CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
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CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)


CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
signed and dated 'Cy Twombly 1961' (upper center)
oil, wax crayon, graphite and colored pencil on canvas
78 3/8 x 90 ¾ in. (199.1 x 230.5 cm.)
Executed in 1961.
Pier Franco Grosso, London
Claude Berri, Paris
Grant Selwyn Fine Art, New York
Private collection, Seattle
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2003
H. Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings, Volume VII Addendum, Munich, 2018, pp. 36-37, no. 14 (illustrated).
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Please note the updated provenance for this lot which can be accessed online.

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Lot Essay

Twombly had an incontestable mastery over line, its capacity to generate new form and to stimulate fresh potency.(H. Bastian, Cy Twombly Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Volume II 1961-65, Munich, 1993, p. 21).

Painted in Italy during one of the most important years of the artist’s career, Cy Twombly’s Untitled is a stunning celebration of the unique aesthetic language that has resulted in the artist becoming one of the most celebrated painters in the twentieth century canon. Offering up an encyclopedic display of enigmatic iconography shrouded in delicate sfumato, this monumental canvas combines the poetic beauty of Twombly’s gestures with his innate understanding of the physicality of painting. Embracing both personal emotion and the weight of history, the graceful loops, swirls and pictographic symbols are evidence of Twombly’s celebration of mark making. Untitled was painted in 1961, an important year for the artist during which time he embarked on a number of his most important canvases, including his sumptuous Ferragosto paintings. With its permeation of antiquity, the Mediterranean, and Twombly’s own personal narrative, Untitled is set apart from anything else in the history of the late twentieth century painting.

A dazzling array of Twombly’s organic gestures populates vast swathes of this highly active surface. Concentrated in the center, and upper right registers of the picture plane, dense concentrations of intuitive marks coexist alongside more considered gestures; circular loops and swirls contrast with gently arching curves. Geometric forms, numerical sequences, and Twombly’s own signature, are visible, sometimes clearly, before other instances are obliterated until a flurry of scrawls. Dark areas of graphite are indicative of the intensity and pressure with which Twombly executed his gestures, while a lighter hand equals out this force by delicately tracing out the forms direct from the artist’s imagination.

Uniquely in a painting from this period, a large portion of Untitled is swathed in a smoky cloud resulting from Twombly’s sweeping gestures disturbing his painted surface. This almost impenetrable sfumato is one of the most complex and intoxicating areas of the composition, enveloping all manner of other compositional devices within its clouds of pigment. These gray clouds are permeated only by the warm pinks and dusky salmon pinks that glow like warm embers in a fire, or the last rays of a setting sun after a stormy day.

Elsewhere, the surface of the canvas is deliberately left sparsely populated of gesture. Spots of color, thin—isolated—trails of liquid pigment lines, and scrawled words remind us that there is much more power in the quiet beauty of these passages that might first appear. Twombly has admitted that he often has more affinity with the physical surface of the work than with the paint he applies to it, and as the critic Gillo Dorfles has noted “Vast white spaces which is almost always off-center, are the void’s which for Twombly have the power of color and matter and are, actually, the ‘fullest’ part of the picture” (G. Dorfles, quoted by R. Pincus-Witten, ‘Cy Twombly,’ in Artforum, April 1974, via

Living in Rome, Twombly was surrounded by two thousand years of history. The gestural smears and graphic textures of this painting, so reflective of Twombly's experiential actions on the canvas actively reflect also the epic and timeless themes invoked by these myths. Exploding within a confined space, the unformed or informel nature of Twombly's painterly scrawls sensually articulate a sense of lustful violation not through the imagery but through the still visible traces of the artist's own experiential activity on the canvas's surface. They are the marks of his own experiencing of the subject through his own sensual interaction with both the story of the myth and the visceral nature of his materials.

“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.” Cy Twombly

"In painting it is the forming of the image", Twombly said, "the compulsive action of becoming; the direct and indirect pressures brought to a climax in the acute act of forming. (By forming I don't mean formalizing or, in the general sense, the organizing of a 'good painting'. These problems are easily reached and solved and in many cases have produced beautiful and even important works of art). Since most painting then defies the image; it is therefore to a great extent illustrating the idea of feeling content. It is in this area that I break with the more general processes of painting. To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a critical moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state; but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse, or in the process of a painting, run a gamut of states. One must desire the ultimate essence even if it is 'contaminated'. 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. The idea of falling into obscurities or subjective nihilism is absurd, such ideas can only be held by a lack of reference or experience" (C. Twombly, '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).

Twombly’s approach to painting, and the physicality of his gesture, was firmly rooted in Abstract Expressionism, such as Jackson Pollock demonstrated in his extraordinary works of the late 1940s where the surface is entirely controlled from edge to edge and corner to corner. Yet Twombly took such notions to unimagined heights. First, he resisted Cubist structure, which is to say unlike the paintings of Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Twombly’s canvases are open fields, his forms free-floating as if they might go on infinitely, and his framing edges limitless. That the path of Twombly’s gesture in Untitled travels right up to the turning edge of the canvas is physical evidence of this. The artist fills his canvas with markings in oil, wax crayon, and pencil in a flurry of activity that expresses the infinite extensibility of the flat picture plane. Essential to the effect of the work, Twombly moves away from anchoring a central image projected against a ground and instead engages every inch of the pictorial field as an arena in which to enact his expressive intent.

Furthermore, Twombly, like de Kooning before him, experimented with the notion of “deskilling,” unlearning traditional drawing in order to express a kinetic immediacy. Indeed, during his time in the army working as a cryptographer he would draw in the dark as a way disconnecting the essence of his line from any figurative function. Yet, it was against the expressive gestural action of Abstract Expressionism that Twombly, as well as his contemporaries, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, defined themselves. In the cultural arena of the 1950s, a milieu in which Twombly began developing his own visual language, these artists sought an objective drawing, where markings were more a literary than an expressive vocabulary of visual signs. Mathematical equations, geometries, and sequencings were made part of their visual vocabularies.

“[Rome], ever Twombly’s inspiration and provocation, elicited a never before encountered creative space thatas much in its reality as in its artistic evocationcut through both stratum and time. The
Mediterranean Italy represented for Twombly, image and mediation…” (H. Bastian, Cy Twombly Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Volume II 1961-65, Munich, 1993, p. 22).

In many ways, the present work acts as a lettera d’amore to Twombly’s beloved Italy. He left New York in 1957, making Rome his new home, and having disavowed the newly minted capital of the art world, became transfixed by his new home. The change in language, tempo, and temperament of his new surroundings had a profound effect on his work. His paintings of 1961 have been described as “the most impressive, most emotionally wrought works of Twombly’s career,” and inspired by the grandeur of the Italian capital they display a Baroque sense of monumental aspiration. Kirk Varnedoe notes, “the Rome they embody is a matter of visceral experience as much as of grand architectural design, and includes a strain of Neapolitan color and energy… The tense balance in the works between a light-filled exaltation and a pungently darker sense of human physicality, embraces something of both the grandeur and decadence of that city” (K. Varnedoe, ‘Inscriptions in Arcadia,’ in N. del Roscio (ed.), The Essential Cy Twombly, New York, 2014, p. 72).

The result is a remarkable series of paintings which the artist executed that year. Encompassing the full range of Twombly’s emotional and visceral responses, they display the full virtuosity of his art. The heady and heavily impastoed Ferragosto paintings suggest the stifling heat of a Roman summer, evoking the origins of the ancient festivals from which they take their name (Augustus’s holiday, which in Roman times was a celebration of fertility and maturity). Other celebrated paintings from this pivotal year include School of Athens, a highly accomplished painting of graphic and painterly fragmentary elements that act in concert to celebrate Raphael’s Renaissance masterpiece painted for the Papal Apartments in the Vatican. Another 1961 painting in which Twombly imbues with Mediterranean history and geography is Triumph of Galatea (Menil Collection, Houston), a vast epic canvas in which the artist conjures up an enigmatic and allusive world of iconography, metaphor, language and myth—all through the language of gesture.

Writing in the catalogue raisonné of the artist’s paintings, Heiner Bastain writes, “Twombly’s paintings should be seen as a fusion of subjective experience displayed against the background of historical decisionism…ancient myth affirms itself as a distant shadow cast upon our time” (H. Bastian, Cy Twombly Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Volume II 1961-65, Munich, 1993, p. 21). The energy with which Twombly imbues his surfaces reminds one of the explosive markings made by Leonardo da Vinci in his series of drawings known as The Deluge, where flooding has caused trees to be engulfed and mountains and stones roil among the atmospheric apocalypse. Leonardo wrote a description to accompany his literary and visual images, “Let the dark and gloomy air be shown battered by the rush of contrary and convoluted winds…” (L. da Vinci, in M. Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvelous Works of Nature and Man, London, 2006, p. 315). Such living energy can also be sensed in Untitled. In its rich topography we recognize Twombly’s aesthetic radicality – “[a] personal art… out of means which appear so studiously, so implacably artless” (K. Varnedoe, ibid., p. 74)—an uncanny familiarity where the artist’s stream of markings trace a personal and poignant statement that could well be our own.

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