Cy Twombly - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | Phillips

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    Untitled is red. 
     
    Blood red, wine red; swoops of red paint applied wet, with a heavy brush, overloaded with pigment. The brushstrokes are thick as handprints, wide as arms, and they build into a red spiral of drip and curve that spans the distance from the ceiling to the floor. The spiral subsumes the viewer in an epic wave of color and drip, dragging them in its wake.

     

    One of the artist’s last great works, Untitled, 2005, forms part of Cy Twombly’s repeated investigation into cyclicality as both a gesture and a theme throughout his career. This movement began with his blackboard paintings of the 1960s, circled through his drawing practice, and crystallized in the Bacchus series, three sets of paintings created between 2003 and 2008, when the artist was between the ages of 75 and 80. Untitled is the second-largest canvas in the second set of Bacchus works, and paintings from this series populate prestigious museum and private collections worldwide, including three works gifted by the artist to Tate, London, in 2008.

     

    Installation view of the present work, at right, New York, Gagosian Gallery, 2005. Artwork: © Cy Twombly Foundation
    Installation view of the present work, at right, New York, Gagosian Gallery, 2005. Artwork: © Cy Twombly Foundation


    The second set of Bacchus paintings, dated to 2005, are known under the collective title Bacchus Psilax Mainomenos. Significantly, this title combines Greek (Psilax Mainomenos) and Roman (Bacchus) names for the god. Twombly’s appreciation for Greek and Roman myth was expansive and lifelong; the elision of sources in the series title is therefore an intentional choice rather than a misunderstanding, a decision to reference not just one specific myth, but the breadth of the combined Greco-Roman mythic cultural history canon. This is consistent with Twombly’s approach to classical sources in general.
     
    As Katherine Schmidt succinctly writes, “Cy Twombly’s work can be understood as one vast engagement with cultural memory,” the present work included.i Untitled references series of cycles—the cycles of classical myth, including stories of Bacchus and Homer’s Iliad, the physical cyclicality of painting as a gesture, and the cyclical nature of Twombly’s own practice. It is a masterwork, Twombly’s ultimate artistic expression at the summit of his career.

    "8 PICTURES PAINTED in vermilion color on the subject of BACCHUS RAGING (RAVING) (mainomenos)"
    —Cy Twombly

    Greco-Roman Origins

     

    The title Bacchus Psilax Mainomenos refers to the dual nature of Bacchus, or Dionysus, the ancient Greek and Roman god of wine, intoxication and debauchery. Psilax, from the ancient Doric (Greek) word, psila, for “wings,” implies the uplifting effect of alcohol, and the feelings of joy and exuberance intoxication can bring.ii Meanwhile, Mainomenos means the “mad god” or “the raving one,” and renders Bacchus as the god of all madness, and the rage and violence of alcoholism in particular.iii Psilax and Mainomenos are two extremes that rise and fall within one ancient deity, cycling for dominance, one over the other, just as Twombly’s brush turns across the surface of Untitled

     

    Peter Paul Rubens, Achilles Defeating Hector, 1630-32, Musée des Beaux Arts, Pau. Image: Bridgeman-Giraudon / Art Resource, NY 
    Peter Paul Rubens, Achilles Defeating Hector, 1630-32. Musée des Beaux Arts, Pau. Image: Bridgeman-Giraudon / Art Resource, NY 

     

    For Twombly, the character of Bacchus/Dionysus and the oscillation between ecstasy and madness is a consistent entry point for his career-long engagement, in both thematic and visual terms, with the concept of cyclicality. A number of earlier works are named for the same god, including Dithyrambus [Dionysus (of the double door)], 1976, Cy Twombly Foundation, wherein the doubled visual forms and title reference the dual nature (“double door”) of the god that Twombly would draw out further in the Psilax / Mainomenos dichotomy of his Bacchus series twenty-five years later. 

     
    Similarly, the Bacchanalia series of collages, 1977, Udo and Anette Brandhorst Collection, Munich contrast the libidinous excess of bacchanal celebration (reproduced in miniature collaged prints by the Baroque artist, Nicholas Poussin), with wide, somber marks representing the hard, seasonal change of winter and autumn. As with Untitled, these series of drawings depend on an inherent tension, a contrast, for their aesthetic success. The visual motif of the cycle must, by design, be stretched between two points.

     

    Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1967, The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas. Artwork: © Cy Twombly Foundation 
    Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1967. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas. Artwork: © Cy Twombly Foundation 

    "To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release; (and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse, or in the process of a painting, run a gamut of states)."
    —Cy Twombly

     

    Cycle as Movement

     

    The repetition of the mythical theme in Twombly’s work, particularly, the continued invocation of Bacchus across the years, has its stylistic parallel in Twombly’s signature, circular, scrawling gesture. Both god and gesture are cycling; Bacchus between Psilax and Mainomenos, Twombly between one edge of the painted surface and another. This gesture first and famously appeared in the artist’s blackboard series of the 1960s, wherein the artist repeated a white, spiraling gesture in lines across a grey ground. The same gesture makes a reprise in Untitled, but where the blackboard paintings have a more conservative, controlled physicality to them, the red spiral of Untitled, and the Bacchus paintings at large, is much wilder.

    "It’s very fast, particularly the Bacchus paintings…they were all done in a couple of months…It was just very physical, it’s a process. I tried to do one since then but it didn’t work. It was the sensation of the moment…" 
    —Cy Twombly
    The red line of Untitled is rich with visceral movement as the spiral turns and drips across the canvas. It is an undeniably physical line: the hand or wrist is not enough to power such a gesture, at such an epic scale. Rather, the artist must have used his whole body to make Untitled, swinging the brush, which he attached to a long pole, across the canvas, paint dripping like sweat, like spit, like blood.iv The whole force of the body is necessary to carry the brush across the wall. Dragging the body, dragging the brush, from top to bottom, in tan, then red, then tan again. There is a musculature underneath Untitled, an intensity of movement; contract and release, spin, push, pull, again, again, Psilax, Mainomenos, Psilax, Mainomenos.

     

    Cy Twombly, The Shield of Achilles, from Fifty Days at Iliam, 1978, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image: The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Cy Twombly Foundation  A Trojan Cycle
    [left] Cy Twombly, The Shield of Achilles, from Fifty Days at Iliam, 1978. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image: The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Cy Twombly Foundation
    [right] Detail of the present work

    A Trojan Cycle

     

    This physical element of the cycle as gesture is repeated in the epic poems of ancient Greco-Roman myth, such as Homer’s Iliad. Twombly was known as an avid reader of myth and poetry, and scholar Mary Jacobus argues that his personal library was an extension of his studio.v The series of paintings Fifty Days at Iliam, 1977-78, Philadelphia Museum of Art, for example, was directly inspired by Alexander Pope’s 18th century translation of the Iliad, and a visual parallel to the same text recurs with the Bacchus series.

    "He smites the steeds; the rapid chariot flies;
    The sudden clouds of circling dust arise.
    Now lost is all that formidable air;
    The face divine, and long-descending hair,
    Purple the ground, and streak the sable sand;
    Deform’d, dishonour’d, in his native land,
    Given to the rage of an insulting throng,
    And, in his parents’ sight, now dragg’d along!"
    —the Iliad of Homer, Book 22, translated by Alexander Pope
    The circling, blood-red gesture of Untitled recalls one of the most violent and emotionally stirring moments of the Iliad, when the Greek hero, Achilles, kills the Trojan prince, Hector. In a fit of vengeful rage, Achilles ties Hector’s body by the ankles to the back of his chariot and drags the corpse in circles through the desert around the walled city of Troy.vi Pope’s translation draws out, in graphic yet poetic terms, how Hector’s body “purple[s] the ground, and streak[s] the sable sand” with blood. Not only does Twombly’s red line stain the tan ground, its very facture embodies that moment at the apex of emotion, when mind separates from body and the act of acting is the driving force. Twombly enacts this on a scale of epic proportions. In so doing, Untitled takes its place in the canon of the grand tradition of history painting.

     

    Jean-Simon Berthemlemy, Death of a Gladiator, 1773, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation, M. 83. 169
    Jean-Simon Berthemlemy, Death of a Gladiator, 1773. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation, M. 83. 169

    In the Iliad, the death of Hector, and his brutal treatment by Achilles, is part of a cycle of violence. Achilles kills Hector because Hector killed Patroclus, Achilles’ closest comrade, and Hector’s death will ultimately lead to Achilles’ own death in battle. Each death leads to another, and no one death can exist without the other two. The interconnectedness of these events may have appealed to Twombly, specifically in the world context in which he made his Bacchus series, from 2003 to 2008, when, three thousand years after the Trojan War, another war was ravaging the Middle East: the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In such a moment of increased violence, in such proximity to Twombly’s studio, which was near a U.S. military base in Gaeta, on the Mediterranean, the cyclicality of time and violence may have seemed acute.vii The epic nature of Twombly’s sources in ancient myth for Untitled, on the canvas the size of a classical history painting, encourages equally expansive interpretation.

     

    An Epic Legacy

     

    Roland Barthes famously connected Twombly’s mark-making to the act of writing, when he argued that Twombly “retains the gesture, not the product,” of written work.viii In other words, Twombly’s paintings invoke the form of writing, without describing a particular message or meaning. This gestural similarity is perhaps most obvious in the blackboard paintings, Untitled’s artistic ancestors, which recall the shape of cursive writing on a school blackboard. But the wide, red line of Untitled takes Twombly’s form of writing into the 21st century. With Untitled, he invokes the record of history and collective memory, the human presence across an expanse of heroic scale. He pulls from decades of his own life and centuries of Western art to call on a cultural inheritance that is thousands of years old. Through abstraction, Untitled brings forth the emotional essence of our epic shared history—the heights and depths of human emotion, of creation and destruction—captured in the myths and legends that define the Western canon. In Untitled, Twombly retells them in a vernacular that is at once universally understood and unequivocally his own.

     

    Cy Twombly, Studio Gaeta (with Bacchus painting), 2005. Artwork: © Cy Twombly Foundation
    Cy Twombly, Studio Gaeta (with Bacchus paintings in background), 2005. Artwork: © Fondazione Nicola Del Roscio

     

     

    i Katharia Schmidt in Nicholas Cullinan, Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters, exh. cat., Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 2011, p. 80.
    ii Malcolm Bull, “Fire in the Water,” in Cy Twombly: Bacchus Psilax Mainomenos, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2005, p. 55.
    iii Gary D. Astrachan, “Dionysos. Mainomenos. Lysios. Performing madness and ecstasy in the practices of art, analysis, and culture,” The International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education, September 14, 2009, online.
    iv “Cy Twombly,” Tate Modern, online.
    v Mary Jacobus, “Painting Cy Twombly: Poetry in Print,” Princeton University Press, 2017, online.
    vi Homer, The Iliad [circa 8th or 7th c., BCE], translated by Alexander Pope, 1715-1720, accessed via Project Gutenberg, October 23, 2022, online.
    vii Mary Jacobus, “How to read a Cy Twombly,” The Art Newspaper, November 28, 2017, online
    viii Roland Barthes, “Cy Twombly: Works on Paper,” in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation, trans. Richard Howard, 1991, p.160.

    • Provenance

      Gagosian Gallery, New York
      François Pinault / ARTIS, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Gagosian Gallery, Cy Twombly: Bacchus Psilax Mainomenos, November 2–December 24, 2005, pl. IV, pp. 24, 36 (illustrated, p. 25; installation view illustrated, p. 41; installation view of the present work in the artist's studio, Gaeta, summer 2005, illustrated, p. 56)

    • Literature

      Heiner Bastian, ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, 1996-2007, vol. V, Munich, 2009, no. 37, pp. 136-137 (illustrated)
      Arthur C. Danto, "Scenes from an Ideal Friendship," Artforum, vol. 50, no. 3, November 2011, p. 215 (illustrated; titled as Untitled V)
      Olivier Berggruen, The Writing of Art, London, 2015 (Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2015, installation view illustrated on the cover)

    • 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 a Distinguished Private Collector

Ο ◆8

Untitled

acrylic on canvas
127 3/4 x 192 in. (324.5 x 487.7 cm)
Painted in 2005.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$35,000,000 - 45,000,000 

Sold for $41,640,000

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2022