In 1966 Twombly's art underwent a dramatic change when the artist embarked on what was to become a highly celebrated series of works now sometimes known as the "blackboard" paintings. Distinguishable for their strict graphic regularity, severe formal restraint and often apparent emptiness, these paintings mark a significant departure from the schismatic and spontaneous lyricism of the artist's earlier Roman paintings. Executed between 1966 and 1971 these new works were dubbed the "blackboard" paintings because they were inspired by the notion of the classroom blackboard or the child's primer as a temporal and highly graphic conveyor of information. They were also predominantly painted on dark gray backgrounds that resembled the slate of a blackboard. Executed in January 1971, this large Untitled painting with its wave-like progression of lasso-loops scrawled across the canvas in a sequential rhythm is a striking and relatively rare light-ground example that is one of the last of this highly important series of works.
As early as 1960 Twombly had revealed his fascination with Leonardo da Vinci's studies of water known as the Deluge drawings, by appending a reproduction of one of Leonardo's drawings to a collage work of his own. The obsessive and somewhat mystical quality of Leonardo's Deluge drawings seems to inform all of Twombly's lasso loop paintings, where the sequential progression of looped line is encouraged to adopt a lyrical momentum of its own. It was the unity of energy and continuum in the element of tempestuous water that fascinated Leonardo and which, magnificently though ultimately in vain, he had tried to capture in graphic form. It is this same feeling of an inexorable and united flow of energy that Twombly attempts to convey in this work.
Using the graphic process of writing and translating its continuous flow of a single line into a painterly language, Twombly adopted a strict formulaic procedure in his looped-line paintings. It is a process that echoes the Palmer technique taught to children when they are first learning to write. Working in the opposite direction to the children who learn to impose a rigid order and a rational discipline on their hand, Twombly adopts the technique of a perpetual repetition of a looped line as a means of increasing the fluid and graphic energy of his line while maintaining a continuum throughout. In this work especially, with its sequential magnifying of the height and scale of the loops as the horizontal progression of the line develops from the top to the bottom of the picture, the strength, innovation and power of Twombly's line seems to build like that of an oncoming wave.
A scientific sense of continuum, and in particular that of the space-time continuum of Einsteinian relativity played an important role in defining the form of many of Twombly's paintings in the late 1960s. Whereas the "Mallarmian" white-ground works from his first years in Rome (1957-1963) had been marked by a lyrical exploration of the simultaneous presence of myth and history in contemporary reality, Twombly's paintings made between 1966 and 1971 took on a colder, more analytical and linear approach to the measuring and calibrating of the relativity of time, space and motion. In adopting a simple, direct and minimal use of means in the "blackboard" paintings, it has often been suggested that Twombly was responding to the cultural climate established by the Minimalist and Conceptual art of the same period. Certainly, in adopting the technique of the lasso-loop the artist was employing a similar simple linear device and use of sequential repetition and logical progression of form common to the language of Minimalism. In addition, these works, like Minimalist art also remain seemingly objective, subsuming any sense of individual personality within the logic of the whole.
In establishing a sequential continuum, the immediacy and uniqueness of each individual mark in Twombly's lasso works is subsumed by the inexorable progress of the whole so that, unlike the cypher-like scrawls and scratches of his earlier painting each idiosyncratic mark remains part of a collective motion and a single continuous line. Like Heraclitus' metaphor of life being like a river into which you can never step twice because it is a single, united but also perpetually changing entity, Twombly's looped-line progression is a single minimalist entity of infinite variety and nuance. In this respect these works are perhaps closer to the infusing of the restrictive Minimalist aesthetic with elements of individual psychology and emotion that characterised the contemporaneous work of artists like Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, all working in New York at this time.
The nuance and strength of expression that Twombly manages to inflect in his line while still maintaining a continuous rhythm and flow, is what makes these lasso-works truly exceptional. Twombly's incisive and idiosyncratic line simultaneously manages to express both a continuity and a fracturing of this flow that generates a pervasive sense of dynamic independent movement caught up in a collective progression caused by an irresistible, insistent and perpetual force. In this, the lasso-line paintings reflect something of Italian Futurists' use of the dynamic rhythm of disjunction to suggest motion, energy and simultaneity. Predating the advent of Fascist art and the Stalinist Realism of the 1930s and 40s, the motion studies of the Futurists were largely untainted by recent political history and as such they informed much of the new art in Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Of particular relevance for Twombly were works like Umberto Boccioni's 1911 studies for States of Mind and Giacomo Balla's many studies of air currents and the flight of birds that also followed the example set in the fifteenth century by Leonardo.
One of the last of Twombly's lasso-line paintings, this untitled work painted in 1971 shortly before Twombly's exhibtion at the Galleria Gian Enzo Sperone in February, is more dense, complex and energized than most. Using a rare range of colors and a series of layered lasso-lines, held and divided from one another by ruled horizontal lines that echo those of a school exercise book, Twombly creates a dense and frenetic handwritten scrawl that in places seems to threaten to froth out of control. Smeared, overwritten, incised and here and there scratched into the surface, the overall effect of the work is extremely painterly despite the fact that it is essentially the expression of the continuous and irresistible momentum of a seemingly single line. Unlike many of Twombly's early lasso-line paintings, the progression here, is in fact, not that of a single line but a layering of many different lines that build together to convey the impression of a united and continuous path of a single looping line. As in Boccioni's States of Mind, a sense of individual form is undermined and each element is presented as interdependent on the other. It is in this way, through its clever integration of a sense of the single line, the multiple line and the whole, that this work presents a graphic approximation of the multiple-layered mystery of human existence. Presenting what appears to be the path of a single line, but which is in fact many layers of both revealed an obliterated continuous lines fluctuating along the same directional path, this work articulates a strong existential sense of unity and diversity. In doing this Twombly's line stands as a powerful metaphor for the single but also, ultimately, integrated path an individual life takes within a similar multiple, diverse but ultimately united whole.
Umberto Boccioni, Study for States of Mind: The Farewells, 1911, Private collection, New York
Twombly in his studio, New York, 1955 Photograph by Robert Rauschenberg
Twombly, Untitled, 1970 Private collection