Cy Twombly - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, June 30, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate story […] a synthesis of feeling, intellect etc. occurring without separation in the impulse of action.'
    —Cy Twombly

    Combining a sense of narrative drama with a highly sophisticated pictorial architecture, this untiled work from 1962 is a powerful demonstration of the uniquely calligraphic and gestural visual language first developed by Cy Twombly in the 1950s and 60s. At once turbulent and carefully balanced, the sharply staccato graphite marks animating the left side of the canvas give way to rounder, rapidly executed bursts of crimson, peach, and rose tones, resolving in the tighter curled forms concentrated to the right. Highly energetic in its all-over treatment, Twombly maintains a striking sense of airy lightness in the present work which nevertheless still carries with it the weight of European cultural history. Enigmatic and allusive, Twombly’s inclusion of textual fragments related to Roman gods Mars and Venus offer a narrative anchor in this respect, drawing on associations with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the passionate indiscretions of the Gods.

     

    Highly representative of Twombly’s so-called ‘Baroque’ paintings from this period, Untitled is charged with a palpable Dionysian energy, testament to Twombly’s deep engagement with classical antiquity and the manner in which his works ‘reveal the fragmentary parables deeply embedded in modern consciousness, a fine seam separating the fractious worlds that exist simultaneously within us, in our vain longing for antiquity and our sense of a paralyzed, alien contemporaneity.’i

     

    La Dolce Vita:

     

    'I like the idea of scratching and biting into the canvas. Certain things appeal to me more. Also prehistoric things, they do that scratching.' —Cy Twombly 
     

    Robert Rauschenberg, contact sheet showing portraits of Cy Twombly, 1952, printed ca. 1980. Artwork: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022
    Robert Rauschenberg, contact sheet showing portraits of Cy Twombly, 1952, printed ca. 1980. Artwork: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

     

    Following in the footsteps of a long tradition of artists and writers, Twombly first found himself in Rome in 1952 with his friend and fellow Black Mountain College student Robert Rauschenberg. Completely overawed by the weight of history and its persistence in the fabric of the modern city, he enthusiastically explored the ancient ruins and monuments he found there, an exciting period of discovery recorded in a tender series of photographs taken by Rauschenberg. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern, and the sense of the past’s penetration into the present had an instant and pronounced effect on the young artist, compounded by an archaeological excavation of a Roman bath in Morocco that Twombly was able to experience first-hand. As he excitedly recounted in one letter ‘My painting has changed a great deal. I have hundreds of sketches to use for paintings’ ideas that he rapidly developed with regards to technique, colour, and materials on his return to Rome in early 1953.ii As his notebooks detail, this was the period where ‘CHALK WHITE’ first emerged as a tone of particular significance, along with the shades of ‘orange, faded sienna’ and dusty browns that are all employed to such effect here.iii

     

    The Writing on the Wall

     

    While the Eternal City presented itself compellingly to Twombly as an overwritten record of the collision and ongoing negotiation between ancient and modern, the incorporation of Twombly’s distinctive graphic marks into his canvases has another, even more direct touchstone in the ancient forms of overlaid graffiti that he found scrawled over the gritty surfaces of Roman ruins. Bringing the ancient and the contemporary into direct dialogue, these layers of graffiti ‘offered for Twombly a palimpsest of past, present and future; layered, intertwined and interpenetrating each other like archaeological strata.’iv In this sense, while clearly fascinated with the sensual drama of antiquity and mythology, these paintings and their cryptic references are also rooted in a celebration of the very human need to create and communicate – to leave a record of our presence.

    [LEFT] Graffiti on outside wall of Temple of Vesta or Hercules Victor, 2nd century BC, Rome. Image: © Archivio J. Lange / © NPL - DeA Picture Library / Bridgeman Images
CAPTION: [RIGHT] Detail of the present work


    [LEFT] Graffiti on outside wall of Temple of Vesta or Hercules Victor, 2nd century BC, Rome. Image: © Archivio J. Lange / © NPL - DeA Picture Library / Bridgeman Images
    [RIGHT] Detail of the present work

     

    From the Classical to the Baroque:

     

    While Twombly began to incorporate these elements into his canvases immediately after his first trip to Rome, it was after his permanent move to the palatial seventeenth century apartment in the centro storico in 1960 when this more immediate and visceral pictorial language really began to crystallise. Flooded with light and air, the new residence also allowed Twombly to shift from the more concentrated compositions of the 1950s into larger, lighter, and more ambitious compositions that stage the artist’s deep engagement with classicism, mythology, and art history as much as the gritty reality of everyday life in the Italian capital. As Kirk Varnedoe vividly describes: ‘Walking from home to studio, Twombly passed not only through the august Rome of the Caesars and the Baroque popes, but also through this environment of coarsely vital contemporary existence. The tense balance in the works between a light-filled exaltation and a pungently darker sense of human physicality, embraces something of both the grandeur and decadence of the city.'v

     

     

    ‘Roman Classic Surprise’, photographs of Twombly’s Rome apartment by Horst P. Horst for Vogue, 1966
    ‘Roman Classic Surprise’, photographs of Twombly’s Rome apartment by Horst P. Horst for Vogue, 1966. Image: Horst P Horst/Condé Nast/Shutterstock

     

    Mars and Myth

     

    Written in the artist’s distinctive sloping script, we can clearly make out the names ‘Mars’ and ‘Venus’ here, a reference to the trysting lovers described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Goddess of Love, fertility, and beauty, Venus occupied an important place in Twombly’s mythological framework, his cycles of works focused on the theme exploring symbolic images of physicality, passion, seduction and carnal yearning.’vi As is typical of Twombly’s work, these mythological figures are not represented in any immediately recognisable form, but ‘as primary dynamics of colour and gesture, as energised powers.’vii In her adulterous liaison with the God of War, Apollo, Venus embodies sensuality, the pursuit of pleasure, and the power of sexual desire, a subject particularly well-suited to the fleshy tones of Twombly’s palette and the intense physicality of his execution here as energetic loops and violently expressive scribbles capture the passionate drama of the scene with a typically Dionysian energy.

    'Even the Sun
    that rules the world was captive made of Love.
    My theme shall be a love-song of the Sun.' 
    —Ovid, Metamorphoses

     

    Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, c.1485, The National Gallery, London. Image: © The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence
    Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, c.1485, The National Gallery, London. Image: © The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence

     

    Lending itself well to the narrative-driven emphasis of mythological painting, the dramatic moment of the lovers’ discovery by Venus’ husband Vulcan has a rich art historical foundation, the subject having been treated by the likes of Joachim Wtewael, Jacopo Tintoretto, Johann Rottenhammer, Alexandre Charles Guillemot, and Francois Boucher. For Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, the story also had considerable potential as an allegory for love’s triumph over war. Asking us to consider the repetitive and reiterative nature of myth itself, Twombly plays with its creative and interpretative potential as ‘narratives about the genesis of all things, about gods and ancestors, constantly reshaped by tradition and passed on to future generations.’viii


    i Heiner Bastian, ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, 1948-1960, Vol. I, Munich 1992, p. 21. 
    ii Cy Twombly in a letter to Lesley Cheek, quoted in Nicholas Cullinan, ‘Notes on Painting’, Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters (exh. cat.), London, 2011, p. 30. 
    iii Cy Twombly, quoted in Nicholas Cullinan, ‘Notes on Painting’, Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters (exh. cat.), London, 2011, p. 31.  
    iv Nicholas Serota, Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons (exh. cat.), London, 2008, p. 74.
    v Kirk Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective (exh. cat.), New York, 1994, p. 36. 
    vi Heiner Bastian, ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, 1948-1960, Vol. I, Munich 1992, p. 29. 
    vii Demosthenes Davvetas‚The Erography of Cy Twombly‘, Artforum, April 1989, online.  
    viii Katharina Schmidt, ‘Immortal – and Eternally Young: Figures from Classical Mythology in the Workof Nicolas Poussin and Cy Twombly’, Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Paintings, (exh. cat.), London, 2011, p. 65.

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Plinio de Martiis, Galleria La Tartaruga, Rome
      Ovidio Jacorossi, Rome
      Studio Casoli, Milan
      Private Collection
      Eyes Wide Open: an Italian Vision, Christie's, London, 11 February 2014, lot 60
      Private Collection, Los Angeles
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Heiner Bastian, ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume VII Addendum, Munich, 2018, no. 17, p. 39 (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 Distinguished Private Collection

11

Untitled

signed, inscribed and dated 'Cy Twombly Rome 1962' lower left
lead pencil, wax crayon, coloured pencil and oil on canvas
79.5 x 100 cm (31 1/4 x 39 3/8 in.)
Executed in 1962.

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£3,000,000 - 4,000,000 

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 30 June 2022