May 2012 Archives


There is a review of Richteriana in this week's DER SPIEGEL [22/2012]. Google doesn't do tone, so who really knows, but it sounds alright. There's not a link or an English version of the Spiegel review yet, but I"ll add them as they appear.

It's written by Ulrike Knoefel, the art critic whose article about "the separate and secret museum" of destroyed Gerhard Richter paintings provided the impetus [and imagery] for my paintings.

I like that she noted,

Der Hinweis darauf, dass die nicht mehr vorhandenen Richter-Gemälde heute viele Millionen wert wären, brachte Allen dazu aus seinem Werk über Richter auch ein Werk über den Kunstmarkt zu machen.
And of course, then there's the part about how, "Letzlich hat er ebenfalls große Konzeptkunst geschaffen."


If I want my Konzeptkunst to be really große, I may have to go all in, and decide to destroy whichever of the Destroyed Richter Paintings the market doesn't take. While supplies last.


Here is Mitt Romney deplaning in Las Vegas, where he met with Gingrich's bank, and where reality [sic] TV personality Donald Trump is hosting a fundraiser for him.

Suffice it to say, Romney is either actually courting the Trump Birther Faction, or his campaign has yet to master the stagecrafting subtleties of Sforzian backdrops. Either way, it's win-win for the wire service photographers. [AP via tpm]

Andy's tweet about it reminds me how awesome the show of Brancusi photographs is at Bruce Silverstein. Just remarkable stuff, and great, old prints. The show's been around a while, and some of the highlights were in MoMA's show on sculpture and photography a couple of years ago. But still. It is a beautiful show.


And yes, maybe it's a bit corny, and maybe photographers roll their eyes at it, but I like the photos where Brancusi includes himself in the composition. The most obvious examples are when he's shooting a polished bronze sculpture, and he and his camera--and occasionally his flash--are all reflected and distorted in the work itself.

At least two examples are in the Silverstein show: Fish, above, and Bird. Brancusi's attention to composition and lighting, and to the depiction of his sculptures in three dimensional space--his studio--leads me to see these photos as intentional self-portraits, not inadvertent or unavoidable flaws. They expand the sculpture's space to include the camera and what/who's behind it, not just what's in front of it.


I can't remember or tell if Brancusi and his appareil are also visible in Prometheus, but it seems like there's at least one more example, where the artist includes a leg of the tripod in the shot. I may have to see the show again to check.

Brancusi Photos is up through June 23 at Bruce Silverstein Gallery []

Roy Lichtenstein, Composition, 1969, image via

With the confluence this week of an incredible-sounding retrospective in Chicago and a bonkers-sounding sale at Sotheby's, I was reminded of one of the weirder things I stumbled across during a dive into Leo Castelli's papers at the Archives of American Art: the bathtub Roy Lichtenstein was commissioned to make for the St. Moritz penthouse of awesome playboy industrialist collector photographer wackjob Gunter Sachs.

According to a letter Sachs sent to Lichtenstein from Paris on October 3rd, 1968, the two had met in Southampton that summer, and they'd already discussed commissioning some paintings for the soon-to-be-legendary Pop Art penthouse Sachs was constructing in the tower of the Palace Hotel. While Avedon and Warhol were creating portraits of Sachs' 2nd wife, the then still-smokin' hot Brigitte Bardot, Lichtenstein was given the bathroom.

Specifically, Sachs wanted him to make some enamel painted panels to go around the tub and sink in the master bath. And he had put together some ideas:

If you permit I would propose that the painting on the large side of the bathing-tub (60x200 cm) should show a girl's face, perhaps with tears in her eyes, looking at a lake with a swan - a kind of modern Leda. On the little side of the bath (60 x 110 cm) I could very well imagine, e.g., a sunset or a moonset over a calm lake. The painting under the lavatory (60 x 200 cm) could figure a landscape in a thunder-shower. In all these paintings, however, it is very important that you respect accurately the dimensions indicated below in centimeters and inches.
OK, then! Anything else?

Crying Girl, 1964, enamel on steel, via milwaukee art museum

At first I was kind of blown away by Sachs' audacity to dictate the contents of the images, but then I figured that these were all close enough to subjects Lichtenstein was already doing at the time that it might not be so WTF-ish. [One of the artist's first attempts at enamel-on-steel production was Crying Girl, a painting produced in a multiple of 5, in 1964.]

Oh, and also, there was this: "As I am obliged to finish the apartment before Christmas, it is very important that I get your paintings till November 2nd, 1968." And he'd run the deal through Ileana Sonnabend in Paris.

Apparently Castelli, Lichtenstein, and their lawyer all jumped to work, because a contract went back to Paris within the week agreeing to sell one set of drawings and authorizing Sachs to fabricate one single set of enamel panels at his own expense, with payment due in full upon receipt of the drawings.

And then they hustled the drawings to Sachs' Paris secretary, even though the contract hadn't come back. And Sachs wasn't replying to anything at all, and then in December there's this increasingly testy series of letters demanding payment and signed contracts, which have not been forthcoming, even though the drawings were hurriedly finished and delivered.

"I must tell you that Roy is personally offended by your failure to act," wrote Lichtenstein's lawyer Jerald Ordover. A lawsuit was threatened, even though both Leo and Roy found it "most distasteful."

Leda and the Swan, 1969, enamel, 61x311cm, image:

It's not clear how, but things must have worked out, because the works exist. And they turned out pretty much just as Sachs ordered them. Leda and the Swan [above] is two steel panels that could fit around a tub. And the sink piece, Composition [top], was actually in the Sotheby's sale Sachs' family held this week, a year after Gunter took his own life rather than succumb to what's believed to have been Alzheimer's. [It sold for 541,000 GBP.]

UPDATE: Oh, this is interesting. Here's part of the Sotheby's catalogue description for Composition:

Lichtenstein, alongside Warhol, sought a pictorial vocabulary embedded in modes of mechanical reproduction. However, unlike Warhol, who pioneered the silkscreen process to transfer his images to canvas, Lichtenstein set out by magnifying and transferring his sketches by hand in a painstaking process that insistently removed all the expressionistic detail of brushwork, further divesting the image of naturalistic representation. Composition, based on Collage for Leda and the Swan, 1968, is a consummate example of Lichtenstein's Modern Paintings series and of this technique of reproduction.


As Lichtenstein played down the idiosyncrasy of the artist's hand in favour of uninflected surfaces that replicate the look of the machine-made, we are compelled to venerate the movement and melody within this picture's unique composition. [emphasis added on the parts that are not applicable to this artwork.]

Ah, no. These panels were authorized by Lichtenstein, but fabricated by Sachs. Here's Gunter: "For the technical execution of your design in enamel I found an excellent German manfuacturer who will be able to transform your painting in a congenial work of Modern Art."

And here's the artist's attorney, Jerald Ordover, writing:

to set forth [Lichtenstein's] understanding of the terms of your commission to him to create the designs, in the form of working drawings, for the fabrication of three (3) enamel plaques...

...You are to have the plaques made from the drawings at your sole expense.

Which, yes, having them fabricated sight unseen in a German factory from drawings is certainly a process for insistently removing the expressionistic detail of the brushwork that plays down the idiosyncrasy of the artist's hand. And almost as interesting as the painstaking process by which the auctioneer insistently claims the artist's hand as a selling point, especially on work where the reason it looks invisible is because it was explicitly absent.

Nov 10, 2011, Lot 225: Collage [sic] for Leda and the Swan, image: sothebys

And the market seems to notice. Last fall Sotheby's actually sold Collage for Leda and the Swan, a full-scale work on paper for the short end of the tub [60x110cm]. Sachs had apparently gotten rid of it early, because its provenance shows it floated through several dealers' hands before settling down in 1989. Though called a collage, it looks to me like a straight-up drawing, overflowing with artist's hand. Which drew pencil lines, then traced them with marker and filled in the rest with acrylic. And it's signed. So it sold for $446,000.

Lot 14: Allen Jones, Chair, ed. 6, est. 30-40,000 GBP, sold for 836,450 GBP [!!]

And though I haven't been able to find installation shots wacked out bondage furniture artist Allen Jones tells Sotheby's that he saw them in situ:

Gunther Sachs invited my wife and me to stay in his penthouse at the Palace Hotel, St Moritz, soon after he had acquired my sculptures. It was the most ritzy place I had ever been in. One wall of the apartment seemed to be entirely glass, with a breathtaking view of the Alps. There were Lichtenstein panels round the bathroom, a flock of Lalanne sheep on the carpet and the set of my sculptures. Giovanni Agnelli was at the party and wanted to stay in the penthouse, but Gunther had said that the Joneses were there. Agnelli, thinking that he meant my sculptures, said "don't worry, I won't touch them!" Prominent in the apartment was a large, bullet-proof glass panel with one side splintered in several places. Gunther used to stand behind the glass and invite close friends to shoot him. Their names were inscribed on a plaque next to the glass.
Hahwwhawaitwhaa? Are you kidding me? Where is this bulletproof glass panel and plaque now? Because THAT is what I want to buy.


UPDATE UPDATE: OK, maybe my problem is I gave up searching for photos before the Sachs auction. Because in a preview article for the sale, British Vogue ran a 1991 photo by Sachs, of a Leda and a swan in the tub. I didn't realize the Lichtenstein panels went around the base of the tub; I thought they were backsplash-type deals. But with those views, well.

Also, Vogue gushes about "Roy Lichtenstein kitchen-unit fascias and bath panels," which what? I guess the delay in payment wasn't a fatal blow to their friendship, or maybe Sachs commissioned a kitchen from the artist as a make-up. Or maybe a bar, because who needs a kitchen, it's the Palace Hotel, and this bar in the S&M living room looks very Deco-era Roy to me.


And finally, Vogue doesn't mention a plaque, but does say that guests who shot at Sachs would autograph their bullet hole. And if these aren't bullet holes made by the glitterati of Cold War Europe, then why are they in Sotheby's promo video?


Usuyuki, 1981

Alright, Katy Martin, who made two incredible Jasper Johns films in the late 1970s when you were practically a kid. Uh, actually, yeah, that's about it. Just watch them.

Harvard's Sackler Museum just opened a show yesterday, "Jasper Johns/ In Print: The Crosshatch Works and The Logic Of Print," which features several complex, multi-screen prints Johns made in 1977-80 at Simca Print Artists in New York. Martin's Super 8mm films documenting the making of are included in the exhibition.

Silkscreens (1978) is a hypnotic performance film showing the printers' rhythmic routines as they create the 27-screen print, The Dutch Wives (1978).

On her website, Martin mentions folks like Yvonne Rainer, which makes sense, but Silkscreens also makes me think of the 1974 film Humain, Trop Humain, if Louis Malle had shot it in an cramped printing studio instead of a Citroen factory. Great stuff, and with a great, remixed, found/ambient soundtrack by Richard Teitelbaum, which, according to folks who know, like John Pyper, would drive actual printers crazy.

The other, longer film, Hanafuda/Jasper Johns (1977-81), combines footage of Johns himself working on two print editions, Usuyuki and Cicada, with audio excerpts of his interview with Martin. Johns kept complicating my notion of silkscreening as a very photomechanical process by repeatedly and extensively painting right onto the screen.

Whether it's calculated or sincere, Martin's unassuming questions seem very effective at getting Johns to talk. And after getting so much out of him, my favorite question is the last one, which is only in the published transcript, and which he tries, too late, not to answer:

KM: And then I wanted to talk something about meaning but

JJ: About what?

KM: Meaning. In the work. But I wasn't sure how far to go with that. But I can't help thinking about meaning to some degree.

JJ: Well, you mean meaning of images? I don't like to get involved in that because I--any more than I've done--I tend to like to leave that free.... The problem with ideas ís, the idea is often simply a way to focus your interest in making a work. The work isn't necessarily, I think-a function of the work is not to express the idea.... The idea focuses your attention in a certain way that helps you to do the work.

I find the maxim of not reading reviews of one's work to be much easier to live by when there are no reviews.

Because at least two takes on Richteriana have already been published, and I like the concept. It's reassuring but also a but unsettling. And then a little invigorating, to encounter other peoples' takes on your ideas.

In the Village Voice, James Hannaham called the Destroyed Richter Paintings "outlandish," which I took to be a good sign, even though I wouldn't--you know what, no, let's just let it hang out there:

While partially homage, this work invades the great man's privacy on at least two levels: first, by showing us images he apparently didn't want anyone to see, and second, by co-opting and outsourcing his technique.
While I don't think that's literally true, the invasion of privacy part, I do think Hannaham is right to find an uneasiness in the images, not just whether they should exist, but whether they do or don't, and if so, how?

And also Jane Hu did a lot of context work on Richter, his art, his history, his control issues, and the larger Richter and Art Industrial Complexes themselves:

[T]he artist has destroyed or painted over many past works, in order, presumably, to maintain a narrative about his artistic trajectory that satisfies his present sense as a painter. Richter knows as well as anyone that art history traffics in selling a story, as much as it does in telling an image. While the first half of his career produced paintings that tried to approximate photographic realism, he later increasingly turned to abstraction. And in doing so, no matter what other aesthetic reasons he may have had, Richter not only has revised his own biography, but those of his paintings as well.
Her discussion of David Diao's work Synecdoche, is particularly sharp. On its own, David's painting is amazing, but his wresting control of a vintage Benjamin Buchloh Artforum exhibition catalogue [whoops, 2nd time I've made that mistake. -ed] essay is a blunt and powerful and unsettling gesture.

The more I look at Synecdoche, the more it feels like the most important argument in the show.


Well that's mighty interesting. The National Exemplar has an exhibition of Richard Artschwager, which includes this 1965 piece, described as a "three-dimensional 'chair picture.'" It's roughly chair-size, and with materials of acrylic and paper and wood, I'm going to say it's photographic.

What does seem clear, though, is that it was actually [re?]fabricated in 2000 as an edition of 6. And that Artschwager showed this OG Chair along with several related, newer works, at his first show at Gagosian in 2002. Oh hey, and one sold at Bonhams last February for £30,000. [first found via abelow's artblog artblog]

May 20, 2012

At A Loss To Explain


The first thing that was blowing my mind about Short Circuit was not just, how could there have be a Johns Flag before the first [sic] Johns Flag, but how could there be a missing Johns Flag? I mean, seriously, wouldn't that be rank just below the Gardner Vermeer in terms of stolen art? How could it be missing and the entire art world not have its eye out for it?

In fact, it's just the opposite situation, where, when they're not ignored completely, the stories of Short Circuit and its flag painting are misunderstood, misrepresented, and relegated to footnotes. It just didn't make any sense.

But it also seemed that as long as Short Circuit was ensconced in Rauschenberg's own collection, and Sturtevant's replacement flag was in place, no one had ever undertaken an actual search for it, or an investigation into what had happened.

And given the nature and history of the relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg, and the extraordinary custody agreement they reached, which Johns wrote about in 1962, to never show, reproduce, or sell Short Circuit, it's always been an open question to me whether the flag was actually ever "stolen," or whether it was just missing. Or removed. Or disappeared [in either the transitive or intransitive sense of the word.]

The question I ended my first Short Circuit post with 18 months ago, which should have been the easiest question to answer, turned out to be one of the most complicated: Was the Short Circuit flag ever registered as stolen?

The first and shortest answer was no.

Thumbnail image for richter_destroyed_bikini_ptg.jpg
Photograph of a painting destroyed by Gerhard Richter, Gerhard Richter Archiv via Spiegel

Since I first started looking into them, I've wanted to know why Gerhard Richter destroyed some of his paintings. Because, of course, some of them weren't "destroyed" destroyed, but just painted over, with their previous state being technically defined as a momentary completion, not a work in process. There are only a few like that in the Catalogue Raisonné, though; most of the works listed as "Destroyed" are presumably actually destroyed.

But at least they all got Catalogue Raisonné numbers. Ulrike Knöfel wrote about a different category of destroyed Richters, largely undiscussed and unseen, which were destroyed before the artist began his catalogue raisonné, and which thus, with maybe one exception, don't have a CR number, and are thus excluded from Richter's declared oeuvre. Even if they were authentically created by Richter, and shown in exhibitions, and offered for sale.

As Dietmar Elger points out in his biography of Richter, A Life In Painting, Richter actually conceives of the Catalogue Raisonné as a work of art in itself, one which, like Atlas, is still in process.

I recently met with Dr. Elger during a trip to New York, and we spoke about these dynamics of creation, destruction, recognition, and archiving as they play out in Richter's practice. Elger runs the Gerhard Richter Archiv at the Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden, and maintains the Catalogue Raisonné, so he has a seat at the table for much of this history. After a brief fanboy prelude, in which he signed my book [and my copy of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres catalogue raisonne which he was also involved in], we got to talking. [We met for information, not as an actual interview, so I didn't take notes or record our conversation, and I won't directly attribute quotes, but just try to capture my recollections.]


Ooh, that is interesting. By covering themselves in paint, members of Occupy Frankfurt effectively inverted the crowd control technique where police use dye cannons to disperse protesters--and to tag them for easier identification and roundup later. Nice to see that painting's only detained, not dead. I wonder if this kind of painting project happens every May?

Police spraying protesters in Kampala, Uganda, May 10, 2011 [image james akena/reuters via]

Occupy Frankfurt protestor and German riot police photographed by Kai Pfaffenbach for Reuters [via boingboing]
Previously: May 16th: Police Action Painting

While everyone else is cavorting on Tom Sachs Mars, I'm home, watching this rather entertainingly deadpan documentary short about the approved color palette in Sachs' studio. I imagine it to be a highlight of the new assistant orientation seminar.

COLOR. By Tom Sachs [and film by Van Neistat [youtube]

While trying not to steal his thunder, let me just post the awesomely vivid ending to LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne's review of Williams + Tsien's unavoidably flawed Philadelphia museum building now housing the art-centered educational institution known as The Barnes Foundation:

Imagine if the Barnes trustees, in the name of improved access to a supremely great but historically cloistered collection, had declared they were going to produce replicas of its paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and Van Gogh and hang those in a new building on the parkway.

The howls of protest would have been loud and immediate. The idea wouldn't have lasted five minutes.

And yet the notion persists that re-creating buildings is somehow more reasonable or at least less obvious and that new rooms can be made to impersonate old ones without much aesthetic risk. That copies of paintings belong in gift shops and on refrigerators, where their fakeness is self-evident and salable, while copies of buildings can go blithely along pretending to be real. That architecture somehow is different.

Memo from Philadelphia: It's not. [Emphasis added for awesomeness.]

I got a million and 99 problems with The Barnes Foundation, but copying ain't one. Barnes's spaces and installations are geared entirely around the pedagogical system of close looking and cross-referencing which he oversaw. Which makes for a suboptimal museum because it was supposed to be a non-museum by design.

Meanwhile, I love that this fakeness all happens next door to the Rodin Museum, which is full of copies, thereby blithely refuting Hawthorne's analogy without making it any less valid.

Architecture review: A poor replica of Barnes Foundation museum [latimes]

Destroyed Richter Painting #03

First off, a huge thanks to everyone who came to the opening of Richteriana Saturday, and a high five to Magda, Postmasters and the artists in the show. It really does look great, and interesting, and provocative. If you can, you should definitely see it in person.

Destroyed Richter Painting #04

Which is actually one reason I debated not posting images of the Destroyed Richter Paintings paintings I put into the show. One of the real drivers of making the paintings was to approximate the experience of standing in front of paintings that could now only be seen through photos. Or transparencies. Or JPGs. And to measure what the difference is between these different modes of mediated perception.

Destroyed Richter Painting #02

I did not have access to the actual dimensions of Richter's original works, but I worked hard to deduce the size as well as to approximate the image, so as to make the feeling of seeing a picture in person as authentic [sic] as possible, even while acknowledging that Richter made such an experience impossible.

Destroyed Richter Painting #05

But looking at jpgs of paintings [of jpgs of paintings of photos] obviously falls short of this idealized encounter. As so much of our art encounter/consumption does. It's a distinction that most people miss or gloss over, but which is not lost on Tyler Green, who recently addressed the subject of critics reviewing shows they haven't seen by tweeting, "I never 'work' off JPEG."

Richter actually showed most or all of the paintings depicted here between 1964-67, so in a way, there's an aspect of going back in time, to encounter Richter and his work at the beginning of his Western career. A time when the context of the work wasn't hype and adulation and skyrocketing prices, but bafflement, resistance, and indignation. There are early photo paintings that survive only because someone bought them or kept them; so these works, which were once good enough to be exhibited or put on sale, were rejected by the market before they were ultimately rejected by the artist himself.

Destroyed Richter Painting #01

The one exception/mystery is Grau. This is one of the 70+ paintings that did make it into the catalogue raisonne, but which are now listed as destroyed. And if there's a surviving image of the three destroyed grey monochromes [CR395-1-3], I couldn't find it. So all that's known publicly is the dimensions, and the unusual support [wood panel]. But that's part of the beauty of the grey paintings, I thought, that you could think you could credibly extrapolate an actual painting from such minimal information. And seeing it in person really makes me miss Richter's version--and to wonder what happened to it.

Richter's studio, 1965, as seen in Elger's A Life In Painting. Note the lady in the bikini on the left, which

Jasper Johns is well known for destroying his early work, thereby managing and reordering the story of his art by altering its history. But he is by no means alone. Gerhard Richter does it, too. And by turning his image archive and even the list of his paintings into works of art in their own right, Richter might have Johns beat.

Here is an excerpt from Dietmar Elger's 2009 Richter bio/history, A Life In Painting, which I hadn't noticed until recently:

In fact, Richter destroyed most of his early [i.e., pre-1962, as well as early photo paintings] works. They are known now only through reproductions in his well-organized archive. There was never, however, a radical break of the sort suggested by his self-organized catalogue raisonne (Werkverzeichnis, or "work list," as he terms it). This catalog is one of Richter's ongoing projects--a work in itself--and has long been a subject of controversy. Catalogues raisonnes are ordinarily assembled by scholars, who strive to document every authentic work by a given artist, and are organized chronologically. For Richter, the point is less to establish authenticity than to establish a trajectory within the artwork that he deems acceptable. His catalog does not include all of his work, nor is it consistently chronological. The artist has always excluded his earliest work; while some critics would like to believe that it documents the first paintings that incorporate media images as source material, this is simply not the case. [pp. 44-5.]
Tisch/ Table, CR-1, 1962, via

Count me as one of those critics, or viewers. I knew he'd painted works before then, but I had no idea, for example, that Tisch, which is listed in Richter's definitive-seeming numbering scheme as CR-1, was actually painted after several other paintings in his catalogue raisonne. It's No. 1 because looking back from the late 1960s, Richter had figured it was a good place to start.


Will you look at that, another one of Irving Blum's Pasadena-style Brillo Boxes is coming up for auction in the morning at Christie's, with an estimate of $400-600,000. [The last Blum Pasadena Brillo box I wrote about sold for $782,000 in 2010.]

These Blum boxes are always/both listed as "acquired from the artist," but they are actually part of an extra batch of at least 16 boxes which artist/curator/editor John Coplans had made as extras for the 100 boxes Warhol authorized for Coplans' 1970 retrospective at the Pasadena Museum. The actual 100 were donated to the museum, but the overages were dispersed among Warhol's friends, curators, dealers, and collectors in Los Angeles.

Oddly, the pair Coplans got from Warhol, which he donated to Oberlin College, are classified as "reserve boxes" for the exhibition; their somehow lesser status means they have never been published or exhibited outside the college.

Meanwhile, other of the 16+ which go through dealer or collectors' hands are classified as regular, ol' cash-n-carry Brillo Boxes.

Still no word on the whereabouts of the 10 to 33 Kellogg's Corn Flakes boxes that went missing from LACMA, from the 100 Warhol authorized and donated to that museum at the same time.

Flag, 1954-55, collection and image: MoMA

When, after a couple of weeks of poking around, I didn't stumble, Banacek-style, onto the Jasper Johns Flag painting from Short Circuit, and then flip it for my 5%, reunite it with Rauschenberg's combine, and get on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section again [ahem], I did kind of wonder what the end game of this search might be.

At some point might the result just be an acknowledgement that the flag is lost, fate unknown? And if so, does it just remain an entertaining art mystery, but a footnote to the "real," relevant history of Johns' and Rauschenberg's work and all that flowed from it?

Fortunately, I don't think that's what happens here. No matter if it never resurfaces, the Short Circuit flag deserves a place in art history as the first Flag Johns showed, by almost three years. It is also almost certainly the first Flag Johns made. Which is tricky, because that distinction is commonly given to THE Flag, at MoMA. But I think I have figured out that that is chronologically impossible. Johns may have started MoMA's Flag before Short Circuit's, but he certainly didn't finish it first.

Here's the deal:

The date for MoMA's Flag has always been in flux, but it has almost always been considered or assumed to be the first one he ever made. The disappearance from public view of the Short Circuit flag after 1962 greatly facilitated this conclusion.

Oh, now that's interesting. I can't find an actual print copy of the Portable Gallery Bulletin anywhere, but Joel Finsel has scans of a couple of pages in Swimming Naked At The Y, his biography/oral history blog about Edward Meneeley.

image composited from scans at Joel Finsel's Swimming Naked at the Y

One example: the Jasper Johns page from what they called "The World's First Pop Art Newspaper," but which is actually titled "The World's First Color Slide Catalogue of Pop Art." Given the Beatles reference, I gather it was published in early 1963, a full five years after Johns' groundbreaking solo show at Castelli, but before his Jewish Museum show. And after his bitter breakup with Rauschenberg, and after he'd written PGB a letter describing his and Bob's agreement to not show, sell, or publish images of Short Circuit:

Dear Sir,
I've always supposed that artists were allowed to paint however-whatever they pleased and to do whatever they please with their work--to or not to give, sell, lend, allow reproduction, rework, destroy, repair, or exhibit it...
That quote has stuck with me like glue ever since I read it, all through Cariou v. Prince, and right on through to Gerhard Richter's destroyed paintings. But more on all that later.

PGB's text is a little over-the-top, I'm afraid, not terribly meaty critically, but then, it was really designed to sell a box of color slides for $15. This was the collection from which Short Circuit was excluded. Or maybe it was the slides of Bob's work, who knows? Anyway, it didn't happen.

Point is, check out the works that were included:


Thermometer (1959), Reconstruction (1960), Tennyson (1958), Painting with Ruler & Gray (1960), [below] and going all the way back to Target (1955), are labeled as "combine paintings."

Painting with Ruler and Gray, 1960

But combine paintings are what Rauschenberg made. It reminds me of something in Calvin Tomkins' 2005 New Yorker profile of Rauschenberg:

Johns recently told Joachim Pissarro, a curator at MoMA, that he thought the term "combine" had been his suggestion. Pissarro asked him what he thought it meant, and Johns said, "It's painting playing the game of sculpture."

Rauschenberg doesn't recall that the word "combine" came from Johns.

I'm sure.

There's more that article, including Rauschenberg telling Tomkins that "the most important thing" he got from Johns was not the combine or, say, the title, crucial Wittgensteinian graphic element, and entire conceptual construct of Erased de Kooning Drawing, but "Courage. Persisting upstream."

But that's not the point, at least right now. It's just that an early stage in Johns' career, someone who knew him and Rauschenberg well was writing about his work using a term that is--or became--associated exclusively with the work of his former partner.

Tennyson, "encaustic and collage on canvas," and Bed, "Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports" [image, right: moma]

I've often thought that a lot of Johns's 50s and 60s works looked and felt like combines, but I've never seen the term applied. To take only a recent example, combines are only mentioned twice in the catalogue for the amazing 2007 show Jasper Johns Gray, both times by the Art Institute's James Rondeau and both only in reference to Rauschenberg's work. One was a "tender" and "unsupported" interpretation of the two-panel Tennyson as a double bed, "Johns's own, wildly restrained response to Rauschenberg's Bed, a landmark combine painting made two years earlier."

Bed is, famously, paint on an actual pillow, sheet and quilt, making references to both AbEx and Albers-style geometric abstraction. Tennyson, meanwhile, is two Bed-size canvases pushed together, with pillow-like shapes on top [Rondeau shows how these pillows are given volume and shape in Tennyson drawings] and another, separate canvas laid face down across them like a blanket. And all covered with gestural abstract brushstrokes.

These works don't have to be exactly the same, with handwritten footnotes on the back, to be seen as relating to each other, do they? Artworks made next to or around each other during the artists' most important, intense, insular, and productive relationship? How is it possible, or more precisely, why is it the case, that no one in 50 years has considered Johns' work as "combine paintings"? What would be different if we did?

Thumbnail image for rausch_johns_short_circuit.jpg

Well this is interesting. I don't know how I missed this before now, but Albert Vanderburg was the associate editor of Portable Gallery Bulletin whose 1962 article discussing the impact of Rauschenberg's inclusion of Johns' flag painting in Short Circuit prompted Johns to write in. According to Vandenburg's own recollection, that's not all it prompted:

We had behind-the-scenes access to many museums and galleries and came to know many artists we might otherwise never have met. It was often necessary to move paintings in order to properly light and photograph them and it was a touching experience sometimes to see the backs of famous canvases. Ed had the habit of photographing any interesting work he spotted in back rooms even though I sometimes grumbled over the shambles it made on the production end. The negatives were printed in reels the size of a motion picture, then cut frame-by-frame and mounted in cardboard holders, so a beautiful Picasso sandwiched in between Roy Lichtenstein and George Segal exhibitions didn't make for efficient processing, not to mention packaging and promotion which meant all those interesting individual items had to eventually be found a spot in the catalogue with suitable companions since we had long since given up selling individual slides.

One of those backroom items created another of my stormier sword-crossings with the Powers That Be. Before Jasper Johns appeared publicly on the scene, Robert Rauschenberg had created one of his "combine" sculptures which included a small all-white example of the American flag series which later helped make Johns a major star. Ed had managed to catch it before the work was withdrawn from public view. Not fully aware of the undercurrents, I wrote an article about the political influences in the New York art world and used that work as an example of ways more established artists lend a hand to up-and-coming ones. I had meant it admiringly but it was taken just the opposite, complicated by the fact that the special relationship between Rauschenberg and Johns had ended and had not yet emerged from a sour phase and perhaps even more so by the fact that the small Johns painting had itself become more valuable than the work as a whole. Their dealer, Leo Castelli, read my article, telephoned and told me I was a "beetch" and forbid us to sell the slide of the work. So when I designed the catalogue called "The World's First Pop Art Newspaper", the slide was offered as a free special bonus. Although Leo forgave Ed and continued to cooperate with future photography sessions, he never forgave me. I thought then he was a silly little man and I still think so while giving him due credit for the absolutely brilliant job he did in helping make Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein and others into the giants of twentieth century art which they later became.

Ha, yow, not often you hear Leo Castelli called a silly little man, but not often you hear him calling someone a "beetch," either. Good times. Also, it was not an all-white flag painting. Unless, of course, it was. The vintage photo I've been using [above] was taken by Rudy Burckhardt and dates from, I think, 1958. I didn't realize Meneeley and Vanderburg had their own shot, too. But maybe there's a Portable Gallery Bulletin slide floating around out there somewhere, and maybe it shows a white flag?

UPDATE: I can't find any copies of Portable Gallery Bulletin for sale or in archives, never mind "The World's First Pop Art Newspaper." But Joel Finsel's extensive bio/blog of Ed Meneeley has a photo of Ed's own, lone copy, from early 1963, probably the next issue after Johns' letter:


Hmm, Finsel also quotes the paper as offering "a free color slide of the Beatles!" which I guess one could get confused with Johns.

The Panther's Tale: 014b []

May 1, 2012

Two Months.

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Two months. I'd feign shock, but frankly, it's been almost a year since I figured it out, and I'm only now posting it.

Last January, while going through the newly opened Castelli Gallery Collection at the Archives of American Art, I found some documents relating to the "loss" of the Jasper Johns Flag which had been inside Robert Rauschenberg's 1955 combine, Short Circuit. [Remember, it was probably the first flag painting Johns made, and certainly the first one ever shown, by an easy three years. Complicated.]

There were notes about calling the NYPD 9th precinct and some preliminary paperwork for an insurance claim, all commencing on Tuesday, June 8, 1965. The insurance adjuster's follow-up memo says a "theft" occurred, not just of the Johns, but of a similarly small sculpture edition by Roy Lichtenstein, on 6/6/1965, the previous Sunday. From the gallery's storage facility on 1st Avenue. Obviously, they called right away, as soon as they found out.


Actually, no. I decided to track down the police report, only to run into a dead end. There were no reports of art thefts on or around the 8th at all. After a couple of fishing expeditions by mail, a kindly NYPD records officer took pity on me, and returned one of my $10 checks with a phone number on it. I called, explained what I was looking for, and she said she'd try to expand the search a bit when and if she could.

A few weeks later, just about a year ago now, I got a single page form with no details, just the basics of the police report. The date of the theft was listed as April 15th, nearly two months before Castelli called either the police or the insurance company.

Which means either the gallery didn't realize the flag painting had been removed, or they did, and it spent two months trying to figure out what happened before giving up and filing an insurance claim.

It was the more interesting of the two.

Last winter, I reached Edward Meneeley, an artist and photographer who knew Johns and Rauschenberg well in the 1950s. Meneeley published the Portable Gallery Bulletin, a subscription newsletter/slide service which was used by schools, libraries and scholars to keep up with the latest New York shows. The Bulletin ran Johns' only published comments on Short Circuit in 1962. Johns wrote a letter to the editor to refute the charge that Rauschenberg's refusal to allow the Bulletin to distribute images of Short Circuit was due to art world "politics" and an attempt to rewrite history.

Meneeley recalled the hubbub surrounding the disappearance of the Johns Flag. Ed said, he had been photographing Ileana Sonnabend's inventory/collection at the warehouse, and so he was there quite a bit during the spring and summer of 1965. He was asked a couple of times if he'd seen or knew anything, and so was "everyone else." [I took this to mean people who were working around the galleries and the warehouse.] Which sounds like there was a general awareness that the flag painting had disappeared.

[Meneeley also said he thought Short Circuit had ended up in Sonnabend's collection, but I asked Antonio Homem about this, and he confirmed that this had never been the case. Michael Crichton had originally written the work was in Castelli's collection, but this was also not the case; the Rauschenberg Foundation told me it remained in Bob's collection until he died.]


I'd thought that a two-month search for a missing Johns painting would leave a trace of some kind in the Castelli Archives, but if it's there, I couldn't find it. Once I had the April 15 date, I went through every page of the Gallery's notebook and memo collection, as well as Castelli's own daily calendar. There are lunches with RR, and finally, around June 11th, mentions of "JJ Insurance," [little detail above] but otherwise, nothing.

There are plenty of mentions of insurance for all kinds of people in the archive materials, and other instances of JJ and RR claims--works were getting insured, damaged, assessed, and repaired all the time--so the mention above could be unrelated. But it does make me wonder if the claim for Johns' Short Circuit flag painting was filed on behalf of Rauschenberg--or Johns? Does the practical fact that when it's missing, Flag was being treated as an autonomous Johns painting affect how it should be seen art historically? In other words, can we thus assume it was a Johns painting, and not--or not merely--the raw material of a Rauschenberg combine?

Ed's account also makes me curious about how widely known the 1965 theft--I guess we can call it that now--actually was. How many people were questioned? Did people gossip and speculate about it for a while? Who else knew? And was it registered as stolen with the appropriate industry databases? A year and a half, and I finally know the answer to that last question.

"Loss of Painting - American Flag - Jasper Johns"

Since 2001 here at, 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 that time.

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Posts from May 2012, in reverse chronological order

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