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In the mid-1950s, Cy Twombly developed a signature style that simultaneously referenced and subverted the then-dominant painterly mode of Abstract Expressionism. A series of works from the late 1950s and early 1960s chart Twombly's deepening fascination with Italian history, ancient mythology, and classical literature. During the period from 1962 to 1963 Twombly's paintings and their historical referents assumed a much more somber and anxious tone, perhaps reflective of the darkening mood of the early 1960s, which witnessed the Cuban Missile crisis and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The painting cycle Nine Discourses on Commodus serves as a summation of this agonized and singular phase in his career. Two whorls of matter hold the central focus of each piece, ranging in mood from serene, cloudlike structures to bleeding wounds and culminating in a fiery apotheosis in the final panel. Despite the paintings' intrinsic aesthetics of chaos and instability, a tightly controlled armature governs their composition. The gray background acts as a negative space to counterbalance the bloody whirls of paint and scabs of congealed impasto.

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