, in their very materialization, evacuate traditional cultural meaning in favor of personal imprint. And in so doing, the import of these marks is to render traditional meanings null. For the source of meaning for the viewer is now a pure aesthetic: it is beauty in the sense that beauty derives from bodily sensations transferred to the picture plane. With white crayon filling up a grey plane, the beauty of transference between the hand and the eye, the haptic transformed into the optical, is achieved almost instantaneously. As Richard Serra said, “it spells a whole language in the history and memory of the event of making… It counts for its own definition as a think in and of itself” (K. Varnedoe and R. Serra Cy Twombly: An Artist’s Artist,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 28 (Autumn, 1995), p. 163).
After Twombly’s masterful Commodus cycle was met by nearly universal incomprehension at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1964, the artist removed himself to Italy, the unsold paintings were returned to him, and he retreated into a quiet subsequent two years in Italy. In 1966 Twombly reemerged with his grey-ground works, featuring an entirely new surface – linearity, light and dark contrasts primarily in grey and white, reductions to single rectangles or unstable grids. Problems I, II, III, Cold Stream, and Night Watch, all created in 1966, were schematic and seemingly cool. They foreclosed the dramatic history paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s and opened on to a new foundation for subsequent artistic developments having solely to do with his motor relationship to basic forms and their transformation over time. As curator and historian Kirk Varnedoe points out, the works entitled Problems evolve like time-lapse photographs, demonstrating the evolution of a single form (K. Varnedoe, “Inscriptions in Arcadia,” in The Essential Cy Twombly, p. 73). As Twombly told Varnedoe, he found these grey-ground works particularly conducive to studios in New York City, where this style seemed to be accepted among his contemporaries. The seeming compositional freedom—even as it anchored in a series of rows—is not unrelated to his drawings in graphite on paper he executed in 1955. Yet while those works evolved into discrete forms spaced randomly over an open field during the 1950s, the scribbles in Untitled, never leave their gridded frame, but remained relatively fixed in rows of running marks. As Varnedoe states, “These are ‘signature’ images in several senses—because they ostensibly present an abstracted, wordless essence of handwriting… and because they vividly embody, again and in renewed form, the artist’s willingness to take on the most unpromising premises as the basis of his art” (Ibid., p. 74). Twombly’s “auto” or “proto-calligraphy” markings fall “rhythmically” over the surface, as Roland Barthes writes (R. Barthe, Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper, New York, 2005, p. 19). In Untitled, we recognize in Twombly’s aesthetic radicality – “[a] personal art… out of means which appear so studiously, so implacably artless” (Varnedoe, Ibid., p. 74)—an uncanny familiarity where the artist’s “auto-calligraphic” stream of markings trace a personal and poignant autographic statement that could well be our own.