In the spring the folks at ARTnews asked if I wanted to write about a paper coming out in a legal journal about art donations and tax policy, and I was like, uh sure? But then I read it, and I was hooked. Michael Maizels and William Foster took a long-overlooked reference to Robert and Ethel Scull’s donation of a major Jasper Johns painting to MoMA, and began an expanded view of the appraisal, donation, and tax evading practices of the early 1960s, when the top US marginal tax rate was around 77%. A different world, but one that helped create the world we live in now.
Anyway, it quickly became apparent that there was a lot more to the story they found, and Andrew and Sarah at ARTnews were amazingly supportive of my suggestion to dive deeper into the archives of the Castelli Gallery, and to turn to the larger story of Leo Castelli’s relationships with his biggest collectors, and how Jasper Johns’s protean work became the object of such intense discussion and competitive collecting. (If Andrew and Sarah were around, they would have suggested cutting that into several sentences, I’m sure.) From that beginning emerged the possibility of using Johns’s early works as they passed from the most adventurous collectors to the richest and, occasionally, into museums.
The resulting article came out in print in the (newly redesigned) Fall issue of ARTnews, and is now available on the (newly redesigned) website as well. There was so much amazing material, and so many intriguing threads, so many incomplete stories that could be added and expanded upon, so much that was locked in MoMA’s archives, which were inaccessible for the entire time I was working on this. But 4000 words feels like plenty to start with.
I met Wynn Kramarsky on the internet almost exactly 25 years ago to the day. It turned out not to have been my first encounter with him, but I’ll get to that. We met on Usenet, a global, distributed message board/listserv that was organized by topic, sort of like how reddit is now. It was August 1994, and I had just reported to alt.art.robert.smithson about my visit to Spiral Jetty. Wynn commented enthusiastically and wanted to know more–Spiral Jetty had only emerged from the Great Salt Lake a few months earlier, and was visible for the first time in decades [sic. By analyzing lake levels I’ve since concluded it was visible for a year or two in the 1980s, but it seems no one looked/reported/cared.] We emailed. He offered to send me a catalogue from a recent Smithson exhibition at Columbia, what was my address? On the internet of 1994, it seemed wilder to me to give a stranger a catalogue than to give a stranger your address. It was only when the book arrived with a note and his card that I realized Wynn was lending it to me. I could bring it back on one of my trips to New York (I was at business school in Philadelphia), and we’d go to lunch.
And that’s what we did, a couple of months later. We met at his office in SoHo, the entrance of which was lined with thousands of books. That first visit, an extraordinary Richard Serra work, multiple sheets of paper with ink applied in large slabs with a roller, filled the first open wall. The internet has been failing to surpass itself ever since.
After we’d toured both floors of his SoHo space and had a sandwich with his staff, we went into his office. Behind his desk was a drawing Robert Smithson had made on a large, aerial photo of the Kennecott Copper Mine. I knew it because I had bid on it the year before, when it had come up for auction at Sotheby’s. I had just quit my job and was preparing to go to grad school, and I really had no business bidding, even during a recession. But I really wanted it, and so I made a couple of bids for it before giving it up to the winning bidder. I apologized for running up the price on him, and then I thanked him for not bankrupting me.
Wynn and I became art correspondents, and we’d meet of the years while he was actively putting on shows. He was as infectiously passionate about the work of young and emerging artists as he was about the people he’d known and collected for decades. At his encouragement, I met artists and visited studios I never would have thought to reach out to otherwise. He made me want to be a better, more thoughtful collector by being a curious and engaged counterpart for artists, not just a consumer.
We both got more actively involved in supporting MoMA around the same time–on obviously different levels–and he was always generous with advice and insights. He took collecting and donating seriously, and was always cognizant of a responsibility to artists and to society. I still feel the impact of his incisive observations of socialites, unserious collectors, or museum groupies angling for respectability on my own views of how the art world should or could work. When a committee meeting I was running at MoMA got derailed one night by some tedious presentation, I immediately felt the weight of Wynn’s story about the flaky chair of a museum board he’d been on: “She wrote a check, but she sure couldn’t run a meeting!”
When I began writing, especially for the Times, and later on topics like early Jasper Johns, the Jetty, or Tilted Arc, Wynn’s was always a voice I sought out and trusted, and he always spoke very candidly. I always got the sense he didn’t want to be quoted, though, and so I never did. I also always got the sense that he operated out of a profound respect for the artists he knew, and for their work. It felt like artists trusted him, and that he cherished that. I miss Wynn and mourn for the loss his friends and family are experiencing, but I’m grateful for the chance to know him, and for all he did and showed and taught.
The middle of three 5 x 4-ft offset lithograph panels in Robert Rauschenberg’s Autobiography contains a dizzying spiral of text featuring key moments of the artist’s life, as well as an extensive list of artworks.
When Oliver mentioned it on twitter the other day, I realized I’d never actually made it through the entire text. Now I have. I transcribed it here for this robot to read.
The big score in my search for the collage elements of Robert Rauschenberg’s lost painting, Should Love Come First? was the magazine clipping that said just that.
It turns out to be from True Confessions, a women’s sex and relationship advice magazine. The article was written, apparently, by a reader named June soliciting advice for handling her man. I gave a brief recap of the article in Panorama, and there’s a picture which shows the pullquote, which does
seem to resonate with the situation of Rauschenberg, his new, pregnant, wife Susan Weil, and Rauschenberg’s new squeeze Cy Twombly, at the moment the painting was made:
Will I be able to find happiness married to the man who once jilted me? Or will I always remember that I was second choice?
But I have transcribed the whole thing here. And I now feel sort of compelled to look for the responses that True Confessions readers gave “June” about taking her man–and his new baby–back. What do YOU think she should do? Leave your answers in the comments! Continue reading “This Is My Problem…Should Love Come First?”
I am so psyched for this. I’ve been deep in another writing thing for a while and couldn’t give it the attention I wanted to when it came out. But I wrote a research note for Panorama, the Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, and it is now available. It is the story of my six+ year search to identify all elements Robert Rauschenberg used in Should Love Come First? a collaged painting that, if it still existed, might be considered one of his first combines.
Back in the spring, when, hope against hope, a nearly blind eBay purchase yielded what I thought would be the toughest piece to find, the painted-over text that gave the work its title, I sent a snap to Michael Lobel, an art historian hero and friend who knows his way around early Rauschenberg & Weil. Because I knew he’d freak out just like I did, and he did. And then he said I should publish it in a peer-reviewed academic context, not just on the blog. And that was just intriguing and daunting enough to attempt it. And that’s what I worked on this summer.
My purpose for tracking down and buying copies of all these elements is, of course, to re-create the painting, which Rauschenberg painted over in 1953. (It still exists, in Zurich. I’ve seen it.) But now that I have (almost) all the pieces, I am stymied anew by how much I don’t know about the painting, including/especially the colors. So my re-creation project will take some more time.
But in the mean time, the amount of info that has been coming off the small pieces of paper I *have* found has been amazing. Meeting Susan Weil in the middle of this process (for another topic, and another husband) has been amazing. And getting the chance to systematically look and think and capture information in a (hopefully) clear and compelling way has been amazing. So thanks to Michael and to the folks at Panorama and to the folks at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. I don’t know when love should come, but I love doing this.
The artist Elizabeth “Betty” Stokes di Robilant was interviewed by Christie’s in May 2013. Stokes was a longtime friend of Cy Twombly. Their story and relationship and collaboration, and her later erasure from Twombly’s official story, is discussed in Chalk, a biography of Cy Twombly by Joshua Rivkin, which was published in October 2018. Rivkin quotes the interview by Robert Brown, which was published on the occasion of the sale of a painted bronze cast of a 1966 [or 1956, or 1959, or 1980 or 1981, or 1990] sculpture Twombly gave to dee Robilant for her 10th wedding anniversary. Twombly later reworked and cast the sculpture in 1990 in an edition of five. Di Robilant’s three children each got one; she got one, and Twombly got one. Ed. 1 of 5 was sold at Christie’s London on June 25th, 2013, for GBP 1.63 million.
Though we have emailed several times over the years that I’ve researched her and her first husband’s work, I finally met Susan Weil a couple of weeks ago, and it was awesome. The occasion was the first US show in nearly 40 years of sculpture by her late (second) husband, Bernard Kirschenbaum, which is currently at Postmasters Gallery. Weil discussed Kirschenbaum’s work, and their life together, and her work, and it was great. Our conversation was just published on ARTNews, so go check it out:
[W]e’re used to the idea of calling what he did as sculptural now, because we’ve come through Minimalism, and the artist’s mark, and having things fabricated, but at the time, that was still largely unheard of: that you could order a sculpture. That you could have something fabricated in a shop, and it would be a sculpture. Did he think about that much, or was it not a concern for him?
Well, it wasn’t that way with him, because he wanted to be a part of every step of it. He didn’t order something and then it came. He worked in all the materials, in the actual welding, and finishing, and this, that, and the other. He had to know everything about how things were made. No, he had a beautiful vision.
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…
He is direct about his work, an area of his life which he jealously guards. Once, at a dinner, a wealthy collector who owned several important Johns paintings announced over coffee that he had an idea for a print that Johns should do. He said that Johns should make a print, in color, of an American map. The collector argued his case cogently. He pointed out that Johns had done other prints in color based on paintings from that period; he alluded to the significance of such a print to the whole body of Johns’ work; he mentioned the opportunities for the sort of image transformation which Johns’ other color prints had explored; and he pointed out the peculiar arbitrariness that had led Johns do to map prints several times in black-and-white, but never in color.
A hush fell over the table. There was a good deal of tension. On the one hand, one doesn’t tell an artist what to do, but on the other hand, the suggestion was not uninformed, and it did not come from a source the artist could casually alienate.
Johns listened patiently. “Well,” he said finally, “that’s all very well, but I”m not going to do it.”
“Why not?” asked the collector, a little offended.
“One night I could not have dreamed that I painted a large American flag, but the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” Those materials included three canvases that the artist mounted on plywood, strips of newspaper, and encaustic paint—a mixture of pigment and molten wax that has formed a surface of lumps and smears. The newspaper scraps visible beneath the stripes and forty-eight stars lend this icon historical specificity. The American flag is something “the mind already knows,” but its execution complicates the representation and invites close inspection.
By draining most of the color from the flag but leaving subtle gradations in tone, the artist shifts our attention from the familiarity of the image to the way in which it is made. “White Flag” is painted on three separate panels: the stars, the seven upper stripes to the right of the stars, and the longer stripes below. The artist worked on each panel separately.
After applying a ground of unbleached beeswax, the artist built up the stars, the negative areas around them, and the stripes with applications of collage — cut or torn pieces of newsprint, other papers, and bits of fabric. The artist dipped these into molten beeswax and adhered them to the surface. The artist then joined the three panels and overpainted them with more beeswax mixed with pigments, adding touches of white oil.
cf. Study for White Flag, 2018, Crayola washable marker on coloring page, 8 1/2 x 11 in. (21.6 x 28 cm)
It’s hard to process Ray Johnson’s work, there’s so much of it. It’s intentionally slight and esoteric. It often feels like a quick visual read. But it can also reward a slower look, even when it’s sort of stuffed and strewn about.
The National Gallery has a 1964 piece, Untitled (Letterbox), which is actually a mailbox stuffed with a few years’ worth of correspondance art pieces Ray Johnson sent to the critic David Bourdon. If I remember the label correctly, the stuff was piling up, so Bourdon got a classic brownstone-sized three-unit mailbox to hold it all.
Anyway, I’ve seen but not really looked at it since it was installed way back before the world ended, but the other day I noticed that unlike other pieces, this was not a Jasper Johns exhibition announcement; it was a Jasper Johns.
And not just any Jasper Johns. This is from 0–9 (1960-63), the foundational series with which Johns began making prints, and with which he began his extensive relationship with Tatyana Grossman and Universal Limited Art Editions. [Though other prints were completed and published before 0–9, I think it was the first one he started.] It’s signed and numbered–and folded up and stuffed in an envelope at some point, apparently.
Grosman wooed Johns to start making prints with her fledgling contemporary foundry by sending him a lithography stone to play with. Over years, Johns worked his stenciled numbers on the stone’s surface, printed some, and then wiped and started drawing and printing again. The sequential prints in 0–9 trace the changes and palimpsests of the process, capturing the lithographic process the way Johns’ encaustic froze the mark of the brush that applied it. This ambitious series was published in three versions: a rainbow of colors, black, and grey.
The print Ray Johnson used here is #5 from C/C 1/10, which means it’s from the first edition of the color set. Johnson took this first print of his friend’s massive project, and started circling and labeling individual lines in the print as “snakes.” Then Johnson signed his name and date next to Johns’. And then he folded and taped it up and mailed it to Bourdon.
Snakes were a thing for Johnson. That same year Dick Higgins published a compilation of his correspondance works from Johnson in an artist book he titled The Paper Snake. But this is ultimately less surprising than his readiness to treat an artwork from a friend like a cigarette wrapper or rubber stamp, as an element of his own production. [Of course, Johnson was friends with Rauschenberg and Sue Weil, too, so he certainly knew of Bob incorporating Johns’ and Weil’s paintings into his own combine. And don’t forget Twombly drawing all over everything. So maybe surprising should not be the word.]
The Museum of Modern Art has one of each variation, of course, because back in the day MoMA and ULAE made it so the museum could get the first print from every edition they published. And hey, look at that, MoMA’s print of 0–9 (Color) has the same number as Johnson’s. Did someone mention rogue prints? How’d this happen?
A FEW DAYS LATER UPDATE: Thanks to some attentive folks at the National Gallery, we know how this happened.
Curator Jennifer Roberts explains that the Johnson Johns is not a print, but a page from a Vogue Magazine article on Johns by Harold Rosenberg (“Jasper Johns: Things the Mind Already Knows,” Vogue, February 1, 1964, 174-175.)
Johnson has annotated a paragraph on the reverse (page 175) in pencil, adding half-brackets, three underlined selections, and a notation in the margin that says, “this paragraph could be sent to May Wilson.”
There is nothing commonplace about an 8.
The symbols selected by Johns are separated from the banal by their abstractness and dignity, qualities which are also outstanding in Johns’s personality. In the absence of his big grin, he reminds me of William S. Hart, the deadpan sheriff of the silent Westerns. Johns has Hart’s long, flat poker face, thin lips and alert eyes slanting up at the outer corners. Like Hart he gives the impression of one who sizes things up, keeps mum, and does his job. Johns’s detachment is of the era of the beats, the cool cats, and Bohemian Zen, as Hart’s belonged to that of “Howdy, stranger” and the cardsharp. With his level stare Johns paints targets: Hart perforated his with a six-shooter.
Roberts also notes that Johnson has covered half an illustration of a Johns lightbulb sculpture on the back (p.175) by taping an ad for a George Overbury “Pop” Hart watercolor exhibition held at Frederick Keppel and Co., New York, over it. Thanks to Stephanie, as well as to Anabeth Guthrie and Peter Huestis of the NGA for noticing the mystery and sharing these details.
Hi, are you or do you know Hicri, the 10 year-old or so kid in the picture brushing Jasper Johns’ cat? With the grape-eating monkey in a cage behind you? If so, I’d love to hear your story.
This was October 1971, Johns had his studio at The Bank, as it was called, a sprawling 1912 building at 225 East Houston St, on the corner of Essex. Artist/writer Suzi Gablik took these photos and captioned them in her scrapbook as Hicri & Jap. Gablik’s scrapbooks are now in the Archives of American Art.
It’s possible Hicri’d hang out there while his mother or some other family members worked for Johns; there’s a snapshot of Hicri in Johns’ kitchen corner, surrounded by the preparations for a meal or a party. There’s a photo of Hicri helping Jap carry stuff to a cab, and it’s labeled “Off to St. Maartens.”
Some folks at the AAA had wondered what Johns’ cat’s name was, and I thought Hicri might know. He’d probably be 57-58 by now. (Hicri, that is, not the cat.) Me, I just wonder what it was like hanging around the studio back then; it seems unimaginable, but probably memorable. So Hicri, HMU.
Thanks to grupaok, I’d been looking at Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Minus Objects a lot when my server ran into trouble last December.
Partly because I’ve been long contemplating tables as a platform for paintings, and Pistoletto made a table out of paintings.
Partly because Minus Objects was Pistoletto’s attempt at breaking [or “dismounting”] the capitalist system that rewarded/demanded artists produce in a recognizable style, and all he did was jump off his own market, and confuse his dealers. [Though curator Germano Celant caught on quickly, and made Minus Objects a critical foundation for his proposition of Arte Povera.] Partly because that whole concept is LMAO now that his selfie-friendly mirror paintings have roared back into vogue, anchoring art fair booths around the globe.
But let’s face facts, it’s really because of that awesome, giant, unmounted photo of a slightly demonic Jasper Johns.
It looks very different from our post-Struffsky vantage point, but I’d imagine this object was especially problematic for the art context of its day. Just as tables & chairs and cardboard teetered on the functional and material boundaries around art, respectively, this headshot was thwarting the idea that it was just information.
I decided to be directly transforming a feeling or an idea into an object. Being in that condition, the dream of the night became part of the daily life. Because I was living in the studio, in that place, and the work became part of my life. It was like a living activity.
And I had a dream that I was looking around for cardboard, and was cutting cardboard, it was like a recipe to make a rose, that I had in my dream. And getting up in the morning I decided to realize this recipe that I was dreaming in the night. I find the cardboard in my studio, and I did exactly what was the dream, and the work was done.
At the end of the dream I was giving the fire to the center of the rose, and I did it.
Because I was living the occasion of the moment, and getting up in the morning, the mail arrived. There was an envelope, and inside a catalogue of Jasper Johns, a square catalogue with Jasper Johns, he was smiling. In the morning, I see this face smiling to me, and I say, “OK, I will blow up it.”…I thought this the morning The Smile arrived.
The installation photos show the single, giant photo. And I always thought the cutout version, with The Ears of Jasper Johns came later. But Pistoletto says his idea was to make a 2×2 meter photo of The Smile, and that his printer only had meter-wide paper. The two sections are listed as each 80 cm wide. Everything’s 250cm tall. So there are some rounding issues, maybe, and the single pic is listed as 125 cm wide. Whether there was cropping or reprinting or both, I don’t know.
In any case, I was taken with the idea of tracking down the original photo–I assume it’s in the square catalogue for the 1964 Whitehall Gallery show–and making a giant Smiling Johns myself. But I guess sometimes it’s good to wait? Because in the mean time, the press around the show at The Broad helped surface this photo of Johns:
And oh my gosh, now I want to make 2-meter wide versions of this in an edition of a million and hang them everywhere on earth.
In 1966 photographer Bob Adelman covered the scene around the Leo Castelli Gallery for New York Magazine, but the greatest photos in his deep dive archive are from parties at Robert Rauschenberg’s loft. By 1966 Bob and Jasper Johns were apparently talking to each other again. [Oh hi, Andy!]
Adelman’s captions have some gaps, so though it’s easy to ID Elaine Sturtevant there, huggin’ and grinnin’, with Bob and Jim Rosenquist, the man and woman in the center are still unknown to me. Part of me wants to say Yvonne Rainer, but the hair doesn’t seem right. One not-helpful clue: neither of them made a Warhol screen test.
If you’re ever wondering how hard it is to see something that’s been right in front of your face all along–even if you knew the details and the discrepancies–this entry is from the chronology Joan Young prepared with Susan Davidson for Walter Hopps’ 1997 Robert Rauschenberg retrospective:
With Johns as partner, forms Matson Jones–Custom Display; “Matson” is Rauschenberg’s mother’s maiden name and “Jones” stands for Johns.
10 MINUTES LATER UPDATE: SFMOMA has a new recap of the Matson Jones era from none other than Richard Meyer [Outlaw Representation ftw] . In a 2018 essay about scholarly dismissal of or disdain for their relationship, this sentence makes an unusual effort to say yes, Bob & Jap were “family,” but only distantly related: “’Matson’ was the maiden name of Rauschenberg’s maternal grandmother, and ‘Jones’ is a phonic near cousin to ‘Johns.’” How about homophonic kissing cousins, at least?
Also, I guess after tracking decades of academic and critical avoidance and differentiation, from Alan Solomon onward, I also completely disagree with Meyer’s first sentence: “The intensity of the creative dialogue between Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the 1950s has long been recognized by scholars, critics, and curators.”
But I do look forward to that first two-man show. And don’t get me started with Cy.
The editor of Social Medium: Artists Writing 2000-2015, Jennifer Liese, alerted me to Francesca Balboni’s CAA Review of the anthology, which includes a very nice mention of my Erased de Kooning Drawing posts.
For me, however, the good moments outweighed those that were less than stellar. The biggest revelation was Greg Allen’s idiosyncratically obsessive and meticulously researched blog posts on Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (2011–13). Allen seems to answer Mike Kelley’s assertion to artists in “Artist/Critic?” (2001, another highlight) that “historical writing” can no longer be the project only of the art historian, if we wish to “escape the present limitations of critical discourse” (33). Allen’s blog offers an instructive example of the kind of art histories we might pursue instead. Mariam Ghani’s “The Islands of Evasion: Notes on International Art English” (2013) is as incisive as it is readable, as she summarizes and responds to the heated critical debate around Alix Rule and David Levine’s essay “International Art English.” I also enjoyed many of the selections in “Artists Writing as Art,” especially a bureaucratic love letter to the Liverpool CCTV from Jill Magid’s surveillance performance One Cycle of Memory in the City of L. (2004) and the script for Andrea Fraser’s biting institutional critique Official Welcome (2001).
It is still a sufficiently rare occurrence for me to see such reactions to my work, and it has definitely not gotten old, especially on a rough news day. [Are there any other kind lately?] But it also energizes me to be read as in dialogue with Mike Kelley, and to be discussed in the context of such artists and writers as these folks. I still find Social Medium to be an invigorating read, and am still really grateful to Liese for including me in it.