Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 21, 2019
Joshua Rivkin Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2018. 496 pp.; 22 b/w ills. Cloth $32.00 (9781612197180)

“This, dear reader, is not a biography. This is something, I hope, stranger and more personal,” writes Joshua Rivkin at the outset of Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (10). “More personal” turns out to mean “more about the author than the subject.” The first-person pronoun abounds; the first of many occurrences of “I” is very early indeed (xiii). If “more personal” is also meant to include the reader as a personal addressee of the text, this too is prominent. “We” joins “I” throughout, as does “you” and repeated entreaties to the “dear reader.” What of “stranger”? The strangeness resides in the mood of the whole thing: a memoir in search of biography, a biography denied its writer.

Cy Twombly lived perched between privacy and publicity. He tended his affairs as much as he found it possible toward the former; in death, he cedes little ground in this regard. But what some, Rivkin included, call Twombly’s “elusiveness” is no mystery. Twombly was not a dodger for the art of it; what was elusive about his elusiveness was its plainness. He was remote under circumstances he found uncongenial—interviews and the like—and that might be mistaken for haughtiness. But he was not that. Testimony of his friends in Lexington, Virginia, where Twombly was raised and whence he returned annually for a number of years, tells of an approachable and endearing, if singular, presence. To these artist, philosopher, and classicist friends the prerogatives for his creativity—sometimes being let alone, sometimes being dined, sometimes being helped with the work—appeared commensurate with the ebb and flow of life in a college town. (Disclosure: I know or knew several of the Lexington principals and one of the art critics whom Rivkin consulted. I never met Twombly.) One aide-de-camp, an unnamed classicist who translated Greek and Latin into English for inclusion in Twombly’s work, says that the artist often got the proper names of figures wrong when writing them into the paintings. That is precisely not a criticism; the statement—true enough—is offered in the spirit of allowance. It was his way.

The wish to deflect what is taken to be untoward interest in one’s personal affairs is by no means uncommon among artists. Many whose work becomes well-known did not plan it that way, and renown presents as unnatural to them. That is not to say, of course, that sales are unwelcome, but the superficialities of la célébrité pour la célébrité grate. What’s more, they threaten to erode the work by compromising its impulse. Another source of potential distraction, the art critical scrutiny with which every artist must make her peace, was in Twombly’s case especially pointed and put him on his back foot at times. Add to these the fact that he was a middle-class Southerner, for whom manners and personal reserve stood at the ready to offer a hedge against nosiness, and one has a serviceable notion of the source of the artist’s reticence.

Twombly’s estate has been resolute in carrying out its appointed task of opening the archives it controls only to those whom it judges to be serious and sympathetic to the work. Judgment on such matters is inevitably subject to controversy, as there is no objective metric for “serious” or “sympathetic” in this domain. In any event, Rivkin was not so judged. The director of the Cy Twombly Foundation, Nicola Del Roscio, denied him cooperation. What so offended Del Roscio, Twombly’s longtime lover and assistant, was Rivkin’s report that, back in Virginia, there was someone else stretching canvases, applying ground, and running errands. Del Roscio seems to have judged this person a potential rival and dismissed the sample of writing that Rivkin provided him as mere gossip. Ultimately, the matter was referred to attorneys (334–39). This denial of access to the Twombly archives affects Chalk root and branch. Instead of Del Roscio’s feared “book of gossip,” Rivkin offers what he characterizes as “a book of silences” (195).

Silence is one thing, being silenced another. Nietzsche held that basic human drives are outwardly directed. When thwarted they do not dissipate; rather, they seek a substitute object, the author of the drive. The turning in on itself of Rivkin’s book is an instance of this structure. One finds out very little new about Twombly the person, nor does Rivkin illuminate the art through the life. That is not to say that he ignores the art. To the contrary, Rivkin has promising beginning thoughts about some works but lets them peter out in runs of breathless prose. An example: he raises an interesting question about the aesthetic effect of sustained perception in viewing the so-called “blackboard paintings” (177), works that reveal not merely painted materiality, but the materiality of looking at them. Another: at several junctures, issues of the role of writing in the work are broached. This is an abiding problem, addressed in most detail and depth in Mary Jacobus’s recent Reading Cy Twombly (Princeton University Press, 2016). T. J. Clark, reviewing the 2011 Twombly and Poussin show at Dulwich Picture Gallery, posed the question as follows: when does writing on a painting become writing in a painting? Trained as a poet, Rivkin is attracted to the issue, but he never puts his shoulder into thinking about the paintings in connection with their writing, treating them instead as springboards for his own poetic musing. This perceived need to evoke what is already evocative pits Rivkin’s prose against the paintings on the same playing field, and that brings one to the nub of things.

To write a memoir about trying to write a biography is to take oneself as subject matter, to be counted with or against the other subject matter—that is, the subject of the biography. The thwarted biography better not thwart the author as the remaining subject, which is to say that the author had better be interesting about himself and be so in the writing. For all best efforts, Rivkin cannot compensate for the absence of Twombly, especially for his essential absence. Chalk reads as an attempt to surmount the difficulties heaped up by the denial of access to research material by conjuring forth an intimacy between the author and his imagined subject so powerful that the book has no need for such base materials.

Quoting, again, an unnamed source, Rivkin suggests that the Italian term scettico captures something of Twombly’s character, then glosses the word as indeterminate over a range of meanings: someone who is “[a] disbeliever, [a] skeptic, blasé, unconvinced” (187). Rivkin might have lingered with the second specification given Twombly’s love of things ancient. The ancient skeptic, in denying determinacy in favor of a play of appearances, sought to attain a state of what he called ataraxia (literally “unshakability”). Twombly did not consider himself a sage, as far as one can tell, and the attraction of imperturbability at best captures only one facet of his work or person. But what of other ancient sources? All the various schools of ancient philosophy were geared toward conduct—specifically, toward achieving the good life through practice. To my knowledge Twombly never painted anything with reference to Epicurus, although he completed two studies of Raphael’s Scuola di Atene, a painting that includes the philosopher. Epicurus’s advice was to “live unnoticed,” to withdraw from public life and its concern for fame in order to pursue pleasure in simpler things: everyday food, the company of friends, and contemplation. As a show of their committed indifference to worldy matters, Roman followers of Epicurus sometimes had inscribed on their tombs the motto non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not, was, am not, care not). It is a thought that Twombly might have found congenial.

Fred Rush
Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame