CAA Reviews reviews Social Medium

The editor of Social Medium: Artists Writing 2000-2015, Jennifer Liese, alerted me to Francesca Balboni’s CAA Review of the anthology, which includes a very nice mention of my Erased de Kooning Drawing posts.

For me, however, the good moments outweighed those that were less than stellar. The biggest revelation was Greg Allen’s idiosyncratically obsessive and meticulously researched blog posts on Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (2011–13). Allen seems to answer Mike Kelley’s assertion to artists in “Artist/Critic?” (2001, another highlight) that “historical writing” can no longer be the project only of the art historian, if we wish to “escape the present limitations of critical discourse” (33). Allen’s blog offers an instructive example of the kind of art histories we might pursue instead. Mariam Ghani’s “The Islands of Evasion: Notes on International Art English” (2013) is as incisive as it is readable, as she summarizes and responds to the heated critical debate around Alix Rule and David Levine’s essay “International Art English.” I also enjoyed many of the selections in “Artists Writing as Art,” especially a bureaucratic love letter to the Liverpool CCTV from Jill Magid’s surveillance performance One Cycle of Memory in the City of L. (2004) and the script for Andrea Fraser’s biting institutional critique Official Welcome (2001).

It is still a sufficiently rare occurrence for me to see such reactions to my work, and it has definitely not gotten old, especially on a rough news day. [Are there any other kind lately?] But it also energizes me to be read as in dialogue with Mike Kelley, and to be discussed in the context of such artists and writers as these folks. I still find Social Medium to be an invigorating read, and am still really grateful to Liese for including me in it.

Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015 [caareviews.org]

Untitled (Painted Wall), 2018

greg.org, untitled (painted wall), 2018, installation view
Untitled (Painted Wall), 2018, enamel paint and rubber on limestone, diptych, est. 48 x 144 in., installation view, Jan. 16, 2018, Arlington, Virginia

Once again I am able to take comfort, of a sort, in at least knowing how I am different from Jasper Johns, who, when he once caught a glimpse out the window of a car of a wall painted red and black, did not pull over immediately, and photograph it. We stand on the shoulders of giants in the middle of the street.

previously, related: Untitled (Unpainted Wall), 2017

Destroyed Derek Jarman Capes: Are There Any Other Kind?

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It’s an accident of timing that I’ve kept thinking of Derek Jarman as a filmmaker with a painting hobby. He was still alive when I saw my first Jarman film, Edward II, and when Blue blew me away. And I felt I knew his story, so I’ve been slow to read his early autobiography, or other books about him; my job was to just catch up and see all his earlier films. It didn’t help that I didn’t really like the paintings shown after his death. His notebooks were more relevant.
But I just saw this photo which changed all that. I wasn’t 100% wrong, but I was close: Jarman’s painting was more formative and influential-and interesting-than I realized. The photo’s from 1971, and it is captioned in Jarman’s dramatic hand:
“The Skycapes 1971 blue pigment on canvas
destroyed in the fire in 1979”
Skycapes has been a Google dead end, or rather a cul de sac for this caption. But capes, capes is where it’s at. In his 1999 biography of Jarman Tony Peake traced the form and concept of the cape to Jarman’s theatrical work, particularly his ideas for a production of The Tempest:

Capes are both practical and sensual, especially when cloaking nakedness. They are geometric: if hung on the wall, they form a half circle. They have mythic overtones: by donning a cape, the wearer can effect a transformation. These qualities, particularly the latter, had considerable potency for Jarman, who now set about working and reworking this new possibility until the capes he produced-and began to hang on the walls of his studio-no longer resembled design, but approached the condition of painting or sculpture.

Now the timing’s a little confusing, because Jarman made a film version of The Tempest in 1979. But Peake notes the project had interested Jarman for years. And Jarman made a clear, laminated cape scattered with dollar bills [or pound notes, maybe?] for the 1969 production of Peter Tegel’s surrealist play Poet of the Anemones. Peake said the two met at Lisson Gallery.
And the walls of Jarman’s riverside loft were lined with extraordinary capes when filmmaker Ken Russell visited and asked him to design the sets for The Devils, a project that consumed most of Jarman’s waking hours in 1970. Exhausted and dissatisfied by the film project and wary of commercial film industry entanglements, Peake wrote, Jarman “chose to concentrate on his capes, some of which he now began to paint, in two main colours, black and blue, but mainly blue: ‘simple sky pieces to mirror the calm.'”
That quote’s from Jarman’s own 1984 memoir, Queerlife, which was published in the US with the title Dancing Ledge in 1993:

1971. The Oasis
The intervening year was spent painting a series of blue capes, which hung on the walls at Bankside. They were simple sky pieces to mirror the calm that returned after the frenzied year of The Devils. That summer was an idyll, spent sitting lazily on the balcony watching the sun sparkle on the Thames. When I wasn’t painting I worked on the room and slowly transformed it into paradise. I built the greenhouse bedroom, and a flower bed which blossomed with blue Morning Glories and ornamental gourds with big yellow flowers. On Saturdays we gave film shows, where we scrambled Hollywood with the films John du Can brought from the Film Co-op- The Wizard of Oz and A Midsummer Night’s Dream crossed with Structuralism. There were open poetry readings organized by Michael Pinney and his Bettiscombe Press. Peter Logan perfected his mechanical ballet, and MIchael Ginsborg painted large and complicated geometrical abstracts.

An oasis paradise indeed, replete with all the essential elements of Jarman’s subsequent accomplishments. Which is, at least, how he himself saw it when he looked back from 1984.
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Here is a 1971 photo by Oberto Gili of Jarman’s amazing Bankside loft, the top floor of a 19th century wheat warehouse. Which had the floors, the ceiling, the views, the space, but not the plumbing or the heat (thus the greenhouse bedroom). There’s the hammock from the first photo, and a laminated cape which had tools, weeds, and detritus retrieved from the abandoned waterfront. [How far do the similarities go between Jarman and other gay pioneer artists like Robert Rauschenberg? Jarman would’ve spit at the comparison; in a 1984 interview at the ICA he slammed Jasper Johns for being a tool of the CIA. #freequeerstudiesdissertationtopics]
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Henri Matisse cutout designs for priests’ chasubles for Vence Chapel, 1951, photographed in his studio surrounding a Picasso painting, by Helene Adant. image: tate.org.uk
In Ken Russell’s telling of their first cape-filled visit, Jarman “was getting ready for an exhibition called “Cardinal’s Capes.” It’s a phrase which turns up nowhere else, but which makes me think of Henri Matisse, who designed amazing chasubles for priests to wear in his chapel at Vence. They began as cut-outs, and were translated into fabric, and changed with the seasons.
In 1970-71 Jarman had two solo shows, including capes, at the then-new Lisson Gallery, but he grew to disdain the gallery system. He also hated Pop and bristled at working in the long shadow David Hockney cast over the London art scene. He opened his studio for his own damn show in 1972, which Peake says was disappointing [though he sold some work and celebrities turned up for the opening, so what greater success could art hope for?]
He included new capes made from black lacquered newsprint [Rauschenberg?] in a 1984 mid-career exhibition at the ICA. [He was 42.] And in that public talk, he described funding his early features by selling paintings and raising money from his painting collectors.
Anyway, are there any Jarman capes left to be seen? I can’t find any. In 2015, the ICA screened Jarman’s super8 documentation of his 1984 show for the first time, but there’s no visual trace online. And as the caption to the original photo mentions, his earlier capes, including what he called his Skycapes, were destroyed along with Jarman’s and others’ studios in 1979.
By retrospectively titling them with the sky, and using the term “blue pigment” instead of paint, Jarman also seems to be linking the capes to one of his clearest references, Yves Klein. Klein the outrager who said his first artwork was signing the sky. Whose International Klein Blue appeared throughout Jarman’s notebooks in the 80s. Jarman filmed an IKB monochrome painting and projected a loop of it for a 1987 live poetry/music performance event he called Bliss, which became his last, greatest film, Blue, in 1991-3.
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Here is Klein at his wedding on January 21, 1962. Rotraut Uecker is wearing an IKB crown, and he is wearing a cape emblazoned with a Maltese cross. They are processing through the raised swords of the Chevaliers of the Order of St. Sebastian. So at least I know what my dissertation will be about. But first we have to solve the problems that there are almost no Jarman Super-8s online; that Klein’s wedding was filmed, and that’s not around, either. And then, of course, all these destroyed capes. There is a lot of work to do.
Previously, 2013: International Jarman Blue
2004:
It’s not just Derek Jarman’s Blue
2002?:
As I lay typing

Dating Sturtevant

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When you go to the Rauschenberg show at MoMA, take your opera glasses.
A question I was never able to figure out was when, exactly, Sturtevant’s Johns Flag took the place of Johns’ Johns Flag after it was stolen in 1965.
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When they split, Johns & Rauschenberg made an agreement that Short Circuit, or perhaps Construction with J.J. Flag, as it had also been known, would not be exhibited. Presumably, with Johns’ Flag gone, Rauschenberg felt free to include the work in a collage-themed group show at Finch College in 1967.
He posed with the work [above], holding the cabinet door ajar to obscure the space where Johns’ Flag had been, and in his artist statement, he said, ” Elaine Sturtevant is painting an original flag in the manner of Jasper Johns’ to replace it.” Is painting, present tense.
Did she finish in time? It’s not clear. All published accounts of the exhibition mention the openable doors with paintings behind them-but also that they were nailed shut. So who knows? Sturtevant’s Johns Flag is like Schrodinger’s Cat, both alive and dead, both in there, and not.
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detail of Elaine Sturtevant’s Johns Flag in Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit
But. If you take a close look at Short Circuit‘s Sturtevant Johns Flag at MoMA, you might be able to see a legible scrap of newspaper on its surface. Actually, you can see many, but one has a date: Sunday, January 15, 1967. And a typeface that looks like the Times.
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image: nytimesmachine
And sure enough, it is. Page 69. The headline: “Powell Case, in 6 Years, Has Involved 80 Judges 10 Courts, 4 Juries, 15 Lawyers and congress.” The story: a full-page recap of a convoluted lawsuit brought against Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., involving defamation and allegations of police corruption.
The Finch show opened on March 9th, so it is at least possible that Sturtevant finished her painting in time to put it in. I mean, it can’t be ruled out [the way a scrap of newspaper visible in Johns’ own MoMA Flag dating from after the 1955 exhibition of Short Circuit almost certainly means that the Short Circuit flag was the “first” flag.]
What’s more interesting, though, is to the right. Doesn’t that look like Johns? In a tuxedo? Perhaps attending an opening? I’ve only done the most cursory search so far, and I can’t find a source for that image from 1965-67. Would Sturtevant have kept a party shot clipping from Johns’ Jewish Museum show in 1964? Would Rauschenberg?
Previously, related: Art in Process: Reading Finch College Museum
Jasper Johns’ first Flag

Untitled (Unpainted Wall), 2017

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Untitled (Unpainted Wall), 2017, brick, concrete, 18 lag shields, exterior latex paint. Installation view, Chevy Chase, Maryland
In his 1977 Whitney catalogue, Michael Crichton wrote about the origin of Jasper Johns’ 1967 painting Harlem Light:

It has a peculiar background. Johns was taking a taxi to the airport, traveling through Harlem, when he passed a small store which had a wall painted to resemble flagstones. He decided it would appear in his next painting. Some weeks later when he began the painting, he asked David Whitney to find the flagstone wall, and photograph it. Whitney returned to say he could not find the wall anywhere. Johns himself then looked for the wall, driving back and forth across Harlem, searching for what he had briefly seen. He never found it, and finally had to conclude that it had been painted over or demolished. Thus he was obliged to re-create the flagstone wall from emory. This distressed him, “What I had hoped to do was an exact copy of the wall. It was red, black, and gray, but I’m sure that it didn’t look like what I did. But I did my best.”
Explaining further, he said: “Whatever I do seems artificial and false, to me. They-whoever painted the wall-had an idea; I doubt that whatever they did had to conform to anything except their own pleasure. I wanted to use that design. The trouble is that when you start to work, you can’t eliminate your own sophistication. If I could have traced it I would have felt secure that I had it right. Because what’s interesting to me is the fact that it isn’t designed, but taken. It’s not mine.” [p. 54-55]

And that, my friends, is how I am different from Jasper Johns: I got the picture.

Thank You

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It’s been a hard season to think of positive things, and sometimes looking back, it’s been difficult to see how or if things mattered at all. But I also look back at the year with immense gratitude, both for the opportunities I’ve had, but also for the people who helped make them possible. I’d probably still be doing a lot of what I’m doing here if no one else was paying attention; that’s how it often feels, actually. But I’ve come to know that sometimes people do take an interest in what I’m doing, whether writing, research, criticism, or artmaking, and they respond to it, react to it, challenge it, run with it, join in on it. And it makes it interesting, better, and more meaningful, and it is nice to feel that. But there are also things, some of my greatest, favorite things, that would not have existed at all without the interest, effort, and support of others.
So I’d like to give some specific thanks to some of the many people who engaged with and supported my work in 2016. Without them, these things I am so proud of would literally not have happened.
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Magda Sawon suggested we do a proposal for SPRING/BREAK. “Chop Shop” began as a glib sendup of Simchowitzian cash&carry speculecting. But in the last few weeks before the show, it grew exponentially in scale, which forced some real thinking about its meaning and ambition. With Ambre & Andrew’s flexibility, and the extraordinary efforts of Magda’s posse, Chop Shop somehow became what supposed to not be: a Basel-ian boothful of investment-grade masterpieces. [Some of which are still available, btw. Get in now at 2016, pre-boom prices.]
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Book deals come and go, but Jennifer Liese and her colleagues at Paper Monument offered what bloggers need most: a good editing. When PM first asked to include my 2+ years of posts about the history of Erased deKooning Drawing in their anthology Social Medium, I frankly thought they were nuts. But Jen’s vision and thoughtful editing helped me see my own writing and ideas anew, and she enabled them to reach people in an amazing, new context. I’ve never felt prouder of my writing than to have it included among the great work of so many artists who influence and inspire me already.
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Mark Leckey and John Garcia included my work in shows that were totally fascinating and different from anything I could have imagined, which let me think about it and the world it inhabits in a new way. Having my satelloon sculpture be subsumed into Leckey’s autobiographically inspired installation at MoMA PS1 turns out to be a rare privilege, to be able to help realize, almost literally, someone’s memory.
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And Garcia’s inclusion of the Madoff Provenance Project in his show about context’s impact on art at To___Bridges___ not only gave it a challenging context, it pushed me to figure out ways to make the project visible and understandable beyond its datalayer. This in turn helped me see how my work connects to, and was informed by, artists of earlier generations. [In this case, there’s an obvious shoutout due to Mel Bochner and his Working drawings and other visible things on paper not necessarily meant to be viewed as art, a project whose title has long resonated with my own ambivalence about calling myself an artist or what I do art.]
Sarah Douglas and Andrew Russeth at ArtNews invited me to write about one of my favorite, all-consuming blogtopics: the disappearance of the Johns flag in Short Circuit. And recently Eric Doeringer and I had a great public conversation about his work, and the early Johns/Rauschenberg era that I continue to find engrossing and misunderstood.
Collectors and supporters who engage in the oddball, time- and space-limited art projects I proposed around here literally made them happen. In the crazy-skewed art world of the moment, lowering the stakes and making and trading art for two figures feels refreshing. And most awesomely, these projects have been a catalyst for connecting with some inspiring people who share some interests, and who introduce me to their passions and practices, too. [I hope 2017 lasts long enough for me to do a book version of eBay Test Prints, btw.]
Most of all, I have to thank my wife, who is my smartest, most skeptical, yet most tireless supporter. She is so deeply disapproving of my #andiron-style art designation practice it is not even funny, but she also sees me wrestling with it myself and taking it seriously, so she does, too. And anyway, at the very least, when I’m dead and gone, and she doesn’t have to deal with a storing or tossing a studio or warehouseful of objects, she’ll come around. So thank you, and thank you all. I hope we all get through 2017 and beyond to do this again.

Me & Eric on Bob & Jasper & Matson Jones: 12/17, 4pm, Mulherin Gallery

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I’m psyched for but slow to hype the discussion Eric Doeringer and I will have tomorrow, Saturday, Dec. 17, at 4pm, on the occasion of Eric’s show at Mulherin Gallery.
Titled “Matson Jones & Co.”, Eric is showing work he’s made based on early artworks by Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns. So tomorrow we’ll probably talk about their collaborations, both as commercial artists, doing window displays under the name “Matson Jones,” but also the artworks they made together, including such foundational “Rauschenbergs” as Short Circuit and Erased deKooning Drawing, and foundational Johns works like, well, like Flag and Map. Can you even imagine?
Anyway, it should be a blast, so I hope you’ll come by.
“Eric Doeringer: Matson Jones & Co.” runs through Dec. 31 at Mulherin, 124 Forsyth St (Delancey) [mulherinnewyork]

‘A True Short Circuit’

I’m not alone! It’s not just me! In the introduction to the catalogue for her 2008-9 show, “Robert Rauschenberg | Travelling 70-76,” curator Mirta D’Argenzio wrote:

His favorite means of self-expression were always inclusive of change, travel, and collaboration. He seems from the very beginning, paraphrasing words of his own, to have committed his entire activity to the task of defining an ever more ample concept of collaboration, always in a state of becoming, that nearly made it possible to do away with the very notion of subjective behavior on the part of the artist,
Rauschenberg made a decisive contribution to superseding the notion of the individuality of the author: a notion very much emphasized by modernism, and then virtually discarded by post-modernist thought. His absolute freedom in this respect found expression from the very beginning in the intersubjective approach that permitted him– from his first works with Susan Weil, and then in his relationship with Cy Twombly, and immediately thereafter with Jasper Johns– to set up a true short circuit that questioned the modus operandi of western art and the very concept of the individuality of the author. This attitude, however, was in any case to lead him to preserve a specific identity that found paradoxical reinforcement in its own self-negation.

In the discussion for Paper Monument’s Social Medium anthology Sunday, I tried to make this exact point about Rauschenberg’s collaborative works, especially in the earliest days of his career. And here it is/was, right there in 2008. 2009. In an Neapolitan exhibition catalogue about works from the early 70s, when Rauschenberg was traveling the world and absorbing influences and materials and references.
D’Argenzio goes on

Rauschenberg insisted: “Ideas are not real estate.” And then he continued: ” “In collaboration one can accept the fact that someone else can be so sympathetic and in tune with what you’re doing that through this they move into depths which might not be obvious if that person had been working alone in a studio with the door shut…I think part of our uniqueness is the fact that we are ill-equipped.

Except that this is a quote from a 1974 interview with Rauschenberg about printmaking. Prints are inherently collaborative and technically contingent, and foundries are always good about namechecking. But that is not anything like questioning the concept of authorship. If anything, it’s auteurist. As Walter Hopps saw it in the catalogue for the 1999 retrospective, “in collaborations, Rauschenberg simultaneously functions as composer, orchestra conductor, and first violinist.”
Rauschenberg and Johns might have been hoping to question the modernist notion of authorship when they hid a flag painting behind the door of a work that was first known as, Construction with J.J. Flag. But when faced with the decision, rather than short circuit their individual careers, they ended up pulling the plug. It was self-negation as self-preservation. [h/t @andrewrusseth, whose tweet about that real estate quote set me on this hunt.]
Buy Robert Rauschenberg. Travelling ’70-’76 [amazon]

The Tiffany’s Windows Of Matson Jones

Early work, commercial work, disowned work, and destroyed work are not relevant to an artist’s work, except when they are.
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Tiffany & Co. building on the corner of Fifth & 57th, c.1940 via nypl
I did not know that Bonwit Teller was owned by Walter Hoving, who bought it in 1946, and who also bought Tiffany & Co. next door in 1955. From the family. The store was in trouble, and he turned it around, turned it into the Tiffany’s we know today. Hoving was a crack retail guy. His son Thomas became director of the Met. Hoving had Bonwit’s window dresser Gene Moore take over Tiffany’s windows, too. Bonwit’s had 16 windows on Fifth Avenue & 56th St. Tiffany’s had two on Fifth and three on 57th.
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Bonwit Teller building, 721 Fifth Avenue, on the corner of 56th Street in 1956. Destroyed by Donald Trump.
Dali did some Bonwit’s windows in 1938. Duchamp did a window display for Brentano’s to promote Breton’s book in 1945; it had to be moved to Gotham Book Mart. Here is a long discussion of shop windows, Benjamin, flaneurs, and capitalist spectacle. [Brentano’s was Scribner’s before, and is a Sephora now.]
Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil did windows for Moore at Bonwit’s. And Rauschenberg and Johns did after that. Here is the set of amazing blueprint monotypes Bob and Jap did for Bonwit’s in 1955, which Gene kept. [1955 was also when Warhol started doing Bonwit’s windows.]
I’m going into this now because I finally got a copy of Gene Moore’s 1990 coffee table memoir, My Time At Tiffany’s, and it talks about the artists he worked with, and how he was the first window dresser [he preferred “window trimmer”] to give artists credit. And how he also showed their “‘serious’ work,” with credit, a rental fee, and no commission if it sold. And he has a chronology of all the windows he did for Tiffany’s.
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Target with completely unrelated and painted Plaster Casts, why do you even ask?, 1955
So here are all the Tiffany windows Rauschenberg and Johns did under their pseudonym, Matson Jones, and what Moore said about the projects and working with the artists.
jan 2017 update: via an interview in the Observer, Tiffany’s current VP of visual merchandising Richard Moore [no relation, apparently] has released four previously unpublished images of Matson Jones windows. They’re added and noted below.

Continue reading “The Tiffany’s Windows Of Matson Jones”

Untitled (Merce At The Minskoff), 2015 –

Sometimes an object has its own logic.
A few days ago I saw an unusual auction listing. It was described as a “textile” with the title, “Merce at the Minskoff,” and it was signed by “Bob Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage.” But the description was cursory, and there was no image. When I called, the small downtown auctioneer couldn’t describe it, but they assured me they’d post the image soon.
This textile was clearly related to Merce and the company’s week-long performance at the Minskoff Theater in January 1977, the only time they performed on Broadway. But what would be signed by these three?
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Untitled (Merce at the Minskoff), 2015 – , ink on towel with four signatures (interim state)
Then I got wrapped up in other stuff, and confused the sale date, and long story short, I missed the auction this morning, and I lost a chance to buy what appears to have been an autographed commemorative hand towel.
So for now getting the designer of the Merce at the Minskoff poster to sign this towel requires not just the acquiescence of Mr. Johns, but the co-operation of the as-yet-unidentified owner/custodian of the towel.
But it will happen. Or at least it must. Because when an object has its own logic, your only viable option is to endeavor to realize it as quickly as possible.
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FROM THE ESTATE OF LOUISE NEVELSON HELLO: “Signed Jasper Johns lower right and inscribed, ‘Dear Louise, I love you, Merce”
Lot 194: Textile, “Merce and the Minskoff”, sold for a measly $125 to someone now carrying the weight of future Art History on his or her shoulders [roland/liveauctioneers]
Apr 26, 2010, Norwalk, CT, Lot 357: AFTER JASPER JOHNS (AMERICAN, b.1930): Signed colored poster. [braswell/invaluable]
UPDATE: This post was edited soon after publication to accept responsibility for an object’s realization, even though it is not presently within my control to do so. I must and will do what I can.
APRIL 2016 UPDATE: I was discussing this work with my wife recently; she takes issue with this entire project of asserting art status upon an object beyond my control or ownership. She questioned my claim thus: “Why didn’t he sign it? If he designed the poster, it can’t be for lack of opportunity. That’s the logic of this object: that he didn’t sign it.” Reader, I married her.

In The Palm Of Your Hand

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Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1954, collection hirshhorn
I went to a gallery talk at the Hirshhorn by Amy Boyer, of the museum’s education department, on their rare, early Jasper Johns work, Untitled (1954). It’s one of just four known Johns works to survive destruction by the artist in 1954, because it was in someone else’s possession. That someone was Rachel Rosenthal, an important friend and collaborator of Johns, whose face is cast in plaster there in the bottom. [Rosenthal sold the work to the Hirshhorn in 1987.]
In his 1996 conservation interview at the Menil with Carol Mancusi-Ungaro Johns noted that the collaged element in Untitled, probably shared paper and stationery from various “exotic,” foreign sources with the work he made next, Untitled (Green Painting), which first belonged to Rosenthal’s mother. [Asked her name, Johns replied with a laugh, “Mrs. Rosenthal.”] The torn printed bits are overlaid with similarly sized fragments of brown tissue paper that veils but doesn’t obscure the texts. A piece of glass is fitted over the collage, held between pairs of tiny nails in a fashion similar to Star, the Star of David-shaped painting Johns made for Rosenthal.
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bad photo of a laserprint of a 2006 photo of the back of Johns’ Untitled, 1954 via hirshhorn
But today the party was definitely in the back. Bower presented images taken at the Hirshhorn in 2006, which showed two images Johns had affixed, one to the canvas, and one to a wooden backing. They were identical white-on-black palm reading diagrams printed with the caption, “Hand of Accidents and Travels.” Bower wondered if this indicated the work was originally intended to stand, like a sculpture, or possibly to be handled.
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same, a detail: “Hand of Accidents and Travel”
Seeing the palm reading hands, along with the shape of the Untitled collage (16.4×7-inches), made me think of the Shirtboards collage/drawings Rauschenberg made in 1952 while traveling through Italy and Morocco with Cy Twombly. Bob would glue etchings and illustrations he found or bought in street stalls onto the leftover cardboards folded inside his laundered shirts. Hopps wrote that because Rauschenberg never framed the Shirtboards, “they exist potentially as hand-held objects.”
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Robert Rauschenberg, Shirtboard collage with palm reading diagram, 1952, lost or destroyed, image: Walter Hopps’ Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s
Of the eleven elongated (14×5-in.) Shirtboards included in Walter Hopps’ 1990 catalogue, ten were in the collection of the artist, the Sonnabends, or Sue Weil. The other one was listed as “lost or destroyed.” It had a palm reading diagram, in black on white, the inverse of Johns’s.
Did Johns bury Rauschenberg’s Shirtboard palm down under the collage of Untitled, only to bring it back as an X-ray, or was he just giving Bob a secret high five?
Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1954 [hirshhorn.si.edu]

Robert Rauschenberg, Dad

I’ve been reading the transcript from Susan Weil’s interviews for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Oral History Project. It’s four sittings over several months, so stories are retold with slight variations depending on who’s there, more Thanksgiving chestnut than Rashomon, but still interesting.
One example, in her first interview session, Weil talked about the collapse of her marriage to Rauschenberg in the Summer of 1951, just as Christopher was being born, and of the aftermath, raising him as a single parent. [Bob was at Black Mountain College during the birth, then soon took up with Cy Twombly and headed to Europe for 17 months. By 1953-4, Rauschenberg was back in New York, way downtown, and in a relationship with Jasper Johns.]:

And was Bob able to see him from time to time?
WEIL: Yes. Particularly when he was in New York, that worked out. He would see him from time to time. But Christopher, he always–they’d try to do things together, and of course at that time, Bob was really into making his art life bigger and broader. So he’d often cancel meetings with Chris, because he would have a meeting with a museum person or something.
And so Bob was supposed to take Chris to the circus, and he said, “Well, Mom, he probably won’t be able to come, because he’ll have something more important.” And I felt so terrible. And of course he did come, but Christopher had it all in his head that he was not at the top of the list.

Ouch.
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The circus reminded me of this letter, which is collaged to the face of one of Rauschenberg’s earliest combines, Untitled (1954) [above], and which was mentioned in two essays in Paul Schimmel’s 2005 Combines exhibition catalogue:
“I hope that you still like me Bob cause I still love you. Please wright me back love LOVE Christopher.” And there’s a circus clown in the corner. Same circus? Who can say? What’s notable is not whether Rauschenberg was a good dad, but that he incorporated the letter in his artwork, and how.
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Untitled (1954-58), also called Untitled (Man with White Shoes) and Plymouth Rock, collection: MOCA, image: RRF
The letter is just below and to the left of an overexposed headshot of a toddler Christopher, but the handwriting is not that of a 3-year-old. Though it’s dated 1954, Rauschenberg clearly kept working on Untitled for several years. This photo of the artist’s studio shows that Christopher’s letter and photo were on there by 1958, though, the year of his (and Johns’) breakout shows at Castelli.
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Rauschenberg in his Front St. studio in 1958, with various combines behind him. photo: Kay Harris via RRF
In reviewing Schimmel’s show and catalogue, Yve Alain-Bois mocked the idea of seeking insights into Rauschenberg’s combines from close readings of their collaged elements, even as he pointed out the photo of Johns and the Twombly sketch on Untitled.
When I first connected Weil’s story with Christopher’s letter, it was tragic and infuriating. Rauschenberg wasn’t busy meeting any museum people between 1954-58, he was just not seeing his son. But in Weil’s later tellings, with her son sitting alongside her, a much more sanguine version emerges; as he got a little older Christopher recalled hanging out at his dad’s and helping him make work. He was a teenage studio assistant on screenprinting, rollerskated inside, and helped unleash the turtles at E.A.T.’s 9 Evenings. In short, it got better. And in retrospect, putting his son’s letter and photo on a sculpture meant he saw it every day; Rauschenberg used his combine as the studio equivalent of the refrigerator door, sitting right in that gap between art and life.
Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project [rauschenbergfoundation.org]
Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, the catalogue from Paul Schimmel’s 2005 exhibition, is great [amazon]
Previously: The Orgies of Art History

The Daily Practice Of Erasing

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This is a great photo, btw. I love the edge, the space, the painting’s objectness. I assume it’s old, pre-frame, but I don’t really know; and the site I ganked it from didn’t seem to have any awareness, much less answers. Anyway, it’s here on purpose.
I’m not sure when I knew that the blur in the center of Gerhard Richter’s Tisch/Table (1962, CR:1) isn’t a brushstroke, but a smear, but I didn’t give it any thought until I started looking hard at Rauschenberg’s work on Erased deKooning Drawing. Then it completely changed for me.
The first time I saw it in person was 2002. Richter told Rob Storr that he had “canceled the painting by blurring.” I read Table‘s blob alongside the brushy blur of the early photopaintings. And those soupy loopy Vermalung paintings whose AbEx-style gestures preceded but didn’t exactly prefigure the squeegees.
But that’s not what’s happening.
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In trying to understand what Jasper Johns did to Erased deKooning Drawing, I also had to figure out what Rauschenberg had done:

He was trying to make a mark with an eraser. It’s the difference between erasing a drawing, and drawing with an eraser. And when he was done, the result was both an erased de Kooning and a drawing.

At just that moment I read John J. Curley’s essay, “Richter’s Cold War Vision,” in Gerhard Richter: Early Work, which tied them together:

Richter’s Informel-esque brushstroke was not painted over the image of the table (as some have suggested), but was the product of erasure. The artist attacked the canvas with a solvent (perhaps turpentine) after the initial image was already painted. The new mark has diminished the original painted surface, leaving traces of bare canvas showing through.

But as with Rauschenberg, this is not negation; cancelation is not rejection. [Richter would later designate Table as the first work in his Catalogue Raisonné, even though it is not.] As Curley wrote, the erasure “naturalizes a false realism” in Tisch; its abstract disruption provides cover and credibility for the table’s “off-kilter” representation and “structural impossibility.” Erasure becomes “the crux of both the table and the painted gesture.”
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Well that blew my mind. I’ve ended up thinking about Tisch all the time, at first because of the blogging, and then the Destroyed Richter Paintings project. But then mostly because there’s a lamp post near our place in DC that I pass almost every day on my way to the train or the store. It has a basic graffiti tag that someone tried to erase–I was about to say unsuccessfully, but I think it looks a hundred times better like this.

Wait, What? Jasper Johns Blue Ceiling By Matson Jones??

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Jasper Johns Blue Ceiling, 1955, 12×10 feet [!], image: postermuseumblog
How did I miss this? Just a week after I posted about Matson Jones’ hand-painted plaster melons and pomegranates, poster dealer Philip Williams revealed an incredible Matson Jones find: a set of cyanotype/photograms titled Jasper Johns Blue Ceiling.
Each of the four panels depicts an underwater scene featuring a male figure holding a trident, or with a Trojan-style helmet; the only figure not in profile has pointy, Sub-Mariner-style ears. They’re all signed “Matson Jones” in the image, and apparently, the title, which is apparently a reference to Johns’s bedroom, is written on the back in what Andy Warhol said was Robert Rauschenberg’s handwriting. They surfaced in the 1980s from the office of Gene Moore, the guy who commissioned Matson Jones [the commercial pseudonym of Rauschenberg & Johns] to create window displays for Bonwit Teller. The prints were apparently a backdrop for a window made in 1955.
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Rauschenberg & Weil making a blueprint photogram, 1951, LIFE Mag via tate
Rauschenberg, of course, had made and shown similar photograms with his wife Susan Weil. She [or a model] would lie on the photosensitive paper in a composition, and he’d swing a lamp around her, Pollock-style, to make the image. [MoMA has one.] Weil kept making photograms after their divorce, but I never realized they shared joint custody of the technique. Or that Rauschenberg would use it with his next model–and that’s the question here, I guess: is that Johns?
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Who else could it be, right? And if it wasn’t Johns in 1955, it certainly was in 1962. These 1-to-1 scale photograms make me think of Johns’s Study for Skin drawings, which he made by pressing his oiled up face and hands against a sheet of drafting paper, then rubbing it out with charcoal. Richard Serra owns a full-body Johns Skin job from 1975, too, so it’s not like he gave it up.
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Jasper Johns, Study for Skin I, 1962, image via nga
There’s also Rauschenberg’s large-scale, 1968 print triptych Autobiography, and though it’s a stretch across time, the shadows remind me of Johns’s landmark Seasons paintings and prints of 1986-7, which all feature the artists’ shadow.
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Jasper Johns The Seasons print series from ULAE
Connecting Johns’s imprint of the body to Rauschenberg’s–and Weil’s–photogram process would be interesting enough; but these photograms also connect Matson Jones’ production more directly to the art practices of Johns and Rauschenberg.
It does not feel great to not be the first to make this connection. In a Feb. 1959 column in Arts Magazine that is a master class of insiderish gay-bashing, Hilton Kramer denigrated Johns and Rauschenberg as “visual publicists” working in the commercial art “gutter”:

Rauschenberg, for example, is a very deft designer with a sensitive eye for the chic detail, but the range of his sensibility is very small — namely, from good taste to “bad”…Frankly, I see no difference between his work and the decorative displays which often grace the windows of Bonwit Teller and Bloomingdale’s. The latter aim to delight the eye with a bright smartness, and Rauschenberg’s work differs from them only in ‘risking’ some nasty touches. Fundamentally, he shares the window dresser’s aesthetic to tickle the eye, to arrest attention for a momentary dazzle…Jasper Johns too is a designer…Johns, like Rauschenberg, aims to please and confirm the decadent periphery of bourgeois taste.

There are a couple of other examples of gender-coded criticism early on in Johns and Rauschenberg’s careers, but Kramer’s knowing sneers link gayness with non-seriousness, taking a double swipe at the artists’ rapidly growing reputations. Johns wrote an angry letter in response, saying “a kind of rottenness runs through the entire article.”
Which is why Williams’ post of what “may very well be the only known surviving Matson Jones work,” is unsettling. It ends with this shoutout, “Today, Friday May 15th, is Jasper Johns’ 84th birthday. From everyone here at Philip Williams Posters Happy Birthday Mr. Johns!” Almost as if they were inviting the artist–who has a penchant for destroying early work that doesn’t necessarily fit his preferred narrative–to buy it back. Frankly, they belong in a museum. If there is a museum bold enough to take them.
Jasper Johns Blue Ceiling by Matson Jones [postermuseumblog]

Continue reading “Wait, What? Jasper Johns Blue Ceiling By Matson Jones??”

Through The Perilous Fight

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Flags, 1968, image metmuseum.org
In 1968 Jasper Johns produced an edition, Flags, with ULAE featuring two American flags and an optical phenomenon. After staring at the inverted spectrum flag, green, black and orange, on the top, a viewer would then switch to the bottom flag, which would momentarily appear red, white and blue.
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American Flag in Negative Colors of the Spectrum, 1968, image: juddfoundation.org
This was more than a visual trick. It carried symbolic and political meaning. Or at least such things could be ascribed to an inverted flag. In 1968 Donald Judd had American Flag in Negative Colors of the Spectrum made. It was included in “The Public Life,” a 2011 show at the Judd Foundation about the artist’s civic and political engagement. I have not been able to find out much background for this object or its creation.
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Flag (Moratorium), 1969
In 1969, Johns again used the inverted flag, for Flag (Moratorium), a fundraising/protest poster for the Committee Against The War In Vietnam. The small white focal point in the center facilitates the same optical phenomenon as the ULAE edition, in which the viewer is called to action to envision, produce, and correct the flag in her own mind.
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African American Flag, 1990, image: moma.org
David Hammons’ 1990 African American Flag is different. It’s red, black and green colors derive from the Pan-African or Black Liberation Flag designed by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. Miami collector Craig Robins has a Hammons flag; Rirkrit installed it for Design Miami Basel in 2011. It is also in MoMA’s collection, and one flies over the Studio Museum in Harlem.