If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
On writing a biography about a complicated artist.
Two weeks ago, Joshua Rivkin was at the University of Chicago to give a reading at the Smart Museum of Art. Before the reading, the audience walked into the galleries, past the large and beautiful Kerry James Marshall, the works of abstract expressionism, a Joan Mitchell, a Mark Rothko, and found our seats in the neat rows of chairs at the main gallery’s end. Rivkin stood in front of a neon Dan Flavin and read from his book Chalk: The Art and Erasures of Cy Twombly (Melville House, 2018). The book is about searching for the famously recalcitrant painter, who layered and took away, leaving clues to his thought on the canvas in scribbled words and lines from poetry, a writer’s painter. In my mind, as I listened, were Twombly sculptures, white-painted assemblages of wood, plaster, cloth, nails.
For this interview, Rivkin and I spent the afternoon in a different space, the involuted and austere Twombly sculpture gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I found myself thinking about how Rivkin’s writing, like Twombly’s work, possesses a palimpsest of places and experiences. I had taught Chalk in the previous weeks, in a course called Writing Lives. The students, too, were interested in how many different genres Rivkin uses to get at what interests him—travelogue, encomium, essay in biography, art criticism, close reading, interview. Life, the book seems to say, with good humor and curiosity, is a mixed genre work.
Chalk achieves unusual dimensionality by putting the experience of standing for many hours in front of Twombly’s work together with travels to the places Twombly lived, and portraits of the people who surrounded him in his life, and carried his legacies after his death. The analogy between Rivkin’s work and these Twombly’s assemblages came to me later, listening, but the idea had begun among the sculptures, as I asked Rivkin about what he had learned from writing the book.
Rachel Cohen Can you tell us a bit about the origins of the book?
Joshua Rivkin For several years, I worked with the Writers in the Schools program and led students through the Menil Collection in Houston. In some ways I think of the book as a response to falling in love with a museum. The Menil is free, so you can just go in and see the paintings often. It felt like a second home. It has a great collection of Twomblys in their own separate gallery, work from all the different periods of his life. Twombly’s work always spoke to me. I remember the first time I saw Say Goodbye, I was just blown away by it. It’s really a spectacular painting—people have emotional reactions to it. I would stand in front of it and talk to students about it—I never actually got it right. I never knew how to talk to students about it. I would say, “Oh let’s talk about journeys, or, movements into color.” But there was some aspect of the experience that I could not bring into language, and I wrote the book to try to find that.
RCTell me a little more about what you notice just looking at these.
JRCan we walk around?
RCYes, let’s walk around.
JRSee, there’s writing, but it’s almost impossible to actually make out what it says. It’s underneath white, you see “i-n-g” at the end. Right?
RC & JRFilling, rilling, dilling …
JRWith Twombly you have words that are both present and absent; you have the illusion that you could read it, or that you could get pretty close to reading it. And yet, it’s still withheld. He wants to show you a thing, to take it away from you, and give it back to you all at the same time. Looking at his work is always a dance; you are continually being asked to move into it, and to have a kind of conversational space with it. It’s also a piece that looks really rough and unfinished. It’s one of the things I like about his sculptures—and all his work—the works have that presence of their making. He says that he loved sculptures because they were personal and portable.
RCTo me, there’s a great feeling of coherence about this room. I feel like I’m in a space that belongs to this sensibility. You mentioned the sense of place as something that’s important to you, and that draws you to Twombly’s work. You went to Rome, Gaeta, Lexington, and Bassano to immerse yourself in where he’s been. It’s a strength of the book that I feel like I’ve been in those places, I’ve felt the air in those places. He seems very rooted in these places, and also constantly in motion, endless peregrinations, liking things that are portable because he’s always on his way to somewhere else.
JRIt’s funny because when I started this book I didn’t have a family, was moving around a lot. By the end, I had a family, and was much more fixed in a single place. At first, Twombly felt like this very attractive figure but I’ve moved away from thinking of him as a model for making an artistic life. Twombly was always a way for me to write about the things I was already interested in as a writer: my obsessions about desire or place, about restlessness. But then, as the book evolved, he sort of moved further and further into the spotlight. In early versions of the book it was more about my own experiences of seeing a painting as opposed to Twombly making a painting or his life. That personal narrative is still an essential part of the book, though in a more selective way.
Part of that shift came from thinking about the purpose and limits of biography. And how I wanted to be able to use the tools of biography, even as I resist biography, to tell the story. Chronology has a kind of power to it. That gave me a way to organize, as well as a way to fill in the absences. One of the challenges with writing about Twombly is that there’s such a limited amount of information. He didn’t keep diaries, he didn’t write about his work, he only gave a handful of interviews. There are letters that I’ve been sort of able to scrape together from various archives, but he really kept it pretty close.
RCIt’s something we have been talking about in this Writing Lives class. These lives which are for different reasons unrecorded for certain large parts of the life. The further back in history you go, the more common this problem becomes. There’s always a huge gap, like twenty years where there are no letters and you can’t tell what happened. Especially for lives which have any kind of marginality, women’s lives, gay lives, lives where there are reasons for keeping secrets, and not having things out in the open, or where nobody’s paying attention for reasons of different kinds of prejudices. It’s a challenge to fill that in.
JRYou know, the later story of the origins of my book is that I got a grant to go to Italy and interview people who knew Twombly. Having those conversations really transformed the book, because suddenly, it was no longer a book just about Twombly, but about the people in Twombly’s life, like his son Alessandro, his friend Betty Stokes, his wife Tatiana Franchetti, and his companion Nicola del Roscio, as well as friends and assistants in Lexington and Rome. It became a much more peopled book as I kept working on it. That’s when it really began to take shape. It was no longer me having a conversation with Twombly, but it was about Twombly’s life in a bigger way, and his work in a bigger way.
Part of writing about Twombly was writing about Tatia, who was an artist in her own right, a portrait painter with an incredibly varied life. She was an adventurer and traveler. When you met people who knew her, they would just change the way they were talking when they talked about her. People talked about her changing their lives and I don’t think they were being over-dramatic. There’s very little written about her. She was incredibly hard to make out as a person, to understand who she was, her life, why she stayed married to Twombly, and her influence on his work. I had to try to put together that life, a marginal life, which I think has not been given its due.
RCI was especially moved by a moment at the end of her life, where you make that scene of her, with the parrots, and she opens the bird cages and the parrots fly up in the trees. That was a very poetic moment, it gave her a little space, for the strangeness, and inventiveness, and the vividness of her way of doing things.
JRThat moment that you’re talking about was a story that I sort of waited to use. I held on to it because I think it did capture something of her extraordinary sensibility. She died the year before Twombly did, but there were only one or two obituaries. I didn’t want her death or life to be only understood in the light of his.
RCYou treated Nicola del Roscio with a similar kind of attention and circumspection. The companion, maybe even more than the wife, is likely to be erased from the story, especially as a contributor to the art, so I thought that was important in the balance of the book. Then you’ve also had some run-ins and difficulties with him.
JRI was trying to make a complex portrait of a complex person. He’s someone who is deeply important for Twombly’s life, the way in which the foundation (which del Roscio directs) has continued to produce exhibitions and catalogs. He knows a lot about Twombly’s work in a really significant way. His presence in Twombly’s life has not always been described. There are interviews with Twombly where Nicola is there but never mentioned, or the nature of their relationship is glossed over. Part of my goal was to put him back into places where he’s been taken out or is hard to see, as much as to show the conflict and difficulty that I ran into with him and the foundation.
RCRight, because a person can be both things, be a gatekeeper and a very significant contributor to the work.
JROne of the letters that I found in the Menil archives was from Twombly to David Whitney where Twombly is describing trying to find a house in Bassano. He describes everyone’s reactions: Tatia likes it for the fresh air, his brother-in-law Giorgio likes it because he imagines a garden, Nicola likes it because it’s a singular place. I love that letter because everyone is there, everyone is present. If you read any other description of the time, there’s only Twombly, whereas he actually lived a very peopled life. Twombly was part of communities. That’s one of the things that I wanted the book to be able to bring back into the story.
RCThat’s an interest of mine, too, in writing about artists. There’s such a tendency to isolate the person who produced the works that ended up in the museums and not to think of the whole milieu as creating that art. All of that kind of falls away once the things are ensconced in the museum. Sometimes it can be really generative to return the context, and then of course it can be controversial, too.
JRThat’s a thing about Twombly’s work. People have strong emotional reactions to it. People who love it, are true believers and really love it. And the people who hate it, really hate it. Those strong attachments are one of the reasons the book has gotten some very different responses. People have very strong visions of what they want their Twombly to be. People bring a lot to Twombly and put a lot on him and have always done that. As the writer of the book, I’m presenting a certain version of him—my obsession with him—and I don’t think it always lines up with how other people want their Twombly book to be written. It’s a strange thing to have written about an artist who was divisive in his life, and remains as divisive today.
RCOften, I notice that the patterns present in a person’s life can extend after their death into the criticism and the scholarship. A person who bred rivalries around them goes on doing that, after, and a person for whom possessiveness was a big deal, everybody is possessive of them later. I’ve been writing about Jane Austen, and, in Sense and Sensibility there are these two sisters with a complicated relationship, and critics are always partisans of one sister or the other. The dynamic within the book kind of shoots out into the interpretation of the book.
I was going to ask you another thing related to writing. You often reflect on Twombly’s poetry as a reader. You are also a poet, and I felt that the fact that all of those references are familiar to you, gave you a kind of facility with it, not making it the whole story, but allowing that part of the story its place. It is interesting that he is thinking about text, as you were saying before, erasing it, giving it back, thinking of literary experience as related to the experience of visual art.
JRPart of the joy of studying Twombly is the chance to return to these texts and experience them. He invites you to go back and read Pessoa, to go back and look at Sappho or Lorca or Cavafy. When you see Rilke’s name, or read lines that we can work out from what Twombly has scrawled on his canvases, you can return to those poems in a different way. And then, you can return to the paintings. That was part of my experience with Say Goodbye. It is a painting where you have so much going on. Like a poem, the layers of possibility and discovery are continual. You can keep going back again and again. You can go back and the painting changes, but you also change.
Rachel Cohen is the author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of Writers and Artists, Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, and Austen Years, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in winter 2020. Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Essays, The Believer, Apollo Magazine, and many others. Her books have won the PEN / Jerard Fund award and been longlisted for the JQ Wingate Prize, the Guardian First Book Prize, and the PEN / Martha Albrand Award. She won a Guggenheim in 2014 for her next project, on experiences of time in paintings, for which she keeps a notebook at rachelecohen.com. Cohen is Professor of Practice in the Arts in the University of Chicago’s creative writing program, and lives in Chicago.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.