Lest you get the wrong idea: "This, dear reader, is not a biography," writes Joshua Rivkin, the author of Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly. "This is something, I hope, stranger and more personal." While Chalk suffers somewhat from the "personal"--Rivkin's self-references can feel intrusive--the book's "stranger" aspect (sentence fragments, patchy chronology, poetry excerpts) creates a singular reading experience.
Chalk is primarily a work of artistic assessment, courtesy of both the author ("The beautiful phrase is smudged or erased," he says of one of Twombly's pieces incorporating textual elements. "Paint is the eraser.") and the critics he quotes, one of whom dubbed the elusive Twombly "the king of painters and the Garbo of the art world." Inevitably, Chalk covers some biographical ground, including Twombly's middle-class Virginia childhood; his first exhibitions, in the late 1950s; his affair with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg; his romance with Italy and marriage to the well-born Tatiana Franchetti; and the infighting among members of the Cy Twombly Foundation after the artist's death in 2011.
The foundation's litigiousness didn't end there: Rivkin chronicles the efforts of Nicola Del Roscio, Twombly's romantic companion throughout his long marriage to Franchetti, to thwart Chalk's publication. Before he threatened to sue, the guarded Del Roscio consented to an interview and at one point said to Rivkin, "I'm sure you're going to want pictures for your book. I'm not making a threat." Turns out he was: there's not a single painting by Twombly reproduced among Chalk's 20 or so photographs. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer