Cy Twombly, Untitled, 2005. Estimate: $35,000,000 – 45,000,000. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale.
With exceptional provenance and estimated at $35-45 million, Untitled is a masterpiece from one of Cy Twombly’s last epic series that found its inception in his blackboards and crystallized in the three discrete suites of paintings collectively known as the Bacchus series. The Bacchus paintings began in 2003 amidst the US invasion of Iraq and culminated in 2008 when the artist donated three of the monumental works to the Tate Modern, London. The present work is the second-largest canvas from the 2005 series which were exhibited under the collective title Bacchus Psilax Mainomenos. Recalling the artist’s earlier Blackboard paintings from the late 1960s with its continuous looping forms, the Bacchus series revisits this earlier motif with a renewed vigor and energy which manifests on the surface of Untitled.
“With the top ten auction prices for works by Cy Twombly having all been set in the past eight years, it’s clear that the market is stronger than ever," says Jean-Paul Engelen, President, Americas, and Worldwide Co-Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art. "At sixteen feet wide, Untitled is among the largest of Twombly’s works to ever appear at auction, with its subject referring to the dual nature of the ancient Greek and Roman god of wine, intoxication, and debauchery. The work hails from the series that marked Twombly’s ultimate artistic expression at the summit of his career and we are proud to offer this masterpiece as the highlight of our Fall season.”
The translation of Bacchus Psilax Mainomenos references both the exuberance and rage that alcohol can bring, with Tate Director Nicholas Serota remarking about the paintings, “They relate obviously to the god of wine and to abandon, and luxuriance, and freedom.” The work also recalls one of the most violent and emotionally stirring moments of Iliad, when the Greek hero, Achilles, kills the Trojan prince, Hector, dragging his corpse in circles through the desert around the walled city of Troy—just as Twombly’s red line colors the ground of Untitled.
The repetition of the mythical theme in Twombly’s work, particularly the continued invocation of Bacchus across the years, finds its stylistic parallel in Twombly’s signature, circular, scrawling gesture. Two extremes rise and fall within one ancient deity, cycling, one over the other, just as Twombly’s brush turns across the surface of Untitled. This gesture appeared in the artist’s earlier Blackboard series of the 1960s, making a reprise in Untitled, though with a much wilder red spiral. The red line of Untitled is rich with emotive movement as the spiral turns and drips across the canvas, the result of Twombly likely using his whole body, swinging the brush, which he attached to a long pole, across the canvas.