"Cy Twombly tries to shatter form as well as its concomitant intellectual and narrative history in a kind of relativism, reducing it to a rationality of 'black and white' that is at the same time the structural sum of all movement" (Heiner Bastian, ed. Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III 1966-1971, Munich, 1994, p. 23)
"Handwriting has become for Twombly the means of beginning again, of erasing the Baroque culmination of the painting of the early 1960s...beautiful writing has been submerged within a Jasper Johns-like gray field. Put bluntly, it has been drowned in a schoolmaster's blackboard." (Robert Pincus-Witten, "Learning to Write," 1968, in: Nicola del Roscio, ed., Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich, 2002, p. 56)
A panoramic expanse pulsating with the expansions and contractions of Cy Twombly's organized chaos, Untitled (New York City) of 1970 broadcasts a vital and irresistible energy as one of the artist's most important works. The current of its urgent linearity courses through six semi-determinate horizontal bands of progressively increasing size, their enigmatic configuration immediately implicating the formality of typography yet resolutely denying accessible legibility. The all-over rolling sweeps of lasso-line mark-making cover the entire canvas and triumphantly undermine any preoccupation with a central compositional motif or even the diversion of specific subject matter. The act of erasure and over-drawing dramatically destabilizes the intended legibility of handwriting and the cipher of language held therein. Twombly's line repeatedly nears the precipice of lexical recognition, with suggestive echoes of conventional pictographs such as figure-of-eight infinity signs and nascent parabolic curves as well as alphabetical letters, but ultimately any prescribed attributions of sign referents are overruled by the physical properties of pure form. Aggregations of Twombly's partially-erased, smeared and overwritten scrawls accumulate like geological strata: mnemonic shadows narrating successive past acts of creation. Evoking the spatial and temporal dimensions of an archaeological portrait of History, the seismic turbulence of the jagged line attests a labyrinth of conflicting forces like a natural phenomenon. The resultant composition embraces an unremittingly free association between painting and language, becoming a distinctly lyrical form of abstraction and, quite simply, the archetype of sublime visual poetry. Accessing vaults of response that are at once intellectual and emotional, visual and psychological, Untitled (New York City) stands as a total work of art; a conceptual and aesthetic gesamkunstwerk that achieves an unprecedented universality. With the unsophisticated rawness of illegible graffiti Twombly invents a transcendent new visual language to interrogate both the most elementary and the most sophisticated concerns posed by the genesis of creativity.
In 1966 Cy Twombly abandoned the emotive use of color that had defined much of his earlier output to embark upon a cycle of matte grey canvases in search of a more expressive clarity. As Heiner Bastian has deftly explained, "Cy Twombly tries to shatter form as well as its concomitant intellectual and narrative history in a kind of relativism, reducing it to a rationality of 'black and white' that is at the same time the structural sum of all movement." (Heiner Bastian, ed. Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III 1966-1971, Munich, 1994, p. 23). Extraneous literary and historical concerns were cast aside as Twombly sought to channel the vitality of his wrist towards exploring the expressive possibilities of autonomous rhythmic repetitions. The process of drawing for Twombly embodied the paradox of time and the convergence of many seemingly dissimilar elements here into a single composition disclosing the intricacies of his profound visionary awareness. The reduction of form to its most elegant and elementary essence seduces the viewer into the hidden complexity and depth of the image. Unlike the static, semi-figurative black and white paintings of Twombly's formative years in the early 1950s, these new grey canvases saw the centrifugal energy and erotic charge of Twombly's Baroque-inspired early 1960s paintings transferred into a rhythmic discourse of mood and movement. The resulting canvases, such as Untitled (New York City), are some of the most powerful and lyrical works of his career.
Like some of Twombly's earlier compositions founded upon the musical theory of Counterpoint, the rhythmical harmony of Untitled (New York City) is animated by a symphony of non-descript linear forms which dance across the canvas, recalling Palmer handwriting drills or Paul Klee's Pedagogical exercises. In undertaking the challenge of capturing movement in time and space, Twombly aligned himself to the godfather of the Avant Garde, Marcel Duchamp. Like the shadows of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, the ethereal figure of eights - borrowed perhaps for their mathematical associations with infinity - multiply, recede and climb through the surface of the canvas. The linear repetition of Twombly's painting also recalls Futurist investigations into the cinematic decomposition of forms in motion, specifically Umberto Boccioni's States of Mind III: Those Who Stay and its charting of a contemporary psychological topography. While this represented a new departure in Twombly's work, the Futurist principle of movement in space had been of utmost importance to the artistic investigations of a whole generation of Italian artists for over a decade. However, whereas the Italian revival of Futurism was predominantly for its rational, semi-scientific dissection of movement, Twombly seems to have reacted more intuitively to the dispersion of forms in which analytic precision collides with a spontaneous, energetic flux. Like Umberto Boccioni and later Francis Bacon, for Twombly the fractured dissolutions of movement became a metaphorical means of conveying agitations of the soul.
Twombly's grey paintings also indicate an inspirational debt to the scientific notebooks drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Like Joseph Beuys, Twombly saw within the Renaissance master's innumerable scientific formula, scattered drawings and codes a private poetry of obsession; something driven by an irrational demon of secret knowledge which struck a chord with Twombly's own aesthetic. Above all though, perhaps it was the realization that the Renaissance clarity and light so often used to describe Italian art were balanced by a darker, neurotic intensity. This is reflected by the destructive and turbulent themes of Leonardo's work to which Twombly was consistently drawn in the late 1960s: those of maelstroms and cataclysms.
In spite of the undisputable Italian influences, Twombly found in the relative coolness of the dark-ground style an appropriate form of work to pursue in New York. Working from studios on the Bowery, the relative chasteness and severity of his new aesthetic compared to the sensual pleasures of the early 1960s seemed more in sync with contemporary trends in America. In Untitled (New York City), the freedom of movement of course evokes the liberal energy of Jackson Pollock's action painting, while the all-over but low-pressure imagery is similar to Jasper Johns grey paintings. By 1970 the aesthetics of Minimalism had also become a dominant philosophical current in contemporary art. In formal terms, Twombly's white on black paintings certainly share the reductive ethos of Minimialism's severe vocabulary. However, to wantonly link the grey paintings to the systematic asceticism of Conceptualism and Minimalism would be to spuriously overlook the intrinsic tonal variety and expressive layered complexity of their thinly washed surfaces, and deny urgency to the individual fluctuating energies of their intensely worked linear forms. For Twombly the blackboard paintings represented emancipation from the associative constrictions of his preceding oeuvre: a new dawn in his epic art as attested by Robert Pincus-Witten in a contemporaneous review: "Handwriting has become for Twombly the means of beginning again, of erasing the Baroque culmination of the painting of the early 1960s...beautiful writing has been submerged within a Jasper Johns-like gray field. Put bluntly, it has been drowned in a schoolmaster's blackboard." (Robert Pincus-Witten, "Learning to Write," 1968, in: Nicola del Roscio, ed., Writings on Cy Twombly, Munich, 2002, p. 56). Seductive both in its complexity, depth and surface directness, the aura and myth surrounding Cy Twombly's Untitled (New York City) stems from the singularity and enigmatic diversity of its execution.
Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas
56 1/2 x 70 in. 143.5 x 177.8 cm.
Heiner Bastian, ed. Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III 1966-1971, Munich, 1994, cat. no. 107, p. 225, illustrated in color
Giorgio Franchetti, Rome
Anina Nosei Gallery, New York
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Ira Young, Los Angeles
Gagosian Gallery, New York