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


CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
signed and dated 'Cy Twombly 1955' (on the reverse)
oil-based house paint, wax crayon, colored pencil and lead pencil on canvas
50 x 57 7⁄8 in. (127 x 147 cm.)
Executed in 1955.
Private collection
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich, 2012
Acquired from the above by the present owner
H. Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume I: 1948-1960, Munich, 1992, pp. 102-103, no. 53 (illustrated).
A. Temkin, "Close-Up," Artforum, vol. 49, no. 10, 2011 (studio view illustrated).
New York, The Stable Gallery, Cy Twombly, January 1956.
Rome, Galleria La Tartaruga, Cy Twombly, 1960 (illustrated, incorrectly titled and dated "Criticism 1956").
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Schrift en beeld/Schrift und Bild, May-August 1963, no. 406, p. 112 (illustrated).
Krefeld, Museum Haus Lange; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Cy Twombly, October 1965-February 1966, no. 4 (incorrectly titled and dated "Kritizismus 1956")
Prato, Palazzo Pretorio, Due decenni di eventi artistici in Italia: 1950-1970, October-November 1970, no. 39 (illustrated).
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zeichen und Wunder, October-December 2016.
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Exhibition R93, June 2018.
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Ich weiss nicht, wer der Künstler ist, ich kenne nur seinen Preis (frei nach René Pollesch), July-September 2018.
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, From Warhol to Twombly to Marden and Back Again, September-December 2018.
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Beauty Attracts Beauty, December 2019-January 2020.

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

Lot Essay

Executed in 1955, Untitled is an outstanding virtuosic early work that announces Cy Twombly’s arrival as an artist. Across its pale, hypnotic expanse, opposing forces give birth to a new visual poetry: line and form, painting and drawing, creation and erasure are bound together in an electrifying, intractable script. Created in New York, two years before Twombly’s move to Italy, the work belongs to a rare group of early canvases unveiled in his second solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1956. Eliding the teachings of Abstract Expressionism and Black Mountain College into a style that ultimately pointed far beyond the perimeters of each, these works established the aesthetic foundations of the artist’s oeuvre; all that followed—from the “blackboards” to the Bolsena paintings to the Bacchus series—was rooted here. In the present work’s tumbling gestures lies the seeds of practice that would visualize the process of becoming, giving form to the ephemeral abstract rhythms that breed art, language, science, nature and culture. Schismatic lines quiver on the border of writing; fine graphic markings spill over into impasto, obfuscating themselves in the process. It is a picture of the indescribable alchemy that turns nothing into something, and which sparks meaning from the formless.

In January 1955, Twombly had mounted his debut solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery; the following month he took up a teaching post in Buena Vista, Virginia. That summer, he returned to his apartment on William Street in New York, where he embarked upon an important new series of paintings. Alongside iconoclastically-titled canvases such as Academy (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Free Wheeler, The Geeks and Criticism, the present work signifies a bold new chapter, moving away from the surreal biomorphic forms of his earliest oeuvre and extending the trajectory set in motion by the elusive grey-ground paintings—including the seminal Panorama—begun the previous year. In the collision of house paint, crayon and pencil, Twombly transforms line from an agent of description into a living, self-sufficient entity: where his works had previously contained, delineated or suggested form, the paintings now became form in and of themselves. These “dense and variegated surfaces” with their “thickets of marks,” writes Kirk Varnedoe, “have a congested, ‘hot’ frenzy in comparison to the relatively airy work on the grey canvases … They are intermittently casual, furious, self-doubling, and self-annulling—attacks against the aesthetic of painterly abstraction, from which Twombly’s mature personal style was emerging” (K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1994, pp. 23-24).

The “aesthetic of painterly abstraction” certainly loomed large in Twombly’s imagination during these years. While the spirit of Roman antiquity would imprint itself upon his later works, early paintings such as the present were undeniably inflected with the creative energy of 1950s New York, where the flourishing of Abstract Expressionism had positioned the city as the new center of the global art world. Twombly himself had first visited New York during the 1940s, and had subsequently moved there in 1950 to attend the Art Students League. The atmosphere was thrilling: Barnett Newman had made his first “zip” painting two years prior, around the same time that Clyfford Still’s mature language took hold. By 1950, Willem de Kooning had begun his landmark series of Women, Mark Rothko had established the glowing color fields that would come to define his practice, and Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings had reached the height of their development. Twombly immersed himself in the scene, regularly attending exhibitions at Betty Parsons, Samuel Kootz and elsewhere. Pollock, in particular, would become a key influence, and the artist would meet him at his home on Long Island on a number of occasions around the time of the present work.

However, like his contemporary Robert Rauschenberg—who had famously “erased” one of De Kooning’s drawings in 1953—Twombly ultimately transcended the concerns of his predecessors. Where the Abstract Expressionists conceived their works in grandiloquent, philosophical terms, with vivid color and vital gesture pointing to higher planes, Twombly’s world was one of flickering indeterminacy, perpetually ensnared in the process of its own making. Varnedoe writes of a “dispersed, jumpily nervous electricity” in contrast to Pollock’s “explosive clouds of energy”, while Nicholas Cullinan observes that Twombly’s aesthetic of “indecision, hesitancy and doubt” allowed him to subvert the “machismo” and “belligerence” of Abstract Expressionism’s calligraphic impulse (K. Varnedoe, op. cit.; N. Cullinan, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2008, p. 58). In Untitled, heroic certainty gives way to ambiguity: rich hues are superseded by blankness—a quality that Twombly would come to associate with the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé—punctuated by just the merest glimmer of colored pencil. Luxuriant swathes of oil are replaced by the grit of blunt graphite and crayon carved and scumbled into paint. Painting, drawing and writing are wrangled into a primordial state, revealing the mutual chaos of their origins.

If the Abstract Expressionists offered bold statements about the human condition, Twombly’s works posed questions, asking how we—and everything we know—came to be. Art historian Carol A. Nigro traces this impulse to Twombly’s time at Black Mountain College between 1951 and 1952, where artists including Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Rauschenberg and the composer John Cage congregated during this period. The College’s Rector at this time was the poet Charles Olson, whose tenure—writes Nigro—led to an increasing emphasis on humanist ideas (C. A. Nigro, “Cy Twombly’s Humanist Upbringing,” Tate Papers, no. 10, Autumn 2008). Particularly influential to Twombly was Olson’s belief that human truth exists in a constant state of flux, interdependent on the objects and systems that make up our world. The ability to derive knowledge and build forms from the abstract mass of universal energy, Olson taught, was a uniquely human trait: “of rhythm is image / of image is knowing / of knowing there is / a construct” (C. Olson, “ABCs (2),” in G. F. Butterick (ed.), The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997, p. 173). The present work may be said to capture this process in action, giving form to the moment at which pure energy begins to coalesce into meaning—as words, as images, as symbols, none yet fully legible.

Twombly himself had experienced the thrill of this ignition first hand. Between November 1953 and August 1954 he undertook military service at Camp Gordon in Augusta and the Pentagon in Washington D. C., working as a cryptologist. There, he practised drawing in the dark, seeking to untrain his hand from his eye. The momentary liberation of art-making from seeing was a revelation, affirming the vital, instinctive connection between brain and body that Olson believed had been quashed by centuries of intellectual activity. This realization was one that Twombly shared not only with his Surrealist predecessors, who set great store by the practice of automatic drawing, but also with his European contemporary Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet’s exploration of so-called “Art Brut” during this period was rooted in his belief that the teachings of the Western academy had effectively nullified art’s capacity to reveal the human spirit: he would later take these ideas to new levels in his “Hourloupe” works of the 1960s, which sprung from a series of subconscious doodles. Some decades later, this thinking would come to fuel the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat—famously described by the critic Rene Ricard as the hypothetical “love child” of Twombly and Dubuffet—who spun together the impulses of graffiti, poetry, drawing and painting in canvases that seemed to contain within them the full gamut of human feeling and experience.

“In a unique area of physical practice,” said the critic Roland Barthes, “painting and writing will have started with the same gesture, one which was neither figurative nor semantic but simply rhythmic” (R. Barthes et al, “La peinture et l’écriture des signes,” in La sociologie de l’ar et sa vocation interdisciplinaire (Colloque Pierre Francastel organisé par la Fondation C. Gulbenkian 1974, Paris 1976). It is likely that Barthes—a great admirer of Twombly—had works such as the present in mind at the time. Indeed, not long after completing the painting, the artist himself would offer up a similar statement: “each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history,” he explained. “It does not illustrate—it is the sensation of its own realization” (C. Twombly, quoted in “Documenti di una nuova figurazione,” in L’Esperienza moderna, no. 2, August-September 1957, p. 32). Here, at the dawn of his practice, Twombly weaves an image of the very feeling of form: of the restless, elemental sparks and schisms that eventually spawn something we come to recognize as reality. It is a picture of the shape and structure of creativity itself, interminably alive with its own potential.

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