A Book of Silences

“In some ways, ‘Chalk’ takes readers on a failed journey.” John Glassie on Joshua Rivkin’s new biography of Cy Twombly.

A Book of Silences

Chalk by Joshua Rivkin. Melville House. 496 pages.

SOMETIME DURING THE FALL of 1994, in a Lexington, Virginia, warehouse, the artist Cy Twombly finally completed a painting he had begun more than two decades before. The blank panels had first been hung in the early 1970s in his studio in Rome, where he’d gone to live in 1957. He thought he would name it The Anatomy of Melancholy, after the work of 17th-century poet Robert Burton. Over the years, through many otherwise prolific periods, he had eyed it quite a bit and contemplated at least one other title (a line from Keats: “the mists of idleness”). Eventually, Twombly started spending more time in his Shenandoah Valley hometown. When the rolled-up canvas arrived there, he added a third panel, making the piece 13 feet high and 52 feet long, and settled on a new name: Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor). The work is an epic of memory and mind; it is a masterpiece, and in certain ways it is quintessential Twombly. There are instances of levitating color and physicality, handwritten lines of Rilke and other poets that are partly obscured or painted over. It all seems to pass and fade over an empty white sea.

Twombly was 66 years old — he would live, paint, draw, and make sculptures and photographs for 16 more years — but the idea of the long journey, the fragility of lived experience and inevitable nostalgia, consumed him. In one of his very rare interviews, Twombly said the painting had to do with “crossings” and “crossing over” — it was a “passage through everything.”

Some of the responses to this work of art, permanently installed in the Twombly pavilion of the Menil Collection in Houston, could induce envy in those who haven’t seen it in person (including, to confess, yours truly). “I slumped into an empty corner opposite Say Goodbye, Cattullus and wept into my knees for a half hour” — that’s how the writer Catherine Lacey has described her first encounter with the painting when she was a student. It inspired one French woman (apparently it matters that she was French) who was there one day in the gallery just to take off all her clothes. In the case of Joshua Rivkin, a poet and teacher who used to take school kids through the museum, it not only contained “something extraordinary and personal,” or seemed to be able to “voice what we can’t say, or don’t know,” but it also set him off on a several-year mission to write Twombly’s biography.

Twombly is regarded as an important postwar artist, but his childlike scribbles and elegant loops have not always been appreciated. At the time of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art that also occurred in 1994, Kirk Varnedoe, the museum’s chief curator, felt compelled to make an argument for them in an essay titled, “Your Kid Could Not Do This, and Other Reflections on Cy Twombly.” Even those who admire him can find it hard to explain the connection they feel to the washes of white, the scratches and eruptions, the writing that cannot be read, the evocations of classical mythology and half-remembered history. His paintings “offer and refuse,” Rivkin writes, “they seem to say come close, and then they pull away.” In his life, he was the same way: both charming and cordoned off, and he engaged in some mythologizing of his own.

One recent study, Reading Cy Twombly, by the scholar Mary Jacobus, does a marvelous job of illuminating the literary influences in Twombly’s paintings and drawings, and decades’ worth of Twombly monographs, catalog essays, and art criticism exist, but Rivkin’s book, Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly, is the first general interest volume about the artist’s life and work. It is a laudable effort to lift the veil on an artist of concealment. It is also the story of trying to write about a human subject who was not just an extremely private person, but whose legacy (and personal life) is still actively protected, even controlled.

The basic facts of Twombly’s life are pretty clear, although the artist himself was not necessarily the best source for them. “You can’t trust everything Twombly says,” wrote Edmund White in an essay quoted by Rivkin. “When I asked him what his parents did, he said they were Sicilian ceramicists, and that they sold their pots in Ogunquit, Maine.” Neither Sicilian nor ceramicists, they were actually from Maine and Massachusetts, had moved to Lexington, an enclave of the old South, so his father could take a job as a coach and athletic director at Washington and Lee University. Cy, born Edwin Parker Twombly Jr. in 1928, inherited both his name and nickname from his dad, and grew to be six-foot-four, but he had much less interest in playing sports than in reading books, and, according to a Twombly-approved narrative, was copying Picassos by the age of 12. He did in fact study modern art from a relatively early age: for four years as a teenager, he worked under the close private tutelage of an avant-garde Spanish painter named Pierre Daura who had fled Paris at the start of World War II and somehow wound up in Virginia.

Afterward, Twombly felt somewhat unfulfilled in various art programs until 1951, when he arrived at the Art Students League in New York. That was where, in addition to seeing shows by artists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, he met a fellow student named Robert Rauschenberg. At some point, they became lovers, and perhaps they fell in love, although that — the erotic/romantic relationship with Rauschenberg; Twombly’s interest in men in general — was not something that Twombly ever publicly acknowledged.

It was Rauschenberg who urged Twombly to join him at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he mixed with Robert Motherwell, Dorothea Rockburne, John Cage, and others. The two of them later traveled together to Europe by sea, stayed in Rome, and toured North Africa. There were day trips with Paul Bowles and an errand involving Truman Capote. It was really just the beginning of a life that was often infused with Mediterranean light. Several years later, after time in the US Army, Twombly returned to Rome and married Tatiana Franchetti, an Italian heiress with bohemian tendencies. He spent the next several decades pretty comfortably pursuing his work and indulging his interests in poetry, antiquity, and art history. Franchetti and Twombly stayed married and maintained some kind of relationship until her death in 2010, but at a certain point, they began to live apart. A younger Italian man named Nicola Del Roscio became his closest companion — became and remained, as critic Arthur Danto once put it, “Cy’s partner, lover, critic, administrator, and helper.”

Twombly was not simply a recluse with a palazzo in Rome, a villa in Bassano, and a house in the coastal village of Gaeta. And he wasn’t just a white male “art monster” — a useful phrase about a certain kind of artist coined by Jenny Offill in her 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation — who never bothered much with practical matters or with helping to raise his son, although indeed he was one of those. He was an unsettled soul, always moving, always setting up temporary studios in New York and other places, always retreating to Luxor in Egypt or the Dolomites or the Island of La Digue. For him, there was always “departure and return,” as Rivkin writes, which is to say that he was often en route, or in between, and most of it was non-geographical: Twombly was an American who lived and painted like a European; he was a Southern gentleman who went into impassioned fits creating work that could seem either intellectually vexed or facile in nature; he was an avid reader of history whose paintings were concerned with the very moment of their creation; he was a reserved, mannerly sort who drew cocks, vaginas, asses, and excrement into otherwise pretty white canvases; he was a famous figure who sometimes seemed to reveal so much of his inner life on canvas, except that almost no one could decipher his expressions.

Early on, Rivkin, who was previously a poetry editor of this publication, lets readers know how driven he is to make sense of these tensions. “Some lives, in their depths and contradictions, captivate us, enter the blood,” he explains. “I am made and undone by this obsession.” He certainly devotes himself to the hard job of biography, bringing every tool to bear on understanding, for example, “the bewildering slipstream between thinking and feeling” that Twombly seemed to occupy during moments of creation, as well as the personal circumstances in which he might have done so. In Rivkin’s view, there is “no neat divide” between the life and work of an artist. “No way to write about one without the other.” Earnestly and ardently, he tries to learn everything he can about both. Along the way (as must be clear by now), he shares the progress of his search with readers, giving them first-person accounts of trips to former studios, encounters with Twombly’s old friends, and ongoing attempts to win over the aforementioned Del Roscio — the companion who knew Twombly better than anyone and who is now head of the Cy Twombly Foundation.

The author’s thoughts and feelings are present in great abundance throughout the book, and he takes a “more is more” approach to prose. As a result, the writing doesn’t always seem terribly well matched to a painter whose aesthetic was more about intimation and, frequently, erasure. Yet Chalk is an illuminating book, especially good on instances of artistic development and image-making: the weekends off from basic training in Augusta, Georgia, when Twombly rented himself hotel rooms and drew in the dark, with the apparent purpose of taking away habits of his eye and mind; the sweltering circumstances behind the “bacchanal” of the Ferragosto series, painted in the heat of Rome during August 1961. Rivkin sheds light on Twombly’s links to the myths and narratives he repurposed for works such as Hero and Leandro and Apollo and the Artist. He examines the influence of Leonardo’s deluge drawings on the famous looping that most often appears in the so-called blackboard paintings. He even finds a connection between Twombly’s sculptures — the plaster-covered memorials that the poet Frank O’Hara described as “witty and funereal” — and a summer the artist spent in Maine when he was 10 years old.

Rivkin has thoroughly mined the public archives and lets his readers in on what amounts to an ongoing conversation by critics, art historians, and others who have admired or contended with Twombly: Roland Barthes, Sally Mann, Richard Serra, John Waters, Rachel Kushner, Edward Albee, et al. What is striking is how many of these figures seem to restate the problem. As the poet Octavio Paz described it, when we talk about Twombly “always we are talking about another way of trying to understand a secret.”

One figure who does not weigh in much is the late Twombly himself. He is said to have been affable, intelligent, and funny, but he spoke and wrote in a somewhat fragmentary manner and gave only a handful of interviews. Rivkin makes use of letters but infrequently quotes more than a phrase or two. As a result, Twombly’s voice feels generally absent from the page, which contributes to a growing sense, a strange sense that, despite all the research, what Rivkin seeks — “a vision of a self: intimate and true” — may be out of reach.

In sections that read increasingly like memoir, Rivkin pins hope on the possibility that Del Roscio will offer insight, access to private materials, and, through the foundation, permission to reproduce images of Twombly’s paintings. Rivkin daydreams about “the hours with Nicola talking about Twombly in Twombly’s house, drawers of letters and photographs, books on the shelf, and his paintings and drawings and sculptures around us.” He wants almost desperately to enter “this world, hidden from public view.”

Del Roscio undoubtedly has a huge responsibility safeguarding the foundation’s holdings as well as the reputation of an artist whose work has become extraordinarily valuable. (In 2015, one of Twombly’s chalkboard paintings sold at auction for $70.5 million.) He presumably feels a great deal of personal loyalty to the memory of someone with whom he had a long, if complex, relationship. It is also quite possible that he wishes to write a book himself. (The short things he has already published in volumes of the catalogue raisonné and elsewhere are rich with appeal and at least some poetic license.) In any case, Del Roscio appears in Rivkin’s account to be dubious and distrustful from their first meeting in Rome. After Rivkin complies with his request to send a sample of his writing on Twombly to date, he fails to respond. Later, when they run into each other, he simply tells him, “I really didn’t like what you wrote.”

Del Roscio seems to think Rivkin is after gossip, but no one today cares precisely where Twombly fell on the Kinsey scale. Rivkin is less interested in the artist's sex life than his emotional life, and how he may have encoded aspects of it in his work. In the end, after several weird exchanges, the foundation sends a legal letter, threatening to sue over an inaccuracy in Rivkin's sample. Del Roscio’s refusal to cooperate might be understandable — Rivkin was not an experienced arts writer or author and, after all, Twombly never wanted to be deciphered in this way — but, as it turns out, the only sordid details in the book relate to methods used by the foundation to squelch the efforts of a diligent, well-meaning writer who hoped to do something in keeping with the foundation’s very mission: enrich people’s understanding of the artist Cy Twombly.

“[W]hat I have is a book of silences,” Rivkin laments. But it has a lot to say, not only about Twombly but about artists and their audiences generally. It asks what really separates the artist from the work and wonders how deeply we can fathom another human being. In some ways, Chalk takes readers on a failed journey, but it returns them to the paintings, the drawings, and the sculpture, and to all those poets, too. It may even incline them to travel to Houston, Texas, for the sole purpose of visiting the Menil Collection and standing before Say Goodbye, Catullus, making sure they keep their clothes on and keeping in mind what Rivkin finally had to concede: “What we love in another is not simply our understanding of them, but the ways in which we don’t, and can’t, know them, not completely.”


John Glassie is the author of A Man of Misconceptions, a biography of the 17th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher. He has written for The Believer, The New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, the Paris Review Daily, and other publications.

LARB Contributor

John Glassie is the author of A Man of Misconceptions, a biography of the 17th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher, which was a New York Times Book Review “Editor’s Choice.” He has written for The Believer, The New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, the Paris Review Daily, and other publications. He is also the author of a photo book, Bicycles Locked to Poles, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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