‘When Twombly moved his studio out of the palazzo on the via di Monserrato and into rented rooms on the piazza del Biscione, he made a flurry of works that obviated it altogether. These paintings, from the summer of 1961, are among the most impressive, most emotionally wrought works of Twombly’s career, and not coincidentally they bring together in extreme compression the contradictions of ‘grimness’ and ‘insinuating elegance’ that critics had seen cohabiting in his work since his first exhibition of 1951. They reach for a higher level of lyricism and a greater grandiloquence, precisely through their more aggressive release of explicitly defiling messiness’ (K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1994, p. 34).
Using scrawls, splashes, smears and drips of paint applied loosely and sporadically to a blank white surface, this richly-worked, untitled painting, made during the high point of Twombly’s early years in Rome, is one that articulates a mystic and highly sensual expression of the path of human existence and experience through space and time. It is one of a sequence of similarly-scaled (50 x 60cm) paintings all completed in 1961 (though in some cases in fact mistakenly dated as early as 1959) in which Twombly graphically articulated his emotional and intellectual response to the city of Rome and his new life in the Eternal City in an ever increasing intensity of graphic mark-making.
Sometimes seen as being reflective of the incidental marks, scratches and scrawled graffiti that have adorned the walls and streets of Rome since classical times, Twombly’s ephemeral but often visceral pictorial language of smears, daubs, ciphers, and shorthand-like symbols in these works is in fact a complex and expressive language of action, gesture, feeling and experience. Essentially material traces of the artist’s actions as he operates both within and upon the white void of his canvas ground, Twombly’s magnificently fluid and meandering touch is evocative of both a deeply felt emotion towards his surroundings and an existential response to the timeless, mythical landscape of antiquity.
In particular, as Kirk Varnedoe pointed out, ‘Twombly’s work of 1961 has... been seen as reflecting his response to the great Baroque spaces of Rome,’ (prompted by the artist’s recent change of studio). But this ‘formal intuition’, Varnedoe wrote, ‘whatever its quotient of truth, must still be grounded in some denser reckoning of the various things the city meant to him, beginning with Olympia’s scarred wall in 1957 and deepening seamlessly into the different complexities of the great ‘baroque’ summer four years later’ (K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1994, p. 36).
Like several works from this period, this painting bears a seemingly erroneous date on its reverse; it has been signed and dated by the artist ‘1960’. The painting is however, listed by Heiner Bastian in his catalogue raisonné of Twombly’s paintings as being part of a sequence of comparatively small-scaled paintings completed by the artist in late 1961. Seemingly one of the earlier of this apparent sequence of increasingly intense and volatile scribbled paintings - works that in many ways can be seen to culminate in the graphic explosions of Twombly’s large and erotic mythological paintings of the following year such as Leda and the Swan and Hero and Leander for example - this painting still exhibits a distinctly orchestrated sense of space, distance and location in its comparatively clear arrangement of forms, symbols and marks on the white picture plane. Marked with a cross in places and in others with a box or a scrawled point, these are all marks that collectively exude an almost legible sense of topography and of motion through a landscape of some kind.
Twombly’s first encounter with Rome, which ultimately resulted in his moving to the city permanently in 1957, was a profound one that reinforced his understanding of the artificiality of the concept of time as a linear progression from past to future. It had been this, Twombly’s first visit to the Mediterranean and in particular, to Morocco in 1953, that had first awoken in him the realisation that the most fleeting and ephemeral of marks on the skin of present-day reality could encapsulate and convey a wealth of information about the entire path of human history. Following on from this aesthetic awakening in Morocco, the simultaneity of experience in Rome, its living mixture of ancient and contemporary reinforced Twombly’s understanding of the essential contemporaneous nature of all experience and how the ancient actively collided with and informed the present. ‘The past is (my) source’, Twombly once explained, but, ‘all art is vitally contemporary… generally speaking my art has evolved out of interest in symbols abstracted, but nevertheless humanistic; formal as most arts are in their archaic and classic stages, and a deeply aesthetic sense of eroded or ancient surfaces of time’ (C. Twombly, ‘extract from the artist’s application for a Catherwood Foundation fellowship, 1956’, quoted in K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1994, p. 14).
Embracing the infusion of the ancient in the present that he had experienced in Mediterranean culture, Twombly’s Roman paintings of the late 1950s and early ‘60s began to evolve a unique pictorial language that, like Ezra Pound’s poetry before him, invoked the ancient classical myths, gods and legends and immersed them in contemporary experience. Working towards a lyrical language of painting in which his painted marks express as much of the process and energy by which they come to be as the thing or emotion that they are intended to signify, Twombly developed a unique and emotion-filled pictorial shorthand. It is one that is wholly dependent on the subtle and carefully honed skill of the artist. Both benefiting from and reflecting his remarkable and often deeply sensual touch and use of material, Twombly’s sporadic and sometimes intense flourishes lyrically wander through a whole range of forms and emotions that both define and punctuate the infinite space of their monochromatic white background. In Twombly’s hands the rich expanse of white against which, onto which and within which he moves, paints or graphically operates, is one that invokes both the dense and hazy white sunlight of the Mediterranean as well as an atemporal, Mallarméan and almost mystic realm of classical imagination and mythology.
In this way, the white ground of Twombly’s canvases becomes a spatial and temporal field, a realm within which to create, to form, to mark, move and even, momentarily, to live, exist and leave a formal trace of one’s existence. ‘It is the forming of the image, the compulsive action of becoming, the direct and indirect pressures brought to a climax in the acute act of forming’ that is central to the way he paints, Twombly once asserted in a rare early statement on his painting. ‘Since most painting then defies the image; it is therefore to a great extent illustrating the idea of feeling content. It is in this area that I break with the more general processes of painting. To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a critical moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state; but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse, or in the process of a painting, run a gamut of states... Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate - it is the sensation of its own realization. The imagery is one of the private or separate indulgences rather than an abstract totality of visual perception. This is very difficult to describe, but it is an involvement in essence no matter how private, into a synthesis of feeling, intellect etc. occurring without separation in the impulse of action’ (C. Twombly, quoted in ‘Documenti di una nuova figurazione: Toti Scialoja, Gastone Novelli, Pierre Alechinsky, Achille Perilli, Cy Twombly’, L’Esperienza moderna, no. 2, August-September 1957, p. 32).