Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly, by Joshua Rivkin. Review by Dale Boyer
Note: a version of this review appeared formerly in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Of the major Twentieth Century art figures, Cy Twombly is perhaps one of the most polarizing, equally as much adored as derided -- most notoriously in a 1993 Morley Safer 60 Minutes piece entitled, "Yes, But Is it Art?" To those who love him, he is a poetic genius; to those who don't, the claim is frequently made that a child with a crayon could do as well.
Rivkin's book is one that is not likely to convert any skeptics, and since there are no reproductions in the book (for various reasons, he received virtually no cooperation from the Twombly Foundation), devoted fans will need to spend a lot of time Googling images that can't come anywhere close to approximating the feel or the texture of the actual canvases. But, for those who do love his work, Chalk is a very welcome book. Not quite a biography, nor an appraisal, the author has written a book about how difficult it is to write a book about someone so famously private. It is also a meditation on what makes us respond to certain works of art and to certain artists.
"I use paint as an eraser," Twombly remarked. "If I don't like something, I just paint it out." In Rivkin's investigation, Twombly, who was gay, marked out many things in his life, the traces of which are often still tantalizingly available, if not quite understandable. Twombly and the artist Robert Rauschenberg were lovers (they maintained a friendship throughout their lives, though they parted early), and for Rivkin, the theme of the departed lover resonates all the way from his earliest work straight through to his final masterpiece, Untitled: Say Goodbye, Catullus, To the Shores of Asia Minor. Insightfully, he cites a Twombly photo from early in the relationship called Bed -- a counterpart to Rauschenberg's famous work of the same name -- which he describes as "crumpled sheets like topographical maps. One can feel the heat where the body, or bodies, had been."
Not exactly hidden about his sexuality, but not exactly open about it either, Twombly often inserted bits of poems or myths into his paintings which, as the author points out, are often about pairs of lovers, one or both of which die. He also notes: "It's hard to miss the same-sex desire in the texts and writers Twombly borrows…The erotic life…that Twombly kept in mind or notebook, is decidedly queer."
For fans, it's the missing context that's so evocative and tantalizing. In poetry, as in painting, the fragmentary, the gestural, the hidden, and the outright erased can be just as evocative -- if not more so -- than what's actually there. Indeed, it's central to the appeal of the canvases, in that what's been alluded to or elided provides an opportunity for our mind and our feelings to engage with the work. Paintings such as Achilles Mourns the Death of Patroclus, with its abstract, floating clouds mimicking the essences of each; Woodland Glade, with its minimalist, penciled horizon line and splash of green suggesting a tree; or Coronation of Sesostris, with its impressionistic suggestion of an Egyptian barge, work on a very visceral level for the sympathetic. Indeed, once clued in to the context, Twombly's work can also be extremely moving. Rivkin cites a novelist who wrote: "I slumped into an empty corner opposite Say Goodbye, Catullus and wept into my knees for a half hour."
None of this, of course, will convince those who do not feel the power of his work, but it will speak volumes to those who do, and indeed, chasing down his work becomes something of an obsession for many of his devotees, of which I now count myself one. At times, the author can seem a little too much in love with his own searching, and he never really lets us in on the secret of what it is about the artist that intrigues him, personally. Still, if it were nothing more than a compendium of some of the most interesting things ever written about Twombly -- to say nothing about art itself -- that would be enough to recommend it. But Chalk is a great deal more. It is a sensitive and thought-provoking look into the mind of an extremely important figure, and even confronts the question of whether an artist's sexuality is important to his or her work. From the evidence of this book, if it is not the most important question, it is certainly a key to better understanding it.