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


CY TWOMBLY (1928-2011)
titled ‘DUINO’ (lower center); signed and dated ‘Cy Twombly 1967’ (on the reverse)
oil-based house paint and wax crayon on canvas
70 x 58 in. (177.8 x 147.3 cm.)
Executed in 1967.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Private collection, Turin, 1972
By descent from the above to the present owners
"L'Armonia del Non-Colore: Grigi in Vibrazion," Casa Vogue, November 1973, n.p. (installation view illustrated).
"Forme, Matière et Superficie," Décoration 77, no. 20, 1977, n.p. (installation view illustrated).
H. Bastian, Cy Twombly. Bilder/Paintings 1952-1976, Zürich, 1978, no. 68 (illustrated).
J.B. Myers, "Marks: Cy Twombly," Artforum, vol. 20, no. 8, April 1982, p. 56 (illustrated).
H. Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III 1966-1971, Munich, 1994, p. 87, no. 29 (illustrated).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Duino Elegies, March-June 2020.

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?” Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies, 1923

Painted in 1967, Duino is a refined and elegant work, one of the first of Cy Twombly’s famed ‘blackboard’ paintings in which he fashions an enigmatic surface washed with gestural swathes of chalky pigment. These paintings marked an important shift in the artist’s work, as he moved away from the Baroque splendor of his School of Athens and Commodus canvases towards a more restrained and cerebral aesthetic inspired by the prevailing concerns of Conceptual Art and Minimalism. Paintings such as the present example marked the beginning of a period in which Twombly unleashed the full potential of his gestures, allowing the line to free itself from its traditional expressive function. As such, other examples of works from this pivotal period of Twombly’s career are held in prestigious museum collections, including Problem I, II, III in the collection of the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK), Frankfurt, and Untitled, 1967 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Duino itself has remained in the same private family collection for the past fifty years, having been acquired directly from the legendary Leo Castelli Gallery in 1972.  

Duino possesses a rich, almost inscrutable surface, yet contained within the mystery is a painting of great beauty. Bearing the traces of inscriptions written and then removed, at the center of the composition the word ‘DUINO’ is scrawled in white crayon, boxed in and crossed out. An intelligent amalgam of art, poetry, history, and existential elements of the human condition, the present work is a mesmerizing sequence of line and form.  A highly rigorous and intellectual work, any traditional form of language has been reduced to its elemental forms, scrawled lines that are transformed from abstract scribbles that once flew freely from the pulsating expansions and contractions of the artist’s own lyrical gestures.

Forming a concise tribute to the Duino Elegies, a cycle of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino takes its place in an ongoing dialogue between Twombly and the Bohemian-Austrian poet, whose verses he had admired since his days at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College in the 1950s. Twombly even inscribed Rilke's name in the lower right corner of Duino, cementing his inspiration in the canvas for eternity. Rilke was born in Prague in 1875, and after university, moved to Paris where he studied the work of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, writing a monograph on the artist and even working as his secretary for a period of time. The poet also admired the work of El Greco, making several trips to see his darkly spiritual paintings between 1912-1913. After a decade of writing, Rilke finally published his Duino Elegies in 1923; ten deeply religious poems, that dealt with the interplay of existential suffering and beauty. Together, they form a monologue about coming to terms with human existence discussing the limitations and insufficiency of the human condition, loneliness, the perfections of the angles, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet.

The Elegies are intense, mystical poems, and their ideas dovetail with Twombly’s own interest in language—both visual and verbal—as a way of communicating the fleeting experience of being in the world. Twombly and Rilke also shared a vital enthusiasm for the ancient culture of the Mediterranean. Duino itself is a small town on Italy’s northern Adriatic coast, in whose historic castle Rilke began the poems Twombly’s Duino names a physical place as much as a poetic or emotional idea. The final four lines of the Tenth Duino Elegy would recur throughout Twombly’s work in the 1980s, providing the epigraph for a 1984 sculpture: “And we who have always thought of happiness climbing, would feel the emotion that almost startles when happiness falls.” In the present work, much as in his famed Venus (1975) or Apollo and the Artist (1975), Twombly distils his composition to a single, searingly evocative word as a calligraphic anchor, a signifier suspended in an evanescent space of personal and historical mythology. Enigmatic, existential and charged with lyrical intelligence, Duino is a succinct statement of intent.

Twombly transformed the graphic process of writing, translating its flowing lines into a painterly language, adopting a strict formulaic procedure to produce these works. This technique has its origins in the Palmer method of handwriting often taught to American children when they are first learning to write. This extremely strict, near mechanical technique required pupils to practice handwriting drills on a daily basis, moving neither fingers nor wrists but only their arms. Indeed, the Palmer method was the technique that Twombly himself had learned. Now Twombly worked in the opposite direction of the children who learned to impose a rigid order and a rational discipline on their hand. In his famed Blackboard paintings he adopted the technique of perpetually repeating a looped line to increase the fluid and graphic energy of his line while still maintaining continuum throughout.

For all the complex linguistic structure of his aesthetic and the rich web of his references, what his achievement may ultimately depend upon most heavily is the power he has drawn from within himself and from so many enabling traditions, to isolate in a particularly raw and unsettled fashion that primal electricity of communication, in his apparently simplest acts of naming, making, and painting” Kirk Varnedoe (K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1994, p. 51)

The dance between text and image in Twombly’s practice is one of its defining features, and allows him to occupy a unique position in relation to his subject matter. At once signaling the moment of its creation and invoking a dialogue with an antecedent source, a work like Duino contains multiple, overlapping registers of time: the real, bodily time of Twombly’s wiped, splashed and inscribed motions; an echo of the narrative time of Rilke’s Elegies; and the deep, shifting time of ancient history, myth, translation and re-translation that captivates and informs both poet and artist. As Mary Jacobus has written, “The history of American art since Abstract Expressionism is often represented as a narrative of subjectivity’s traces as recorded by the materiality of the medium on a flat surface – whether horizontal or vertical. For the generation who came after Jackson Pollock, gestural painting (paint falling from the brush, using one’s hands, incising with a palette knife) formed a point of departure. The subjective mark remains the founding condition for Twombly’s distinctive post-modernity … his art utilises the behaviour of paint as an aspect of its expressivity, along with the scribbles, scrawls, and quotations that form part of his personal lexicon and graphic system. Writing functions as a mnemonic (proper names, resonant titles, snatches of poetry), yet also as a secret calligraphy; it invokes shared literary or cultural meanings while conveying an element of inwardness or private emotion” (M. Jacobus, Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, Princeton 2016, p. 212).

The sfumato-like surface of Duino exemplifies this shimmering between public and private significance. The scholarly associations are countered by the ghostly, expressive traces of previous writings, and the first ‘Duino’ being crossed out—perhaps nervously—before it is restated with bold, almost naïve conviction. Amid chalky clouds, the word appears with total clarity: a breakthrough moment, the solution in some esoteric problem-solving, or an exuberant outburst of pure poetic passion.

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