‘Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly’ Hunts for Big — and Elusive — Game

Spoor is a hunter’s word, for the scent an animal leaves behind in a forest, the scent you track to bag your prey. It might be a biographer’s word, too — the essence of a person that drifts out of his or her diaries and letters, the idiosyncratic, unmistakable traces that a biographer pursues in the archives.

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Parul Sehgal
, New York Times
Spoor is a hunter’s word, for the scent an animal leaves behind in a forest, the scent you track to bag your prey. It might be a biographer’s word, too — the essence of a person that drifts out of his or her diaries and letters, the idiosyncratic, unmistakable traces that a biographer pursues in the archives.

Or tries to, at any rate. “Chalk,” by Joshua Rivkin, is what happens when your quarry happens to be a maniac for privacy and prevarication, a one-time army cryptographer whose art rejoices in gnomic ideograms, illegible phrases and inside jokes.

The American painter Cy Twombly died in 2011 at 83. For much of his life he lived quietly in a small Italian town north of Naples, giving only two interviews across the span of his career. When asked about his personal life, he was known to concoct stories — that his parents were Sicilian ceramicists, for example (his family was from Lexington, Virginia, where his father had coached university swimming and golf). Or he might erupt. “I swear if I had to do this over again, I would just do the paintings and never show them,” he said in a 1994 profile in Vogue. “I was brought up to think you don’t talk about yourself. I hate all this. Why should I have to talk about the paintings? I do them, isn’t that enough?”

Those voluble paintings. Big as skies, trailing poetry and pornographic doodles. Globs of paint squeezed directly onto the canvas from the tube and dragged across the canvas by hand. Detonations of dripping colors; dirty bedsheets hung up to dry. “A bird seems to have passed through the impasto with cream-colored screams and bitter claw-marks,” is how poet and critic Frank O’Hara described the early works. They invite not just admiration but ardor. A woman once took off her clothes and danced naked in front of them; another kissed an all-white panel, leaving a bright lipstick mark (“a rape,” the curator fumed). In me, they evoke the ache of an old, stubborn crush.

Rivkin specifies that “Chalk” is not a conventional biography but “something, I hope, stranger and more personal.” Following Twombly’s tracks from Virginia to Italy, he felt “like a man looking for his keys, circling around the same known geography, the same city streets in the hope I’d find something lost and meaningful.” At every stage he feels eluded.

The book becomes a record of obsessive love without any outlet, dead ends, yearning — themes central to Twombly, whose paintings are full of references to doomed lovers, Hero and Leander, Achilles and Patroclus. On one panel of “Coronation of Sesostris,” his epic painting in 10 parts, there is a scrawled line from Sappho that could apply to much of his work: “Eros, weaver of myth, Eros, sweet and bitter, Eros bringer of pain.”

Rivkin travels in Twombly’s footsteps. He conducts scenic interviews with Twombly’s son and peripheral characters (the artist’s estate did not cooperate with the book). He scrapes up what he can, but very little is new, or surprising. The juiciest stories still come from the Vogue profile, the most sensitive readings of the work from an essay by Roland Barthes and the sharpest analysis of the man from Edmund White, who has written critically about Twombly’s decision to stay closeted: “I found him to be an elusive, cagey man who mumbled and took back every statement he made, just as he erased so many of the words on his canvases and constantly equivocated about his life and sexuality, standing perpetual guard over his biography.”

We get the lineaments of the life we know. Twombly had a starched Virginia childhood. “Once I said to my mother: ‘You would be happy if I just kept well-dressed and good manners,'” he recalled in an interview. “She said: ‘What else is there?'” He spent an unhappy time in the Army. Off-duty, he would check into a motel in rural Georgia and draw in the dark. He attended Black Mountain College with his lover at the time, artist Robert Rauschenberg, and later married Tatiana Franchetti, a member of a family of art patrons. The two stayed together even as Twombly took up with a much younger man, Nicola Del Roscio, who became his lifelong companion and now handles the $1.5 billion estate.

Del Roscio emerges as a lively antagonist in this book. He once had the look of “a Caravaggio youth who took good care of himself,” Arthur Danto wrote. He’s now the beady guardian of his partner’s legacy. Originally open to cooperating with this project, Del Roscio withdrew support after he learned that Rivkin planned to include statements from a chauffeur who worked for Twombly and claimed to have assisted him with the paintings. (Strangely, the chauffeur later denied speaking to Rivkin.) There were letters from lawyers and a flicker of drama. Rivkin does his best Janet Malcolm impression as he considers the question of who own the facts of a life.

But this besotted, often very beautiful book continually loses its way. Rivkin is an anxious writer, with a slightly clammy style (throughout, we are addressed as “dear reader”). He takes cover behind other people’s statements, pelting us with distracting, irrelevant quotes. And where Twombly is concerned, Rivkin makes the occasional wildly intriguing claim — “Twombly is the great imperialist in the empire of imperialism” — only to hide his face and retreat into ambiguity, marveling at all we will never know about Twombly. “Mystery is power”; “What’s missing is what matters.”

It’s not that such sentiments aren’t true, it’s that they begin to seem self-serving. The flaw of the book becomes its fetish. Vladimir Mayakovsky has a poem titled “Cloud in Trousers,” and that is what Twombly remains in this book. We don’t see the bawdiness, the nasty wit described by his friends, including photographer Sally Mann and Rauschenberg. In the Vogue profile, Twombly takes the writer to a bustling trattoria full of families and tells her to take a particular seat, “So you won’t have to look at the babies.”

“Cy’s face I knew by heart. His bird nose and hard jawline,” Rivkin writes. But the “dear reader” longs for a little scrutiny along with the adoration. Perhaps the best biographer must be equal part champion and skeptic — especially when dealing with a subject so skilled at evasion.

Among the genuine discoveries in “Chalk” is that Twombly, a frenetic collector, owned a handwritten letter by Monet. “Alas No, I cannot accompany you,” it reads, an attempt to wriggle out of a meeting. It is addressed to a journalist.

Publication Notes:


The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly’

By Joshua Rivkin

Illustrated. 478 pages. Melville House. $32.

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