After his move to Rome in 1957, Cy Twombly experimented with color, and absorbed the lush nature of Italian and Mediterranean culture. However, by the mid-1960s, Twombly made another stylistic shift. Between 1967 and 1971 Twombly’s art was dominated by gray canvases. These paintings stand in contrast with the rich colors and the violent nature of the early 1960s paintings, such as Ides of March (1962) and the series Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963). The paintings have a minimal and dispassionate quality, they are bare of details and focus on the simple gesture of drawing. Cold Stream is emblematic of this new phase - the canvas is a dark shade of gray with repeating rows of thin, white circular lines. The loops can be compared to a basic exercise given to schoolchildren learning how to write. The effect of the painting is like chalk on a blackboard. This gesture is in many ways Twombly’s artistic ‘signature’. Twombly often used graffiti as an inspiration and combined text and words in his paintings. In Cold Stream, he evokes the ideas of writing and text, while keeping a completely abstract image.
Twombly’s line is no longer scattered or broken, it is an ongoing flow. The line looks like a continuous coil, and an uninterrupted stream of energy. This brings to mind the artworks of the Italian Futurist artists, especially the painter Giacomo Balla. Although these are the first instances of a Futurist influence in Twombly’s paintings, Italian painters in Twombly’s environment used early Futurism as an important point of reference since the 1950s. Having said that, even though the painting has some elements of Italian art, it has a stronger pull toward an American sensibility and Abstract Expressionism. While some early examples of this period were painted in Italy, the artist was drawn to New York, where he spent extensive periods in the late 1960s working in studios on the Bowery and on Canal Street.
Cold Stream and other paintings of the period were well received, and widely celebrated in American art circles. Comparisons were made between Twombly and Jackson Pollock, a major proponent of Abstract expressionism. The continuous, repeated rows of coils on the dark gray background can qualify as all-over painting, the technique that was mostly associated with Pollock’s ‘drip’ painting. Even though paintings like Cold Stream are devoid of color, which is a chief feature of Pollock’s painting, they have the effect of endless movement and flow. Thus, Pollock’s and Twombly’s paintings share this principal quality. Curiously, Twombly’s early works were interpreted and condemned by critics as subversive and destructive to the notions of abstract expressionist painting. Twombly was a great admirer of Pollock, and was influenced by the artist. Unless his early painting were built upon the foundations of Abstract Expressionism, it was not necessarily understood that way at the time. Only with the emergence of his gray paintings Twombly was praised for his ability to capture the spirit of Abstract Expressionism.