CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
2 More
The Collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann
CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)

Venere Sopra Gaeta

CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
Venere Sopra Gaeta
signed with the artist's initials, inscribed and dated 'CT Oct 88 Gaeta' (upper right); titled 'Venere Sopra Gaeta' (center)
acrylic, oil-based house paint, wax crayon, colored pencil and lead pencil on paper and wooden panel, in artist's frame
99 x 76 3⁄4 in. (251.5 x 195 cm.)
Executed in 1988.
Galleria Lucio Amelio, Naples
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner
D. Davvetas, "The Erography of Cy Twombly," Artforum International, vol. 27, no. 8, April 1989, p. 130 (illustrated).
H. Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings. Volume IV: 1972-1995, Munich, 1995, p. 147, no. 49 (illustrated)
J.-L. Chalumeau, "Between Desire and Politeness," Ninety. Art des Années 90/Art in the 90's, no. 19, 1995, p. 31 (illustrated).
Naples, Galleria Lucio Amelio, Baselitz – Kounellis - Twombly, October-December 1988, n.p. (illustrated on the front cover).
Hamburg, Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Einleuchten. Will, Vorstel und Simul in HH, November 1989-February 1990, pp. 52 and 87, no. 120 (illustrated).
Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, September 1994-November 1995.
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Cy Twombly, June-September 2017, no. 1 (illustrated).

Brought to you by

Michael Baptist
Michael Baptist Associate Vice President, Specialist, Co-Head of Day Sale

Lot Essay

A sublime, lyrical explosion of light, color and form, Venere Sopra Gaeta is a monumental spectacle dating from a pivotal moment in Cy Twombly’s practice. Upon a vast sheet affixed to a wooden panel, glistening waves of white undulate across rich strata of blue, green and purple, culminating in a hypnotic flesh-toned bloom that bursts across the center like a flower. Half-legible fragments of text quiver along the border, while impassioned drips of pigment spill onto the original artist’s frame, eloquently dissolving the boundary between painting and support. Painted in Gaeta in 1988, three years after Twombly had purchased his beloved hillside home in the bay, the work is based on Albrecht Dürer’s etching Nemesis (The Great Fortune) (1501-1502), depicting the Greek goddess of retribution floating above the Eisack Valley in South Tyrol. In Twombly’s hands, the image becomes a seductive, abstract vision of Venus soaring above the sparkling waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea: a view that would fuel the evolution of his practice during the 1980s and 1990s. Shown at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin in 1995, on the final leg of the Museum of Modern Art’s major 1994 touring retrospective, it is a thrilling synthesis of art, myth and nature, simmering with Aphrodite’s erotic charge.

The painting was acquired by Thomas and Doris Ammann and hung in their house in Zürich across from the iconic Shot Sage Blue Marilyn by Andy Warhol. Twombly became a particular favorite of both Thomas and Doris after they were introduced by the dealer, curator and critic Heiner Bastian, and acquired their first work by the artist, Suma, in 1982. The three became firm friends, traveling the world together visiting exhibitions, attending openings and other events such as the Venice Biennale. The Ammans admired Twombly’s lyrical style and the delicacy of his paintings, as well as his invocation of Latin culture and German literature. The present work was one of the Ammanns favorites, and its acquisition was the result of a ‘cat and mouse’ pursuit between Thomas, Twombly, and the Italian art dealer Lucio Amelio. Twombly was initially reluctant to part with the picture because it was particularly personal to him, but he eventually agreed to let Thomas and Doris acquire the painting as he knew it was going to people who would truly appreciate it.

Twombly’s practice underwent something of a shift during the 1980s. A conflict between the logic of Apollo and the chaos of Dionysus had raged throughout his works of the previous decades, finding expression in the wild looping scrawls of the “blackboards”, the dense, cryptic pictograms of the Bolsena paintings and the fiery battlegrounds of the Ferragosto works. Living in Bassano during the 1970s, however, writes Kirk Varnedoe, had introduced a “pastoral” streak to Twombly’s painterly language, which—over the course of the decade—began to give way to greater focus on the rhythms of the natural world. “After 1980,” he writes, “a more specific imagery of nature began to, appear, given less to upheaval in the manner of Kandinsky and more to atmosphere, enveloping effect, and contemplation, in the vein of Turner or Monet” (K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1994, p. 46). Watery reflections, floral blooms and incandescent lighting became the substance of Twombly’s new vocabulary, powered by a fluid, liquid brushwork that unfurled across the surface like cresting waves.

The present work is a thrilling example of this sea-change. A new sense of viscosity runs through its veins, with paint accumulating in thin, translucent layers like membranes, and running in sumptuous rivulets down the length of the picture plane. Working wet-on-wet, explained Varnedoe, allowed Twombly to explore the variable textures of drying paint, exploiting “its density as a skin in resistance to the running pencil or crayon, its thinness as a veil over things below, the effect on it of gravity” (K. Varnedoe, ibid.). In places, Twombly appears to have used his own fingers to manipulate the paint, stretching it seamlessly across paper, panel and frame; elsewhere, it coagulates in thick, lustrous impasto, the central rose-tinted flourish marbled with specks of red and purple. His palette is no longer one of blood and warfare, but one of fresh, aquatic tones, each shining through the work’s texture like sunrise over the water. “Exactly at the moment when Abstract Expressionism was deemed to have been played out,” writes Simon Schama, “Twombly’s gorgeous, florid bolts of color, flaring and imploding over the surface, invested the genre with new life” (S. Schama,“Cy Twombly,” in N. del Roscio (ed.), The Essential Cy Twombly, London, 2014, p. 13

Venere Sopra Gaeta sits within the middle of a sumptuous stretch of work, bookended by the elegant Hero and Leondro of 1984, and the twin cycles Quattro Stagioni (Museum of Modern Art, New York and Tate, London) painted a decade later. Its palette and structure share much in common with the 1985 quartet Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair, while the liquid dispersion of paint is comparable to the landmark suite of nine untitled green canvases which occupied Twombly for much of 1988, and which took center stage at that year’s Venice Biennale: both series subsequently entered the Menil Collection, Houston. The previous year, alongside two major retrospectives at the Kunsthaus Zurich and the Stadtisches Kunstmuseum, Bonn, Twombly had been awarded the prestigious Rubens Prize by the City of Siegen, and was elected a member of the American Academy and Institute of Art and Letters in New York. Following the Biennale in 1988, he received the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government; in 1989, his cycle Fifty Days at Iliam was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a period of extraordinary professional triumph, matched by the miraculous painterly effusions that etched their way into the very fibres of his art.

Underpinning the works of this period was, of course, the bay of Gaeta itself. Twombly had stayed at a friend’s house there in 1985 while working on his sculptures; that same year, he purchased a property on the hillside overlooking the harbour. Over the following years, he would restore and expand it into a home and a studio, where he had the opportunity to observe more closely than ever before the kaleidoscopic play of light upon the water. The medieval port, with its view of the Tyrrhenian Sea stretching towards Naples, had been admired by Goethe before him, who had wandered the shoreline picking up shards of ancient green blue glass, serpentine, quartz and jasper. While these colors sing through the present work like pebbles glimmering in the sand, it was ultimately the blinding white of the sea that imprinted itself most fervently in Twombly’s imagination: a dazzling metaphysical silence that he had previously likened to the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé. “The sea is white three quarters of the time,” he explained, “just white—early morning. Only in the fall does it get blue, because the haze is gone. The Mediterranean at least … is always just white, white, white. And then, even when the sun comes up, it becomes a lighter white” (C. Twombly, interviewed by D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2001, p. 175).

Twombly had originally conceived Venere Sopra Gaeta alongside another painting of the same title. The pair were unveiled at Galleria Lucio Amelio shortly after their creation, but Twombly later painted over the present work’s companion, which is now listed in the artist’s catalogue raisonné as Untitled (Gaeta) of 1992. Twombly had based other works of the period on art-historical portraits: notably Donna Fugata (1987), which references a Velázquez painting of the Infanta Margarita Teresa, as well as Condottiero Testa di Cozzo (1987), which evokes Titian’s portrait of the Grand Duke of Alba. Here, however, his transformation of Dürer’s Nemesis into Venus is particularly significant, linking the work to the strains of ancient mythology that had laced their way through his practice since his move to Italy in 1957. Venus, in particular, had been something of a touchstone for Twombly, referenced in works including Venus and Mars (1962), Venus (1975) and Venus and Adonis (1978), as well as his Birth of Venus works—a subject immortalized by Sandro Botticelli. In all—as in the present work—luscious tones of peach and pink dominate, flickering with visceral, seductive power.

As Roland Barthes explains, Twombly’s mythic references were less specific narrative markers than evocative cultural signifiers: “a kind of representation of culture,” he wrote (R. Barthes, “The Wisdom of Art” (1979), reproduced in N. del Roscio (ed.), Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich 2003, p. 110). The story of the birth of Venus had been regaled in vivid terms by the Italian humanist poet Poliziano: Dürer’s Nemesis, too, derived from his verse. In his Stanze per la giostra, Poliziano describes the arrival of Venus from the “stormy Aegean”, “wrapped in white foam beneath the various turnings of the planets” and “wafted to shore by playful zephyrs”. He writes of the “lightning in the goddess’s eyes, the sky and the elements laughing about her”. Here, transplanted to the shores of his beloved Gaeta, Twombly reimagines these abstract dynamics in paint: the curl of the waves, the sudden emergence of flesh, the sense of a form blown into being by the elements themselves. “In Twombly’s hands,” writes Heiner Bastian, “… playful effects that convey the sense of Venus floating above the bay of Gaeta merge seduction and desire in a manifest erotic aptitude of psychologically-charged color” (H. Bastian, Cy Twombly. Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings. Volume IV: 1972-1995, Munich, 1995, p. 32).

It is this process of metamorphic suggestion that the critic Demosthenes Davvetas referred to as Twombly’s “erography”: a term denoting the intersection of the “erotic”, the “errant” and the “erratic” in his art. “When Twombly uses myths, poetry, and old masters in his work,” he writes, “it is not to fashion a nostalgic hymnology, but to communicate with the past by stripping it of its clothes (its different historical interpretations) and presenting it to us simply as it is: as forces that at any moment could turn into fact.” Writing in 1989, the year after the present work, Davvetas cites Venere Sopra Gaeta as a specific example. Here, he explains, “Aphrodite [is] not represented in the forms well known to us, nor is the city of Gaeta in Italy. On the contrary, those icons show up as primary dynamics of color and gesture, as energized powers” (D. Davvetas, “The Erography of Cy Twombly,” Artforum, April 1989, p. 132). It is here, ultimately, that the work finds its meaning. It is a representation of passion—for Gaeta, and for painting—filtered through an invocation of the goddess of love. It is an picture of creative fertility, bathed in the glow of Venus’ arrival. And, through the idea of beauty born from the forces of the sea and sky, it is an image of the act of becoming: of color and light assuming form, and taking flight into the beyond.

More from The Collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann Evening Sale

View All
View All