Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly

Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly

by Joshua Rivkin

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**A New York Times Editors Choice**

"The most substantive biography of the artist to date...propulsive, positive and persuasive."—Holland Cotter, New York Times Book Review

**PEN / Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography Finalist**

**A Marfield Prize Finalist**

Cy Twombly was a man obsessed with myth and history—including his own. Shuttling between stunning homes in Italy and the United States where he perfected his room-size canvases, he managed his public image carefully and rarely gave interviews. 

Upon first seeing Twombly’s remarkable paintings, writer Joshua Rivkin became obsessed himself with the mysterious artist, and began chasing every lead, big or small—anything that might illuminate those works, or who Twombly really was. 

Now, after unprecedented archival research and years of interviews, Rivkin has reconstructed Twombly’s life, from his time at the legendary Black Mountain College to his canonization in a 1994 MoMA retrospective; from his heady explorations of Rome in the 1950s with Robert Rauschenberg to the ongoing efforts to shape his legacy after his death.

Including previously unpublished photographs, Chalk presents a more personal and searching type of biography than we’ve ever encountered, and brings to life a more complex Twombly than we’ve ever known.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612197197
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 10/16/2018
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 1,215,463
File size: 23 MB
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About the Author

Joshua Rivkin’s poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Best New Poets. A former Fulbright Scholar in Rome, Italy, as well as a Stegner Fellow in poetry, he has received awards from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Ucross Foundation. He teaches creative writing for Stanford’s Continuing Studies and lives in Salt Lake City.

Read an Excerpt

Preface: In the Black, Chalk

THE SURFACE OF LAKE EDEN is black glass under the press of winter stars. The snow, stopped for now, hangs onto the branches of the pine trees. A young man, Robert Rauschenberg, is alone in the icy water. He hears in the distance the breaking of branches, the hurry of feet through the woods to the lake’s edge. His mind, like the sky, is black.

With a single flashlight, the men on the shoreline scan for the shape of arms or a head above water. They call. They wait. They too are shivering. Another young man, Cy Twombly, his friend and fellow student, his lover too, wades out in the cold water and calls him back to dry land. The dark water around Twombly’s waist is ice and fire both. “I can’t catch my breath,” he gasps, surprise and worry, not to the others even, but to himself. He’s about to give up, about to turn back. The men with the flashlight think of their own bodies slipping below the water were they to swim out to the young men in trouble, two of them now.

And then Rauschenberg turns back, begins to move towards shore. Twombly calls out to him, This way, this way, warmth and affection in the southern drawl of his voice. He continues to speak his friend’s name: Bob, this way. They find each other in the water. This way, he says again, softer now, calmer, his speech slow and careful. Cy guides Bob as they move through and out of the lake, black water, slick mud.

Swallowed up by their shivering is their usual talk, easy and joyous, of their art, their ambitions, their plans to travel beyond the small towns of their youth. Any talk about the consequences of what they’re doing, Rauschenberg’s wife and child at home in New York, the hurry and foolishness of desire, that is gone too.

They move inside and gather themselves back to warmth; Bob strips down before the fire, while Cy hunches over an electric burner. The moment passes between them and the few others that stood with them at the edge of the lake. A shared spark, a cold terror, a silence. The other students, artists and writers, continue their conversations as if nothing extraordinary has just happened.

The story of this almost drowning comes to us in letters between Robert Creeley and Charles Olson.

“Crazy part, that, it all passed into the silences of history,” Olson writes to his friend and fellow poet, “on the surface, just as though he had gone for a swim and had come out with no help.”1

After the two young men emerged from the water, Olson, who had recently started running the college at Black Mountain in North Carolina, questioned them about what had just occurred. Without his inquiries—and the letter relaying the incident, this “tale of the lake & the boy”—“no one except those involved would have known the event had happened at all.”2

One is reminded of the crapshoot of memory and history, the endless list of accidents avoided—fires that didn’t start, cleaning crews that missed a box, moths that bit their tongues, wars that stayed home—that allowed these letters, any letters, to come down to us in the present, those stray and few gems of Sapphic verse or shards of papyrus that say this happened.

“[H]e is in the black, just now,” Olson writes of Rauschenberg in another letter to Creeley, “his marriage smashing, probably over the affair with Twombly, his contract with the gallery not renewed, and—I’d also bet as an added hidden factor—the terrible pressure on him of the clear genius of this lad, Twombly, the success of his year and the total defeat of Bob’s.”3 “In the black,” he writes, as if the young artist’s life were a thundercloud or a balance sheet or a painted-over canvas.

“I noticed a few nights ago Twombly’s concern for this boy,” he writes, “when we were all talking in the study building entrance and Rauschenberg was sitting too carelessly on the railings over the well’s edge—that sort of attention, and warning one takes as feminine, guarding the beloved.”4 More than simply capturing the trouble caused by their affair or the near drowning or the uneven state of their young careers, Olson’s letters capture the clear affection of Twombly for Rauschenberg, and the older poet’s dim view of what he describes as “these sexually marginal girls & boys.” I’m struck by the tenderness between the two, the groundwork not just for their short affair but a lifelong friendship.

“It was not so felt now,” Olson writes, “simply, that he, as all of us, had this danger in our minds…”5 The danger is not simply the way Rauschenberg sat “carelessly” on the railing, but, I like to think, a larger worry about the consequences of their affair: the “smashing” of his marriage to the artist Susan Weil who had recently given birth to their son, Christopher. His falling in love with Twombly was certainly part of the reason.

Desire is not simple or safe. In life and in art, desire is the complication. A decade after their time at Black Mountain, Twombly would be the one with a wife and child, just beginning a relationship with another man, much younger, Nicola Del Roscio. In time, Nicola would become Twombly’s closest friend and partner, eventually the man responsible for managing all of Twombly’s affairs, including the foundation set up after the artist’s death.6 But when they first met, Nicola was a college student, sixteen years his junior, living across the street from Twombly’s Rome apartment, about the same age as those young men in the water back at Black Mountain.

Twombly’s marriage, unlike Rauschenberg’s, never dissolved. Twombly and his wife, Tatiana Franchetti, remained together and close friends: divided lives under the same roof. Complex arrangements of love and domesticity span all the way from that winter night until the end of his life.

The ghosted memory of those two young men in the water, one saving the other, returns, perhaps, in the wave-like undulation of Twombly’s chalkboard paintings or the fire-swept sea of the Lepanto series. Not in any direct way—and certainly not for every viewer—but it echoes, that night, This way, this way.

I can’t help but think of his paintings named for Hero and Leander, canvases of lush, impasto pinks and whites. Leander, who nightly swims across the Hellespont to his beloved Hero, drowns. Hero in her sorrow, throws herself into the water to join his fate. That old story: two young lovers, star-crossed, perish together rather than live apart. Twombly named multiple paintings after doomed pairs who have lost each other, or are just about to: Orpheus and Eurydice, Narcissus and Echo, Acis and Galatea, Achilles and Patroclus.

In Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus 1962, two cloudbursts chase each other across the canvas, one a deep crimson, the other a lighter red, almost pink, washed out with white. If one is rage, the other is absence. The red is the red of blood and violence. Of loss. Storms of paint touch and drift apart like those boys in the lake. The very title of the painting is handwritten below the shapes, and then crossed out by the same anxious hand.7

Grief over the lost beloved—caught in the gerund mourning—is ongoing in the painting of Achilles and Patroclus, a passage of loss, an emotional drama of trying to hold onto what slips away. Not the past-tense myth of history books, this is an event as alive and emotional now as it was thousands of years ago.

And yet, to describe Twombly’s abstract paintings, or to look at reproductions, tiny postage stamps a poor proxy for his floor-to-ceiling canvases, is to miss why they capture the imagination. “A Twombly looks,” writes one critic, “the way thinking sometimes feels.”8 And that is Twombly’s gift, the bewildering slipstream between thinking and feeling—a gift I’ve spent years trying to understand.

My own obsession with Cy Twombly’s work started a decade ago at the Menil Collection in Houston. My job, as a teacher for a writers-in-the-schools program, was to lead students through the museum, including the Cy Twombly Gallery. At first, I didn’t know what to make of the work, or how to talk to students about those passionate splashes of color or the curves of white chalk looping through the darkness. It all seemed too much. Or too little. Over time, though, I began to recognize something extraordinary and personal in the swirling vortex of his massive masterpiece Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) 1994. It’s selfish, perhaps, to think that a work of art speaks to any one of us. But in the right moment it can voice what we can’t say, or don’t yet know.

I adored the scale of this painting, its three panels, the size of a small airplane, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, filling the room completely. Its explosive rush of colors—the yellow of fresh egg yolks, and the warm purple of a healing bruise, fire reds and candy pastels of blue and pink and white rising up only to descend into a chaotic central mass, like a hornet hive, before trailing off in dark marks at the far left of the canvas. Black lines, like primitive boats with crosshatched oars, open into a shimmering sea of white.

As a poet, I was drawn, too, to the lines of Rilke’s poems scrawled and erased over the canvas. I recognized in the poetic passages that Twombly inscribed on the canvas a shared faith in the power and wonder of the word. “Surrendering to Twombly’s best art entails an odd transaction,” claims another writer, “confessing fundamental bewilderment in return for being granted a flare of exaltation.”9 I admit it, I surrendered.

And yet, when I went to find out more about the man who made these works I was confronted by the absence.

Twombly never wrote or spoke about that cold night in the lake, the rescue or the aftermath, though that’s not surprising given how little Twombly said publicly. Famously reclusive, he published just one essay in 1957 and appeared in a handful of magazine profiles, mostly in the early 1990s. There are only two published interviews with him, both short and done near the end of his life, one from 2000 and the other from 2007. How he felt about what happened or how the event would later enter his work has to be read between the lines, in the omissions and absences that fill the record of Twombly’s life, in an offhand anecdote found in a newspaper article, an archived letter, a painting named after drowned lovers.

The problem and pleasure of writing about any artist is that the life and the art always overlap, are always in conversation. No neat divide. No way to write about one without the other. Life and art are never separate conversations. It’s easy to read—and overread—the biographical in Twombly’s art. He practically dares you.

Looking back, it is possible to see the continuous narratives and themes of Twombly’s art and life in that singular, almost mythic, event one winter night at Black Mountain. As in all myths, the threads of meaning unravel over time. And so we stitch back new meanings in the present. Achilles and Patroclus become Twombly and Rauschenberg become Hero and Leander. This is the genius of Twombly. And the hazard.

Twombly, who died in 2011, is not here to correct, clarify, or contradict this or any other story from the past. And so we are left only with versions of the past that are as numerous as they are overlapping, woven together from fragments and silences.

“Everything revolved around Olson,” Twombly said almost forty years after his two summers and one winter at Black Mountain College:10

That summer…was stimulus. They were into D. H. Lawrence. I never went to Olson’s classes. There was a whole interesting group around—more than the painting group. Then the second summer I just visited. There was Franz Kline, who I liked very much. He did a very beautiful painting there. Then Motherwell came back—he saw me in the beginning and he saw me at the end. And he wrote me one of the nicest testimonials.11

The names of the famous, Lawrence, Kline, Olson, Cage, Motherwell, fill out the memory of that time, give it weight and lineage, but also obscure it.

What perhaps matters most in his narrative is that ellipsis, that break between “That summer” and “was stimulus.” That moment of suspension in Twombly’s description of Black Mountain, as marked by the ellipsis, holds everything and nothing: all that is forgotten or erased, all the narratives that reshape our perspective of an artist, all the stories waiting to be told. Is Twombly pausing to find the right word? Or are there simply no right words to capture that time?

Fielding Dawson, Cy Twombly at Black Mountain, 1951

Fellow Black Mountain classmate Fielding Dawson retells a very different anecdote: “Bob and Cy posed for a couple of drawing classes. Nude. The model didn’t show up. They rose from their drawing boards, walked to the front, and began to strip.”12 A story that defies credulity. Twombly never seems unclothed. Always a cloak or pose, always a stance away, almost never unguarded, and so it’s hard to picture him like a hermit crab without its shell, there for the seeing and the taking. In the portrait of the artist done by Dawson in 1951 at Black Mountain, Twombly is fully clothed in heavy work pants and shirt, his hands enormous and roughly sketched.

In his lifetime, Twombly kept “perpetual guard over his biography.”13 From his low public profile to his choice of editors for the catalogues of his work—first Heiner Bastian and Yvon Lambert, and then Nicola Del Roscio—to his coy responses to questions in interviews about his process, Twombly sought to control the interpretations about his life and work.

Art critic Rosalind Krauss wrote of Bastian (a statement that could be equally true for Del Roscio), “Bastian is, after all, Twombly’s chosen mouthpiece, having published on his work since the early ’70s and having been consigned the task of gathering together the entire oeuvre. Bastian’s word is the voice of the artist passed along to us, as though by ventriloquy.”14 Since his death, it is the Cy Twombly Foundation that continues to keep guard, with Del Roscio as its president, offering or denying access to images and information, attempting to manage which narratives are considered worth telling.

Part of the official record, the letters between Olson and Creeley are, surprisingly, included in Writings on Cy Twombly, a collection of essays and reviews published in Twombly’s lifetime and edited by Del Roscio. Surprising because Twombly’s sexuality isn’t elided in these letters as it tended to be during his life and elsewhere in the record. “[The] first overt reference to the open secret,” as one critic writes, her own observation submerged in a footnote.15 Maybe it is possible to acknowledge the affair of Twombly and Rauschenberg because it happened in their youth. Maybe the story can be included as it’s almost possible to miss the nature of their relationship. Maybe the story can be included because Twombly is the hero of that night. Or maybe that one bright phrase—“the clear genius of the lad”—makes it worth retelling. It begs the question though, What facts are left out? What stories are not included?

Table of Contents

Preface: In the Black xi

Part 1

1 Edwin Parker 3

2 The Steps 14

3 Mosaic 25

4 That Side of the Line 32

5 Proof of Life 42

6 The Swing 50

7 Franchetti 60

8 Tatia 68

9 Poems to the Sea 78

10 The Age of Alexander 86

11 Via Monserrato 98

12 Transfixed 105

13 Unmade Beds 113

14 Discourses 122

Part 2

15 Windows 133

16 Nicola 145

17 Exiles 155

18 Chalk 166

19 Shells 178

20 Nini's Paintings 185

21 The Excerpt 190

22 Bassano 199

23 Interior 211

24 Lotus 221

25 Collaborate 234

Part 3

26 The Waves 247

27 Epitaph 258

28 Menil 267

29 Sat Goodbye 280

30 Retrospective 293

31 Old Dog 308

32 Lexington 318

33 Studio 326

34 Three Sculptures 334

Part 4

35 Late Work 343

36 Cuttings 351

37 To Hold the Tension 357

38 Last Words 364

39 Foundation 376

40 The Way it Ends 390

41 Afterlife 396

Illustration Credits 408

Notes 409

Bibliography 452

Acknowledgments 467

Index 469

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