Art World

‘Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly,’ by Joshua Rivkin

Left to right: Cy and Giorgio; Photo: courtesy Joshua Rivkin

At the beginning of his painting career, Cy Twombly deviated from the brand of abstraction dominating painting in the 1950s to form his remarkably distinctive calligraphic markings that became his trademark style. Room-sized canvases in tan, gray, and off-white with this distinctive gestural abstraction, scribbles, words, and omissions depicting a kind of chaos and order, fascinated writer Joshua Rivkin. After years of archival research and interviews, Rivkin has published the first book to explore the life and work of Cy Twombly.

In Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly, the painter emerges as a character as mysterious as his paintings. The investigation and excavation of Twombly’s history and stories — the process of the book taking shape — becomes a part of the adventure. The book becomes a metanarrative when the author must, out of necessity, merge with the painter’s story. Twombly served in the army as a cryptologist, a clear influence on his development as a painter. Text, sometimes scratched out, and sometimes readable are rendered with the same obscure mystery as the author’s parallel explorations of the life of a very private man who had his share of secrets. Twombly’s posthumous “outing” is a part of this story. While married to his wife, Tatiana, he took up with a much younger man, Nicola Del Roscio, who remained his companion until the end of the artist’s life. Rivkin explains, “Twombly’s sexuality, in and of itself, isn’t interesting. What’s remarkable is how even after his death, it is still ignored or resisted or denied. Choose your euphemism. Choose your implication.”  

The paradox of absent presence and near-misses plays out in a story about Twombly’s rescue of his friend and lover Robert Rauschenberg from drowning in the icy, black waters of a lake. The almost-drowning story only exists in letters between writers Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. So many events, if not captured, can evaporate from our collective remembrance. “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.”

Chalk includes previously unpublished photographs and an in-depth exploration of a character that, until now, has existed on the periphery of the history of modern art.

Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly: 464 pages, Melville House, October 2018, $32.

Joshua Rivkin will discuss his book with R.O. Kwon on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m., Green Apple Books, 1231 Ninth Avenue, 415-742-5833,

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at