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  • Provenance

    Galleria Sperone, Rome
    Heiner Friedrich Gallery, New York
    The Dia Art Foundation Inc., New York
    Private Collection, New York

  • Exhibited

    Rome, Galleria Sperone, Cy Twombly, 23 November - 17 December 1976

  • Literature

    Yvon Lambert, Cy Twombly Catalogue raisonné des oeuvres sur papier, vol. VI, 1973 - 1976, Milan, 1979, no. 189, p. 177 (illustrated)
    Nicola Del Roscio, Cy Twombly: Drawings. Catalogue Raisonne. vol. VI, 1972-1979, Munich, 2016, 212, p. 202

  • Catalogue Essay

    Cy Twombly’s Dithyrambus, executed in 1976, is comprised of two works on paper, merging collage, watercolour, paint and pencil in his visually rich and layered surfaces. Produced just three years before the American artist’s second-ever retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art and previously housed in the Dia Art Foundation collection, the present work combines a number of Twombly’s most celebrated tropes, namely his exploration of syntax, Ancient Greek mythology and mark making.

    Stylistically, Dithyrambus aligns perfectly with the visual language Twombly developed over the course of fifty years. It features loose handwriting, scrappy scribbles and other materials on an organic, sheet coloured backdrop: a hodgepodge of idiosyncratic details very much emblematic of the artist’s practice. The word ‘Dithyrambus’, hesitantly outlined and generously spanning across the top part of the left collage furthermore imbues the eponymous work with a distinctively Twomblian inflection. As one of the many materialisations of the artist’s fascination with Greek mythology, Dithyrambus invokes a joyful hymn sung in ancient times to the Greek God Dionysus, bearer of wine and fertility.

    Informed by his move from New York to Rome in 1957, Twombly ceaselessly nurtured his passion for divine narratives and Greek Antiquity. Observing the significant impact of Greek culture in most of Europe’s literary, sculptural and architectural canons, the artist began materialising his observations and examinations on paper. On the subject, Twombly famously proclaimed: ‘For myself the past is the source (for all art is vitally contemporary)’ (Cy Twombly, Paris, January 1952, p. 13). Not so much looking back as attempting to include past narratives in an ever-contemporary present, Twombly thus placed his work in a temporal shell of their own, disaffecting them from the rigidity of linear structure.

    After having visited Greece in 1960, references to mythology became all the more explicit in the American artist’s paintings, developing namely in monumental projects like Fifty Days at Iliam, completed just two years after Dithyrambus. Deploying Homer’s Iliad over ten large canvases, Twombly’s 1978 series epically transcribed the impossibly complex classic, one scribble and erasure at a time. In this sense, Twombly’s calligraphic gestures themselves may be interpreted narratorially; they rhythmically mirror the meaning of the words and expressions adorning them through energetic movement.

    The artist’s idiosyncratic handwriting is indeed a signature trait in itself: its tentative appearance and shy demeanour reveal the essential mechanisms of pencilwork while simultaneously allowing for allegorical stories to unroll. Though often counterbalanced by the blazing energy in his works, Twombly’s signature scrawls indeed retain a candid tone of timidity and solemnity. On the American artist’s approach to pencil calligraphy, French philosopher Roland Barthes expressed: 'One might think that in order to express the character of the pencil, one has to press it against the paper to reinforce its appearance, to make it thick, intensely black. Twombly thinks the opposite: it is in holding in check the pressure of matter, in letting it alight almost nonchalantly on the paper so that its grain is a little dispersed, that matter will show its essence and make us certain of its correct name: this is pencil' (Roland Barthes, Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, Whitney Museum of Art, New York, 1979, p. 9).

    The idea that Twombly’s work is raw and honest to the point of divulging truths in plain sight - the pencil’s elaborate graphite composition, for one - is truly compelling. In some ways reminiscent of Minimalism, the artist’s approach to drawing and painting seems to work upon what lies beneath the core, as though alleviating lightness, scratching the essence, unclothing the nude. In their almost nomadic aspect - informed by Twombly’s frequent travels, but also by his plural groundings, in the United States and later in Rome - the artist’s paintings are furthermore reminiscent of Agnes Martin’s metastuctured grids, equally focusing on the thinness of pencil lines, and nurtured by the memory of American and Mexican landscapes. Though her calligraphy is rigidly constructed and thus in opposition with Twombly’s free-flowing gestures, Martin’s particular examination of matter, always stripping content down to its constitutive core, aligns with Roland Barthes’s idea that the black grain is better revealed when delicately dispersed, and that the minimalist effort is aligned with a kind of formal purity.

    Further comparisons could be drawn with Twombly’s Abstract Expressionist peers Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell; though perhaps a more striking example would be that of his dear friend Robert Rauschenberg. In Dithyrambus specifically, the installation’s collage-based composition is deeply reminiscent of Rauschenberg’s ‘Combines’ developed in the 1950s, bringing together various materials and objects on a single supporting structure. Canyon, 1959, for instance, similarly plays with the different textures laid atop it - cardboard and a stuffed eagle, among others. Its numerous iconographic references furthermore seem to deploy a coherent story in the same way Twombly’s Dithyrambus invokes narratives at once ancient and contemporary.

    Cy Twombly’s Dithyrambus thus not only explores themes and gestures representative of the artist’s own body of work; it also evokes seminal historic and artistic sources. The result encapsulates a unique style in itself: a decided calligraphic movement paired with poetic intellectual drifts. In short, and as eloquently put by art historian Simon Schama, ‘twombly’ as a noun, could deploy as such: ‘(n.): A line with a mind of its own’ (Simon Schama, Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper, New York, 2004, p. 15).

  • 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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signed with the artist's initials and dated 'CT76' lower right of right sheet; titled '"DITHYRAMBUS"' upper centre of left sheet; further inscribed 'DIONYSUS' upper right of left sheet
collage (drawing paper, handmade paper, staples, transparent adhesive tape), oil paint, watercolour, wax crayon and pencil
left sheet 125.5 x 69.5 cm (49 3/8 x 27 3/8 in.)
right sheet 100 x 70 cm (39 3/8 x 27 1/2 in.)

Executed in 1976.

£450,000 - 650,000 

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061 [email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 5 October 2018