Cy Twombly, ‘Untitled (Ramifications)’, 1971, Sotheby's: Contemporary Art Day Auction

From the Catalogue

"No other artist has such a gift for open-endedness…Words become lines expressive of feeling, lines become tones, tones become tensions, white becomes resolution. All this happens with the flowing naturalness of handwriting…This work seems to us both primeval and innovative, like memory itself and its energies.”—Harald Szeemann in Exh. Cat., Zurich Kunsthaus, Cy Twombly: Paintings, Works on Paper, Sculpture, 1987, p. 12

"Confronted with one of Twombly’s paintings or drawings, one is always struck by their sense of abandon. Their various combinations of scrawls, graffiti, paint smears, letters, numerals, words, word fragments diagrams and signs have the visual effect…of seeing 'an overeducated bibliophiliac suddenly—graphically, nearly obscenely—speaking in tongues.' Conversely, it can seem that a primitive or insane artist has got his hands on one of culture’s classics and is telling us what really happened in the most vivid and yet abstract sense” (Roberta Smith in Exh. Cat., Zurich Kunsthaus, Cy Twombly: Paintings, Works on Paper, Sculpture, 1987, p. 15).

Pulsating with a vigor that recalls the most gestural works of his oeuvre, Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Ramifications) is a hypnotic example of the artist at the apex of his career. From the measured drawn out horizontal lines to the cursive semi-legible header and footer, each idiosyncratic mark Twombly has made on the velvety gray ground is inextricably linked to its creation. Ever the draughtsman, Twombly elevated drawing to the status of painting, often fusing the two techniques as in the present work. As an heir to the Abstract Expressionist legacy, Twombly regarded his blank canvas as an "arena in which to act," just as Harold Rosenberg suggested of the Abstract Expressionists decades earlier (Harold Rosenberg in ArtNews 51/8, December 1952, p. 22). Twombly internalized the methodology of his New York predecessors and appropriated them in his own signature style by harnessing their painterly gesture and reducing it to the essential line.

In 1966, Cy Twombly abandoned the emotive use of color that had defined much of his earlier output to embark upon a cycle of gray-ground works in search of a more expressive clarity. As Heiner Bastian has aptly explained, "Cy Twombly tries to shatter form as well as its concomitant intellectual and narrative history in a kind of relativism, reducing it to a rationality of 'black and white' that is at the same time the structural sum of all movement" (Heiner Bastian, Ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III, 1966-1971, Munich 1994, p. 23). Simultaneously exploring the multitude of scientific scrawls in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, Twombly closely studied the Renaissance master’s studies of wind, water and the depiction of floods. The lithe graphite strokes interspersed with flashes of bright marine blue call to mind the steady wash of ocean waves that Twombly would have seen in da Vinci’s notebooks. Here, Twombly favors a more serene, restrained formal geometry to evoke the crushing waves typically associated with the Roman Note works of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nevertheless, these lines are imbued with Twombly’s instantly recognizable, frenetic hand.

The layering of horizontal marks in which line becomes a function of color also recalls Futurist investigations into the photographic and cinematic decomposition of forms in motion, such as those exemplified in Giacomo Balla’s Velocità di motocicletta (The speed of the motorcycle). While Futurists such as Balla and Boccioni may have focused on the rational, creating their art as an attempt to scientifically understand the principles of movement and duration, Twombly’s mark-making reminds us that at its most pared down, there is only gesture and line. Untitled (Ramifications) is ultimately a study of motion, though one that does not need to rely on any specific narrative or impetus.

Despite our persistent yearning to decipher Twombly’s elegant strokes and scribbles, neither legible symbolism nor syntax is present in Untitled (Ramifications). As viewers we are seduced both by what is present and what is absent, losing ourselves to the void of the picture plane and the depth of its translucent gray-washed background. Ever so simple and elementary yet imbued with a sophistication unique to the artist, Untitled (Ramifications) perfectly encapsulates Twombly’s unparalleled capacity to marry the elemental and the complex, the simple and the expressive, the primitive and the intellectual.

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Signature: signed and dated 71 on the reverse

Achille Bonito Oliva, Collezione Privata, Milan 1993, p. 60, illustrated in color
Nicola Del Roscio, Cy Twombly Drawings, Catalogue Raisonné Volume 5: 1970-1971, Munich 2015, cat. no. 166, p. 147, illustrated in color

Galleria Lucio Amelio, Naples
Galleria Emilio Mazzoli, Modena
Alessandro Grassi, Milan (acquired from the above in 1983)
Sotheby's, London, 17 October 2014, Lot 28 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

About Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly emerged in the 1950s, developing a characteristic painting style of expressive drips and active, scribbled, and scratched lines. “My line is childlike but not childish,” he once said. “It is very difficult to fake…to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child's line. It has to be felt.” Early influences included Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell, but more formative would be his relationships with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, along with whom he would distance himself from the dominance of Abstract Expressionism. Twombly's work also appeared in one of the first exhibitions to explore ideas of Minimalism—“Black, White, and Grey” (1964)—along with Agnes Martin, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. In addition to his paintings, which were sometimes dismissed as "high-art graffiti," he produced sculptures assembled from found objects, clay, and plaster, painted white to suggest an affinity to Classicism.

American, 1928-2011, Lexington, Virginia, based in New York and Rome