A poet's attempt to chronicle the life of the notoriously elusive visual artist becomes an obsessive hunt across the globe for leads, one that he narrates and intersperses with meditations and reflections on Twombly—and his own life—as he goes.
Early in Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly, author Joshua Rivkin confesses that the book 'is not a biography' ... part of the excellence of this biography (I respectfully refuse Rivkin’s refusal of the term) is that it alchemizes this challenge into an asset. The book is more personal than a biography because the biographer, who is already an accomplished poet, offers details from his own life as they mirror that of the artist. Though it may sound like misplaced exhibitionism, Rivkin’s vulnerability is a gift. Because so many details of Twombly’s life were erased, withheld, or obscured, Rivkin’s brief autobiographical interludes seem to transform those erasures from an absence to a presence. In this respect, at least, Rivkin is right to say that Chalk is not a biography ... At times, the text scatters into vivid fragments, a linguistic reflection of Twombly’s work. The reader can infer that the artist’s style has changed Rivkin’s own, shifting it like a house off its foundation. If there is a flaw of this approach, it is that the text sometimes swerves into lyrical saturation. But for the most part, buoyed with insights from hundreds of writers from Albee to Woolf, Rivkin stays afloat ... for every boyish burst from Rivkin, there are plenty of measured, keen observations ... it is a fitting thrill to end Chalk still wanting more.
... the most substantive biography of the artist to date ... Rivkin describes these tense meetings in a tone of anxious exasperation, though this is by no means his only voice. When he is talking about Twombly’s art, or the book’s larger themes of evasiveness and evanescence, you stop hearing the thwarted reporter and start hearing the poet, who approaches this art as a gold mine of metaphors and symbols, and finds the experience enrapturing ... Poetic ardor can be exhausting. (As the many quotes from art critics that pepper Rivkin’s book demonstrate, Twombly tends to send writers into lyric overdrive.) But it is also a propulsive, positive and persuasive mode. Over the stretch of this long but surely not last Twombly biography, it carries the day.
...even in ideal conditions, Rivkin’s book was unlikely to be a definitive traditional biography. A poet and creative writing professor, Rivkin often filters his understanding of Twombly’s art and life through his own experience of grappling with it, focusing as much on the tantalizing ambiguities presented by the artist’s work as on the available facts. Given his relative lack of access to primary source material (and the gaurded interviews to which important figures such as Twombly’s son, Alessandro, did submit), another writer might have simply written a short, impressionistic appreciation or settled for a pithy portrait of the artist as an enigma sealed off by his posthumous handlers ... Instead, Rivkin combines these modes with that of a full-dress chronicle, recounting Twombly’s life with the biographical information he was able to dig up (most significantly from the archives of Twombly’s friend and sometime lover Robert Rauschenberg). Interspersed throughout, meanwhile, are close readings of the work, well-researched accounts of important exhibitions and milestones, the narrative of the author’s own engagement with the important sites of Twombly’s life, and his quixotic attempts to wrangle information from the living members of Twombly’s small circle. Though Rivkin is at times left to throw up his hands and admit that he won’t be getting to the bottom of this or that episode or painting, his book is nevertheless a valuable synthesis of what’s been said and written about Twombly, and the author’s lyrical analyses of Twombly’s paintings are both lovely and insightful ... Rivkin is often at his best navigating the complex territory of reputation formation, carefully tracking the reception of the MoMA show (aided by the rare profiles to which Twombly submitted in order to promote it) and the concurrent exhibition of Say Goodbye, Catullus[.]