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Cy Twombly, 1959 (Camilla McGrath © Camilla and Earl McGrath Foundation, Inc.)

Joshua Rivkin’s Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly is an account of the artist that begins and ends with poetry. The book opens with a haunting scene of near-drowning at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College: Robert Rauschenberg emerging from the dark waters of a mountain lake on the arm of his friend, fellow artist and lover, Cy Twombly. It’s a kind of birth story, or re-birth, dripping with mythic portents — Black Mountain being at least as much the birthplace of American modernism as New York City. Rivkin, a poet himself, closes Twombly’s life by recounting the death of Keats, who also died in Rome and is buried there.

In short, this is a poet’s biography, from beginning to end, though Rivkin resists the term. “This, dear reader, is not a biography,” he writes early on. “This is something, I hope, stranger and more personal.” It’s both, often to his reader’s benefit.

Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly by Joshua Rivkin

Twombly, a southern boy from Lexington, Virginia who spent much of his life in Italy, is an artist whose life and work are difficult to summarize. Married to Tatiana Franchetti, an Italian artist with a distinguished family pedigree and a flair for renovating palazzos and country homes, Twombly lived at arm’s length from his wife and son. He used the phone to communicate with his family, even when in the same building, and told a friend later in life that he didn’t even know where his son had slept. His more intimate relationship was with Nicola Del Roscio, a younger man from the Italian coast, who Arthur Danto called, “Cy’s partner, lover, administrator, and helper” and who today heads the Cy Twombly Foundation.

Twombly’s art is hard to easily label. His signature works are monumental canvases filled with gestural loops, bursts, and scribbles, words and their erasure; paintings that feel simultaneously heroic, sweeping, even classical, while also childlike and inward-looking. Twombly’s paintings famously either fire passionate adoration in viewers or eye-rolling mockery. This is an artist who in 1993 — decades after the “triumph” of abstraction — was Exhibit A in an infamous Morley Safer rant on 60 Minutes entitled “Yes . . . but Is It Art?” (According to Safer, no.) And for whose 1994 MOMA retrospective, curator Kirk Varnedoe penned an oddly defensive essay, “Your Kid Could Not Do This, and Other Reflections on Cy Twombly.”

Rivkin passionately admires Twombly’s art and feels compelled to understand the man who made it. He compares himself to Julian Barnes relentlessly pursuing Flaubert, writing, “That desire — chase, follow, obsess — is as inexplicable as why some paintings, why some lives, in the depths and contradictions, captivate us, enter our blood. I am made and undone by this obsession.”

From Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

He came under the artist’s spell when he brought students to the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection as part of a Writers in the School program. As neither critic nor art historian, Rivkin is a refreshing “innocent eye” uninterested in theory or formalism, while still a savvy reader of art that is, to quote the poet Louise Glück, “utterly clear and deeply mysterious.”

Twombly liked to quote poets in his own work — Rilke, Sappho, Lorca, Cavafy — a fact often noted and widely studied. But that’s not why his art is often called poetic. Rivkin shows why with his heartfelt engagement with and reaction to the work. “If I say Twombly is a poet’s painter, what I’m describing is a sensibility. The way strangers will silently nod to each other as they pass on the switchbacks of a mountain trail, a gesture of shared recognition,” he writes. “What I recognize in Twombly’s art is a process of association, where what’s seen matters as much as what’s unseen.”

From Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Poets appear in Chalk at least as often as artists, likely more. Because Twombly famously chose a certain isolation in Italy over the hustle of the New York art world, there aren’t nearly as many artists in Rivkin’s account as one might expect, though Twombly had relationships with artists — of varying degrees of intimacy — throughout his life, from youthful passion with Robert Rauschenberg to neighborly friendship with Sally Mann. But the poets are legion. Though Rivkin specifically warns against “an absurd counting, that says as much about the critics as it does the art or artist” of, say, how many times a poet or passage appears in Twombly’s work, I confess to tallying the names of 45 separate poets mentioned in Chalk.

Nicola Del Roscio, keeper of the Twombly flame, did not approve of Rivkin’s approach, bluntly telling the author to his face: “I really didn’t like what you wrote.” Relayed near the book’s mid-point, his words shadow everything that follows. In a slowly unfolding series of interactions between the men, it becomes clear to Rivkin that Del Roscio is not inclined to give him access to Twombly’s life, including reproduction rights. In a cold piazza, Del Roscio tells Rivkin, “I’m still afraid that you’re writing a book of gossip,” and reminds the author that he is president of the Cy Twombly Foundation, which controls all images of the artist’s work. “I’m sure you’ll want pictures for you book,” he tells Rivkin, adding, “I’m not making a threat.”

But emails from Foundation lawyers follow and Rivkin, fearing a lawsuit, doesn’t pursue further assistance where he has little hope of getting any.

It hardly matters. For images, there’s always Google. For all the rest there’s a story well told, of art and the man. It’s more than enough.

Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly is out from Melville House

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Cy Twombly Foundation withheld reproduction rights. This is incorrect and the article has been updated to reflect Rivkin’s explanation of the matter as relayed in the book.

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4 replies on “A Poet’s Heartfelt Biography of Cy Twombly”

  1. Jasper Johns presents a very similar case, ticking the right trendy boxes, especially developing his unique style, getting off to a flying start with the Flag series.
    Stroke of promotional genius. Riding the new Pop Art fashion. Blow the Coke cans or Brillo when the Stars and Stripes is available. He should pay royalties on it!

  2. Even with my naiveté, I found the discussion of the Rivkin’s writings quite compelling especially the phrase, “That desire — chase, follow, obsess — is as inexplicable as why some paintings, why some lives, in the depths and contradictions, captivate us, enter our blood. I am made and undone by this obsession.” That phrase speaks to why we get caught up in movements, art and people and follow, sometimes, with ridiculous obsession.

  3. such a silly response from the so-called “keeper of the flame”; as if every recounting and any particular person, place or event must conform to the same standard of measure. This book sounds like an interesting contribution to a larger picture.

  4. I’ve long been fascinated by how Lexington, Virginia, where Twombly grew up and spent his final years, might be much more than just a biographical footnote. I have not yet had the opportunity to read Rivkin’s book so, I suspect this is all covered there with the same poetic sensitivity he seems to address the artist’s later life; I hope so.
    But, in some measure the visual, historical and academic decor of Lexington is a felt presence in many of his later paintings. His father, Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly was a revered athletic coach at Washington and Lee University for over half a century (in his youth he had played baseball against Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and other legendary figures during baseball’s golden age). That school’s antebellum front campus, “the colonnade,” is seemingly more classical than most of the ruins in Rome. At least Rome would have appeared familiar to the young artist. While it is definitely a stretch to consider his father’s chalk talks at W&L as the basis for the artist’s early “blackboard” paintings–the thought crosses our mind as the elegant, looping lines of mindless classroom doodling came to be authentic high art, at least in Twombly’s reconsideration of writing as visual language.
    And, the idyllic, classical setting of his upbringing seems to have roiled up in those later graffiti-esque references to much-admired poets of Greco-Roman antiquity. Twombly knew history and the south’s fraught relationship with winning and losing (and deeply flawed “heroes” like Lee), with past sins and a willfully forgetful present, with sexual difference and individual identity in a small town where manners too often failed to mask intolerance.

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