Twombly was a reclusive, quasi-mythic figure of contemporary art. Born in Lexington, Virginia, the artist spent his early career in New York before moving to Italy in 1957, where he lived until his death in 2011. Long celebrated as a painter’s painter, Twombly remained less popularly known than the two most prominent members of his generation, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Twombly’s work, however, was characterized almost from the beginning as a surprising and dazzling complement both to abstract expressionist painting (especially the work of Jackson Pollock) and the neo-Dada practices of Rauschenberg and Johns. Twombly’s development was also shaped by new postwar European art, including Jean Dubuffet and Italian artists such as Alberto Burri and Piero Manzoni, whose own work marked a striking departure from old conventions of beauty and taste. Deliberately unstable and momentary in their initial appearance, Twombly’s pictures engage formlessness as a vernacular pictorial medium for intense personal rumination on mythological and poetic themes. With his agitated line, his scattered accretions of pigment, and his highly idiosyncratic evocation of the classical past as a haunting experience of time and change, Twombly achieved a unique and deeply challenging body of work.
Untitled (Bolsena) is one of a series of 14 large paintings that Twombly created during August and September 1969, working by himself in the Palazzo del Drago, a desolate stone house overlooking the lake of Bolsena, north of Rome. Comprising oil-based housepaint, wax crayon, and lead pencil on warm ocher-white ground, the work marks an eruptive departure from the relatively uninterrupted sequence of dark-ground gray—or “blackboard”—paintings that Twombly had been producing since 1966. Both abstract and cryptically imagistic, the artist’s vigorous yet fragile hybrid of painting and script here includes a loosened geometry of tumbling diagrammatic signs. Indeed, the sparse, variegated marks that characterize the Bolsena series stand significantly apart from the refined, allover scrawl of the gray paintings. Twombly derived these graphic forms from a group of drawings that he produced in January of that year on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. The surfaces of these works are endowed with an insistent presence, although wiped areas lend a subtle impression of shallow pictorial space.
Since the beginning of his career, Twombly employed themes from classical mythology in his work, often inscribing names and places as a means of identifying motifs. In Untitled (Bolsena), mythological content appears in an unexpected guise: according to the artist, some of the signs in the Bolsena series allude to the Apollo space flight and moon landing that occurred in July 1969, just before he began this series of work. Numbers, diagrammatic images, and other marks apparently allude to the logistics of the Apollo mission, which filled the news that summer. These marks are set against areas of erasure and obscuring clouds of paint, passages that transform the surface of the work into a palimpsest—a metaphor for the passage of historical time
Photo: Kim Bell