Executed in acrylic and crayon over a thick paper ground, Cy Twombly’s Untitled, 1969-1971, is a highly evocative work that relates closely to the artist’s ‘Blackboard’ paintings – the much-celebrated series of works made between 1966 and 1971, executed predominantly in chalk on dark grey grounds. In particular, Untitled, with its repeated series of thin, white graphic lines darting across the pictorial surface, relates closely to the group of paintings that Twombly made in the summer of 1969 near Lake Bolsena. With their lines, calculations and simple geometric forms, these works explored concepts of space-time within the context of the Apollo 11 mission that took place during this year.
Marking a dramatic and singular new phase in his work, Twombly’s ‘Blackboard’ paintings were predominantly grey-ground paintings that, with the exception of the Bolsena pictures, were mainly made in two studios in Canal Street and the Bowery, New York where the artist spent much of his time between 1969 and 1971. The austere, cool style of these works reflected a change in the artist’s work that derived from both a desire to make a new start after the poor reception of his Nine Discourses on Commodus paintings and also the coming together of many important new influences upon him and his work.
Made in the immediate aftermath of the debacle surrounding his Nine Discourses on Commodus paintings Twombly’s blackboard paintings signal in one sense, a decisive shift away from the Baroque exuberance and painterly debauchery of these earlier violent and colourful works in favour of a new sober and restrained simplicity and a re-engagement with the graphic elements of line and geometry that had dominated his work of the 1950s. Many critics at this time saw Twombly’s new style as a response on the part of the artist to the then prevailing aesthetics of Minimalism and Conceptualism in New York at this time. But, while it is true that Twombly’s work from these years can be understood to relate in part to the work of post-Minimalist, New-York-based artists such as Eva Hesse and Richard Serra, who were then also exploring the limitations and possibilities of line and geometry in their work, Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ paintings in fact reflect to the artist’s new-found interest in graphic systems and signifiers of movement.
Pictures such as the present work with its repeated sequence of free, hand-drawn lines seeming to shriek across the surface of the painting in a way that suggests and evokes a sensation of speed, reflect Twombly’s developing interest at this time in a variety of repetitive graphic gestures and systems used throughout the ages in the depiction of motion. These ranged from Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of flowing water and cloud formations - best seen in his Deluge drawings - to the methods that Italian Futurist painters, such as Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla, devised to convey and express motion. In particular, Balla’s interest in studying the path and fight of swallows and his use of a system of graphic lines of force and motion with which to represent them, played much on Twombly’s mind at this time who is known to have carefully studied examples of such works owned by his brother-in-law Giorgio Franchetti. In addition to these elements, Twombly was also interested in the motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge and in the Futurist paintings of Marcel Duchamp whose Nude Descending a Staircase and Sad Young Man on a Train display progressions of form often echoed in Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ and Bolsena paintings.
With its sequence of measured and streaking crayon lines articulating an energized feld of form across a dark grey oil surface, this Untitled work from 1969-71 reflects these concerns with motion. Looking like an extension of the logic of Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages into the impulsive graphic form of a repeated hand-drawn exercise, it evokes an enticing and strangely spatial sense of speed, measurement and distance. It is in this respect that this work also appears to relate closely to Twombly’s Bolsena paintings, which, made between May and September of 1969, were, Twombly admitted, heavily infused with all the talk of logarithms, spatial and temporal calculations and directional logistics that surrounded America’s attempt to land a man on the Moon that summer.
In particular, a work such as Untitled draws on Twombly’s larger exploration of this theme in the Bolsena painting now in the Rivendell Collection. In this work, over a vast dark ground Twombly has employed a sharp, shifting sequence of lines to create a powerful, seemingly rippling, surface that appears to articulate a shimmering spatial field that has been both penetrated and brought to life by a sequence of lines that appear to articulate the swift passage of time and motion passing through it. Unlike the meandering looping line of Twombly’s better-known lasso-loop paintings from this same period, (1966-71), which are also expressive of the passage of time but in this case of a comparatively slow and measured pace, the streaking lines of this untitled work from 1969-1971, suggest a swifter, more urgent and powerful field of motion determined by a greater force and a more dynamic and faster appreciation of speed.