Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly by Joshua Rivkin
Melville House, 2018
464 pages / Melville
It is difficult to write about art in a way that respects its intangible evocative qualities. Discussions of art, its history, and the artists behind its creation are quick to grow stale with theory. To write about art is to invite a plethora of complicated and contentious questions at the outset, questions about legitimacy, authenticity, and value. In Chalk: The Life and Erasure of Cy Twombly, Joshua Rivkin’s task is all the more difficult in that he not only set himself to explore the work of an artist, but committed himself to elucidating something even more evasive, a truly private life.
Cy Twombly was not like other artists or cultural icons, so a biography of him cannot read like the biography of other artists. It is rare today to find a person as truly hidden as Twombly, someone who holds the private life in such high regard that no temptation of fame or attention could erode it. His life reminds us of the nature of interiority, that an existence out of the public eye still matters, still counts, and can, in fact, produce wonder. This is especially the case as our contemporary standards for privacy are eroded by the interconnectivity of things, by the value placed on sharing ourselves and our information, and by the ever-increasing lust for celebrity. In the span of his six-decade career as one of the leading artists of his time, Twombly participated in only two interviews, and one of them heavily edited. He was incredibly particular about his catalogues of collected work and the editors that oversaw them, and he kept “perpetual guard over his biography.”
Rivkin then, faced an obvious challenge when approaching his subject. He was forced to work within the strict limitations presented by Twombly’s privacy. These limitations required, at times, guesswork—a combination of presumption and imagination. Rivkin, a poet himself, does not shrink away from the required speculation, nor does he approach it with embarrassment or apology. His writing about Twombly has, at its center, a deeply personal and, subsequently, moral character to it that extends beyond academic interest, and into visceral desperation:
“Why does the writing make us chase the writer?” asks Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot…Simply replace “writer” with “artist,” replace “we” with my name. That desire—chase, follow, obsess—is as inexplicable as why some paintings, why some lives, in their depths and contradictions, captivate us, enter our blood. I am made and undone by this obsession.
In other projects this sort of intimate attachment and personal desire to understand the subject could pose a danger to objectivity and the facts, but in a project like Chalk, where the facts are spread so thin, Rivkin’s preference is what makes the book work. He is meticulous in tracking down and interrogating the entire pool of available research, presenting it to the reader in clear, precise prose. Rivkin was personally affected by Twombly’s work before he was interested in writing about him, and it’s apparent in the text that he internalizes the research as he uncovers it. This internalizing is what earns Rivkin a familiarity with his subject and, subsequently, the ability to extrapolate at the limits of the research, to imagine what it must have been like for Twombly. Rivkin goes to great lengths to understand Twombly’s experience, walking where he walked, seeing the things he saw:
I have followed Twombly for so long that it’s strange to imagine a time when his days will not be my days. Across countries and oceans, cities and houses, through archives and museums and the narrow hallways of memory, so long that he feels about as familiar as anyone I know. I can say more about his life than my own parents’ or grandparents’. How strange to know someone so well and not at all.
The book is a biography of Cy Twombly, but at the same time it is overlaid by a sort of memoir, the story of an author who, in searching out the cherished secrets of a private life and its work, learns something about himself. This sort of overlay, memoir over biography, is itself reminiscent of the sort of mixed-medium work Twombly was interested in in life. Consider Twombly’s Scent of Madness, watercolor flowers by Twombly over top of prints made by Betty Stokes, the layers of paint in Triumph of Galatea, or his time in the military, sitting in a dark room with a shirt tied around his eyes, drawing pictures over top one another.
In addition to interviewing Twombly’s friends and associates, the biography is interspersed with writing from Twombly’s own letters and journals. Readers quickly familiarize themselves with the veiled, secretive Twombly, and whenever one of these fragments arrive on the page, there’s a sense of eagerness. It’s as if the readers, alongside the author, are seeking to solve Twombly, to understand what motivated him and how he saw the world. The biography is extensive, taking the reader from Twombly’s childhood, through adolescence, into adulthood and to his death in 2011. It explores the various relationships throughout his life, romantic and otherwise, his homosexuality, his marriage. Rivkin considers what sort of people Twombly drew to himself, why it was that so many fell in love with him, and why so many relationships ended abruptly.
Rivkin pays great attention to the role of place in Twombly’s life and work. Even though the art was strikingly original, it was profoundly impacted by the history and specificity of the places Twombly lived and visited. Even his most abstract work, “unending traces that speak in an illegible tongue,” were not created in a vacuum. From Rome, to North Africa, and back to Virginia, the fingerprint of Twombly’s travels can be seen in the work if viewed through the correct lens. As Twombly himself wrote, “My work thirsts for their contact.”
Rivkin draws parallels between the life Twombly lived, and the art he produced. Nowhere are these parallels more apparent than when considering erasure in Twombly’s work. Erasure is a critical component to understanding Twombly’s technique and his overarching intent: the black censor lines of Untitled (Thyrsis Lament for Daphnis), the white space of Poems to the Sea, or the erratic, scratched lines of his famous blackboard paintings. Twombly often employed erasure techniques by adding to the work rather than taking away. “I use paint as an eraser,” he said, “if I don’t like something, I just paint it out.” In the same way, Twombly filled his life with sculptures, with experiences, with romances, and with paint, in order to obscure and to protect. Twombly’s life is “hidden beneath the layers of time and distortion and erasure.”
To view Twombly’s absence in his own story—the way he evades and hides behind the situations and accounts of his legend—as the ultimate word would be a failure. Twombly’s erasure is not so simple, it yields as much as it robs. As Rivkin explains, it is “erasure as correction, erasure as amplification…erasure as method, erasure as process of discovery, as obscuration, as making or remaking or building up. Erasure as subversion. Erasure as performance and production. Erasure as closeting. Erasure as act of rebellion or refusal.”