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Untitled [New York City]

Cy Twombly
1953
oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas
52 x 52 in. (132.08 x 132.08 cm)

In late 1952, Cy Twombly, along with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg, traveled to Italy and North Africa on a fellowship. Twombly arrived in Rome with a purpose, stating on his fellowship application that he was drawn “to the primitive, the ritual and fetish elements, to the symmetrical plastic order.” For Twombly, this order mixed with ritual was made manifest in ancient structures, in totemic stones, and in glyphic ruins, and these forms enter into both his painting and his sculpture of the time. Untitled is decidedly totemic, featuring a series of towers resembling phalluses executed in quick washes of paint and frenetic line work. In its essence, the work illustrates primal energy transforming into architectural form, personal gestures building and coalescing into archetypes. Untitled was made at the beginning of Twombly’s career, but it is fundamental to understanding the artist’s lifelong passion for ancient societies and his belief in the dynamism of art to revive their spirits and powers.

Cy Twombly moved from New York to Italy in 1958 and lived and worked there for decades. The Mediterranean landscape, both the physical and the literary environments, was fertile ground for Twombly’s six-decade-long meditation on gesture, image, symbol, and beauty. Twombly began his art career in New York and though influenced by abstract expressionism, he quickly sought techniques of painting beyond the compositional restrictions of cubism and the existential posturings of New York painting at that time.
 
In 1952, Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg took a six-month journey to Italy and North Africa. During the seminal trip, Twombly absorbed Mediterranean culture as well as made compositional breakthroughs in his North African sketchbooks. The paintings made on his return to New York feature graffiti-like constellations of images and marks that combine and recombine across a surface that never locks into a compositional stasis. Twombly literally carved into wet surfaces of paint with palette knife and pencil, aggressively vandalizing and reconfiguring the meaning of painting.
 
When Twombly left for Rome, color and interactions with myth and ancient texts entered into his work. Ilium (One Morning Ten Years Later) [Part I], 1964, is one panel of a triptych. The piece loosely records the aftermath of the battle of Troy and bears many of Twombly’s stylistic hallmarks—light washy color recalling the light of the Italian countryside and the symbolic equivalency of the written word and the drawn object, full of both directional visual impulse and movement and connotations of meaning.
 
Nini’s Painting [Rome], 1971, is part of a series of monumental works completed by Twombly in the early 1970s that, according to some critics, were inspired by both a trip to a Jackson Pollock retrospective and the themes of repetition emerging in minimalist art. Nini’s Painting [Rome] is a personal title—it is a tribute to Twombly’s friend Nini Pirandello, relative of the playwright Luigi Pirandello. The nine-foot canvas features a repetitive scrawl that maps the surface of the work as well as sets it into motion. The work recalls the gesture and all-over composition of a Pollock, though instead of uniting into a complex field or image, Nini’s Painting [Rome] reads as a record of Twombly’s rhythmic markings.