Have You Seen Me? Jasper Johns’ Little Short Circuit Flag

The Rauschenberg show at Gagosian is pretty incredible, but then again, I’ve had Walter Hopps’ incredible show of Rauschenberg’s 50s work imprinted on my brain from day one.
Anyway, here’s a little art history mystery about one of the great 50s pieces in the show, Short Circuit, 1955, which, in addition to a Ray Johnson collage and a Susan Weil painting, originally included a small flag by Jasper Johns, the first one he ever exhibited publicly.
The flag that’s in there now is by Sturtevant [above], because, as Calvin Tomkins put it,

Some years later, after Johns had become famous, the little flag painting mysteriously disappeared from the mother-work. Later still, a dealer brought a small Johns flag into Leo Castelli’s gallery and asked if Leo could identify it–he said it had been offered to him by a third party. Castelli recognized it immediately as the missing element from Short Circuit. He told the dealer it had been stolen, and said he did not want it to leave the gallery. The dealer refused to part with it. He took the little painting away, and nobody has seen it since.

Nice, but not true. At least two people have seen it since: the dealer, and the perp. If they fenced it elsewhere, you can add a third or more. You stay classy, art world!
So what’s it like, when did it get lifted, and more importantly, where is it?
Thomas Crow’s history makes it sound like the Short Circuit flag was straight [sic] oil on canvas, and that Johns only later switched to the more laborious, anti-painterly medium of encaustic, which he showed in 1958. [uh, or maybe it was encaustic after all. see below.] Either way, Sturtevant’s flag certainly looks more Johnsian than Johns’s flag.
Short Circuit stayed in Rauschenberg’s own collection, which would necessarily limit who had access to the work. Sturtevant’s first show, in 1965, included Johns Flag, which only puts a starting date for when Rauschenberg might have had the work replaced, but provides no help in figuring out when Johns’ own flag went missing.
Let’s try and nail down some of these dates, though, and then see who might have been around Bob’s place at the time, shall we?

  • OK, it sounds like Johns’ flag was still there when Leo Steinberg was talking to Bob and Jasper in 1961.
  • Wait, in a footnote in his 1994 book Figuring Jasper Johns, Fred Orton says the Short Circuit flag is, in fact encaustic, and that the combine is discussed in the Smithsonian’s catalogue for Rauschenberg’s 1976 retrospective. No mention of a missing flag, or Sturtevant.
  • Am I looking way too early? Well, at least by 1997 [whoops, 2005], the catalogue for Paul Schimmel’s MoCA Combines show is calling the flag an “Elaine Sturtevant replica.”
  • It also says the flag was stolen “by an unknown viewer,” so it was taken while on exhibit? Bonus Short Circuit trivia: Rauschenberg also invited Stan VanDerBeek to stick a work in, but he declined.

Huh, a good question from a British reader, who sent along an amusingly embarrassing story from the Daily Mail about some poor chump reporter’s attempt to authenticate a glaringly obvious Johns forgery he bought for a hundred pounds on Portobello Road: has this Short Circuit flag ever been registered as stolen? Because it sounds like Scotland Yard hasn’t heard of any missing Johns.
Off The Wall: A portrait of Robert Rauschenberg [excerpt via google books, thanks art unwashed]