'I've found when you get old you must return to certain things in the beginning, or things you have a sentiment for or something. Because your life closes up in so many ways or doesn't become as flexible or exciting or whatever you want to call it. You tend to be nostalgic... when I grew up, in summer with my parents we were always in Massachusetts, and I was always by the seaI had a particular passion for boats, and now I live by the sea if you've noticed, the sea is white three quarters of the time, just white, - early morning. Only in the fall does it get blue, because the haze is gone. The Mediterranean, at least ...is always just white, white, white. And then, even when the sun comes up, it becomes a lighter white. Only in the fall is the Mediterranean this beautiful blue colour, as in Greece. Not because I paint it white, I'd have painted it white even if it wasn't, but I am always happy that I might have. It's something that has other consciousness behind it.' (C. Twombly, 'Interview with David Sylvester, 2000', cited in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London 2001, p. 175)
This work is the second in a series of ten paintings that Twombly made in his home in Gaeta on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy throughout the winter and early spring of 2004. Sometimes known as the 'Winter' Pictures' these ten works along with a single sculpture from 1987 entitled Victory dedicated to the former president of the Centre Pompidou and director of the Picasso Museum, Dominique Bozo, were first exhibited in London in May 2004 where they were all immediately sold.
From the early 1980s onwards Twombly has spent an increasing amount of time in his home in Gaeta working in his studio overlooking the sea, and it is there that many of his most important recent works and particularly his later series of paintings have been made. As the recent retrospective exhibition of Twombly's work at the Tate Modern in London highlighted, many of the artist's later works have often tended to take the form of cycles and series often created with a specific exhibition space in mind. The defining characteristic of the 'Winter Pictures', like other great series such as Lepanto for example and so many other of the paintings that Twombly has produced in Gaeta, is the sea. A mysterious, infinite and often predominantly white realm in Twombly's work suggestive of a myriad of possibilities involving the sense of Odyssey and of journeying, of paths crossing, time passing, and the past, the sea - and especially the Mediterranean - in all its poetic and historic glory, is an important presence and a recurrent motif in much of Twombly's work. 'Painting is more fusing - fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere', Twombly has told David Sylvester. (C. Twombly, 'Interview with David Sylvester, 2000', cited in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London 2001, p. 181). In this series of paintings created in Twombly's white-walled studio in Gaeta with its sequence of windows looking out onto the ancient harbour and its boats coming and going throughout the misty haze of the day, the powerful presence of the sea is again indicated by the paintings' radiant white backgrounds. Against a great many multiple layers of white, a sequence of vertical linear marks scrawled, splashed, daubed but mostly written down the canvas in a variety of colours, though predominantly brown, has been made. Emerging and dissolving amidst layer upon layer of misty white an extraordinary dialogue between the twisting dripping forms, part meandering line, part glyph, cipher, scribble or brushstroke is built up to the point where Twombly himself has said, he can discern a 'linguistic thing' cropping up. What he described to Sir Nicholas Serota as 'a kind of garbled form of Japanese writing pseudo-writing'. (C. Twombly in 'Interview with Nicholas Serota' in Cy Twombly : Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., London 2008, p. 53) Reminiscent in some respects of Japanese calligraphy as well as of Leonardo da Vinci's studies of floods, these shimmering dripping forms seem to articulate a radiant sense of flow. The passage of each line through the picture is not only an echo of the path of Twombly's hand but also seemingly an invoking of the passage of material through time. 'White paint is my marble', Twombly has said. (Ibid p. 151) Twombly uses white to define an almost mystical sense of space and time existing within the flat plane of the picture. The material substance of his painterly marks are, almost in the manner of a palimpsest, set into and against it in a way that seems to knowingly echo the poet Stéphane Mallarmé's conception of the white page as a vital spatial and temporal void that becomes charged with meaning through the 'play' of words upon it. Here, in this work, alongside the radiant and misty layers of white that form an ambiguous but very spatial sense depth to the picture, the contrastingly strong and highly material substance of the artist's heavy strokes of brown paint combine to give a pervasive sense other elements, such as earth and air, also intermingling in the work's fluid and open invocation of the ocean. Executed in a seemingly sequential pattern running down the canvas these vertical rhythms of painterly form seem, in the manner of oriental calligraphy, to run like constantly shifting vertical lines of poetry in and out, and always down, through the effervescent and ethereal white space of the picture. It is in this respect that these paintings also recall Twombly's first great pictorial paeans to the sea - his epic series of drawings entitled Poems to the Sea - made on this same coastline when he first became enchanted with the area on a visit to Sperlonga in 1959. Like these, the fascinating, fluid 'pseudo writing' of these 'Winter Pictures' also miraculously seems to echo Mallarmé's insistence that 'verse should not be composed of words, but of intentions, and should destroy all words for the sake of sensation.' (S. Mallarmé cited in H. Bastian, Cy Twombly Poems to the Sea, exh. cat. Munich 1990, unpaged)