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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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.