The Art of Code
Almost from the very beginning of their relationship, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were linked together, usually by people who had little or no idea of what they really meant to each other. Early critics tagged them both with the same facile labels--neo-Dada, assemblage, junk art--and viewed and reviewed them as a pair. They showed together, were discussed together, even discovered together by their dealer. Still later, they would be declared Pop, or more subtly, proto-Pop, and credited with the development of the first American style that led away from Abstract Expressionism. Artistic movements generally involve more than two artists: theirs was confined to them alone.
All the more remarkable then that the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg is so completely distinct; one could simply never mistake one artist's hand for the other's. It seems that the fact that Johns and Rauschenberg were involved together determined to some extent how they were understood. And yet, paradoxically, while their partnership was widely acknowledged, few comprehended what it really meant, and fewer still knew that it transcended simple friendship. John and Rauschenberg are in the curious position of being understood as a pair, but not a couple. Yet they were a couple; and the rather obvious silences, ellipses, and omissions that permeate the usual accounts of their history make no sense unless arrayed against an insistent and damaging homophobia that has led both artists to actually deny the substance of what they had together.
Although the artists remain circumspect on this point, there is reliable evidence that for over six years Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were lovers. For both artists, it was probably the most serious and intense relationship of their lives, a relationship which was to have a profound effect on the work of each of them at a critical moment in their development. When they finally split up in 1961, the after-effects were so powerful that both artists left New York for their native South, changed their pictorial styles radically, and neither saw nor spoke to one another for a decade or more (Fig. 1) Given the intensity of this relationship, it comes as something of a shock to realize that Johns has never spoken of it, and Rauschenberg has addressed it but a few times, and then only cursorily. His most open and direct acknowledgment of his life with Johns occurs in the following interview:
RR: I'm not frightened of the affection that Jasper and I had, both personally and as working artists. I don't see any sin or conflict in those days when each of us was the most important person in the other's life.
Interviewer: Can you tell me why you parted ways?
RR: Embarrassment about being well known.
Interviewer: Embarrassment about being famous?
RR: Socially. What had been tender and sensitive became gossip. It was sort of new to the art world that the two most well-known, up and coming studs were affectionately involved.
While to a greater or lesser degree both artists have resisted further elaborations on this relationship, their art offers a number of interesting clues. That there is some kind of pictorial dialog at work in their artmaking is undeniable. Not only do they share a number of motifs--from light bulbs to the use of newsprint--some images directly mine gay cultural references and a few actually seem to invoke aspects of their relationship. The chief connection between them, however, is neither stylistic nor thematic, but concerns their joint opposition to Abstract Expressionism, the dominant artistic practice of the day. It was in response to Abstract Expressionism's dominance that Rauschenberg and Johns cultivated their most lasting contributions to American art. And it is because of this joint opposition, and the work it generated, that they have been branded a two-person movement.
Most critics agree that Johns and Rauschenberg's finest work grew out of the period between 1954 and 1961, a time of intense emotional involvement during which they searched together for an alternative to Abstract Expressionist picturemaking. Rauschenberg once remarked of this moment, "We gave each other permission." The statement demands to be taken seriously both in terms of constraints on artistic innovation and constraints on homosexual desire, for in the lives of these men, as we shall see, the two were correlated.
The dealer Leo Castelli often repeats the tale of his discovery in 1957 of the connection between his two most famous artists to great dramatic effect. He recounts that he went to Rauschenberg's apartment (Fig. 2) to select paintings for a show he was planning--Rauschenberg's first with Castelli--when Rauschenberg mentioned Johns's name. While the rest of the story varies with the telling, the constant is that Castelli then connected Johns's name with a curious green painting he had seen in an earlier show. He asked to meet the artist, who just happened to live in an apartment below. Rauschenberg was happy to oblige and Castelli soon entered a room full of paintings, years of work never before exhibited, all those flags, targets and other images which would soon turn their maker into the most successful living American artist. Castelli immediately offered Johns a show; the Rauschenberg exhibition was, at least temporarily, forgotten.
Rauschenberg's and Johns's careers are thus linked from the beginning. And right from the start a dynamic is set up in their relationship, one in which Rauschenberg, the senior and more experienced figure, acts as agent and enabler of his younger lover's more dynamic career. Johns has remarked that he considers Rauschenberg to the most fecund and important artist of the twentieth century after Picasso. Although there is not reason to doubt his sincerity, career imbalance has often been implicated in discussion of what went wrong between the two. Thus there is an interesting specificity to this male/male relationship, one possibly lacking or minimized in heterosexual partnerships in which imbalance has historically been factored into the formula from the beginning. With no social roles to fall into, no models to pattern their expectations on, Johns and Rauschenberg were forced to negotiate every aspect of their lives together.
It was winter of 1953 when Rauschenberg first met Jasper Johns, although both had moved to New York in 1949. Rauschenberg, who was born in 1925 and grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, arrived after two years' draft in the navy and four more years trying out various art schools from Kansas City to Paris to North Carolina. Johns, born in 1930, moved to New York from his native South Carolina in order to attend commercial art school, but his story was interrupted by the draft and he spent two years in the army, returning to the city in 1952. He got a job at the Marboro bookstore, unsure of whether he was working toward becoming a poet or a painter. Visiting at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, he was introduced to Rauschenberg by a mutual friend, the artist and art writer Suzi Gablik, who had known Rauschenberg at school. They met again later at an artist's party and struck up a friendship. Rauschenberg and Johns began to see more of one another. Rauschenberg convinced Johns to quit his job at the bookstore and join him in doing window designs for department stores. They worked together under the name Matson-Jones, and they were quite successful. In 1955, Rauschenberg moved from his Fulton Street studio into John's building on Pearl Street and then they moved together again to a space on Front St.
When Rauschenberg first met Johns, he had already shown a few times at prestigious avant-garde galleries connected to Abstract Expressionism, and had participated in an invitational show with some of its leading figures. He was known in Abstract Expressionist circles, a friend of important painters like Franz Kline and a regular with them at the Cedar Bar. The Cedar, then the epicenter of the New York avant-garde, was a place where the painters and poets met to drink, argue, comfort and console one another. For most of its habitués, the Cedar's other patrons constituted the only appreciative audience they ever had. The world at large had yet to hear of Abstract Expressionism in 1953, and the fame that it would gain as America's first international artistic movement was still at least a decade off.
A young, ambitious artist new to the New York art world, Rauschenberg gravitated naturally to the Cedar, a dirty neighborhood bar that had been adopted by the painters and their hangers-on in part because of its seediness. Definitionally bohemian, it was so bad it was good. When fame finally arrived and the owners responded to the new influx of artists' cash by promising new decor, the artists threatened a boycott. They wanted to avoid at all costs the impression of an artists' bar, with its connotations of an effete elite preoccupied with questions of beauty. Unwilling to countenance that, the Abstract Expressionists created a facsimile of the Wild West that never was within the confines of the Cedar, a macho art world complete with drunken brawls, fights over women, vain boasting, and, or course, artist talk. It was a heady mix.
If machismo, as we are increasingly finding, is connected to fear, then the Abstract Expressionists feared for their maleness. America has a history of suspicion with regard to its artists and their manliness, and perhaps never more so than in the early 1950's when the rest of America was rolling up its shirtsleeves and getting down to work to defeat Communism.
With Abstract Expressionism, American art became a struggle to voice identity, an attempt to forge a tenuous connection between the individual subjective consciousness and the outside world. That the consciousness in question was always straight, white, and male does not seem to have interfered with its claims to universality. Abstract Expressionist art claimed to stand in for speech, attempting to articulate self-presence before the void. No wonder its artists used martial metaphors to describe the act of painting, word like engagement, struggle, victory and defeat. Theirs were totemic battles with the elemental forces of silence. And their painting, achieved through remarkable self-sacrifice (Pollock, Gorky, and Rothko all committed suicide), sought to give form to the evanescent realm of the unconscious. Thomas Hess, the great promoter and friend of the Abstract Expressionists, once wrote that the New York School marked, " a shift from aesthetics to ethics: the picture was no longer supposed to be Beautiful but True--an accurate representation or equivalence of the artist's interior sensation or experience."
For Rauschenberg, the lively scene at the Cedar probably both attracted and repelled him. While he passionately admired the work of some Abstract Expressionists--particularly Frank Kline and Barnett Newman--and valued his friendship with them, the intense male bonding of this almost exclusively masculine art world, coupled with its generalized anxiety over the very act of artmaking, created an atmosphere in which the merest suggestion of homosexuality was vigorously opposed. How could the young Rauschenberg paint among such men?
Moreover, never before in American history was homosexuality under such scrutiny and so vigorously suppressed. Leaders of the anti-Communist right such as Joe McCarthy explicitly aligned homosexuality with Communism, declaring both to be moral failures capable of seducing and enervating the body politic. "Sex perverts" were declared a security risk, and both the President and Congress authorized the FBI to bring its formidable powers of investigation to bear to ferret them out. During the Red Scare, more homosexuals than Communists lost jobs in the Federal government, and homosexuality and its evils became an unprecedented topic of public discourse. How in this homophobic decade could Rauschenberg paint true pictures in the Abstract Expressionist sense, pictures revealing his interior state? Men in the closet were necessarily enjoined from painting as a drama of self-revelation. And even if he could paint such revealing pictures, how could he ever believe that the images generated by a gay man could have universal intelligibility? Rauschenberg remarked: "But I found a lot of the artists at the Cedar Bar were difficult for me to talk to. It almost seems that there were many more of them sharing some common idea than there was of me." Indeed.
When Rauschenberg first entered the Cedar sometime in 1950, he probably did not think of himself as a gay man. He was actively involved with Susan Weil, a fellow artist whom he had met the year before when both were students in Paris. After returning to the US, they enrolled together at Black Mountain College, the experimental arts institution located in the mountains of North Carolina. At the conclusion of the term, Rauschenberg and Weil settled in New York City and in June of 1950 they were married. But the relationship was not to last: less than a year later Rauschenberg became involved with the artist Cy Twombly. In July of 1951, shortly after Weil gave birth to their son Christopher, Rauschenberg re-enrolled at Black Mountain in the company of Twombly and without his wife. Rauschenberg and Weil divorced next year and Rauschenberg and Twombly began a series of trips together that led them from Key West to Cuba to Europe. After an extended trip to North Africa, Rauschenberg returned to New York and moved into a studio on Fulton Street which he occasionally shared with Twombly.
The work Rauschenberg produced during this period with Twombly, but before he met Johns, shares a number of telling characteristics. In the context of Jackson Pollock's rage, de Kooning's slashes, and Klines ponderous pronouncements, the young Rauschenberg's art struck a curiously insistent quiet note. He became famous for a series of all-white canvases consisting of flat white paint on a flat white surface: no incident, no brushstrokes, no detail (Fig.3). These paintings are the absolute inverse of Abstract Expressionism in mood, surface, color, and expression. They are a kind of pure anti-Abstract Expressionism. About the size of Abstract Expressionist canvases, they are so without autographic or gestural content of any kind that Rauschenberg declared they were to be painted by others, using a roller. There is an overwhelming feeling of silence in these paintings, a sense that there is nothing to say, or better, that there is nothing that can be said. To quote the artist Allan Kaprow, "in the context of Abstract Expressionist noise and gesture, they suddenly brought one face to face with a numbing, devastating silence... now much, if not everything having to do with art, life, and insight, was thrown back at him as his responsibility, not the pictures'."
The spectator had never been a concern for the previous generation. In seeking to represent the self, Abstract Expressionism registered only the individual artist, not society, not culture. It was as if individuals were in no way influenced by a larger social sphere, as if to be an individual meant to transcend one's position in society. The Abstract Expressionists paraded themselves as painters without a country, stripped of the exigencies of culture--those particularities of time, place and audience that make manipulated pigment meaningful. They thought of themselves as totally autonomous individuals, as anti-cultural, cultural workers.
Many gay men knew differently. Branded unnatural by the dominant culture, hounded and persecuted, the limits on their individuality were enforced by law. Gay men were therefore keenly away of the limitations of romantic individualism. If the dominant culture offered the myth of self-determinism, a myth central to Abstract Expressionism's founding ideology, gay men like Rauschenberg never had the luxury of believing in expression as an individual struggle of the will. As Rauschenberg said recently, "There was a whole language [of Abstract Expressionism] that I could never make function for myself--words like 'tortured', 'struggle' and 'pain'... I could never see these qualities in paint." Rauschenberg could never see those qualities in paint precisely because they stood out in such high relief in his life, in comparison with which paint was revealed as just, well, paint. Rauschenberg's art would soon come to reflect the insights born of marginality, refusing a painted world in favor of opening up the canvas to the detritus of culture.
An early art-school friend, Knox Martin, remembers that one of Rauschenberg's first works, executed while he was still a student, consisted of putting butcher paper on the floor of the Art Students League in order to capture the imprints of foot traffic. It may have been his first work to mine what we might call non-subjective painting, painting that quite deliberately has nothing of the self in it. If we look at the media explored by Rauschenberg even at this early date, it includes not only footprints, but blueprints and photography--all forms of artmaking that defy the Abstract Expressionist conventions of art as a self-revelatory process.
Perhaps Rauschenberg's most famous statement of opposition to Abstract Expressionist pictorial practice is his Erased de Kooning (1953). For this composition, Rauschenberg requested a drawing to erase that he would then exhibit as his own work. De Kooning reportedly picked a complex, well-worked drawing to make the task as difficult as possible. None the less, Rauschenberg succeeded in erasing it and the critics went wild. But it is very much to the point that this bold statement of generational succession and critique should be couched, not in the form of a manifesto or some similar positive statement of identity, but rather in the form of an erasure, an absence. Again, as in the White Paintings, it is as if Rauschenberg's assertion of self could only be presented as the negation of macho Abstract Expressionist identity, not as an alternative to co-equal form.
This would change after the meeting with Jasper Johns. Two gay men working and living together, Rauschenberg and Johns developed between themselves some semblance of the kind of community that the Abstract Expressionists took for granted. Together, they formed a new pictorial language, new symbol systems, new subjects--and a new subjectivity in painting. After meeting Johns, Rauschenberg turned away from painting as an Abstract Expressionist drama of selfhood and started bringing culture--history, politics, Judy Garland and Abraham Lincoln--back into art. In turn, Johns, after meeting Rauschenberg, finally became a painter.
Whether these developments are more properly credited to the influence of one man or the other, or whether they were instead a product of their conjunction is difficult to determine. But the importance of community as perhaps the defining issue in the development of gay subjectivity is clear. Given the insistent social pressure that isolates and pathologizes gay and lesbian people, community and commonality are the chief ingredients in the development of a specifically gay identity. Recent scholarship in lesbian and gay studies has made clear, for example, the importance of the Second World War in the development of lesbian and gay communities in the United States precisely because it forced together individuals from diverse places and backgrounds, including lesbian and gay people, each thinking they were the only ones like themselves. As they came to discover one another, they began to articulate their difference and develop communities of mutual support which continued, even grew, after the war. Coupledom operated in a similar fashion for Johns and Rauschenberg in the context of Abstract Expressionism, creating in each of their lives a possibility for dialogue, understanding, and support such as they had never experienced. As Rauschenberg put it, "Jasper and I used to start each day by having to move out from Abstract Expressionism."
Although Johns and Rauschenberg looked primarily to one another for community, by the mid-50's a newly assertive gay and lesbian minority was beginning to make its presence felt. Not only were new lesbian and gay civil rights organizations like the Mattachine Society holding regular meetings in New York, but figures like Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsburg were writing about their gayness in explicit terms. Johns and Rauschenberg knew and were friendly with some figures in this gay avant-garde, but it was primarily a literary world and never their main social focus. The art world was still overwhelmingly heterosexual, and while Rauschenberg and Johns were always invited out together as a couple, neither they nor their hosts were ever explicit as to the relationship between them. As a couple, they were able to reap the benefits of shared subjectivity without having to identify or affiliate with a larger gay and lesbian community.
By 1954, Twombly had been drafted into the army, and Johns had become the major focus of Rauschenberg's attention. At this time, Rauschenberg even stopped going to the Cedar Bar and socializing with the Abstract Expressionist painters he had known for years. He remarked about Johns:
He and I were each other's first serious critics. Actually, he was the first painter I ever shared ideas with, or had discussions with about painting. No, not the first, Cy Twombly was the first. But Cy and I were not critical. I did my work and he did his. Cy's direction was always so personal that you could only discuss it after the fact. But Jasper and I literally traded ideas. He would say, "I've got a terrific idea for you," and then I'd have to find one for him. Ours were two very different sensibilities, and being so close to each other's work kept any incident of similarity from occurring.
Rauschenberg's life and art changed significantly after he became involved with Johns. Indeed, one can almost divide his career in two at the moment of their meeting. This is not to say that one was a leader, the other a follower, but rather that they reinforced each other's inclinations, gave each other permission to strike out in new directions, supported risk-taking, and provided an understanding context for discussion and debate.
Among the works Rauschenberg completed after meeting Johns were a series of square paintings made out of diverse materials such as tissue paper, dirt, and gold. Johns reportedly helped on the series, the point of which was to explore a cultural hierarchy of values that considers dirt and paper humble materials but gold precious and rare. Rauschenberg predicted that the gold works would be valued and the others ignored. He has proven prescient: only one dirt and one clay painting survive, none in tissue paper, but ten in gold leaf. With this series, Rauschenberg initiated a new focus on the social and its role in the making of meaning, the determining of value, and the conveying of significance. The artist's ability to communicate is no longer understood as a transcendent individual gift as it was under Abstract Expressionism, but as the product of a shared cultural heritage. In these simple collages, the Abstract Expressionist alchemy transmuting feelings into paint was ruptured and replaced by a new concentration on the role of the audience in creating meaning in a work of art.
Another early sign of change in focus is a curious painting titled "Yoicks" (1954) (Fig.4). It was unlike anything Rauschenberg had produced before. A huge canvas covered with alternating strips of cloth and paint in bright yellows and red, it is different from the relatively somber palette of previous works. The combination of the title, derived from a comic strip pasted on the surface, and the lively palette gives "Yoicks" a celebratory tone. It marked a new direction in Rauschenberg's conception of the canvas. No longer understood as a place to register sentiment and sensibility, an emotive field in the manner of Abstract Expressionism, the canvas now became a material fact, an actual thing upon which to place other actual things, from strips of cloth to newspaper comics. The alternating horizontal stripes of "Yoicks" seem to derive from the rectilinearity of the canvas itself, as if the painting were not so much an imposition of mind on materials, as a product dictated by the materials themselves.
Rauschenberg next turned to an assemblage of painted images and sculptured objects. He would soon dub this type of additive composition Combine, signaling a new genre somewhere between painting and sculpture. He would make combines for the next seven years--throughout the entire period he and Johns were together--ceasing about a year after their breakup. He once told a collector who was buying his first combine, called Untitled (with Stain Glass Window), that it was painted at a time of passion for a friend, presumably Johns. The paint-splashed floor boards attached to the bottom of this work are an ironic literalization of the Abstract Expressionist splatter, a concrete reminder of the common joke that some of the best painting is left on the floor.
Within a few short months of meeting Johns then, Rauschenberg had embarked on three new, highly significant changes of direction in his art: exploring the role of the social in the determination of meaning; employing the canvas not as field but as literal support; and finding in the development of the combine a medium to make concrete these two new considerations. These changes in direction and focus remain the chief preoccupations of Rauschenberg's art to the present day. Taken together, these new themes constitute a kind of refusal of the then ubiquitous Abstract Expressionist pictorial practices. Perhaps the dedication of this first combine to Johns was a sign of his determining role in its development.
For Johns, the meeting with Rauschenberg may have been even more significant. The simple fact of the matter is that Johns was not an artist until after they met. The association with Rauschenberg did more than give him the courage to give up his day job and become an artist, it showed him what that decision really meant. Rauschenberg taught Johns discipline, exchanged ideas, showed him alternatives to Abstract Expressionism, and nurtured his career. Johns has remarked of their meeting, "He was kind of an enfant terrible at the time, and I thought of him as an accomplished professional. He'd already had a number of shows, knew everybody, had been to Black Mountain College working with all those avant-garde people."
Little record remains of Johns's work during the early months of the relationship because he tried to destroy it all. But enough pieces survive to indicate what some of it must have been like. Judging from these few works, they seem very much in the spirit of Rauschenberg's combines. Johns covered a toy piano with collage, mounted a similarly collaged panel above a plaster cast of a head, covered a Jewish Star with encaustic and collage. Perhaps he destroyed these works because, in their use of found materials and collage, they seemed too close in spirit to the work of his mentor.
Johns's breakthrough came in a painting called "Flag" (1955). A single image of an immediately recognizable American icon, "Flag" at first seems to have nothing in common with Rauschenberg's work of this period. In that sense, it succeeded in opening an avenue of exploration that had not been claimed by his lover. But beneath their surface differences, both Johns's flags and Rauschenberg's combines share a similar dynamic. Both take fragments of culture as the stuff of art, making the relationship between viewer and object the subject of inquiry. "Flag" poses fundamental ontological questions. Is it a flag or a painting of a flag? Whatever the answer, it has nothing to do with the artist's sense of self. Once again, the artists' gayness has led them away from a celebration of the individual and toward the bedrock of culture where all meaning is made.
Johns's career developed swiftly after his first exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery. The Museum of Modern Art bought three painting from that first show and one appeared on the cover of Art News. Johns's stark, single-image canvases struck the art world as completely new. In contrast, Rauschenberg's drips and complex pictorial arrangements still had something of the Abstract Expressionist about them. He would enjoy no similar degree of success until his victory in the Venice Biennale of 1964.
There is no doubt, however, that Johns and Rauschenberg were extremely close both professionally and personally during this time. Johns has said: "our world was very limited. I think we were very dependent on one another. There was that business of triggering energies. Other people fed into that but it was basically a two-way operation." That two-way operation is evident in many of the paintings from this period. In a large combine called Untitled (1955) (Fig.5), Rauschenberg explicitly addressed his relationship with Johns and its place in his emotional life. He collaged onto the surface of the piece drawings by Twombly, a photo of his young son, clippings about his family from a hometown newspaper (some going back many years), a naive oil painting by a relative, a drawing of an American flag (the year Johns painted his first one), a photo of Johns that Rauschenberg once termed "gorgeous," as well as letters from Johns, judiciously torn up. The combine thus stands as a meditation on family and love, merging the seemingly incommensurable fragments of past (family) and present (sexual) love into the integrated whole that was unavailable to the artist any other way.
Another combine of the same year called "Short Circuit "is literally a combination of the work of three artist friends within an armature provided by Rauschenberg. In this piece, submitted for an annual retrospective at the Stable Gallery, Rauschenberg protests the exclusion of these friends from the show by smuggling them in through his painting. The combine includes a Johns flag under one door, a painting by Weil under another, and a third image by his friend Ray Johnson. In addition, there is a program from an early John Cage concert and an autograph by Judy Garland. While the participation by friends and lovers is logical given the circumstances, the Garland autograph is a most curious addition, signaling the development of yet another new phase in Rauschenberg's art, a phase again tied to his relationship with Johns.
Judy Garland was and is the high priestess of gay culture, the queen diva of all time. Her inclusion in this and other combines of the period (like Bantam of 1954) (Fig. 6) directly alludes for the first time in Rauschenberg's work to his identification as a gay man. These works were part of a new series of combines that began to figure gay cultural tropes in increasingly explicit ways, from the evocation of the Ganymede myth in "Canyon" (1959), to the phrase "YOUR ASS" that dominates one side of "Photograph" (1959), to the tracing of a nude man, complete with genitals, in "Wager" (1957-9). However, these images constitute a "coming out" legible only to those who are "in." The gay references tend to be so subtle and obscure that only now are scholars beginning to recognize them. Indeed, whether Rauschenberg intended these references to gay culture to be understood as a statement of identity by any audience, straight or gay, is a matter of conjecture. He never identified himself publicly as a gay man, and the possibility exists that these references were intended only as private jokes to an audience perhaps no larger than his lover.
What references there are to gay culture tend to be complex and indirect. For example, "Bantam" includes a team portrait of the New York Yankees spattered with Abstract Expressionist paint which is then juxtaposed with delicate fabric swatches, a nineteenth-century nude odalisque staring at herself in a mirror, and another autographed photo of Judy Garland. While the presence of Garland alone was curious enough, the reference was coupled with a peculiar title. According to Webster's Dictionary, "bantam" means "a small but aggressive or pugnacious person; 2. any of several breeds of small fowl in which the male is often a good fighter; 3. a boxer or wrestler weighing between 113 and 118 pounds." In short, bantam refers to an over-wrought, overacted masculinity--a kind of nervous overcompensation for a perceived lack. Here the gestural paint splashed over the Yankees photo, coupled with a curious title, seems to deliver a highly coded, campy indictment of Abstract Expressionism and its self-conscious and exaggerated masculinity. Such a reading is reinforced by the odalisque looking at herself in a mirror, and the star photograph of Judy Garland.
Where Rauschenberg's allusions to his sexuality are more explicit, they require a fairly sophisticated literary background. In one drawing for a series of images illustrating Dante's Inferno (1959-60) he pays particular attention to the canto describing the fate of sodomites. According to Dante, sodomites are sentenced to run forever barefoot over hot sand. And at the top of his drawing, Rauschenberg has outlined his foot in red. The more explicit references to gay culture and his identification with it seems to be the product of a deepening relationship with Johns, for they increase in number and specificity as the relationship develops. Although no similar pattern can be discerned over the span of his earlier relationship with Twombly, by 1959 references to gay culture can be found in a large percentage of Rauschenberg's work.
Johns's art has never been as explicit. Beginning in 1956 with the painting of Canvas, he began to make the question of his identity the central focus of his art, always posing it in the form of a query or a problem, never celebrating it as the Abstract Expressionists would have done. Canvas consists of two stretched canvases facing in on one another so that the image is primarily the back of one canvas covered with paint. the painting is structured as if it were a self-portrait, but where the face would be there is instead a refusal, a turning away.
After completing this picture, Johns continued to explore the theme of closeted identity. He paints over a drawn shade in the painting "Shade" (1959), covers a book with paint in "Book" (1957), can't be opened in "Drawer" (1957) (Fig.7). These objects function only when opened and yet Johns offers them painted shut. In each case, the surface is obscured with layer upon layer of rich encaustic. Even the target and flag imagery is painted in thick encaustic over fragments of newspapers so that the print can be discerned but rarely read.
Another groundbreaking work, "Target with Plaster Casts" (1955) (Fig. 8), consists of a series of little boxes with doors containing plaster-cast fragments of a man's body. These fragments are placed above a target painted in encaustic. Here, the targeted body is literally closeted. As Johns has written in one of his early sketchbook notes, "An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself. Tells of others." It's a phrase that applies equally well to Johns' art and to Johns himself.
Exchanging ideas and motifs was an important part of the relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg despite their different approaches. Johns tells us something of this interchange: "You get a lot by doing. It's very important for a young artist to see how things are done. The kind of exchange we had was stronger than talking. If you do something then I do something then you do something, it means more than what you can say. It's nice to have verbal ideas about painting but better to express them through the medium itself." For example, both Johns and Rauschenberg often used flashlights and light bulbs. Rauschenberg tended to incorporate the actual objects into his combines while Johns often drew them or made them out of sculptmetal. It appears that Johns followed Rauschenberg's lead in most of these object-oriented exchanges, and he continued with them even after the relationship itself ended.
Over the course of their relationship, Johns's painting became less solemn and meditative, occasionally even picking up the camp humor of Rauschenberg's work. "False Start "(1959) consists of a gestural Abstract Expressionist color field labeled with unmatched color names; the word orange, for example, stenciled in white letters over a red field. The painting operates as a kind of Abstract Expressionist drag--Johns putting on the Abstract Expressionist style and at the same time showing how ill it fits him, how complicated and mediated is this presumed automatic translation of gesture into subjectivity. The color names act as a barrier to our reading of these strokes of color as pure expression, and the falsity of the labels reinforces the falsity of the gestures. In "False Start", Johns chronicles the misfiring of emotional authenticity, painting an Abstract Expressionist picture that is manifestly untrue.
In the series of paintings of flags and numbers that preceded this image, Johns painted Abstract Expressionism's "hot" gestures in the medium of encaustic--a suspension of pigment in melted beeswax that requires slow application and precise temperatures. Creating frozen "spontaneous" gestures in painstaking encaustic was thus another means of offering the signs of immediacy and emotional authenticity that were Abstract Expressionism's hallmark, without any possibility of their sincerity. Johns' "Thermometer" (1959) made this problem of authentic, unmediated gesture explicit. Placing a thermometer on top of a field of "hot" Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes, he took its temperature. Not only does Abstract Expressionism's "heat" require a cultural gauge, the thermometer reads room temperature.
Nowhere is Johns more explicit in his campy critique of Abstract Expressionism than in "Painting with Two Balls" (1960) (Fig. 9). Inserting two small wooden balls into a horizontal opening in an Abstract Expressionist gestural field nicely summarizes Johns's take on the source of Abstract Expressionism's classically masculine pictorial ambition. "Painting with Two Balls" can profitably be compared with Rauschenberg's "Bed" (1955) (Fig. 10), a combine that features an Abstract Expressionist gestural painting on what could be (it isn't, after all, a mattress) a real bed, complete with quilt and pillow. "Bed" also located the origin of Abstract Expressionist ambition within its sexual politics. Early reviews of "Bed" claimed that the piece resembled nothing so much as the sight of a rape, or maybe even a murder. In joining sex and violence in his painting, Rauschenberg both imitates the Abstract Expressionists he knew so well and reconfigures their linking of esthetics and sexual politics.
In the middle of 1959, Rauschenberg left New York for Florida to work on his Dante drawings. It would prove to be the beginning of the end of his relationship with Johns. While they were often close in their thinking, they were almost polar opposites in terms of personality. Where Johns has always been shy, Rauschenberg is outgoing, so much so that some of the older painters even thought of him as something of a clown. Johns works slowly and deliberately--a cool, serious intellectual who obsessively repeats themes and whose references tend toward the literary. Although exceedingly well-read and articulate, he rarely discusses his work, and his reticent and self-protective interview style has generated its own adjective, Johnsian. Rauschenberg on the other hand is famously garrulous, and his working method is spontaneous and intuitive. References in his work tend toward the pop cultural and are rarely literary. Indeed, Rauschenberg suffers from dyslexia which makes reading difficult. Johns remembers that he used to read his favorite poetry aloud to Rauschenberg who, while willing to listen, had neither the patience nor interest to make it the object of serious study.
Rauschenberg has remarked that his "sensual excessiveness" alienated Johns. It is a remark that functions on a number of levels, both stylistic and biographical. After the final breakup in 1961, which was by all accounts quite painful, the artists severed relations for a long time. Neither artist would employ explicit homoerotic themes for some time. Johns moved south and began a series of paintings that, in his usual coded way, addressed his feeling about the relationship. One of these pictures, called "Liar" (1959), consists simply of the word "liar" stenciled on canvas. Other images are more complex, such as "In Memory of My Feelings--Frank O'Hara" (1961), which, tellingly, takes its name from a well-known poem by O'Hara that speaks of gay love and the disintegrated and reintegrated self. Rauschenberg, in turn, worked on a combine called "Slow" or "South Carolina Fall" (1961) dating from the year of the breakup. It features a South Carolina licence plate set above a piece of crumpled, discarded metal, the whole composition looking like nothing so much as discarded debris. Johns, of course, was born in South Carolina and had returned there.
After the breakup, Johns began to make increasingly larger, multi-panel paintings to which he attached different objects, abandoning the single-image works that initially garnered him such attention in favor of pictures that approach the appearance of combines. In turn, Rauschenberg began to give up attaching objects to his surfaces in favor of experimenting in the two-dimensional realm of the silkscreen. Perhaps the separation allowed them to experiment more explicitly in one another's styles.
In 1955, Johns painted a cheerful bright blue painting called "Tango" (Fig.11). It featured the word "TANGO" stenciled on a brushed encaustic ground with a small key sticking out of the lower right-hand corner. The key belongs to a music box and could be turned to play a tune. The whole composition was very much in the spirit of Rauschenberg in its use of objects, its synesthesia, its humor, its address to the spectator and the concomitant innuendo, as in "it takes two to tango." It's so uncharacteristic of Johns's work that it could very well have been painted as a tribute to Rauschenberg. After they split up, Johns pictured relationships in a very different way in a series of paintings inspired by the life and work of the gay poet Hart Crane. In these paintings, he seems to concentrate on Crane's suicide by drowning at the age of 33 in the Gulf of Mexico as he returned, despondent, from his honeymoon. The paintings feature a stark hand and arm rising from the depths and reaching, unsuccessfully, for the sky. Johns, himself in his early 30's, used his own arm to make the image. Negative though they may be, the Crane pictures remain the only even vaguely gay images Johns painted after the breakup. Rauschenberg, too, ceased to use explicitly gay imagery after they parted. It is as if, without one another, Johns and Rauschenberg have lost the ability to represent themselves.
The Art of Code Text c 1993 Jonathan Katz
from Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership
edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron
c 1993 Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Reprinted by permission of the publishers
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