Cy Twombly - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 16, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection, Delaware
    PaceWildenstein, New York (acquired from the above in May 1989)
    Thomas Segal Gallery, Boston (acquired from the above in June 1989)
    Galerie de France, Paris
    Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in October 1997)
    Sotheby's, New York, May 12, 2015, lot 4
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Literature

    Nicola Del Roscio, Cy Twombly: Drawings, Cat. Rais. Vol. 5 1970-1971, Munich, 2015, no. 8, p. 23 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    With its rhythmic, calligraphic lines, Untitled, 1970, is a work that expresses Cy Twombly’s gestural and graphic genius. Drawn in white wax crayon on a subtly modulated ground of gray oil paint, Twombly’s mark-making appears both elegant and inchoate. He organized its curving linear marks into loosely defined rows drawn over two aligned sheets, which traverse laterally across them as they rise, fall, and change direction. Twombly’s lines in Untitled vary in their shape, size, density, and evident speed. His linear segments appear to fade out in places, at times seeming to emerge in and out of the gray ground. In other passages, their flow is interrupted or seems to double back, overlaying one set of gestural lines over another. Calling to mind both writing exercises as well as Surrealist automatism, Twombly’s mark-making here resembles script while avoiding the formation of letters and suggesting a dissolution of written language for a more personal form of expression. Spare in its format, Untitled foregrounds line as Twombly’s most effective artistic means, manifesting in inspired gestures that activate intensely defined fields of graphic activity.

    The present work was made in Rome in 1970, a productive year for Twombly that saw him traveling between Italy, Ireland, and the United States. It is closely related to his groundbreaking Roman Note series, a group of works for which he drew lines in varied calligraphic strokes that evoke both cursive writing and waves in their dynamic progress across their sheets. Whereas Twombly created many of the Roman Notes on a light gray ground with blue and black wax crayons, in Untitled he laid down a ground in darker gray oil paint and made his gestural linear marks with white crayon. Gray and white were Twombly’s preferred palette of this era, one that draws attention to his compositional choices through his use of dramatic contrast. Identified in the artist’s catalogue raisonné as one of only two examples from this era to feature two sheets of paper mounted vertically, the scale and format of Untitled emphasizes the range of Twombly’s mark-making, fully revealing the incredible variation of form and gesture that he brought to his work.

    In this era, Twombly realized the works he made in Rome on the floor and tables of his expansive studio in his apartment on Via Monserrato. Nicola Del Roscio describes his process, noting: “Cy would work with white wax crayons on the semi-wet surface of the paper, sometimes in a linear gesture that seemed traced in an infinitely serene karma. A fluid gesture or a rolling one in a seismographic flow from the mind that could sometimes end in a slight tantrum, or as if writing a letter describing a dream” (Nicola Del Roscio, Cy Twombly: Drawings, Cat. Rais. Vol. 5 1970-1971, Munich, 2015, p. 6). Del Roscio’s stunning description draws out the extraordinary range of Twombly’s mark-making and the gamut of emotions that creating them called forth from him. In Untitled, the viewer may observe the artist’s considerable variety in the propulsive ebb and flow of his gestures.

    Twombly’s emphasis on varied gesture and restricted palette in Untitled represents an extension of his approach in his “Gray” or “Blackboard” works, a distinctive series that is among his most celebrated. Initiated in 1966, they represent a new direction for the artist after a hiatus in his production for much of the previous two years. He continued with this approach through 1971, finding in it a wellspring of creative inspiration. This development in his style marked a significant departure for Twombly, resulting in works that are comparable with those made by Post-Minimalist artists then emerging in the United States. Sparer than those that preceded them, he also avoided his earlier use of direct language and mythological references. Keeping with a monochromatic approach, their distinct format and style offered Twombly the opportunity to work in a more focused manner, placing primary emphasis on the autographic quality of his mark-making and the possibilities of linear form.

    In Untitled, Twombly’s emphatic gestures focus our attention on his linear forms, which resemble writing but avoid coalescing into letters or other recognizable lexical forms. These characteristics, together with his choice of using white crayon on a gray ground, caused them to be understood by critics in terms of writing exercises in chalk. Discussing these works in 1968, Robert Pincus-Witten stated: “handwriting has become for Twombly the means of beginning again, of erasing the Baroque culmination of the painting of the early 1960s…it has been drowned in a schoolmaster’s blackboard. It has been reduced to rudimentary exercise”. For Pincus-Witten, the relative austerity of Twombly’s approach represented a positive step for the artist, insofar as it focused and refined his efforts, “rejecting a lush manner for simple and stringent exercises… After the capitulation of a vast style, Twombly has learned to write again” (Robert Pincus-Witten, “Learning to Write” in Cy Twombly, Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., Milwaukee Art Center, Milwaukee, 1968, n.p.).

    Pincus-Witten and others have interpreted Twombly’s gestural style from this time as influenced by the Palmer method, a technique of handwriting instruction in which pupils kept their fingers and wrists rigid while moving only their arms. The repeated rows of inscriptions that form the linear curves of Untitled do in fact resemble the exercises that a student practicing cursive script might undertake. The willful elegance of Twombly’s extraordinarily expressive gestures, however, suggests a depth of volition that extends beyond this interpretation. Indeed, the artist described his graphic approach as “childish but not child-like….to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child's line. It has to be felt” (Cy Twombly, quoted in Hayden Herrera, “Cy Twombly, A Homecoming”, Harper’s Bazaar, August 1994, p. 147). The continuum between the sophistication of Twombly’s work and his intentional adoption of evident naiveté is central to his achievement as an artist. The forms of Untitled evoke the improvisational means of Surrealist automatic writing and the expressive gestures of Abstract Expressionism as well. According to Kirk Varnedoe’s analysis, the artist here “ventures into the area of an engulfing abstract sublime that Pollock had defined...Twombly replaces the colored organicism of Pollock with colorless lines whose steady, progressive rise and fall insists on their attachment to the drier constraints of writing, will, and culture” (Kirk Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1994, p. 43).

    The themes of written language and gestural expression were always central to Twombly’s practice. Fundamental to his early development as an artist was the time he spent in Georgia and Washington, D.C. in 1953 and 1954 after being conscripted into the army, where he studied cryptology. Interested in the theme of code and seeking to extend his practice, he began to draw at night after lights out. Drawing in the dark to intentionally reduce his visual control and introduce spontaneity into his gestures, Twombly worked “blind” to produce form through his hand alone. His emphasis on drawing primarily by touch re-emerges in the present work, in which the artist harnessed haptic gestures to form a visually extraordinary composition. “The cursive, energetic torrent,” according to Heiner Bastian, “marks Twombly’s complete embrace of the ardent gesture of script as graphic code that excludes both text and deciphering” (Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Vol. III, 1966-1971, Munich, 1994, pp. 25-26).

    In addition, there is a performative element that is evident in the linear gestures that Twombly made in Untitled. Inherent to his achievement in this extraordinary work are the ways in which his white lines follow the movements of his hand across its space and through the time of its creation, allowing the viewer to trace the development of their varied graphic forms. Moreover, he did so while deliberately avoiding fixity of reference or meaning. As a result, in the words of critic Pierre Restany: “Twombly’s 'writing' has neither syntax nor logic, but quivers with life, its murmuring penetrating to the very depths of things" (Pierre Restany, Cy Twombly: la revolution du signe, exh. cat., Galerie J, Paris, 1961, n.p.).

  • Artist Biography

    Cy Twombly

    American • 1928 - 2011

    Cy Twombly emerged in the mid-1950s alongside New York artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. While at first developing a graffiti-like style influenced by Abstract Expressionist automatism–having notably studied under Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell at the legendary Black Mountain College between 1951 and 1952–Twombly was a prominent figure in the new generation of artists that challenged the abstract orthodoxy of the New York School. Twombly developed a highly unique pictorial language that found its purest expression upon his life-defining move to Rome in 1957. Simultaneously invoking classical history, poetry, mythology and his own contemporary lived experience, Twombly's visual idiom is distinguished by a remarkable vocabulary of signs and marks and the fusion of word and text. 

    Cy Twombly produced graffiti-like paintings that were inspired by the work of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. His gestural forms of lines, drips and splattering were at first not well-received, but the artist later became known as the leader of the estrangement from the Abstract Expressionism movement. Full of energy and rawness, Twombly's pieces are reminiscent of childhood sketches and reveal his inspiration from mythology and poetry.

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Property of an Important Private Collector, Europe



inscribed "4" upper left of upper sheet and "6" upper left of lower sheet; each sheet further signed, consecutively inscribed and dated "[No. 4, No. 6] Cy Twombly 1970" on the reverse
oil and wax crayon on two joined sheets of paper
55 x 34 in. (139.7 x 86.4 cm.)
Executed in 1970.

$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for $4,700,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 May | On View at 432 and 450 Park Avenue