Cy Twombly - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • I want very much to finish my study of the Mediterranean […] and to Egypt with Karnak, Luxor and Thebes. I have infinite longing to see and feel these ancient wonders (my work thirsts for their contact) {…] The opportunity to continue my search will be of the most profound importance to my work.”
    —Cy Twombly

    In the works of American artist Cy Twombly, the divisions between past and present are obscured. Known for his idiosyncratic and dynamic mark making, his works on canvas and paper are some of the most recognisable and influential of the postwar generation. Twombly’s exuberant use of gesture often culminates in works that explode with a palpable creative energy, as is evident in the present untitled work. Executed in 1974, a hugely productive decade during which the artist created some of his most exciting and enduring paintings, the present work on paper is a wonderful example of Twombly’s signature asemic line work and well-documented interest in classical literary and art historical culture. A pioneering force in postwar abstraction, examples of his work can be found worldwide in major institutions such as Tate Modern, London; Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and The Louvre, Paris.


    In 1952, accompanied by friend and fellow Black Mountain College student Robert Rauschenberg, Twombly embarked upon a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, with particular focus on Italian history, art and culture. This would serve to be the most influential factor in the young artist’s creative development, and he soon after moved to Rome permanently. Twombly and Rauschenberg would continue to remain close friends, the present work belonging to a group created on Captiva Island off the coast of mainland Florida where Rauschenberg resided from 1968 until his death 40 years later. Testament to this close personal and working relationship, the work was also shown in a joint exhibition of the two artists held at the infamous dealer Leo Castelli’s New York gallery the year that it was executed.


    Captivated by the surrounding ancient heritage and confronted with a diasporic connection to Southern Europe, Twombly began to immerse himself in the texts of Ancient Rome and Greece. The sloping inscription of ‘SESOSTRIS II’ is a reference to the second of three successive Egyptian Pharaohs of the 12th dynasty, all named Sesostris. Twombly likely became aware of this Pharaonic name through his reading of Ancient Greek historian Herodotus’ The Histories, which briefly documents the legacy of Sestrosis II and the life of Sesostris III. Sesostris is a narrative figure Twombly has returned to more than once, the most recent being a major exhibition with Gagosian Gallery in 2000 entitled ‘The Coronation of Sesostris’. Twombly has revealed that he ‘loved the sound and look of Sesostris as a name’, demonstrating the tactile way in which he adapts and interprets source material.i


    [Left] Detail of the present work
    [Right] Lotus Flower Inlay, c. 1353-1336 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926, 26.7.967


    Smudges, scratches, scribbles and scrawls: Twombly charges the surface with his typical energetic line work here, culminating in a fusion of graphic mark making and a careful consideration of compositional elements. As well as in the inscription of ‘SESOSTRIS II’, the work is Pharaonic in its pyramidal form, referencing the ancient structures Twombly would have seen whilst visiting Egypt in 1962. Framing the work in triangular formation we see a repeated motif of the Egyptian lotus flower. Utilised by Twombly in an almost hieroglyphical manner, this familiar motif recurs across many of his works. A common flower found in Ancient Egypt, the lotus’ petals closed at night and reopened with the rising of the sun. For this reason, it was considered a symbolic representation of rebirth and rejuvenation. The affinity that Twombly showed for this form also, perhaps, includes a coded reference to the 'W' forms in his own name.ii Assimilating his relationship with both the visual and linguistic, the lotus represents the artist’s manipulation and reinterpretation of established symbols to assume his own visual language.

    “One is dazzled by these quiet repetitions, as if one were seeing nothing but the tracing of a hieroglyph, itself a tracing from an arche-mold.”
    —David Shapiro

    Torn fragments of paper and puckered sellotape give the work textural dynamism. Twombly has deliberately distressed and smudged the surface to give the viewer the impression of historical ageing, like that which is seen in the weathered relics of the pyramids. The artist was known for his large collection of Greek and Roman antiquities – many of which were damaged and fragmented – demonstrating his interest in how time contributes to the collective history of ancient objects, and certainly providing inspiration for how he chose to portray historical subject matter.iii In the somewhat dichotomous juxtaposition of Twombly’s 20th century artistic style and the 2,000-year-old original source, he acknowledges the enormous gulf between what was and what is. There is a long history of reinterpreting classical texts and imagery; however, Twombly does so in a manner that highlights the extensive artistic and linguistic developments since their creation, allowing the artist to contemplate nature and the effect of time’s passing in these works.


    Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475, Galleria Degli Uffizi, Florence. Image: Scala, Florence - courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali e del Turismo


    The construction and symbolism of the present work also draws on depictions of biblical and mythological stories from the Italian Renaissance. In Sandro Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1475), we see Christ, Mary and onlookers surrounded by the crumbling decay of once-monumental classical architecture. The 15th-century dress of the figures in the lower left corner of the work serves as an anachronistic contrast to the biblical scene, whilst the motif of a peacock – a popular symbol of rebirth – and the pyramidal construction is echoed in the present work. Twombly advances the longstanding tradition of adapting classical sources for a contemporary audience. Renaissance artists such as Botticelli studied the works of ancient writers – Ovid, Homer and Virgil – before realising their interpretation of the texts in paint. We can see Twombly’s sincere reverence for this art-historical tradition and his belief that ‘Modern Art isn’t dislocated, but something with roots, tradition and continuity’; Untitled is a retelling of a 2,000-year-old historical text, as The Adoration of the Magi is a retelling of a biblical event.​​​​​​iv


    Much of Twombly’s work is rooted in the idea of communicating the ‘continuum of unchanged human experience’ through his contemporary interpretation of ancient history and myth.v The contrast of old and new shows numerous similarities as well as differences, and Twombly employs the use of classical references such as Herodotus’ account of the life of Sesostris as a palimpsest for his narrative retelling. The solid facts of history do not concern him; he seeks to represent an amalgamation of classical history, human emotion and gestural energy in a manner that transcends the traditional methods of linguistic and artistic storytelling.


    Collector’s Digest


    • Educated in the 1950s at Black Mountain College under Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly is one of the most innovative and influential artists of the postwar generation. Known for his expressive and gestural line work, the artist utilises a mixture of imagery, text and abstraction to create his own unique artistic language.

    • Painting until his death in 2011, Twombly’s work has been the subject of several major retrospectives. Initially at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1968, more recently these have been held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York between 1994-1995; Tate Modern, London in 2008; and The Centre Pompidou, Paris between 2016-2017.

    • In 2023 The Museum of Fine Arts Boston and J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, held a large-scale exhibition called Making the Past Present: Cy Twombly. An analysis of the classical themes in Twombly’s work, alongside artefacts he owned, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s own collection highlighted the importance of ancient imagery, texts and archaeology in his creative process.



    i David Shapiro, Cy Twombly: The Coronation of Sesostris, New York, 2000, p. 9.

    ii Christine Kondoleon and Kate Nesin, eds., Cy Twombly: Making Past Present, Boston, 2020, p. 16.

    iii Christine Kondoleon and Kate Nesin, eds., Cy Twombly: Making Past Present, Boston, 2020, p. 18.

    iv Cy Twombly quoted in Kirk Varnedoe, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, New York, 1994, p. 56.

    v Judith E. Bernstock, ‘Classical Mythology in Twentieth-Century Art: An Overview of a Humanistic Approach’, Artibus et Historiae, vol. 14, no. 27, 1993, p. 156.

    • Provenance

      Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
      Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles
      Robert A. Rowan, Pasadena
      Private Collection, New York
      Sotheby’s, New York, 16 May 2001, lot 143
      James Corcoran Gallery, Los Angeles
      Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, Europe
      Christie's, London, 21 June 2007, lot 390
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Works of Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, 4 - 25 May 1974
      Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Schrift. Zeichen. Geste. Carlfriedrich Claus im Kontext von Klee bis Pollock, 24 July - 9 October 2005, pp. 345, 506 (illustrated, p. 345)

    • Literature

      Yvon Lambert, Catalogue raisonné des oeuvres sur papier de Cy Twombly, 1973-1976, vol. VI, Milan, 1979, no. 95, p. 107 (illustrated)
      Nicola Del Roscio, Cy Twombly, Drawings, Cat. Rais. Vol. 6 1972-1979, Munich, 2016, no. 119, p. 111 (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 of an Esteemed Private Collection



signed, inscribed and dated ‘Cy Twombly Captiva Mar 74’ on the reverse
paper collage, wax crayon, pencil and tape on paper
75 x 106 cm (29 1/2 x 41 3/4 in.)
Executed in March 1974.

Full Cataloguing

£150,000 - 200,000 

Sold for £190,500

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023