‘O dreamer, if I’m to plunge
Into the pure delight that needs no path,
Know, by a subtle lie,
To hold my wing within your hand’
‘Mallarmé’s purpose was the deconstruction of the sentence, that time-honoured vehicle (in France) of ideology. TW’s (Twombly’s) deconstruction of writing takes place en passant, just dragging along, as it were. And to deconstruct something is not at all equivalent to making it unrecognizable. In the texts of Mallarmé, the French language is fully recognizable and fully functional – to be sure, in bits and pieces. In TW’s graphism, writing is likewise fully recognizable: it presents itself as writing. Nonetheless, the letters that are formed no longer belong to any graphic code, just as the grand phrases of Mallarmé no longer belong to any rhetorical code – not even to the code of destruction’
Vast and engulfing, Untitled of 1972 is an outstanding large-scale drawing related to both the poetics of Stephane Mallarmé and Twombly’s celebrated Bolsena series of paintings made in 1969, exemplified by its combination of fragmented language, disjointed measurements, corrections, grids and overdrawings schismatically outlining a sense of poetic calculation in space. It was during the summer of 1969 at the very same moment that Neil Armstrong was taking his first bold steps onto the surface of the moon, that Twombly found himself standing in the Palazzo del Dago on the shores of Lake Bolsena engaged in the painting of a series of white and grey-ground paintings that attempted to reflect a sense of the strange synchronicity of this division in space and time. The fourteen paintings that resulted from this summer came to be known as the Bolsena series and reflected in many ways the culmination of the artist’s increasing interest in the concepts of time, space and measurement as an essential part of his ongoing concern in the late 1960s with the development of line.
Marking a significant change from the general trend of much of his earlier more lyrical and poetically expressive white-ground paintings, many of these later works appeared to echo an awareness of the Minimalist aesthetics that dominated American art during this period. At the same time they were also a more systematic development - as well as a consequence - of the artist’s longtime interest in the obsessive quasi-scientific artistry of Leonardo’s Nature studies. Twombly’s Bolsena paintings were originally formulated in a series of drawings begun in January 1969 while the artist was in the Caribbean, and then painted later in the year (between August and September) when they increasingly came to reflect the dominant talking point of that summer of 1969; the Apollo moon landings. Against a background of much scientific talk about vectors, orbits and distances in space and time Twombly formulated these pictures, and, almost inevitably, through a kind of osmosis, references to space-flight, both oblique and overt, began also to appear in the paintings.
Untitled, completed in 1972, is a work that extends this deconstructed mix of words, numbers and imagery to include several elements of Twombly’s aesthetic from not just the Bolsena period but also much earlier in his career. Here, spatial and temporal measurements and calculations appear to coincide with a sense of the complex mathematics of Leonardo’s nature studies of wings, and the poetics of Stephane Mallarmé, to fuse into one complex, open-spaced and poetic image of flight, of journeying through space, time and, as one of the legible inscriptions on the work reads, also ‘memory’. It is, effectively, as an inscription to the left of this work reads, an ‘entrance to it all’. Placed at the centre of the work and seeming to dominate its theme, is the scrawled sentence ‘What Wing can be Held’. This is a reconfigured reference to a repeated conceit that Mallarmé used in poems such as Autre éventail (Another Fan) to express the romantic difficulty of attempting to hold onto the ineffable; in this case, the wing-like fan of his lover. A translation of Mallarmé’s phrase from this poem reads, ‘understand how subtly to connive to keep my wing in your hand’.
The image of the fan, and the wing, and the impossibility of holding onto this fluttering, ephemeral and motional object recurs in both Mallarmé’s poems and also in much of Twombly’s work during his distinctly Mallarmé-influenced period in the late 1950s. It is invoked to some extent in his white palm-like sculptures of this time, and, most significantly perhaps, Twombly’s phrase, ‘What Wing can be Held’, is also the title of a 1960 painting by the artist that incorporates rectangular features similar to some of those found in this 1972 work. In addition, the Mallarméan phrase ‘how to hold a wing’ is one that also appears in Twombly’s vast three-metre long painting The School of Fontainebleau of 1960. The sense of wings, as both a vehicle of flight, and as metaphors of longing, as emotional transportation and as symbols of the ultimately ungraspable or indefinable nature of phenomena, is a constant running through Twombly’s work that appears to be re-invoked here in this work in relation to the kind of space-time drawings of the Bolsena series of three years earlier.
The fragmented nature of the way in which Twombly represents the elements that his inscriptions describe – ‘flight’ and ‘memory’ over the ‘sea’ for example – is also derived from a Mallarméan sensitivity to words, language and the way in which they each appear on the mysterious, blank, white emptiness of the page. As Roland Barthes has famously written of Twombly’s deconstructive debt to Mallarmé in this respect, ‘Mallarmé’s purpose was the deconstruction of the sentence, that time-honoured vehicle (in France) of ideology. TW’s (Twombly’s) deconstruction of writing takes place en passant, just dragging along, as it were. And to deconstruct something is not at all equivalent to making it unrecognizable. In the texts of Mallarmé, the French language is fully recognizable and fully functional – to be sure, in bits and pieces. In TW’s graphism, writing is likewise fully recognizable: it presents itself as writing. Nonetheless, the letters that are formed no longer belong to any graphic code, just as the grand phrases of Mallarmé no longer belong to any rhetorical code – not even to the code of destruction’ (R. Barthes, ‘Non Multa sed Multum’ in N. del Roscio (ed.), Writings on Twombly, Munich 2002, p. 91).
Here, alongside the measured calculated marks of ruled lines, numbers, proportions and measurements, Twombly’s scrawled corrections and coloured over-drawings appear to collectively articulate the complex mathematics of flight or of an unseen entity rising over ground or sea in manner that formally echoes quite closely Leonardo’s intricate studies of wings in preparation for the design of his own flying machine. Part blackboard calculation, part blueprint, part poem and part landscape, Twombly’s deconstructive fusion of the language of different disciplines rendered against and within the empty white page of the paper ground, also echoes Leonardo’s studies formally, if not ideologically. With its smeared-over drawn forms suggestive of speed and motion, this extraordinary work seems to pictorially express a sense of an incomprehensible higher realm of understanding where mathematics, poetry, imagery and design cohesively interact towards the common purpose of ‘taking wing’.