On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin lit the engine on their tiny Eagle spacecraft and began their intrepid descent onto the moon. Across the world, millions of viewers watched spellbound. Among them was the artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011), who marked the occasion by creating 14 paintings, known today as the ‘Bolsena’ series.
This month, Christie’s is offering one of these rare masterpieces, which were completed in the months following the Apollo 11 space mission. Previously part of the Saatchi Collection, Untitled [Bolsena] 1969, has been prominently exhibited in museums across the world, including The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.
Cy Twombly: from cryptologist to abstract artist
Born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1928, Edwin Parker ‘Cy’ Twombly studied art in Boston and at the avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina. After graduating, he served as a cryptologist in the US Military — an experience that left a distinctive mark on his artistic style.
In the early 1950s he moved to New York, where he joined a talented group of post-war artists who were pioneering new ideas in abstraction. Together with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Twombly was heralded as a successor to the Abstract Expressionists. Yet just as his star was in the ascendant, Twombly abandoned the epicentre of modern art and moved to Rome.
In Italy Twombly became fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of nature, which were characterised by ‘innumerable dissections, diagrams and codes’
According to the art historian Kirk Varnedoe (1946-2003), Twombly’s departure was not as inexplicable as it first appeared. The academically-minded artist wanted to fully understand the history of art and his place in it. Europe provided him with the means to do that, and besides, he ‘liked the life’.
In Italy he became fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of nature, which were characterised by ‘innumerable dissections, diagrams and codes, driven by a demon of secret knowledge, and freighted with a private poetry of obsession’.
Over the next few years, Twombly’s style evolved to incorporate his study of Classical and Renaissance art. His canvases became less frenetic as the anxiety of his New York years gave way to paintings with a more visceral atmosphere. Works began to allude to Greek tragedies and French poetry, with scribbled references scratched into the paintwork.
Twombly created the Bolsena series while he was staying at the remote 16th-century Palazzo del Drago on Lake Bolsena in the Tuscan hills. His studio was in a large, rectangular room that accommodated numerous canvases at once.
‘I like to work on several paintings simultaneously, because you are not bound,’ he explained. ‘You can go from one to another and if you get strength in one you can carry it to the other, they are not isolated.’
As the astronauts made their celestial flight that summer, Twombly followed the press coverage closely. The mission, he said, ‘filled his thoughts’. Many had questioned the wisdom of sending a man to the moon. The novelist Norman Mailer had written that he ‘hardly knew whether the space programme was the noblest expression of the 20th century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity.’
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For Twombly, with his keen interest in Classical mythology, the tension between madness and reason was echoed in the emotional impulses of the Greek gods Dionysus and Apollo. It seemed apt that the space mission was named after the latter.
Untitled [Bolsena] is a rare example of Twombly responding to contemporary events. The cool overlays of white paint interspersed with scorched black lines evoke the upward thrust of the rocket’s journey as it arches its way into the unknown. Numbers, diagrams and graphs reflect the calculations made back on Earth. Whatever the rationale, the painting in its entirety is a hypnotic rhapsody to human endeavour.