Category:johns, rauschenberg, et al

A couple of things that I still wonder about about Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning Drawing:

What did de Kooning think? The story of making it is always told by Rauschenberg, or from his side. Did de Kooning ever tell the story? Did he ever see the result? Or talk about it? Did anyone ever ask him about it? I've never found any reference at all.

When did Rauschenberg actually make it? The date's all over the map. SFMOMA currently says it's 1953. For a long time, it was dated 1953-55. James Meyer had it as 1951-2, but I don't think I've seen anyone else put it that early. Even the extraordinary timeline in John Elderfield's de Kooning retrospective catalogue has only the basics of Rauschenberg's travel schedule and his account to go on ["Probably April or After," it says, since April 1953 was when Rauschenberg returned from his European trip with Twombly.]

[UPDATENever mind. I got the EdKD dating ambiguity mixed up with Johns' Flag, which has been variously dated between 1954 and '56, whereas the date for EdKD has consistently been given as 1953 from its very earliest forays into the public view. Thanks to Sarah Roberts, research curator at SFMOMA, who took a moment from her multiyear project documenting Rauschenberg's work, to point out my error.]

What did people at the time think? Who actually ever saw it? Even someone as early to the work as Leo Steinberg apparently only talked to Bob about it on the phone.

And what about Johns? Who knew about his involvement? What is up with that? For forty-plus years, while Rauschenberg claimed or let others write or publish that he came up with the title, and drew the hand-lettered label, Johns stayed silent about his role in the collaboration. But others surely knew, certainly in the early years when the work was taking shape.

Just before the holidays, I got in touch with Edward Meneeley, and artist and photographer who became friends with many artists and dealers in 1950s and 60s New York because he photographed their artwork. Meneeley created Portable Gallery, a subscription slide service that provided regular installments of art images to libraries, colleges, galleries, and collectors.

I found him because it was his monthly newsletter, Portable Gallery Bulletin, to which Jasper Johns wrote in 1962, explaining that it was artist's prerogative, plus an agreement between himself and Rauschenberg, not "politics," behind the refusal to let Portable Gallery publish and distribute slides of Short Circuit.

In a multi-chapter biography published online by Joel Finsel, Meneleey says that he was friends with both Johns and Rauschenberg in the late 1950s, and that he had an affair with the latter behind the former's back. [He tells Finsel of Johns coming to his loft one morning looking for Rauschenberg, and inviting him in to talk about it, all the while Bob is hiding in Meneeley's bedroom, eavesdropping on the conversation. Which sounds like a dick move to me, but there you go.]

Anyway, after talking to Meneeley for a while about Short Circuit--which he first saw in 1955, when it was first exhibited at the Stable Gallery--I asked him what people thought or said at the time about Erased de Kooning Drawing.

"Everyone at the Cedar Bar knew," he told me, but they thought it was just a stunt, a joke. After finishing it, Rauschenberg didn't do much with it or, as Meneeley put it, "he didn't know what to do with it." Until Jasper came along.

[Remember, Bob apparently acquired the original de Kooning sketch of a woman sometime after April 1953. He met and quickly became involved with Johns in the winter of 1954.]

In Meneeley's recollection of the time, it was Jasper who basically saved Erased de Kooning Drawing from ending up as a barroom one-liner. He mounted it, gave it a title and a label, or really, a drawing of a label. "Bob made it," Meneeley told me, "But Jasper made it art."

Which is why I'm interested in hearing what people thought at the time it was made.

Fear not, I have not given up the search for the missing Jasper Johns Flag painting. The one which was in Robert Rauschenberg's 1955 combine, Short Circuit, a combine which was originally shown with the title, Construction with J.J. Flag. The combine which was the subject of an unusual agreement between the two artists after their bitter 1962 breakup, that it would never be exhibited, reproduced or sold. Which technically did not happen, since the flag painting was taken out in 1965, and Rauschenberg put the piece, with the title, Short Circuit, on a national tour in 1967 as part of a collage group show organized by the Finch College Museum.

Which, point is, in looking for the flag, I keep finding more things I had never heard about Rauschenberg's and Johns' time together, a point at which they each were making hugely important, innovative work. And frequently, it seems, they were working on it together. His, mine, and ours.

For a few months now, I've been thinking about a letter Johns wrote to Leo Castelli, which I'd come across at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. I've been kind of slow to mention it, partly because it just feels a little weird, like going through someone else's mail. Which I guess it exactly what an archive is, but still. Also, I've been wary of reading too much into a single letter, or of over-interpreting a single statement.

But then I'm constantly struck by how frequently a particular phrase uttered in a single interview can get echoed across the writing about an artist, as if that one statement from decades earlier is somehow not just a snippet of a conversation, but a key to deep meaning. So this overdetermining tendency is not mine alone, and whatever, take it for what it's worth.

In the spring and summer of 1964, while Johns traveled to Japan, he scouted out Kusuo Shimizu's Minami Gallery for a future Rauschenberg exhibition sometime after the fall. Johns had some pretty specific suggestions about what kind of Rauschenbergs would work in the small, tight space:

I should think that smaller works as different as possible from one another would be good. Or if Bob is going to use repeated repeat images in all the paintings, one work the size of a wall + several much smaller things. If Bob were willing, I think a good effect could be made by having one large painting + several smaller ones which used the same silk screen images but reduced in size. That is, two screens should be made of each image - one large + one small. The opposite would also work - a large painting with smaller images + smaller ptgs. with larger images.
It's not that Johns is prescriptive, designing his ex-partner's paintings at a distance. His language is very careful to couch the decisions as Rauschenberg's to make. But Johns also has a marked fluency in Rauschenberg's composition and process, and he seems comfortable discussing it, at least with their mutual friend and dealer.

Johns could discuss Rauschenberg's silkscreening techniques in detail in 1964, even though Rauschenberg only began using silkscreens in 1962, the year the two finally broke up. [Crocus, done in the late summer/early fall of '62, is one of the first/earliest silkscreen paintings.]

In any case, one more datapoint. As it turns out, Rauschenberg's show at Minami never ended up happening. Fresh off his hyped and controversial grand prize win at the Venice Biennale, but while he was still also working as the stage manager for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's world tour, Rauschenberg visited Minami Gallery in the fall of 1964.

According to Hiroko Ikegami, Rauschenberg walked in, saw an exhibition of Sam Francis, ["who was still respected and popular" in Japan], and walked right out. Shimizu was offended, and canceled Rauschenberg's show. Maybe before Rauschenberg canceled it himself, who knows? The Merce tour was a personal disaster for Rauschenberg, and a rift developed between him and Cage and Cunningham which took several years to heal.

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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.

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And on C-Monster, Carolina cropped this time-shifted collage she found on Google Maps into a very flaggish shape.

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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

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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.

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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?

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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.]

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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 1: 'FRAME IS PART OF DRAWING'
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.

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.

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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.

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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 40x60 vs 42x60, 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.

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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.

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.

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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]

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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.
johns_gray_map_orgy.jpg
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.

manet-execution-maximilian-NG3294.jpg
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_johns_artic.jpg
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.

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Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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Category: johns, rauschenberg, et al

recent projects, &c.


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Social Medium:
artists writing, 2000-2015
Paper Monument, Oct. 2016
ed. by Jennifer Liese
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Madoff Provenance Project in
'Tell Me What I Mean' at
To__Bridges__, The Bronx
11 Sept - Oct 23 2016
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Chop Shop
at SPRING/BREAK Art Show
curated by Magda Sawon
1-7 March 2016

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eBay Test Listings
Armory – ABMB 2015
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It Narratives, incl.
Shanzhai Gursky & Destroyed Richter
Franklin Street Works, Stamford
Sept 5 - Nov 9, 2014
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TheRealHennessy Tweets Paintings, 2014 -
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Standard Operating Procedure
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CZRPYR2: The Illustrated Appendix
Canal Zone Richard Prince
YES RASTA 2:The Appeals Court
Decision, plus the Court's
Complete Illustrated Appendix (2013)
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"Exhibition Space" @ apexart, NYC
Mar 20 - May 8, 2013
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HELP/LESS Curated by Chris Habib
Printed Matter, NYC
Summer 2012
panel &c.


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Destroyed Richter Paintings, 2012-
background | making of
"Richteriana," Postmasters Gallery, NYC

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Canal Zone Richard
Prince YES RASTA:
Selected Court Documents
from Cariou v. Prince (2011)
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