Distinguished by its heady arrangement of spiraling lasso-loops of white pigment set against a smoky ground, Cy Twombly’s Untitled of 2006 is evidence of the timeless quality of the artist’s unique practice. Around 2003, when the artist was seventy-five years old, he experienced a rush of inspiration which ushered in a new style where explosive color met grandiose scale. Using a wide brush attached to the end of a long stick, the artist executed his signature circular loops in ever wilder and more visceral arrangements. Often described as his ‘last hurrah,’ this return to the lasso-loops of his earlier Blackboard paintings of the late 1960s represented the final flourishing of a later style that emerged in the last decade before his death. These paintings, known as his Bacchus series—together with those that followed, such as the present Untitled—represent the culmination of Twombly’s sixty-year career. They constitute the artist’s last great body of work, and give ultimate form to his epic theme of sweeping, looping undulations in brilliant technicolor display.
Painted in the artist’s studio in Lexington, Virginia during the final months of 2006, Untitled directly follows Twombly’s iconic Bacchus paintings of 2004. It corresponds to a select group of about six paintings; all roughly the same size, measuring seven by five-and-a-half feet, and feature three bands of lasso-loops that have been dashed across the surface in a burst of activity, and arranged within a vertical format. The present painting is distinguished by its palette, in which the signature dark-red-on-light ground arrangement of the Bacchus paintings has morphed into monochrome. As such, it closely emulates the artist’s earlier “blackboard paintings” of the late ‘60s, with their cool, minimalist palette of smoky gray and white.
Twombly’s first series of Bacchus paintings were completed in 2004, and later exhibited together at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2005 under the title Bacchus Psilax Mainomenos. Each of these paintings were inscribed with the name Bacchus and either the Greek word Psilax or Mainomenos in the upper register above a looping, vermillion-red tangle of lines. These inscriptions hold the crucial key to discovering the meaning behind the Bacchus reference in the title, along with the related paintings that followed in subsequent years. It refers to two contrasting aspects of the god Bacchus: Psilax means “wings” and refers to the aspect of Bacchus that lifts and raises the spirit to the heights of sensual pleasure, such as intoxication. Mainomenos, by contrast, invokes the raging Bacchus and personifies the furious god of Dionysian violence. It is this description of the god Bacchus that Homer refers to in the Iliad.
With its ghostly echo of the blood-red Bacchus paintings, and its soft white loops glowing against a dark backdrop, the color scheme of Untitled is elegant and subdued, evoking reason over madness. Its smoky palette provides an obvious foil to the bright, nearly incandescent white pigment that Twombly allows to seep and drip down its sumptuous surface. And yet, the full force of his brush is unleashed in Untitled—pushed, pulled, dragged and swept across the canvas surface in the controlled frenzy that typifies these exultant last paintings. Tracing the undulating curves of each loop, the eye follows the up-and-down movements that vary in thickness and velocity, at times slow and methodical, whilst elsewhere scrawled in an efficient sweep of the brush. Twombly has, at times, “edited out” his own loops, going over them to accentuate and differentiate the different sizes of each. As such, the painting fluctuates between the brisk and expedient flourish of a seasoned master and the nonsensical ruminations of a madman—making for a particularly illustrative example of the Bacchus myth and its symbolism of inspiration versus madness. Indeed, the painting evokes the spiritual connotations of bright white to convey divine illumination or religious ecstasy, which is only heightened by its ecstatic flurry of spiraling forms.
Twombly recognized in this classical saga of Bacchus that a set of two polarized extremes could be found within a single, intoxicating wave of madness. The vigor and energy required by the artist verged on delirious pleasure on one hand, madness on the other—the result of which is spread across the surface of Untitled in all its loops and drips. By invoking these two directly contrasting concepts of Bacchus, Twombly evidently wanted to convey the dual qualities of ecstasy/rage, and inspiration/madness that he felt to be personified within his own creative endeavor. After finishing the painting, the artist often found himself in a kind of spent delirium, as if the energies of his body had been subsumed within the work. This often left him completely drained. “I usually have to go to bed for a couple of days,” he explained (C. Twombly, quoted in R. Kennedy, “The Art of Cy Twombly,” New York Times, July 6th, 2011, p. A1).
Indeed, these late paintings emit a visceral pull that draws the viewer in, as the first glass from a bottle of wine seduces the drinker into oblivion. The force of the artist’s brush, the wildness of each, swirling loop, and the raw after-effect of the painterly process, rent open and split apart to produce streams of drips and leaks, lingers on the surface as evidence of the artist’s descent into both madness and inspiration. As he once famously described of his work: “It’s instinctive in a certain kind of painting, not as if you were painting an object or special things, but it’s like coming through the nervous system… I’m experiencing the thing and I have to be at that state because I’m also going [with it],” he said (C. Twombly, in a rare interview with David Sylvester in 2000; reprinted in N. Pavlouskova, Cy Twombly: Late Paintings, 2003-2011, London, 2015, p. 51).
Much as Twombly employed the lush, vermillion reds in his Bacchus series to epitomize the heady intoxication and wild passion of the Dionysian impulse, so too, does he seem to employ color for symbolic effect in Untitled. This is particularly the case in his use of white, an important color which the artist spoke of several times in his career. It should be noted that the predominant palette of much of his sculptural work is white, a look that emulates the classical sculpture of the ancient world, with its slippery and cool white marble finish. Furthermore, his penchant for the color might also refer to the bright, white view of the Mediterranean from his studio in the coastal town of Gaeta, a seaside village about sixty miles north of Naples. “The sea is white three-quarters of the time,” Twombly explained to David Sylvester in 2000. “Just white--early morning …always just white, white, white. And then, even when the sun comes up, it becomes a lighter white” (C. Twombly, quoted in D. Sylvester, “Cy Twombly, 2000,” Interviews with American Artists by David Sylvester, London, 2001, p. 175).
What significance might lie within the profusion of looping white forms in Untitled, coming as it did, toward the end of Twombly’s life? “[White] ghosts things, it turns them spectral,” the artist himself reminds us. “White is my marble,” he went on to say (C. Twombly, quoted in J. Storsve, ed., Cy Twombly, exh. cat., Centre Pompiou, Paris, 2016, p. 234). We know Twombly thought of himself as a “romantic symbolist,” and appreciated the work of J.M.W. Turner, the so-called “painter of light,” who used color in symbolic terms. He also, famously, admired the paintings of Nicolas Poussin, the French Baroque artist who organized his compositions in terms of line, movement and color, accentuating darker colors to emphasize the drama or turmoil of a given scene, which he often based upon classical myth. So, too, did Turner study the emotive capabilities of color, especially the idea of a sublime, or spiritual light.
The origins of Twombly’s signature looped scrawl, which materialized in its mature form in the spring of 1966 in the Blackboard paintings, developed out of an intuitive process many years prior, during the artist’s military training in the 1950s. In 1953, while stationed in Augusta, Georgia, Twombly began to make drawings at night, working mostly in the dark. This allowed him to work out a sort of autonomous and instinctual graphic impulse—“loosening the bond between hand and eye” (as Roland Barthes put it). Twombly was essentially working blindly in the dark, allowing his unconscious mind to overtake the conscious movements of his hand. This process elicited a series of looping scribbles that would become the Blackboard paintings many years later. That initial foray, itself a careful balance between conscious and unconscious impulses, cleverly paralleled the classical myth of Bacchus, so it should come as no surprise that he would revisit that very successful exercise during the final decade of his life.
“For Twombly, the myths of antiquity are dreams and mirrors,” the curator Philip Larratt-Smith has recently written. “Mythical characters are archetypes…[and] Twombly finds his own passions reflected in the external patterns of myth… His works are never literary depictions or retellings of a myth, though myth may suggestively open the work up…” (P. Larratt-Smith, Cy Twombly: Paradise, exh. cat., Ca’ Pesaro, Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna, Venice, 2015, p. 25). Indeed, Twombly appears to organize Untitled between two opposing forces—the bright, white pigment that loops and drips, seemingly glowing and incandescent, and the darker, smoky colored background. As such, Twombly might have intended the painting as a metaphorical representation of Apollo and Bacchus, a running theme throughout his decades-long career. Twombly’s life-long friend, Heiner Bastian, described this set of opposing themes when writing of Twombly’s paintings in his catalogue raisonné: “Such are these paintings by Cy Twombly ‘dedicated’ to Bacchus...the most profound abyss and the lightest heights represent not a dualism but rather the breath of all things; they are a unity. ...As hard as it may be to conceive of Apollo without Dionysus, Dionysus without Apollo is equally unimaginable” (H. Bastian, ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume V: 1996-2007, Munich, 2009, p. 46).
In August of 1952, Twombly had set sail from New York with his friend Robert Rauschenberg on an eight-month trip through Northern Africa, Spain, Italy and France. There, he became enthralled with the crumbling grandeur of Rome’s ancient past, especially the timeworn graffiti he found scrawled on its historic monuments, which Rauschenberg’s subtle black-and-white photographs of the time captured with much finesse. By December, they had arrived in Tangier, where Twombly filled sketchbooks with the symbols and scribbles that would open up the new possibilities for his work, forming the nascent seed from which the Blackboard paintings would emerge, finally, many years later in 1966. Twombly settled permanently in Italy in 1957, and the richness of its history, the beauty of its centuries-old architecture, and the memory of his youth spent with Rauschenberg, on the verge of brilliant artistic discovery, would remain a powerful force in his life. The extent of those eight months imparted a lasting personal, emotional and artistic impact.
Perhaps the lasting significant of this encounter, when the classical world sprung to life in glorious vividness for the young artist and his traveling companion—so much so that he would derive a lifetime of intensive study of its myths and legends—is best summarized, again, by Philip Larratt-Smith, who writes: “Twombly’s antiquity is not the subdued, sober black and white...of the Nineteenth Century, where simplicity, grace, and harmony were the rule, but the crudity, violence, and intoxicating vividness of full-on technicolor. ...His interest in the past is not the disinterested inquiry of the antiquarian but the passionate involvement of the sensualist who lives squarely in the realm of the senses. He gives the ancient world back to us raw” (P. Larratt-Smith, Cy Twombly: Paradise, exh. cat., Ca’ Pesaro, Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna, Venice, 2015, p. 30).