Charged with visceral energy, a deluge of hurried lines hurtles across the canvas in fluent diagonal striations intersecting and overlapping with a series of crescent-shaped figures that follow a graduated trajectory from left to right. These arched figures seem to simultaneously swell even as they disintegrate in a downpour of muscular strokes—blues, purples, whites that obliterate its progress. With a gestural force of rare keenness, Twombly’s cursive lines convey an explosion of effervescence, a sense of atmospheric intoxication that would have been palpable to the artist in the environs of Rome. For Untitled is a painting about elements, conjuring up the sky and clouds that so inspired and engaged him. In this sublimely beautiful work, Twombly invokes an aesthetic of ethereality, a dialogue between the classical Mediterranean that surrounded him and their calligraphic transcription.
Untitled was executed at the height of Twombly’s creative involvement with his celebrated series of Blackboard paintings, begun in 1966 and named for the grayish ground that resembled the slate of school blackboards. These works marked a significant turn away from his earlier white-ground paintings with their lyrical references to mythology and classical history. The feverish markings on grey-ground in the earlier works of the series featured running loops in delineated rows. “These are ‘signature’ images in several senses,” noted curator Kirk Varnedoe, “because they ostensibly present an abstracted, wordless essence of the handwriting that is associated with so much of Twombly’s work; and because they vividly embody, again and in renewed form, the artist’s willingness to take on the most unpromising premises as the basis of his art” (K. Varnedoe, “Inscriptions in Arcadia,” in Cy Twombly: A Retrospective,” exh. cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1994, p. 41).
The present work recalls the dispersed slashes of futurist artists, among them Umberto Boccioni’s effects of distortions on bodies in a blaze of speed, Giacomo Balla’s iridescent interpenetrations that render electromagnetic waves, and Carlo Carrà’s vibrant reimagining of physical motion. From Boccioni’s extraordinarily vibrant chromatic slashes rendering both kinetic dynamism and simultaneous occurrences, Twombly drew a fevered desire to make marks in brilliant explosive forms. Untitled celebrates such fevered inscriptions, but also reaches back in history to the painterly celebrations of new industries and modes of transportation. One thinks of Joseph M. W. Turner’s vaunting of the railway in Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway or Monet’s overlapping striated clouds in his Le Gare St. Lazare rendered in the same hues as Twombly’s own grays, blues, and whites. Untitled is every bit as evocative of atmospheric disturbances—the visceral charge of light piercing atmosphere, the motion of air, water, and machine, the transcriptions of time and space. It is also an embrace of the luminescence of the Mediterranean, much as Monet would capture in the obsessive allover canvases of his late period. For just as Monet obsessively overlaid his images with strong gestures that implied transparency, so Twombly’s markings are scenes of intimacy, where fragmentation and iteration are lit by spellbinding aura and an impression of constant flux.
Twombly’s approach to painting and physical gestures was rooted in Abstract Expressionism, such as Jackson Pollock demonstrated in his extraordinary works of the late 1940s where the surface is entirely controlled from edge to edge and corner to corner. Yet Twombly took such notions to unimagined heights. First, he resists Cubist structure, which is to say unlike the paintings of Pollock and Willem de Kooning whose markings are dense and compact, Twombly’s canvases are open fields, his forms free-floating as if they might go on infinitely, and his framing edges limitless. He fills his canvas with markings in oil, wax crayon, and pencil in a flurry of activity that expresses the infinite extensibility of the flat picture plane. Essential to the effect of the work, Twombly moves away from anchoring a central image projected against a ground and instead engages every inch of the pictorial field as an arena in which to enact his expressive intent. Further, Twombly, like de Kooning before him, experimented with the notion of “deskilling,” unlearning traditional drawing in order to express a kinetic immediacy. Yet it was against the expressive gestural action of Abstract Expressionism that artists such as Twombly, as well as his intimates, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, defined themselves. In the cultural arena of the 1950s, a milieu in which Twombly began developing his own visual language, these artists sought an objective drawing, where markings were more a literary than an expressive vocabulary of visual signs. Mathematical equations, geometries, and sequencings were made part of their visual vocabularies. Johns’ early arithmetic inscriptions and his crosshatch series, which he took up in 1972 just a year after Twombly’s Untitled, were as corporeal and singular as Twombly’s own. Johns might well have spoken for Twombly when he recalled his inspiration for the latter repetitive crosshatchings: “It had all the qualities that interest me—literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning” (J. Johns, quoted in S. Kent, “Jasper Johns: Strokes of Genius,” pp. 258-59, in K. Varnedoe (ed.), Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 259).
This critical interrogation of the medium would be relevant for Twombly’s own sense of repetitive pictorial ordering. For just two years before creating the Untitled, Twombly embarked on a peripatetic sequence of travel that found him at work on “blackboard” paintings in New York and then making several trips between the US, Italy, and the Caribbean to arrive finally in 1969 on the shores of Lake Bolsena, just north of Rome. There he elaborated the earlier “blackboard” work in curvilinear sequencing of split geometries, arithmetic equations, and acrobatic lyricism. This series of works with its “tumbling forms, scientific calculations, and scribbled-out numbers like incorrect sums proliferate” feature a similar arc of geometries that spreads laterally across the canvas in much the same way that the arches are overlaid with diagonal iterations that peak and lull over the breadth of the present work (N. Cullinan, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, exh. cat., London, Tate Modern, 2008, p. 112). In the 1968 “Blackboard” works, the Bolsena series, and the present Untitled, Twombly creates a narrative structure through erasures and additions while elaborating a dramatic arc of transparent layering. Like the graffiti artist whose anonymity remains secure even as a personal mark remains, Twombly’s signature is the trace of his activity, making Untitled a particularly remarkable and highly coveted work of his masterly production. It is also worth noting that from 1957, the year in which he settled more or less permanently in Rome, Twombly absorbed the Continental version of Abstract Expressionism—in Italy titled Informale—from artists such as Roberto Crippa, who were exploring the implication of graffiti-like actions that emphasized the processes of deskilled drawing and the materiality of their surfaces. Yet, in contrast to these artists, Twombly’s markings are deeply personal expressions, what Harald Szeeman called “[Twombly’s] own presence in the here-and-now...a new tradition which becomes a new present” (H. Szeeman, “An Appreciation: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1987, http://www.cytwombly.info/twombly_writings13.htm).
For Untitled is also an exuberant display of the concerns of its own time: to test the limits of what art can be. At the invitation of Robert Rauschenberg, Twombly joined him for the summer at Black Mountain College, which in 1951, was a hotbed of experimentation. From John Cage and others there, Twombly traced a lineage back to the Surrealist automatic drawing, which appear as almost stream-of-consciousness stroke repetitions in the present work. Twombly creates both attenuated and vividly exploding markings, lines colliding, gestures interspersed and dispersing, a work that marks a moment of intersection between artist and material: in activating his surface, Twombly vaunts its materiality.
It is in this respect that Untitled marks Twombly’s return to and reinvestigation of a kind of handwritten mark that the artist had first explored in the mid-1950s while sharing a studio with Robert Rauschenberg in Fulton Street, New York. There, inspired by the then dominant examples of Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet but also by the work of John Cage whom, with Rauschenberg, he had encountered at Black Mountain College, Twombly had embarked on a series of large ‘handwritten’ black and white paintings. Throughout much of 1954 and 1955 Twombly had worked on these large-scale, free-form and highly ambitious paintings before ultimately abandoning and destroying them. Only one masterpiece, the three-and-a-half meter-long painting Panorama, now survives from this major series. Seeming, like the present work in fact, to be simultaneously expressive of both emptiness and fullness, these paintings reflected Twombly’s interest in the fragment, the glyph, the cypher and the impulsive creative gesture as elementary forms or archetypes—things indicative and revealing of something both primordial and innately human.
A conflation of graphic and painterly, Twombly’s iterations seek to create an intense relationship with his own production—a record of his bodily movements and their impact on the material on which they are laid down. The marks that seem both to be pressed into the surface and to hover above it interact with a seeming second layer of curvilinear forms, descending to the bottom right corner. These in turn balance what seems an infinite regress into a background teeming with a life of its own. The dialogue between all three layers creates an active yet intimate conversation, compelling the eye as well as the sense of touch. Untitled also points to other concerns of the time—that time and space. As viewers, we “read” the work left to right, following the progress of attenuation undergone by the half-moon forms. Thus the work becomes in a sense, durational. Further, Twombly achieves here a spatial unity, a balanced and harmonized form through color and tonal cohesion: cool blues meld with the warmth of the graphite creating an infinitely extendable flat surface that evokes three-dimensional space while at the same time asserting the fact of the shallow planar surface. Untitled anticipates other extraordinary all-over paintings, such as Nini’s Painting of the same year, 1971, which like the present work uses crayon, graphite, and oil to create a vastly intricate layering of visual events.
In Untitled we experience art overflowing, a burst of lines that might well extend beyond the framing edge. The energy with which Twombly attacks his surface reminds one of 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, “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. In Untitled, we recognize in Twombly’s aesthetic radicality “[a] personal art… out of means which appear so studiously, so implacably artless” (K. Varnedoe, ibid., p. 74), an uncanny familiarity where the artist’s stream of markings trace a personal and poignant statement that could well be our own.