Cy Twombly - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, May 19, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "Each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate — it is the sensation of its own realization."
    —Cy Twombly

    Executed in 1963, Untitled (Cairo), is a stunning example of Cy Twombly’s output of works made in Rome, known for their airy pencil strokes and their connection to mythology and classicism. One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Twombly developed a unique pictorial language that changed the perception of drawing, transforming scribbles and simple marks on paper into delicate and dynamic masterworks. A vivid example of his pure and elemental drawings, the present work was created six years after his career-changing move to Rome, where he became the master of Romantic Symbolism. It was in Rome where he integrated into his compositions references to various poems and ancient myths, fusing the modern and ancient worlds. The drawings he created in Rome during the 1960s have been considered by many art historians the most emotional and impressive, marking a pivotal point in his career.i


    The Influence of Egypt


    Twombly was often inspired by poets like Stéphane Mallarmé, Rainer Maria Rilke and John Keats, as well as classical myths and stories from ancient cultures. In Rome, Twombly became inspired by the city’s rich culture, including its literature, mythology and classical antiquity. It was here where he created some of his most celebrated works, like Leda and the Swan, 1962, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, which references the famous Roman myth. Art historians have continually noted his interest in Greek and Roman histories, but just as important was Twombly’s fascination with the ancient Egyptians. As Kirk Varnedoe stated in the catalogue accompanying Twombly’s major retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1994, Egyptian art “has been consistently undervalued as a part of the artist’s connection with ancient cultures. Less full in the imagery of the body than Greek art, Egyptian imagery is far more attentive to the particulars of flora and fauna, and its schemas for encoding trees, gardens, lakes, and so on had a relevance to Twombly’s visual language beginning in the late 1950s.”ii Twombly first visited Egypt in 1962, just one year before this work was created, and again later in 1985. Untitled (Cairo), as its title suggests, was likely inspired by this first visit, and visual aspects of the composition can be linked to Egypt’s history and terrain. Scribbles in pale pink could be a reference to the Egyptian lotus, a white flower tinged with pink, while the dark ovular forms with filled-in circles in the lower right resemble the lily pads from which they flower. Close inspection also reveals a sequence of numbers in the upper left, cascading diagonally beneath graphite lines; this is perhaps an homage to the Egyptians’ pioneering numerical system.



    "Twombly’s illegible scrawls and polyglot, non-standardized capitals, his interweaving of phrases from high modernist European poets and names from the Graeco-Roman tradition, evoke the longue durée of a commemorative culture that reaches back to Egypt and beyond: cult as well as culture."
    —Mary Jacobus, Tate Papers, 2008iii

    Having separated physically from the American art world when he moved to Rome, Twombly’s work also moved in a different direction from the rising Minimalism and Pop art movements in New York. While deeply influenced by the freedom of expression in the works of his Abstract Expressionism predecessors, Twombly became defined by a scrawled, calligraphic style that differed from the dynamic brushstrokes of those artists. Many have tried to classify his unique style; Post-Expressionism and American Gestural Expressionism are among the movements he is commonly associated with, but neither is quite right. Critics had to come up with a new classification for his works, now commonly known as “Romantic Symbolism.” His works have a unique raw energy, felt here in the colorful scribbles and hand-drawn lines in colored pencil and crayon, in ochre, purple, red and pink, separated by negative spaces of untouched paper. The title of the work “Cairo” is written in parentheses at the center of the composition, opening a window of interpretation to the viewer and what this may represent. The asymmetrical composition, very typical of his work, creates an elegant, yet somewhat unsettling, work, symbolizing something beyond the page. Untitled (Cairo) is raw and beautifully emblematic of Twombly’s signature style, which merges the old and new in a single image.


    "Influential among artists, discomfiting to many critics and truculently difficult not just for a broad public, but for sophisticated initiates of postwar art as well."
    —Curator Kirk Varnedoe on Twombly’s work


    i Kirk Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1990, pp. 34–35, 48.
    ii Ibid.
    iii Mary Jacobus, ”Time-Lines: Rilke and Twombly on the Nile”, Tate Papers, no. 10, Autumn 2008, online

    • Condition Report

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Collection Jack Klein, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in the 1970s

    • Literature

      Nicola Del Roscio, ed., Cy Twombly Drawings Cat. Rais. Vol. 3 1961–1963, Munich, 2013, no. 243, p. 174 (illustrated)

    • 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 from a Notable New York Collection


Untitled (Cairo)

signed, inscribed and dated "Cy Twombly Roma 1963" lower right; partially titled "Cairo" center left
pencil, wax crayon and colored pencil on paper
19 x 27 1/2 in. (48.3 x 69.9 cm)
Executed in 1963.

Full Cataloguing

$350,000 - 450,000 

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 19 May 2022