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Joshua Rivkin: CHALK: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly

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In Conversation with Peter Streckfus

Cy Twombly was a man obsessed with myth and history—including his own. Shuttling between stunning homes in Italy and the United States where he perfected his room-size canvases, he managed his public image carefully and rarely gave interviews. 

Upon first seeing Twombly’s remarkable paintings, writer Joshua Rivkin became obsessed himself with the mysterious artist, and began chasing every lead, big or small—anything that might illuminate those works, or who Twombly really was. 

Now, after unprecedented archival research and years of interviews, Rivkin has reconstructed Twombly’s life, from his time at the legendary Black Mountain College to his canonization in a 1994 MoMA retrospective; from his heady explorations of Rome in the 1950s with Robert Rauschenberg to the ongoing efforts to shape his legacy after his death.

Including previously unpublished photographs, Chalk presents a more personal and searching type of biography than we’ve ever encountered, and brings to life a more complex Twombly than we’ve ever known.

“Reviled when young, revered when old, the elusive Twombly surprisingly emerges in this fascinating biography, which traces the difficulties of tracking down the man as thoroughly as it fills in the blurred, half-erased likeness. This is the record of a heroic journey of discovery.”
—Edmund White, author of The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading

“Joshua Rivkin’s sensitive eye and investigative ambition expand and enrich our understanding of Cy Twombly’s genius in this tenderly rendered biography.”
—Rachel Corbett, author of You Must Change Your Life

“CHALK is so much more than a study of the life and work of the famously-guarded painter Cy Twombly. At its heart, this is a book about desire: desire to bridge the distances between ourselves and others, desire to overcome the fear of being seen, and underneath it all the desire we all share to be recognized as our true selves by at least one person we love. At once both candid and tender, meditative and unsparing, CHALK leads readers on a journey made all the more riveting by the narrative impossibility of its premise: a search for the larger-than-life artist by the writer who pursues but will never meet him, and the overwhelming need to tell a story written over with silences. This book is a gift to Twombly devotees and newcomers alike — as imbued with beauty, genius, and vitality as the artist’s work that is its subject.”
—Lacy Johnson, author of The Other Side

Joshua Rivkin’s poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Best New Poets. A former Fulbright Scholar in Rome, Italy, as well as a Stegner Fellow in poetry, he has received awards from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Ucross Foundation. He teaches creative writing for Stanford’s Continuing Studies and lives in Salt Lake City.

Peter Streckfus is the author of two poetry books: Errings, winner of Fordham University Press’s 2013 POL Editor’s Prize, and The Cuckoo, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2003. His awards include fellowships and grants from the Breadloaf Writers' Conference, the Peter S. Reed Foundation, the University of Alabama, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy in Rome, where he is the 2013-14 Brodsky Rome Prize Fellow In Literature.

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