Dating from a pivotal moment in global history, the present work is a rare masterpiece from Cy Twombly’s landmark series of Bolsena paintings. Completed between August and September 1969, in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 mission, these works eloquently fuse painting, drawing and writing into a lyrical thesis on time and space. While staying in the Palazzo del Drago—a lonely stone house overlooking the picturesque Lake Bolsena, just north of Rome—Twombly completed fourteen large-scale works on pale backgrounds, each comprising a hypnotic rhapsody of forms, lines, textures and pictograms. Formerly part of the Saatchi Collection, and prominently exhibited throughout its lifetime, the present work takes its place alongside examples held in The Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C., the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich and The Broad, Los Angeles. Its explosive complexity distinguishes it within the series: ethereal numbers and inscriptions collide with vivid chromatic punctuations, dispersed across the canvas with electric, rhythmic vitality. The ancient world of myths and mark-making that captivated Twombly throughout his lifetime is brought into alignment with a new, contemporary epic: the moment that humankind took its first steps upon the moon.
Twombly’s Bolsena paintings marked an important new phase in his practice. While many of his early works had been fuelled by a visceral painterly furore—notably the Ferragosto paintings of 1961—the latter part of the decade saw him channel a renewed sense of order, clarity and rigour. In 1966, Twombly had begun his celebrated series of so-called “blackboard” paintings, defined by schismatic loops and scrawls against dark grey backgrounds. Though ostensibly engaging with the gestural legacy of Abstract Expressionism, the meditative repetition and sparse, elemental purity of these works chimed equally with the aesthetics of Minimalism that were gaining traction during this period. In the Bolsena paintings, Twombly went further still, replacing the free-flowing lines of the “blackboards” with cryptic, diagrammatic forms that conjured a world of calculation and communication. If the blackboards had evoked lessons in handwriting, these new paintings seemed charged with mysteries of science and geometry, pointing to a system of logic that lay beyond the limits of the human imagination. Just as Twombly’s loops seemed perpetually poised on the brink of recognizable letters and words, the present work reads like an elusive equation in the process of resolution. Lines, symbols and colors dart across the surface, as if scrambling to make sense of their own metaphysical poetry.
Much of Twombly’s oeuvre can be read as a dialogue between the aesthetics of Dionysus—the ancient Greek god of chaos and festivity—and the rational impulses of his counterpart Apollo. It is perhaps appropriate that his embrace of the latter in the Bolsena paintings coincided with the seminal mission of the same name. Indeed—for an artist who routinely sought inspiration in the depths of antiquity—the series represents a rare instance of Twombly’s engagement with the intellectual atmosphere of his own time. Though his works were emphatically non-illustrative, the artist confessed to Heiner Bastian that he had followed the coverage of the moon landings closely during the summer of 1969, and that his works contained numerous references to the events of that period. “All the talk of vectors, orbits, rocket segments, and distances in space filled his thoughts as he painted,” writes Kirk Varnedoe (K. Varnedoe, “Inscriptions in Arcadia,” in Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1994, p. 43). Aside from the work’s numeric fantasies and blazing linear trails, the diagonal sweep of its imagery—a defining feature of the series—has been variously likened to the upward thrust of the rocket, arching its way into the unknown.
Though traceable back to the Orion paintings of 1968—which similarly evoked themes of astronomical calculation—the stylistic origins of the Bolsena paintings lie in a series of drawings that Twombly made in January 1969 on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. These works included a number of tracings of seashells in and around a cascading system of outlined rectangles, peppered with cryptic notations and scrawled sexual imagery. The lessons of these drawings are evident in the sense of organic flow that characterizes the Bolsena paintings: a cascading, arcing motion that surpasses the left-to-right trajectory of the “blackboards.” Indeed, Nicholas Cullinan describes the convergence of longitude and latitude in these works, where all sense of gravitational pull is counterbalanced by a hypnotic feeling of floating in space. There is, he writes, “a tension between left and right, horizontal and vertical, remembering and forgetting, movement and stasis, and rising and falling.” These effects are eloquently demonstrated in the present work, where forms and their shadows—as Cullinan puts it—are “[lengthened] through time and stretched sideways” (N. Cullinan, “Longitude and Latitude: The Bolsena Paintings,” in Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2008, p. 111). Like a multidimensional graph, the painting seems to hinge upon several axes at once, unmoored from the spatial limitations of the picture plane.
The lexicon of movement, speed and temporality in these works may be understood within the context of Twombly’s wider art-historical positioning. During this period, the artist drew inspiration from a number of sources, including Eadweard Muybridge’s motion photography, the work of the Italian Futurists and the art of Marcel Duchamp. The latter’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912, as well as works such as Giacomo Balla’s Dynamic Expansion + Speed, 1913, might be seen in relation to the present work, echoing its rippling torrent of particles and its sequential neurosis. At the same time, the Bolsena paintings may also be understood in the context of other artworks that responded to the Space Age—notably the “Spatial Concepts” or Concetti Spaziali of Lucio Fontana, whose pierced surfaces sought to evoke the new dimensions unveiled by the exploration of the cosmos. Operating in a world that had shown space and time to be fluid, elastic notions, Twombly’s pliable surface seems to move in and out of states, by turns coherent and impossibly fragmented. In the present work, all sense of linear continuity gives way to a vision of simultaneity and flux, where multiple realities and systems are entwined, elongated and compressed.
These qualities may also be traced back to Twombly’s preoccupations with Renaissance art. The artist was particularly entranced by Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of nature, which—as Varnedoe points out—were characterized by “innumerable dissections, diagrams, and codes something irrationally driven, by a demon of secret knowledge, and freighted with a private poetry of obsession” (K. Varnedoe, op. cit., p. 41). Leonardo’s “deluge” drawings, for example, seem to contain within them a sense of mechanized rigour, as though the rhythms and cycles of the water itself had directly guided the artist’s hand. The present work, too, seems charged by an external source of energy, its forms warping and mutating as if of their own accord. “Twombly isolated the abstraction of movement, whether at rest or in motion, and its coefficient, space-time,” explained Suzanne Delahanty. “… Leonardo, whom Twombly has always admired for his passion and cool intellect, became a guide for rational inquiry. It is as if Twombly entered Leonardo’s mind to envision the affinities between natural and human process—to see the drawn line, like a natural phenomenon, unfold in space and time” (S. Delahanty, Cy Twombly, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 1975, pp. 22-24).
In this regard, the present work ultimately links back to the aesthetic of the “blackboards”. Though the Bolsena paintings are widely recognized as a departure from these works, they share something of the semi-automatic propulsion embedded in their distinctive arabesques. As a young man, Twombly had worked as a cryptologist in the U. S. military, where he spent nights drawing in the dark in a bid to liberate his hand from his mind. The lessons learnt during this formative period would guide much of his early practice, in which he came to treat line as a powerful, self-determining force. In the “blackboard” paintings, his looping script acted as a kind of transmission—a record of physical and neuronal impulse that might, he hoped, reveal truths beyond the bounds of human consciousness. Twombly referred to the results as “pseudo-writing”, explaining that each line “is now the actual experience with its own innate history. 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). Though markedly different in appearance, the present work’s pictorial energy ultimately springs from the same source, revelling in the intuitive, semi-conscious dispersion of lines and forms.
Cullinan also links the Bolsena paintings to Raphael’s fresco The Mass at Bolsena (circa 1512-1513) in the Stanza di Eliodoro of the Vatican Palace. Twombly would certainly have been familiar with this work, he explains, having already painted two variations on the artist’s School of Athens—housed in an adjacent room—as well as The Triumph of Galatea in the nearby Villa Farnesina. Since the advent of the “blackboards” in particular, Twombly’s works had assumed an increasingly mural-like quality, confronting the viewer like inscriptions carved into a wall or vertical rockface. The present work’s play of surface and depth, moreover, takes on new meaning in the context of Raphael’s fresco, whose figures seem to float like holograms within a vast, seemingly infinite spatial illusion. Twombly’s compositional drama, too, echoes something of the fresco’s perspectival theater, which is charged with a similar feeling of linear ascent. “By moments,” writes Heiner Bastian, “all sense of the concrete is lost in the moment of an invisible, spellbinding, received spaciousness—and the imagery appears as enlarged details of a storehouse of distant apparitions and flux” (H. Bastian, Cy Twombly. Catalogue Raisonné of The Paintings, Volume III 1966-1971, Munich, 1994, p. 32).
Twombly’s stay at the Palazzo del Drago—a sumptuous Renaissance palace built in 1543 for Tiberio Crispo, a nephew of Pope Paul III—was an important time for him. After a two year period of travel between Europe and America, he settled in the Tuscan hills for a summer of comparative solitude. Twombly had moved to Italy in 1957, and the country had quickly become his home. Here, on the shores of Lake Bolsena, he found a renewed sense of creative freedom and energy that etched its way into his canvases. In conversation with Nicholas Serota, Twombly recalls how he worked on the Bolsena paintings as a single, expansive group: “it was a very big long room and they were all around the room,” he explains. “I like to work on several paintings simultaneously because you are not bound. 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” (C. Twombly, quoted in conversation with N. Serota, “History Behind the Thought,” in Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, op. cit., p. 48). Something of this cyclical euphoria is palpable in the present work, where forms and colours ricochet from one another like fragments spliced from parallel streams of thought.
Throughout his life, Twombly was deeply inspired by metaphors of water, voyage and odyssey: imagery that punctuated the legends and literature he so avidly devoured. As Lake Bolsena stretched before his window, and new frontiers were conquered in the sky above, the purpose of his art seemed to fall into place. In the rich, enigmatic depths of the present work, Twombly reconciles the ancient and the contemporary, the poetic and the scientific, the intuitive and the rational, the spatial and the temporal. It is at once oblique and deeply evocative, suffused with a mythic potency that seems to stretch across millennia. As Bastian put it, the work conjures a “spell of numbers … marked by fugue and flight”; a “lordly procession taking place in a landscape broaching a distant sky” (H. Bastian, op. cit.). It is an extraordinary vision that captures the dynamics of our march into the unknown: to the past, to the future, to the imaginary and to the beyond.