"The reality of whiteness may exist in the duality of sensation (as the multiple anxiety of desire and fear). Whiteness can be the classic state of the intellect, or a neo-romantic area of remembrance - or as the symbolic whiteness of Mallarmé. The exact implication may never be analyzed, but in that it persists as the landscape of my actions, it must imply more than selection. One is a reflection of meaning. So that the action must continually bear out the realization of existence. Therefore the act is the primary sensation." (Cy Twombly cited 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).
Using scrawls, splashes, smears and drips of paint applied loosely and sporadically to a blank white surface, this large untitled work, painted at the height of Twombly's Roman period, articulates a mystic and highly sensual expression of the path of human existence and experience. 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 language of smears, daubs, ciphers, and shorthand-like symbols in fact expresses a highly individual and personal response to the mythic landscape of the void.
Twombly's first encounter with the Eternal City, which ultimately resulted in the artist moving there permanently in 1957, reinforced his understanding of the artificiality of the concept of time as a linear progression from past to future. It had been Twombly's first visit to the Mediterranean and in particular, to Morocco in 1953, that had awoken in him the realization 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 path of human history. "It is difficult to begin to tell of the many, many things I saw and experienced" Twombly wrote about Morocco, "not only in art and history but of human poetry and dimensions in fleeting moment and flux. I will always be able to find energy and excitement to work with from these times. I see clearer and even more the things I left. It's been like one enormous awakening of finding many wonderful rooms in a house that you never knew existed." (Undated letter 1953, cited in K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly:A Retrospective, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1994, p. 17).
Following on from this 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." (extract from Twombly's application for a Catherwood Foundation fellowship, 1956, cited in ibid, p. 14).
Embracing the infusion of the ancient in the present that he had experienced in Mediterranean culture, in Rome Twombly evolved 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 range through a whole gamut of forms and emotions that both define and punctuate the infinite space of their intense white background. In Twombly's hands this vast expanse of white invokes both the dense and hazy white sunlight of the Mediterranean as well as an atemporal and almost mystic realm of classical imagination and mythology.
"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 has asserted. "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, Documenti, op. cit., p. 32).
While not referring directly to classical culture, this untitled work, painted in1962, is clearly informed by the intense and often highly erotic formal developments that Twombly had made in a major series of classical paintings that directly preceded the creation of this work. These paintings, Venus Anadyomene, Birth of Venus, Hero and Leander, and Leda and the Swan, are all concerned with the theme of love, eros, and desire and this is reflected in the rich sensual texture, feverish energy and often blood-red coloring of these works. Untitled too reflects this but instead of the intense moment of furious activity, birth, rape, passion and ecstasy, that characterise these works, here, Twombly's rich variety of marks lead the eye across the painting from left to right as if cataloguing a journey or transforming passage. Moving from a heavy visceral smearing of paint a the top left of the painting the forms drip and fall in a manner that resembles a similar passage in the large painting Second Voyage to Italy also executed in 1962. Out of this strange melange of forms, actions, pointers and scrawls, to the right of the painting there ascends an almost ethereal development of figure-of-eight loops and lasso loops. These spiral delicately into the top right-hand corner and disappear into the ether of the blank expanse of white background underpinning the painting as a whole. Splattered and daubed with the vivid red color of life, blood and passion, the often visceral marks in this overall subtle and gentle if not delicate painting seem to articulate an intensely physical human engagement within the mystic and atemporal arena of Twombly's ever-present blank white background.
Twombly, Pompeii, 1957 Photograph by William Holmes BARCODE: 03343623