Joshua Rivkin’s Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly is the first book-length exploration of Cy Twombly’s life, and for good reason: His estate and foundation do not appear to want us to know that much about the private life of Cy Twombly. For many who prefer to revel in his sumptuous improvisations without the distractions of the man, or heed history’s warnings regarding the abuses of artists’ biography this may be fine. Twombly has a large, enthusiastic following that has only increased since his death that is fully infatuated with his enigmatic scribbles and full-out visual energy for its own sake; a following that will largely be unperturbed by any revelation of the life behind the paint.
However, art history almost began with biography: look at Vasari’s Lives of the Artists; and for Twombly, the sheer referential density in his paintings and the seeming impenetrability of his love life, almost scream out for some form of reckoning.
Joshua Rivkin brings his considerable literary talents to bear, giving us a somewhat roundabout journey to the truth. Butting up against the Twombly Foundation’s resistance and the intractability of its director, Nicola del Roscio, Twombly’s longtime assistant–this is all part of the “erasure” in the title– leads Rivkin to the point of finally making it part of the story itself. This seems an honest and appropriate approach. Rivkin is forced to claim that his work “is not a biography. This is something, I hope, stranger and more personal.” Definitely stranger, yet what third-person narrative is more personal than biography?
It is the inchoate feeling riffing through his scumbled paint that leads us to see Twombly’s work as a great merging of feeling to intellectual astuteness. Most readers of Chalk will probably be familiar with some aspect of his work, but probably have little knowledge of the man. This is what Twombly and the Twombly Foundation seem to have wanted.
To the consternation of that Foundation, Rivkin focuses on Twombly’s “complex arrangements of love and domesticity”. A late catalogue finally revealed in print that Twombly had an early love affair with Robert Rauschenberg during the Black Mountain years, and then there is his enigmatic marriage to an Italian heiress, Tatiana Franchetti, and finally the rumors of his relationship with Nicola del Roscio, who now controls the Twombly Foundation. Tensions and legal confrontation have left us with a book without reproductions of Twombly’s work or person other than those garnered from independent sources free of copyright entanglements. But this is not fatal: it is Rivkin’s writing that provides the sweetness of the nectar, that ultimately makes this book a good read, though at times Rivkin overdoes it a bit.
Twombly himself was noted for his own verbal obfuscations when met with prying questions. Rivkin believes art and life go together and sees in the art too many paths leading to the life of the artist, albeit an artist with great expressive force coupled with an opposing, darker will to secrecy. In the end, secrecy wins, perhaps as it should, since it has its own long history entwined with desire.