In a remarkable cycle of works beginning in 1966 and taken up with renewed fervor in the 1970s, Cy Twombly tested the limits of what mark making can mean by creating works of art whose distinctive feature of looped, melodic and curvilinear markings left their trace on the surface. Against a muted, pale atmosphere, Twombly has created a series of paradoxically attenuated and vivid exploding energies, lines colliding, dispersing, marking a moment of intersection between artist and material. Looping script – a conflation of the graphic and painterly – in cerulean blue describe eight rows of progressively attenuated linear markings, each register unraveling more and more as the artist catalyzes a kinetic response that becoming looser and more open as it travels down the plane, almost cutting off from view this explosion of linearity that might well extend beyond the framing edge. An index of activity, but even more, a relationship between the body and the eye, is as intense as it is ongoing. While seemingly without precedent, these works nonetheless acknowledge historic precedent. The energy with which Twombly attacks his surface evokes the explosive markings made by Leonardo da Vinci in his series of drawings, The Deluge and its demonstration in painting, where flooding has caused trees to be engulfed and mountains and stones roil among the atmospheric apocalypse. Leonardo wrote a description to accompany his literary and visual images (c1514), “Let the dark and gloomy air be shown battered by the rush of contrary and convoluted winds…” (L. da Vinci, in M. Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvelous Works of Nature and Man, London, 2006, p. 315). Such living energy can be sensed in Twombly’s drawings and paintings in this style. Untitled is particularly fascinating for Twombly’s use of reverse coloration, retrieving an earlier practice from the 1950s and transferring it to paper: the loose, repetitive script is now an almost neon blue against a light background, a volte-face from the dark background activated by lighter markings, which dominate Twombly’s work in this style. Further, the year 1970 marks Twombly’s investigation of color where his looping appears in a variety of hues, from black against a pinkish white ground to multiple colors against an umber field. Roman Note is literally that—a literal hand-written “missive,” so to speak, created in Rome, along with a series of paintings made in this style in oil and wax crayon. Yet unlike the turbulence in Leonardo’s chaos drawings, Twombly’s can be seen as variations on the grid, what the esteemed art historian and curator Kurt Varnedo described as “dispersed forms into linear sequences” (K. Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, New York, 1994, p. 41) This lateral flow of forms reminds one of the rows or lines of the Palmer Method for learning to write script as a child (S. D. Delehanty, “The Alchemy of Mind and Hand,” rpt. in Cy Twombly, Paintings, Drawings, Constructions 1951-1974, Philadelphia, 1975, p. 24).
Twombly’s compulsion to “de-skill,” to unlearn years of traditional drawing and painting, find their most significant realization in this cycle of works, known generally as the Blackboard paintings and drawings.” As a whole, they define an extended moment in Twombly’s oeuvre that finds him exploring space and movement, creating dynamic gestures that are isolated, studied, and enacted for their liberating qualities. The close relationship between markings can be described as a kind of symbiosis, where motion is transferred from point to point. Untitled does not isolate and repeat a single gesture as in some of Twombly’s works in this cycle. Rather is connects variations on arcs and angles, moving across the canvas as if miming a gridded formation in tight intervals that follow the gyrations of some internal landscape. It is in this action, this “performance,” as the art historian Rosalind Krauss insists that is the key his art (R. Krauss, “Cy was here/Cy’s Up,” Artforum International 33, September 1994, p. 72). He is marking space, invading it, and leaves the traces of his presence, a planar instability that disrupts space even as it inhabits it.
The art historian Simon Schama has commented that Twombly is a neoclassicist after the Piranesi model, “since not only does Twombly seem to follow the serpentine Line of Beauty, but his Rome consists of the pleasure of ruins; the attack of weedy nature on the defaced wreckage of the classical tradition… [Twombly’s antiquity is] the deeper, darker, Dionysiac archaisms of an Arcadia where Eros and Thanatos are the closest of chums” (S. Schama, “Cy Twombly,” in Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper, New York, 2005, p. 15.) Certainly, Twombly is not an Abstract Expressionist in the mold of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, however much his gestural work echoes theirs. As Schama states, “[Twombly is,] I suppose, some sort of impenitent Abstract Expressionist… in the sense of the overriding need to nail down, visually, a surge of temper… [rather, he has] always been after matter less evanescent and, for all its admission of personal preoccupation, less emotionally self-absorbed” (S. Schama, “Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1969, via www.whitney.org [accessed April 6, 2016]). It is this quality—the thoughtful, considered, resistant, and ironic marker of loose traces in seeming disarray which we see in such perfect concert here.