Within a proliferation of apparently random graphite marks, a sudden red scrawl--nested on blobs of white gouache--floats within a large irregularly drawn rectangle and seems to beckon the eye as both a point of focus and one of departure beyond these bounded forms. As the eye wanders through a landscape of discrete events, a group of smaller swirls--punctuated by purple--comes into view, beside and under which erratically extended lines appear, almost rivulets that lead the eye up toward the right and downward to merge with or branch out diagonally toward the lower edge. Other color events, such as the purple horizontal scratching above the upper border of the rectangle, lead to further cloudlike formations daubed in light orange, which echo in various repetitions over the sheet. Darker marks, generally horizontal, are enclosed in additional various four-sided forms, and the odd triangle--often for Twombly's work considered a schematic motif--is further articulated by a contrasting procreation of leaf shapes, also shaded by thickened scrawls. The notion that a single form or mark begets others until a field is filled with incident describes in part the generating force of Twombly's art, so forcibly in evidence in Untitled, 1960. As draughtsman's markings come from the same impulse as signage, the word or phrase that is unexpectedly distinguished allows one to discover an anchor in this vast sea of signs.
Untitled carries several such signs. The most telling in terms of visual ballast is in the upper right hand corner and is a quotation-- or misquotation --from an ode to the mortal-made-goddess, Psyche, by the Romantic poet John Keats. Because Twombly offers so much on the one hand in this drawing and so little in terms of coherence on the other, it is tempting to read into a work like this extraordinary drawing meanings culled from such a "clue." The quotation is as follows: "Blue, silver-white, + Tyrian," an elliptic version of the more complete phrase, "Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian." Even in its completed form, however, the phrase, taken out of its context, floats upward as one among many marks. Aside from Twombly's signature below the rectangle, one other word, "Dawn," surfaces amidst the roiling streaks of graphite. "Dawn" can be found in line twenty of the poem, used by Keats to elaborate his notion of a scene of lovers at dawn: "At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love." As the "Ode to Psyche" is an address to a loved one recounting the history of the meeting, courtship and marriage between Cupid and Psyche, and the latter's elevation to the region of the gods, a return to the framed red marks undergirded by white thickened formations may easily be taken as an illustration of the poem's narrative thread.
There is much to support such a reading--and much to discourage it. Without doubt, the word Tyrian denotes the purple color of royalty, an acknowledgment by Keats--and Twombly--of Pyche's ultimate elevation; there are flower forms and rivulets; boats and hearts; erect phallic forms and scrotums and hearts thrusting into the frame from the left-edge and right; and leaves and clouds wafting over the full painterly field. It would be gratifying to interpret the central frame as Psyche and Cupid in an act of love supported by clouds. Indeed, Twombly follows this series of drawings with another seeming "illustration," Leda and the Swan, 1962, in which Jupiter in the guise of a swan ravishes Leda amid a burst of red coloration and violent graphite markings.
But there are also marks that seem incomprehensible relative to the poem's underlying narrative: the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 surrounding the "figured" lovers like shifting coordinates or a disordered clock; or the graphing of numbers 1 - 5 at the lower left edge; the circular, almost humanoid biomorphic shapes; or the two blackened boxes at the upper edge. And the word "Dawn." Although it makes sense relative to Keats' imagery, "Dawn" also appears in other drawings from this series, at times with the statement in parenthesis (See Naples + Die). This verbal motif is treated in several drawings made during Twombly's stay on Ischia, along with him mixing in other phrases from Keats poetry, such as "The Human Seasons," where Twombly writes out two lines from the poem under a rainbow-like arch in violet and purple colored pencil. Above, the artist has written "Ode to Psyche," under which is crossed out the word "SONNET." Finally, the series also conveys a juxtaposition of poets-- Mallarmé with Keats, for example.
In effect, then, mixing, cross-referencing, encrypting, eliding, baffling and withholding meaning is very much at play in this and much of Twombly's oeuvre. Untitled is a remarkable palimpsest of the many-layered stages in the evolution to Twombly's style. From his early days in military service, drawing in the dark during breaks from lessons in cryptology, to his later responses to the art brut style of Jean Dubuffet, Twombly sought to remove himself from his innate drawing talent and acquire artistic skill. Like Willem de Kooning's production of what are termed "Blind Drawings"--drawings the elder artist made with eyes closed or while watching television--Twombly strove to teach himself to "de-skill," to in effect eradicate the "habits of history [by] disconnecting his hand from his eye" (J. Lawrence, "Cy Twombly's Cryptic Nature," in Cy Twombly: Works from the Sonnabend Collection, London and New York, p. 13). The point of this exercise in Twombly's case was to create distance from intention, to return in a visceral sense to the act of making marks on paper and canvas for their own sake, as chance procedures informed by what immediately came to hand, catalyzed by whatever may have come to mind. That is to say, Twombly sought to take an ironical view of Abstract Expressionist "action painting" and the notion taken from Pollock's practice of "all-over" painting, by removing the intention behind the act, the subjectivity as well as the transcendent statement (C. Vivaldi, "Cy Twombly tra ironia e lirismo," in La Tartaruga, Quaderno edito, Galleria Taratuga, February 1961, n.p.). So "action" in these terms becomes intuitive. Twombly's marks are about tactility, about an urge toward the feel of a marking instrument responding to and expressing physiological and psychic impulses: "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. It's like a nervous system. It's not described, it's happening (C. Twombly in an interview with D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists New Haven and London, 2001, p. 179).
Untitled is an extraordinarily significant realization of Twombly's desire to defeat tradition even as he engaged with it. After all, immersing himself in ancient Greek and Roman literature--here, by treating the tale of Cupid and Psyche by the Roman writer Lucius Apulcius (ca. 124 - 173 CE) in its nineteenth century English realization by John Keats--is a strong statement about the breadth of the artist's cultural immersion in evidence in the present work, stimulated often not only by what he was reading at the time from the vast range of literature, but also by his surroundings. After a peripatetic period in the late 1950s spent traveling and working in New York City; Lexington, Kentucky; Cuba; Mexico; and Rome, Twombly finally settled in Italy in 1960, taking the month of July on the Isle of Ischia in Sant'Angelo, where Untitled, 1960, was created. It belongs to a series of drawings that were executed in the ancient fishing village situated at the foot of the city of Fontana Serrara overlooking the Mediterranean.
Twombly's marks, while seemingly random, both cohere and scatter: the compositional "groupings," seem to veer upwards and to the right, but to say this is an a priori concept rather than simply a gravitational or kinetic tendency would be to say too much. Equally, the discrete forms and language do not coalesce into a legible whole. Repetitions do not create patterns, but rather disperse or refuse meaning. And while the ode may have "jump-started" Twombly's excavations, giving "it a clarity of energy," they do not create determinacy either of execution or meaning (Cy Twombly interviewed by Nicholas Serota, "History Behind the Thought," in Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., London, 2008, p. 50). We simply do not know. And therein lies its marvelous beauty, the delight and irony, the source of our unwavering interest, curiosity and gratification in the present work: our delight and absorption in the act of looking are forever renewed in "the lines of his making," which "do [...] not illustrate- [but rather create] the sensation of its own realization"-- and ours (C. Twombly, statement in "Documenti di una nuova figurazione," L'Esperienza Moderna no. 2 (August-September 1957, p. 32).