Once You Start Looking For A Flag

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In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara, Jasper Johns, 1961
I’m long overdue for updates on the search for the Jasper Johns Flag Painting that went missing from Robert Rauschenberg’s 1955 combine, Short Circuit. I’ll get to them when I get back home to my files.
Meanwhile, one by-product of searching for a flag: I start seeing them everywhere.
This little multiple by Gabriel Orozco is the first part of a series that doubles the number of rectangles on each sheet.
And on C-Monster, Carolina cropped this time-shifted collage she found on Google Maps into a very flaggish shape.

Hey-Ho, The Art Institute Bought Short Circuit

Short Circuit, Robert Rauschenberg, et al, via the estate/VAGA
I always [well, for a weekend or two last December, anyway] figured I’d find the original Jasper Johns flag painting that was inside Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit before the Combine was sold, so that it could be presented to its eventual owner in its original, art history-upending state.
Yeah, well. Turns out the missing flag was not a dealbreaker for the Art Institute of Chicago. Carol Vogel just released the news that James Cuno orchestrated the Museum’s purchase of Short Circuit, Sturtevant flag and all, from the estate, for an anonymously sourced price of $15 to $20 million.
In her piece, Vogel mentions the flag, and the Susan Weil painting, behind the cabinet doors. But then she says something I’ve never heard or seen anywhere: that though both were invited, neither Ray Johnson nor Stan VanDerBeek actually contributed pieces to the Combine VanDerBeek we knew, but Johnson?
I’d always understood that Johnson was in, and I’d assumed that the collage in the center of the lower half, with the Abe Lincoln and Venus postcard, was Johnson’s. If it blended so seamlessly with the rest of the Combine, and with the rest of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre, well, all the better. Johnson was famously sanguine about his collage work, and loved if his artist friends tweaked or reused it. Or so I’m told.
I like this reproduction of the piece, too, with the doors barely ajar. I’ve heard a story from a couple of people now, that when Johns went to Gagosian to see the show, he mentioned that the doors on Short Circuit were supposed to be closed. This image kind of finesses the door, concealing just enough so that the first thing you say when you see the piece is, “Holy smokes, that’s a Jasper Johns flag three years before he showed it anywhere!”
Prime Rauschenberg at Chicago Art Institute [nyt]
Previously: Until I get some tags, this is how you find all the Short Circuit-related posts around here

‘A Sort Of Collaboration’

Erased de Kooning Drawing as of 1999 at SFMOMA
When we last left Erased de Kooning Drawing, the late, great Leo Steinberg had finally told his story about getting Rauschenberg on the phone in 1957 in order to sort the damn thing out. Steinberg’s conclusion was that, far from a “Neo-Dada” prank or Oedipal negation, Rauschenberg had offered de Kooning “a sort of collaboration” of erasure. The plausibility of this interpretation was inspired by the equally collaborative combine painting of the same period, Short Circuit.
Erased de Kooning Drawing, without present matboard, c. 1970, via Emile de Antonio’s Painters Painting
So to recap quickly: EdKD is a collaborative work. In which erasure-as-drawing is the subject, or the strategy. Each artist with his different markmaking method. And it is inscribed, labeled, by hand, with a flatly descriptive title and claim of authorship. And though it had been unmatted at some point [above] rendering the inscription and the drawing as one collaged work, it was matted in a way that obscured this unity, and it was [eventually] presented as a framed, presented object. A conceptual work, realized. A concept of a drawing erased. Hold all that in your head. Am I missing anything?
Erased de Kooning Drawing, detail, c. 1970, via Painters Painting
Anything besides the small detail that the inscription, the text, the third instantiation of the concept, the generative inverse of the erased drawing itself, was made by Jasper Johns?
For the crucial period of EdKD‘s uptake into the art world’s discourse, Rauschenberg had always claimed that he had written the inscription. That he’d “signed” it. That’s what he told Emile de Antonio on top of that ladder. That’s the only way anyone talked about it. But it is not true.
Vincent Katz has made one of the rare references to the importance of the work’s collaborative creation in Tate Magazine in 2006. But others credit Calvin Tomkins with breaking the news of Johns’ involvement in EdKD in his 2005 New Yorker profile of Rauschenberg:

Johns gave Rauschenberg the title for “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” which came into being in 1953, when Rauschenberg persuaded de Kooning to give him a drawing which he would then erase, to see whether a work of art could be created by the technique of erasure; Johns also did the precise lettering for the title, on the framed matte below the very faint, wraithlike ghost of the erased image.

The title, of course, is not on the matte, but under it. It was originally of a piece with the drawing, until the matte separated it, demoted it, even. Which may intensify the implications of difference between pre- and post-matted drawing.
[Tomkins does not identify the source of his revelation about Johns’ involvement, even though he wrote in the same piece that “Johns recently told Joachim Pissarro, a curator at MoMA, that he thought the term ‘combine’ had been his suggestion.” The latter was a memory Rauschenberg apparently did not share.]
Tomkins may have been the first to publish it, but claim of Johns’ collaboration was first made at least six years earlier, by a seemingly unlikely source: Robert Rauschenberg.

In a 1999 video interview about the newly acquired EdKD, Rauschenberg told SFMOMA curators,

So when I titled it, it was very difficult to figure out exactly how to phrase this.
And, uh, Jasper Johns was living upstairs, so I asked him to, to do, the uh, the writing.

And they say you never get to know your neighbors in New York. Sometimes you make historic works of art together with them.
Except that on Pearl Street, as Castelli famously told it, Johns was downstairs. And Rauschenberg was upstairs, in the loft vacated in the summer of 1955 by Rachel Rosenthal, who had found the building in the Spring of 1954. Rauschenberg was certainly around–and living around the corner–before then. They’d met early in the winter of 1954, began and he and Johns had already created and shown Short Circuit by then. So either Rauschenberg was referring to a time before they moved in together, Or Johns didn’t add his pieces to the drawing before mid-1955. Either way, it sounds like the drawing, to use Tomkins’ odd phrasing, actually “came into being” after 1953, the date Johns wrote on it.
Part 2: Erasers Erasing in Painters Painting
Part 3: Norman Mailer on Erased de Kooning and other ‘hopeless’ and ‘diminished’ art
Parts 4&5: Leo Steinberg on EdKD and how it’s a collaboration
Part 6: A 3-Way Collaboration, that is, with Jasper Johns. Oh, that’s this post. Just one more, I think.

Encounters With Erased de Kooning Drawing

You know what, it’s the weekend. We can have two long Leo Steinberg-related posts at once. Read’em on the NetJets to Basel.
steinberg_rauschenberg.jpgThough he mentioned it in his most important piece of writing, which was also the most important piece of writing on Rauschenberg, it’s not entirely clear whether Leo Steinberg had actually seen Erased de Kooning Drawing when he wrote “Other Criteria.”
And as he tells the story in his awesome 2000 book, Encounters With Rauschenberg – A Lavishly Illustrated Lecture, Steinberg makes not seeing it the point. I’m really tempted to include all seven pages of EdKD from the 85-page book–the text was published straight from his lectures for the 1997-8 Rauschenberg retrospective at the Guggenheim and Menil, and it really sounds just like him. [I met Steinberg in 1991 when the delightfully friendly woman I was sitting next to for his Picasso lecture series at Rice University introduced us; she turned out to be his host, Dominique de Menil. Life-changing, &c, &c. but not right now.]
But I won’t. Even though it’s out of print and expensive. It really should be a PDF now. Anyway.
Steinberg’s take on EdKD is useful here because he was watching Rauschenberg’s career and involved in its critical dialogue almost from the very beginning; he’s about as well-informed or as thoughtful an audience voice as Rauschenberg could find in the 1950s and 60s. And so his reaction seems like a good proxy for the best perspective possible of the time. And it sounds like, though he felt he had to address it, and though he could argue for its critical or conceptual significance, Steinberg didn’t really like Erased de Kooning Drawing very much. It bugged him. He even apologized to his lecture audience for spending “so much time on a negative entity” and a “one-time exploit.” But but!
The lead-in for his story about first encountering EdKD was, interestingly enough, an anecdote from 1961 and Rauschenberg and Johns, about artists putting personal content into their work, and denying it, and then eventually ‘fessing up, and so about not quite trusting what artists themselves said:

That experience confirmed me in a guiding principle of critical conduct: “If you want the truth about a work of art, be sure always to get your data from the horse’s mouth, bearing in mind that the artist is the one selling the horse.”
And did I abide by my principle? I should say not! My longest conversation with Rauschenberg occurred c. 1957, when I first heard about something outrageous he’d done some years before. And rather than going after the outrage–the horse, as it were–I called the trader.
[uh, don’t want to spoil the story arc, but isn’t not ignoring a lesson in 1957 that stems from looking back from the 80s to a 1961 conversation putting the horse before the trader? Just sayin’. -ed.]
The work in question was Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. The piece had not been exhibited; you heard of it by word of mouth. I did, and it gave me no peace. Because the destruction of works of art terrifies.

See, now this is news right there: not exhibited before, word of mouth, a piece you know and worry about without seeing.

How could Bob have done it; and why? The work is often, and to this day, referred to as “a Neo-Dada gesture,” but that’s just a way of casting it from your thought. Obvious alternatives to Neo-Dada suggested themselves at once. An Oedipal gesture? Young Rauschenberg killing the father figure? Well, maybe.
But wasn’t it also a taunting of the art market?–an artist’s mockery of the values now driving the commerce in modern art?

This would put paid, so to speak, to Norman Mailer’s complaint that Bob was erasing to play the market. Steinberg tells how everyone was very aware/shocked/jealous/disturbed when a de Kooning finally sold for $10,000. And Rauschenberg was the one, don’t forget, who got the angriest at Robert Scull for his market-making auction some years later. But all these seemingly contradictory interpretations, Steinberg pointed out, were just assumptions from afar.

So I picked up the phone and called the horse trader himself. And we talked for well over an hour. Occasionally, thereafter, I considered writing up what I remembered of our talk, but then Calvin Tomkins discussed the Erased de Kooning Drawing in his Rauschenberg profile in The New Yorker, and he did it so well that I thought, “Good, that’s one less thing I have to write.” But I don’t mind talking about it and recalling whatever I can of that phone conversation.

On the first question of why, Rauschenberg gave an explanation similar to the one he’d told Emile de Antonio: he was interested in drawing with an eraser “as a graphic, or anti-graphic element,” and found that erasing his own work was unsatisfying.
As for why de Kooning and not some other pre-existing work of art, Steinberg examines and largely discounts the Oedipal explanation, and instead suggests that Rauschenberg recognized or claimed a kindred spirit, that erasure as a technique was central to de Kooning’s own practice. And yes, this section I’m obviously going to quote at length:

There is another reason, I think, why Bob lit on de Kooning. I live with a de Kooning drawing from the early 1950s–it’s of a seated woman, frontal, legs crossed [below]. The face was drawn, then erased to leave a wide, gray, atmospheric smudge; and then drawn again.
Willem de Kooning, Woman in a Rowboat, 1953
And here is Tom Hess’ account of Bill de Kooning’s working method. I’d like to read you a paragraph from Tom’s book Willem de Kooning Drawings (1972), and I’m encouraged to do this by the example of Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit combine, which, you remember, brought in some of Bob’s friends piggyback. Tom Hess was a friend; hear him describe de Kooning’s habit of draftsmanship.

I remember watching de Kooning begin a drawing, in 1951, sitting idly by a window, the pad on his knee.He used an ordinary pencil, the point sharpened with a knife to expose the maximum of lead but still strong enough to withstand pressure. He made a few strokes, then almost instinctively, it seemed to me, turned the pencil around and began to go over the graphite marks with the eraser. Not to rubout the lines, but to move them, push them across the paper, turn them into planes…De Kooning’s line–the essence of drawing–is always under attack. It is smeared across the paper, pushed into widening shapes, kept away from the expression of an edge…the mutually exclusive concepts of line and plane are held in tension. It is the characteristic open de Kooning situation…in which thesis and antithesis are both pushed to their fullest statement, and then allowed to exist together…

This much Tom Hess.
In view of such working procedure, one might toy with this further reason why Rauschenberg’s partner in the affair had to be de Kooning, rather than Rembrandt or Andrew Wyeth. De Kooning was the one who belabored his drawings with an eraser. Bob was proposing a sort of collaboration, offering–without having to draw like the master–to supply the finishing touch (read coup de grace)

I could just go on and on. Steinberg noticed that, despite declaring his early love for drawing, Rauschenberg seems to have pretty much stopped drawing after the early 50s, Erased de Kooning Drawing was really about erasing drawing itself.
And since he brought it up, and in the context of collaboration, too, maybe that makes Short Circuit, which includes two paintings by his partner and ex-wife, a way to wrangle painting into its place, too: subsumed behind closed doors. It’s an admittedly rough analogy, but then, I only just thought of it.
In any case, Steinberg’s collaborative interpretation of Erased de Kooning Drawing is worth holding onto. On with the story:

Meanwhile, Bob and I are still on the phone. And Bob says, “This thing really works on you, doesn’t it?”…Finally, I asked, “Look, we’ve now been talking about this thing for over an hour, and I haven’t even seen it. Would it make any difference if I did?” He said, “Probably not.” And that’s when it dawned on me–it’s easy-come now, but the thought had its freshness once–I suddenly understood that the fruit of an artist’s work need not be an object. It could be an action, something once done, but so unforgettably done, that it’s never done with–a satellite orbiting in your consciousness, like the perfect crime or a beau geste.
Since then, I’ve seen the Erased de Kooning Drawing several times, and find it ever less interesting to look at. But the decision behind it never ceases to fascinate and expand.
It now seems to me that Rauschenberg has repaid de Kooning’s gift to him. For though we all know de Kooning to have been a great draftsman, I can think of no single de Kooning drawing that is famous the way some of his paintings are, except the one Bob erased.

‘One Of The First Works That They Made After Becoming A Couple’

In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara, 1961, Art Institute of Chicago
I’ve had a jpg of Jasper Johns’ 1961 painting, In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara on my desktop for months now. It was one of the most important works in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibition, and I took the chance to study it up close several times throughout the run of the show.
I have also been a little wary to write much about it, and its seemingly powerful resonance with Johns’ Short Circuit flag, partly because I was unsure of how much to read in, and how relevant or not the associations I was seeing really were.
In Memory of My Feelings definitely relates to the other, larger Flag–at 40×60 vs 42×60, it’s nearly identical in size. But unlike the 1955 Flag, or any other flags, it’s made of two canvases hinged together. Hinges, functional and not, are just one unexamined element that appears in both Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s early work. [Light bulbs are another. Maps, just barely.]
When In Memory is discussed, the somber, grey tones come first. Then there’s Johns’ stenciled inclusion of the words “dead man” next to his own name on the bottom. And the overpainted skull that you can barely make out in the upper right quadrant somewhere. And that’s it, and then the Frank O’Hara reference takes over, and the irony that Frank O’Hara would die five years after this was made–as if this had anything to do with the painting, or Johns’ painting of it.
And so I wondered why I couldn’t find anyone talking about what IS clearly visible through the overpainting in the lower right section [detail above], which is a series of vertical red and white stripes. A flag. Or maybe two. Photos weren’t allowed in NPG exhibition, and I can’t remember now. But there is at least one flag painting under there.
One person who does talk about In Memory of My Feelings, though, is “Hide/Seek” co-curator Jonathan Katz. In a gallery talk video, Katz talks about putting Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s works side by side to show it for the first time in the context of their relationship, and particularly their breakup.

Katz talks matter-of-factly about these artists’ relationship and collaboration in a way that no curator ever has. And keeping the bitterness of the breakup in mind certainly brings a lot of content to the fore in Johns’ painting. It feels especially necessary for understanding why Johns might have chosen to reference this poet and this poem. [Spoiler: it’s about dealing with the despair of a breakup.]
But Katz, whose delivery is slick and precise, not a word out of place, drops what I think is a bombshell? And just keeps on going:

When [Johns] and Rauschenberg met, one of the first works that they made after becoming a couple, was the famous–even iconic–Jasper Johns American Flag painting. This is a picture of that flag, in grey, reversed. The obverse of the picture that they made when they got together.

In one sense, it’s obvious, and in another, it’s ridiculous. Or at least unheard-of. Yes, definitely unheard-of. Katz is proposing, in passing, fundamental changes to the understanding of bodies of work, practices, and histories of two of the most important artists of the last 100 years.
This is the compelling thing for me about Short Circuit, an early 1955 Rauschenberg combine with a Jasper Johns flag behind a hinged door. A work which was originally/also titled Construct with J.J. Flag, and which was exhibited by Alan Solomon under both their names in 1958. It makes the otherwise incredible, even shocking assertion that Johns and Rauschenberg collaborated and made some of their most important work together seem perfectly obvious.

Mister Rauschenberg’s Neighborhood

rauschenberg_tower.jpgChristie’s is selling The Tower, a 1957 combine by Robert Rauschenberg which Victor and Sally Ganz bought from Betty Parsons in 1976. The work is a double portrait assembled from found, painted objects and light bulbs, and was originally part of the set for a Paul Taylor Dance Company production based on the myth of Adonis. The costumes for the production were designed by Rauschenberg’s partner Jasper Johns.
Did I say partner? I guess I meant neighbor. Here’s Christie’s quoting Paul Schimmel from his 2005 Combines exhibition catalogue:

While Rauschenberg’s work does respond to the painterly traditions of the 1950s, it does so in a manner that isolates the act of painting from the complete composition. For him, painting became a thing, an object treated similarly to Assemblage in which elements were organized on a non-hierarchical surface. Rauschenberg took aspects of Picasso and the Cubist collage, Kurt Schwitters, and the Surrealism of Joseph Cornell and created a three-dimensional, collage-based art. Together with Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg defined the American art of the 1950s; Pop art would have been inconceivable without their respective breakthroughs. Incidentally, many of their most important advancements were devised when they were most closely associated, living as neighbors, during the second half of the 1950s-the period during which The Tower (1957) was created.

[emphasis added for salient points regarding Short Circuit and for WTF, respective? Incidentally? Neighbors??, respectively.]
Schimmel goes on to note that the appearance here of a broom “anticipates Jasper Johns’s use of the broom in Fool’s House (1962), at a time when they were no longer neighbors.” Yet while he notes that “Lights and bulbs,” one of the defining elements of The Tower, “recur in numerous works”–of Rauschenberg–the fact that just months later, while they were still, uh, neighborly, Johns chose a light bulb as the subject of his first sculpture goes completely unmentioned.
Light Bulb (I), 1958, Jasper Johns, image: mcasd.org
Here is Post-War & Contemporary Deputy Co-Chair Laura Paulson in a gallery talk video,

The Tower is very autobiographical, using found imagery, found objects that would give you clues to aspects of Rauschenberg’s life. Rauschenberg was a gregarious, outgoing, very generous person, but he spoke often in sort of cryptic, very defined ways. And in Tower you have this sort of personage, which to me is just so perfectly Rauschenberg, you really feel this inside/outside aspect of it. And to me, that really defines how his art was: very autobiographical, giving you clues, but not necessarily the full story.

You don’t say.
It’s a little bit funny. One reason I’ve stayed so interested in Short Circuit has been the implications of finding the original Jasper Johns Flag on the creation myth of Flag itself. Because really, what would it mean if Johns’ first flag painting was actually shown inside his boyfriend’s combine? And he didn’t even get credited for it? What if Johns’ idea to paint the flag came from the same place as his idea to paint the map, Rauschenberg?
But what if it goes both ways? The Tower, Schimmel writes, dates from “the middle of Rauschenberg’s Combine period, which extends roughly from 1954 to 1962.” Which is, incidentally, also the period Johns and Rauschenberg were a couple. What if combines came from Johns? Or silk screening?
Or maybe it’s not so simplistic or binary. Maybe “their respective breakthroughs” were collaborative? Maybe they talked through and worked through “their most important advancements” together? How does Target with Plaster Casts relate to the combines of 1955? Or how do the combines relate to Johns’ object-laden paintings of the post-breakup era? What do the famously autobiographical, emotionally-charged-yet-obdurate works of these two artists reveal about each other, their life together, their production, and the culture in which they lived?
For three generations now, the art and art history worlds have been arguing for the separation of these two artists and the distinct, unknowable power of their “respective” achievements. Some day maybe we can tell the full story.
Lot 28, The Tower, 1957, est. $12,000,000-18,000,000 [christies.com]

From Jasper Johns’ A History Of Orgies

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Barbara Rose called this partially obscured page of text “The most tantalizing fragment” visible in Jasper Johns’ 1962 painting, Map, and speculated that it was “probably ripped from a paperback book Johns had in his studio.” The visible word “rebel” resonated with Rose’s idea that Map is akin to a battlefield map, and relates to the Civil War, the centennial of which was being commemorated when Johns, who had recently decamped for his native South Carolina, made the painting.
It turns out the page is from the short, 2-page preface to a hardcover, the 1960 US edition of Burgo Partridge’s 1958 book, A History of Orgies. I bought this book, which is basically one Oxford student’s quick tour through the dirty parts of the classics, followed by a brief history of sexual excesses and hypocritical moralizing in Europe, ending with a call to keep pushing modern society toward a Greek ideal of a sensible, guilt-free sexual culture.
A History of Orgies was apparently a good-, if not best-, seller, both in the UK and the US. After buying a copy online–strictly for research purposes, you understand–I skimmed through it. What I don’t know about orgies could fill several books, but its argument, even its thesis, frankly, seems a bit scattershot. Perhaps more lucid syntheses of orgies have followed Partridge’s? I’ll wait for the orgiast literati to chime in. But it was impossible for me to read the preface without thinking of it in terms of Johns’ work, and also his life in 1960-62, and the culture around him.
Rose calls the visible phrases “chosen and deliberately revealed,” and says they “participate in Johns’s game of peekaboo, which he plays with his audience, much as a stripper suggests that more will be revealed with each succeeding fan flutter,” which is a kind of hilarious image, given the actual source of the text.
And just as the brushstrokes teasingly obscure some of the text, I also can’t help wondering what’s behind, what we can never see: the other side of the page. There are at least three Johns works from this period–Canvas (1956), Fool’s House (1962), and Souvenir 2 (1964, below)–where the artist affixes smaller canvases face down on his larger work, depriving the viewer of knowing what lies underneath. I have no idea if there’s anything in the first page of Partridge’s preface that Johns wanted to not-show, but the full text of what he ended up not-showing is below.
Souvenir 2, 1964, which was in the Ganz collection until 1997 excellent discussion at Christie’s
In the previous post, I referenced the skepticism, voiced by Yve-Alain Bois, of the usefulness of identifying [and thus being tempted to interpret] all the raw materials in Rauschenberg’s combines. It’s not like there’s a unifying, hidden message, a Rauschenberg Code, waiting to be deciphered by some future Tom Hanks. But technology is rapidly making the once-impossible trivial, and art from the past is going to have to deal with it. It took me only a couple of Googling minutes to identify a text that Rose could only speculate on–and which Johns, if he ever meant for it to be identified, has certainly not discussed.
But this impact of instant, ubiquitous information reminds me of how Land Art, once intended to be remote and highly inaccessible, if not impossible to find, ends up on GPS systems and Google Maps. The times, they’re a-changing.
Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, the preface to Burgo Partridge’s A History of Orgies with pagination intact, and the texts visible in Johns’ Map in italics:

Continue reading “From Jasper Johns’ A History Of Orgies”

The Orgies Of Art History

Map, 1962, Jasper Johns, via moca.org
For her contribution to the Jasper Johns Gray (2007) catalogue, Barbara Rose writes about the history and significance of Map, 1962, the artist’s first big, gray masterpiece. Johns made it to raise money for his new Foundation for Contemporary Arts, which was founded to stage some performances of Merce Cunningham. Marcia Weisman bought it out of Johns’ studio and ended up leaving it to MoCA.
Rose suggests that Johns’ Map paintings are akin to battlefield maps, and that the gray one, in fact, resonates with a particular Civil War battle, the Battle of Antietam. She cites Johns’ own South Carolina upbringing, the centennial commemoration of the Civil War that was in the news in 1960-2, and a series of paintings by Frank Stella which drew some of their titles from Civil War battlefields. [Rose was married to Stella at the time, of course, and also refers to one diptych from the series titled Jasper’s Dilemma.] Also, Rose writes, “The difficult realities of Johns’s personal life coincide with the idea that this map pictures a battlefield.”
After recounting some formalist skirmishes with General Clement Greenberg’s troops, Rose zooms in on the surface of the painting and on some of the collaged elements in Map that Johns intentionally left visible:

Topographically, the hills, ridges, and ravines of Johns’s gray Map suggest geological strata bursting. Paint washes over the surface like sea spume or waves eroding coastlines. Known borders are changed or blurred. This transgression of boundaries is a physical fact of art historical as well as personal significance. The surface is scarred and scraped in areas so that the printed matter sealed into it with adhesive encaustic is visible. The most tantalizing fragment is not newsprint but part of a page, probably ripped from a paperback book Johns had in his studio. One can make out the words “intense feelings of guilt and self-disgust,” as well as “rebel” and “orgiast.” These chosen and deliberately revealed phrases participate in Johns’s game of peekaboo, which he plays with his audience, much as a stripper suggests that more will be revealed with each succeeding fan flutter.

Map detail, via Jasper Johns Gray
Lots of interesting stuff, but I am most fascinated by the overall strategy Rose adopts, of floating the connection to “the difficult realities of Johns’s personal life,” and then going both wide and deep about everything but.

Continue reading “The Orgies Of Art History”

On The Execution of Maximilian

The Execution of Maximilian, Edouard Manet, image via national gallery
Edouard Manet made three large paintings in 1867-8 on The Execution of Maximilian, a subject torn from the day’s headlines, but which, because they were critical of Napoleon III’s policies, were never exhibited in France in his lifetime. [Maximilian was a Hapsburg who Napoleon had installed as a puppet emperor in Mexico. He was executed when the French army abandoned him and deposed Mexican president Benito Juarez regained power. A lithograph stone Manet was creating on the same subject was apparently confiscated, and only returned after the artist publicly protested.] Their composition all relate to Goya’s Third of May, which Manet saw in 1865.
The second painting, above, was cut into pieces after Manet’s death in 1883, and sold separately by his heirs. In the 1890s, Degas repurchased the fragments and remounted them on a single canvas the size of the original painting. The National Gallery in London acquired the piece[s] in 1918, and had them disassembled and framed separately until 1992, when they were once again reconstituted on a single canvas.
I’m kind of fascinated by all this history–the history of Manet’s painting itself, that is, not just the charged history he depicted. I think I will look into it some more, probably starting with John Elderfield’s catalogue for MoMA’s 2006 exhibition which brought all of Manet’s Execution of Maximilian works together for the first time.
I mention it now because the circumstances of Manet’s painting are discussed several times in Jasper Johns Gray, the catalogue of that incredible show at the Met in 2008 [and at the Art Institute before that. Good morning, Chicago!]. Johns had been invited by the National Gallery to make a work “in dialogue” with a work in the collection, and he chose this collaged, fragmented Manet.
Near The Lagoon via metmuseum
Johns took the composition of the Manet fragments as a formal element in several of his Catenary works, including Near The Lagoon (2002-3). As RIchard Schiff put it,

The “picture,” as a collage, is something of an “object.” Each fragment maintains a strong material presence, for its external shape is unrelated to (alienated from) the pictorial composition within it. Johns treated the shapes themselves as comprising an abstract image, a composition. He mimicked their placement and proportions with his own collaged pieces, then rotated the entire configuration clockwise 90 degrees so that it assumed a vertical orientation.

Schiff goes on to discuss pictures’ freedom from gravity as compared to a catenary’s dependence on it.
Johns’ paintings are interesting for the directness of their engagement with other artists–not just Manet, but Degas, and even Goya. There are other spots in the Gray catalogue where Johns’ Catenary paintings are considered to be in dialogue with Rauschenberg’s 1955 combine painting Untitled, which has a parachute affixed to the surface. [Johns owned the work for years, having bought it out of Bob’s 1963 Castelli show. Which, hmm, complicated? Also, I can’t find an image of it online.]
I guess I’m most interested, though, in trying to get a better sense of how collage and this picture/object relationship play out across Johns’ work, particularly with regard to canvas. There are examples reaching way back to the Short Circuit era where Johns affixes canvas on canvas, pictures [sic] on pictures [sic], or where he builds up a single work from multiple stretched canvases attached together.
[There are also many works where Johns uses hinges and doors in his work, both of which appear in Short Circuit. So far, I can’t find anyone who has taken a look at these elements specifically in Johns’ work. One thing I’m finding, though, is how this single, early combine–which has been largely unseen and unstudied since its creation, and never in the context of Johns’ work–casts a different light on much of the established critical discussion. It’s like a trigger to question the assumptions and the interpretations and inferences which have accreted over the decades.
If Short Circuit is an anomaly, a work wholly isolated from both Rauschenberg’s and Johns’ other works of the time and since, then it probably doesn’t matter; it’s just an art historical oddity. I’m kind of testing the hypothesis, though, that Short Circuit and the Flag Johns put in it, have a direct, possibly even foundational, relationship to the artists’ work. If that’s true, then it seems like it would ripple through their careers and upend much of the received understanding of these two artists. At least that’s the theory.

Collages And Constructions, 1958

I think Robert Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit was exhibited only twice in its original state: once in the Spring of 1955, in the Stable Gallery annual exhibition for which it was created, and once at the White Art Museum at Cornell University, in 1958.
So far, I haven’t found a mention of the title, Short Circuit before at least 1967, when Rauschenberg exhibited the combine [with the doors nailed shut, to hide the space where the Johns Flag had been, but also hiding his ex-wife Susan Weil’s painting in the process] in a Finch College Museum traveling exhibition.
As mentioned here, Rauschenberg’s earliest registry [which is in the Castelli Gallery archives at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art] has the work listed as Construction with Jasper Johns Flag. Which would be an unusual title for the work to be shown with at Stable Gallery, where the whole point was for Bob to smuggle in works by Weil and Ray Johnson as well as Johns.
But thanks to the help of Liz Emrich, curatorial assistant at Cornell’s Johnson Museum, we now know more about the 1958 exhibition, which was curated by Alan Solomon. And though there’s no works list, the list of participating artists makes me wonder if this combine was exhibited as a collaboration, or as a joint/hybrid work.
The show was titled “Collages and Constructions,” and it ran as part of the Festival of Contemporary Arts. Paul Schimmel’s Combines catalogue lists the dates for the show as running from March 13 to May 20th, but it seems that information is from the artist’s registry, and probably pertains to loans of the work. The press release says it ran from April 10 to May 6, 1958. But yet there’s also an invite to hear Rauschenberg speak on April 8, fresh off his Castelli debut. So maybe the show was open sooner.
Anyway, Short Circuit, or Construction with Jasper Johns Flag, as the artist called it, was one of at least three Rauschenbergs in Solomon’s show. According to Schimmel’s Combines, the other two were Gloria and Small Rebus, [both 1956].
The show also included works by: Alberto Burri, Joseph Cornell, Jean Follett, Sue Fuller, Ilse Getz, Robert Goodnough, Grace Hartigan, John Hultberg, Jasper Johns, Allan Kaprow, Alfred Leslie, Corrado Marca-Relli, Anne Ryan, Richard Stankiewicz, “and others.” The press release mentions everyone but Getz and Follett. No word on who those “others” might have been.
I was surprised to find Solomon left his own 1958 show out of Rauschenberg’s exhibition history in his 1963 catalogue. I was not as surprised, though, to see the show not mentioned at all in MoMA’s otherwise definitive-seeming exhibition history for Johns.

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Friends Of Alan Solomon

Johns, Flag: “American artist Jasper Johns has produced a distinguished body of work dealing with themes of perception and identity since the mid-1950s.” –whitehouse.gov
I’ve been trying to get a better sense of the first decade for Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit, from the mid-1950s, when it was made and first shown, until 1965, when the Jasper Johns Flag was removed from the work which had originally been titled, Construction with Jasper Johns Flag. It happens to be the time when both artists’ careers skyrocketed; when their intense personal relationship flourished, then fell apart; and when they were creating arguably their most significant works. And one of the people who was there for all of it was Alan Solomon.
Solomon was a curator and friend of Leo Castelli; he showed both Johns and Rauschenberg–including Short Circuit–in March 1958 at Cornell University’s White Art Museum. More on that later.
After he moved from Ithaca to the big city to run the Jewish Museum, Solomon gave Rauschenberg his first solo museum show in 1963. And he did the same for Johns in 1964. And he curated both artists into the US exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1964, which erupted into controversy when Rauschenberg won. [The controversy was nominally about the eligibility of the US show, which was mostly installed in the former American consulate next to the Guggenheim, and only partly in the US Pavilion. But basically, it boiled down to Europeans being pissed at the American bad boy winning. I think.]
Long story short, Solomon was a key, early supporter of both artists’ work, and throughout the 1960s, he regularly made the argument that Pop, which he was also instrumental in promoting, was born directly from the work of this pair of “germinal artists” Rauschenberg and Johns.
Which is funny, because reading through Solomon’s texts, speeches, and interviews, you wouldn’t know Johns and Rauschenberg were even dating, much less spawning heirs. Though he showed the collaborative combine painting itself in 1958, Short Circuit is completely absent from Solomon’s exhibitions, texts, and interviews in 1963, ’64, and ’66.
What is present, in catalogue essays for both artists, is Solomon’s repeated and unequivocal rejection of the personal, the emotional, the biographical, the expressive, almost any type of subject or subjectivity at all, in fact, in their revolutionary work.
Looking back at the critical content closet Solomon constructs around these artists and their work–constructed with, you have to assume, their blessing and even active involvement–it’s tempting to take everything he says and simply invert it, and feel like you’re getting a clearer picture of what’s going on.
When Solomon writes of the importance of “other possibilities” to appreciating Johns’ Flags, while explicitly excluding the possibility of any personal associations, it almost seems like an invitation, a demand to consider them in an autobiographical light, as a kind of silent self-portrait. Which becomes very complex very quickly when the germinal Short Circuit re-enters the mix.
But I still have to figure out how, what, or whether to write about that head-on.
For right now, here are a couple of excerpts from Solomon’s catalogues for each artist. Johns first:

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Which Flag Story? Which One Do You Know?

Flag, 1954-55, via moma
The creation myth for Jasper Johns’ Flag is well-known, and well-told. Like Leo Castelli’s story of discovering Johns’ groundbreaking oeuvre, fully formed, while he and Rauschenberg were raiding the icebox, and how Johns’ first show in 1958 got on magazine covers, sold out to MoMA, destroyed Abstract Expressionism and ushered in Pop Art. MoMA’s wall text for Flag [which Alfred H. Barr had Philip Johnson purchase from that show] begins:

“One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag,” Johns said, “and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.”

It came in a dream. It’s a protean story, quintessentially American, slightly romantic, and beyond the reach of anyone but [Freudians, Jungians, and] the artist himself. And that’s the key: because unfalsifiable is not the same thing as definitive, or even true.
In the opening of her 1975 dissertation, published in 1985 as Jasper Johns’ Paintings and Sculptures, 1954-1974, Roberta Bernstein takes a researcher’s step back:

When asked about the sources of Flag, 1954-55, Johns answers that he dreamt one night of painting a large American flag and then proceeded to do so. He has said this several times and will offer no other explanation for the appearance of this remarkable painting.

In the footnotes, Bernstein cites Alan R. Solomon’s catalogue for Johns’ 1964 Jewish Museum show, as well as several personal retellings.
But check out this transcript of Solomon interviewing Johns in 1966 for National Educational Television’s USA Artists Series. Then tell me if it doesn’t sound like there could be another story–or several–for the origin of the flags?

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‘Much To See But Not Much Shown’

I took the kid to see Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour the other night. And as I’m reading up on the funding of the Trust that will oversee Merce’s choreography after the company disbands, I found a mention of Robert Rauschenberg’s No. 1, a 1951 black painting which was sold after Merce’s death in 2009. Fascinating and, as I look at Bob’s unusual collaborative combine from a few years later, newly complex.
No. 1 was a gift to John Cage, which sounds simpler than it was. Cage had seen Rauschenberg’s first one-man show at Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951, and had asked for a work. As Christie’s catalogue entry put it, “The price, he said, was unimportant as he couldn’t pay anything. It was in this way and in this form that this painting first entered Cage’s possession.” As Carol Vogel put it in writing about the auction, Rauschenberg didn’t give the painting to Cage until “some years later.” But that can’t be right, as we’ll see below.
What No. 1 looked like at that point, no one is able to recall. Whatever it was, Rauschenberg had actually painted it onto a painting by his wife, Susan Weil. Vogel notes that Weil’s signature, and the date, 1951, are on the back of the painting, as is Rauschenberg’s. [Christie’s catalogue description only mentions the latter.]
This may have been an economic move as much as, if not more than, a collaborative or negating one. At the time, Rauschenberg and Weil were broke, using cheap blueprint paper to make photograms in the bathtub of their basement apartment on the Upper West Side. Here’s his recollection of the situation from his 1976 Smithsonian catalogue:

This period was exciting and prolific even if quality was erratic. We were both doing a minimum of five works a day. Clyfford Still came to the house to select a show with Betty Parsons. I was so naive and excited that by the time of the opening several months later, the selected show had been painted over dozens of times, and was a completely different concept. Betty was surprised.

Surprise became the operative mode for No. 1. After Cage got it, Rauschenberg was staying at Cage’s apartment while his loft was being fumigated for bedbugs, and he surprised/thanked the composer by painting over No. 1 with black enamel and collaging it with black-painted newspaper. According to Michael Kimmelman’s obit for Rauschenberg, “When Cage returned, he was not amused.”
Christie’s says this happened “a year or so later,” but Kimmelman says “As Mr. Rauschenberg liked to tell the story,” it was right after the Parsons show, which closed June 2nd. Rauschenberg and Weil’s son Christopher was born in July. And according to his 1976 chronology, he/they went to Black Mountain College in the “early part of the fall.”
But the Black Paintings, which seem to have followed the White Paintings, are dated as late 1951-1952. [Kimmelman reverses them, but Hopps’s catalogue quotes an October 1951 letter from Bob to Parsons talking about them as faits accomplis. I thought Kenneth Silverman’s John Cage bio Begin Again might help, but it is hopelessly inaccurate about dates for Rauschenberg’s works, and he doesn’t seem that interested in chronologies, either. He jumbles events from several years into single paragraphs, or omits dates altogether. And he doesn’t mention the bedbug thing at all. But anyway. I think the Black Paintings come to a hard stop in 1952. Rauschenberg was back at BMC in the summer when his white paintings were included in Cage’s formative Theater Piece #1 and subsequently contributed to Cage’s composition of 4’33”. Then he left for Europe that fall with Cy Twombly, leaving his soon-to-be-ex-wife and son behind.]
And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the details and reported dates and circumstances of paintings created during this rather complicated time are themselves rather complicated.
A comment the artist made to Calvin Tomkins in 1980 about the Black Paintings seems apt:

“I was interested in getting complexity without their revealing much. In the fact that there was much to see but not much shown.”

But wait, there’s more!

This famous painting was subsequently again modified in 1985, when, it had become in need of some restoration. Rauschenberg chose to paint it completely all over in black again and bestowed upon it an accompanying note referring to the, by this time, historic and continuing dialogue that Cage and Rauschenberg had then enjoyed in both their art and their lives for over thirty years. The note reads: “This is part of the history of this single canvas – I hope the dialogue continues for many more years. I will if John dares, love Bob Rauschenberg.”

While it’s tough for the collector–or the auction house–who wants their 1951 painting to look old, the conception of a canvas as a constant site of activity, dialogue, and collaboration is pretty fascinating.
As Rauschenberg said of Short Circuit in 1967, when he showed it for the first time in over a decade:

This collage is a documentation of a particular event at a particular time and is still being affected. It is a double document.

Double and then some. Short Circuit, of course, included a program from an early Cage concert [which I’m trying to identify, btw] and a painting by Weil, though in 1967-8, the painting was hidden behind a nailed-shut cabinet door. [There was also that Ray Johnson collage, which contains a reproduction of a Renaissance nude.]
Anyway, I would think that with current imaging technologies, it would be possible, if not trivial, to examine Rauschenberg’s No. 1 for traces of the three paintings it used to be. Perhaps such an investigation could be combined with a closer reconstruction of the pivotal period in which it was created. As Rauschenberg himself put it, there is much to see, but not much shown.

Art In Process: Reading Finch College Museum

Now we’re getting somewhere, even if it’s only to the library.
Since the Finch College Museum was originally [and wrongly] fingered as the site of the theft of Johns’ Flag from Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit, I’ve been looking for months to buy a copy of the 1967 exhibition catalogue for Art In Process: The Visual Development of a Collage. Well, not so easy. Increasingly desperate and frustrated with the failings of the Internet Age, I decided check the library. Turns out the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art library, right next door to the Archive of American Art, had a copy. Took like two minutes.
Art In Process was a series of topical, process-oriented, teaching exhibitions organized by Finch College Museum director Elayne Varian. They included sketches, models and studies to show how the artist did what he was doing. From Finch, which was on East 75th Street, the show traveled for 18 months to nine other smaller museums around the country in a tour organized by the American Federation of Arts. [Thanks to the original press release, provided by the AFA, the list of venues is below.]
I’m not the only one who had trouble finding the catalogue, though. Paul Schimmel’s huge Rauschenberg Combines catalogue said the flag painting was stolen while Short Circuit was on exhibit. That’s how he read the entry in Walter Hopps’ 1976 retrospective catalogue, which mentioned Finch and the missing flag together.
But. Check out what Rauschenberg actually said. Well first, check out that photo!
It’s Bob, teasing us with what’s behind Short Circuit Door No. 1. Because there is nothing:

In the third Artist Show at the Stable Gallery, my collage, SHORT CIRCUIT, 1955, was motivated by the protest that there had not been any new artists invited to exhibit. Therefore, I invited four artists: Jasper Johns, Stan Vanderbeek, Sue Weil and Ray Johnson to give me works to be built into my collage. Only two paintings were ready in time to be installed into the major piece. The collage also contains the autograph of Judy Garland, and one of the first programs of a John Cage concert. Because Jasper Johns’ flag for the collage was stolen, Elaine Sturtevant is painting an original flag in the manner of Jasper Johns’ to replace it. This collage is a documentation of a particular event at a particular time and is still being affected. It is a double document.

Give me. Built into. My collage. Only two. Is painting. These are the phrases that jump out at me.
Not only was Art In Process the first acknowledgment of the removal of Johns’ flag, almost two years after it happened, it was the first public exhibition for Short Circuit since Alan Solomon’s group show at Cornell in 1958. After being the subject of some kind of joint, post-breakup negation agreement between Johns and Rauschenberg, where the combine was not exhibited, published, or even, it seems, discussed, Short Circuit went on a cross-country tour, without the flag, and with the doors nailed shut.
I thought I’d be all Errol Morris about it and date the photograph from the other works in the background, but it doesn’t really help: Pilgrim (1960), on the left without its chair; Johanson’s Painting (1961), in the middle, with the tin cans, was in Ileana Sonnabend’s collection; the other combine painting with the N or Z element, I haven’t found yet. [Any ideas? Send’em in!] That watch Bob’s wearing looks like the one in the Avedon photo on the cover of Schimmel’s Combines, which was taken in 1960. But I’ll say Bob’s face looks a few years older, at least five, if not seven.
So this photo was probably not, then, taken before 1965. And Johns’ flag painting is probably not, then, behind that door. And Bob is probably not, then, toying with the terms of the no-repro “solution” he and Johns devised for this double document.
Other things: Sturtevant’s flag sounds like it’s in process. Unless that “Sturtevant is painting an original flag” is the same tense as “I am making an animated musical,” somewhere well short of “she’s delivering it this week,” and closer to “well, we’ve talked about it.” Because though a Sturtevant flag sighting was reported in 1971, There were no photos of Short Circuit for Hopps to publish in 1976, and Rauschenberg talking of painting a flag himself because he “need(s) the therapy.” And when David Shapiro and Hirshhorn curator Cynthia McCabe scouted the combine out in 1985, they had a “very sad experience” looking at the work, in a “state of real disrepair,” with mentions only of the absence of Johns’ flag and none of Sturtevant.
No mention of Ray Johnson’s inclusion. How classic for Johnson’s own collage that it gets subsumed so totally as Rauschenberg’s. It’s as if only the paintings can hold their own against the combine’s powers of assimilation. Resistance is futile. I guess that’s the real question here.
For Johnson, though, it’s probably the giddy answer. He was also included in Art in Process on his own, so don’t sweat for him. If anything, that’s how he wanted it. Here’s writer/artist/curator Sebastian Matthews:

Over the next decade, Johnson made a series of anti-rectangle collages. It wasn’t long before Johnson was mailing out collage fragments “for others to use or send on,” letting go authorship (at least in part) and allowing the work to be formed by increasingly random collaborations. No coincidence, then, that Johnson made this creative leap during his transition from Black Mountain to New York City while hanging out with his BMC buddies.

That’s from Matthews’ proposal/thesis for an awesome-sounding show, BMC to NYC: The Tutelary Years of Ray Johnson, which he organized last fall at Black Mountain College + Arts Center in Asheville, NC. Sounds like Short Circuit was as formative and in harmony with Johnson’s emerging practice as it was problematic for Johns’. That may be too simplistic, but it’s way past time to take a closer look at the rest of Short Circuit, too.
The dimensions: The Finch catalogue lists the dimensions for Short Circuit as 48 x 48 inches, which, since Bob was not seven feet tall in that picture, is obviously wrong.
Another reason for checking the Finch catalogue was to see whether Short Circuit was still owned by Rauschenberg or, if it was still, as Michael Crichton reported, in Leo Castelli’s collection. And it doesn’t say. But the press release might. Artists, like Al Hansen, were listed as lenders for some works in Art In Process, but works were credited to the artists’ dealers. Short Circuit was apparently lent not by Rauschenberg, but by Leo Castelli Gallery. The mounted photocopies of letters to Ray Johnson, Stan Vanderbeck [sic] and Susan Weil, meanwhile, were lent “anonymously.” Wait, the what?

Continue reading “Art In Process: Reading Finch College Museum”

‘Happens To Like Flags!’

So I thought I’d check Jasper Johns’ bibliography to see if there was a review for Alan Solomon’s group exhibition at Cornell, which included Short Circuit.
There was not, but after seeing the first entry for 1958, from Johns’ hometown paper, I really don’t mind:

“Allendale Artist Paints What He Likes-Happens to Like Flags!” Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.), April 6, 1958. Discusses March 31, 1958 issue of Newsweek.