Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1954, collection hirshhorn
I went to a gallery talk at the Hirshhorn by Amy Boyer, of the museum’s education department, on their rare, early Jasper Johns work, Untitled (1954). It’s one of just four known Johns works to survive destruction by the artist in 1954, because it was in someone else’s possession. That someone was Rachel Rosenthal, an important friend and collaborator of Johns, whose face is cast in plaster there in the bottom. [Rosenthal sold the work to the Hirshhorn in 1987.]
In his 1996 conservation interview at the Menil with Carol Mancusi-Ungaro Johns noted that the collaged element in Untitled, probably shared paper and stationery from various “exotic,” foreign sources with the work he made next, Untitled (Green Painting), which first belonged to Rosenthal’s mother. [Asked her name, Johns replied with a laugh, “Mrs. Rosenthal.”] The torn printed bits are overlaid with similarly sized fragments of brown tissue paper that veils but doesn’t obscure the texts. A piece of glass is fitted over the collage, held between pairs of tiny nails in a fashion similar to Star, the Star of David-shaped painting Johns made for Rosenthal.
bad photo of a laserprint of a 2006 photo of the back of Johns’ Untitled, 1954 via hirshhorn
But today the party was definitely in the back. Bower presented images taken at the Hirshhorn in 2006, which showed two images Johns had affixed, one to the canvas, and one to a wooden backing. They were identical white-on-black palm reading diagrams printed with the caption, “Hand of Accidents and Travels.” Bower wondered if this indicated the work was originally intended to stand, like a sculpture, or possibly to be handled.
same, a detail: “Hand of Accidents and Travel”
Seeing the palm reading hands, along with the shape of the Untitled collage (16.4×7-inches), made me think of the Shirtboards collage/drawings Rauschenberg made in 1952 while traveling through Italy and Morocco with Cy Twombly. Bob would glue etchings and illustrations he found or bought in street stalls onto the leftover cardboards folded inside his laundered shirts. Hopps wrote that because Rauschenberg never framed the Shirtboards, “they exist potentially as hand-held objects.”
Robert Rauschenberg, Shirtboard collage with palm reading diagram, 1952, lost or destroyed, image: Walter Hopps’ Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s
Of the eleven elongated (14×5-in.) Shirtboards included in Walter Hopps’ 1990 catalogue, ten were in the collection of the artist, the Sonnabends, or Sue Weil. The other one was listed as “lost or destroyed.” It had a palm reading diagram, in black on white, the inverse of Johns’s.
Did Johns bury Rauschenberg’s Shirtboard palm down under the collage of Untitled, only to bring it back as an X-ray, or was he just giving Bob a secret high five?
Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1954 [hirshhorn.si.edu]
I’ve been reading the transcript from Susan Weil’s interviews for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Oral History Project. It’s four sittings over several months, so stories are retold with slight variations depending on who’s there, more Thanksgiving chestnut than Rashomon, but still interesting.
One example, in her first interview session, Weil talked about the collapse of her marriage to Rauschenberg in the Summer of 1951, just as Christopher was being born, and of the aftermath, raising him as a single parent. [Bob was at Black Mountain College during the birth, then soon took up with Cy Twombly and headed to Europe for 17 months. By 1953-4, Rauschenberg was back in New York, way downtown, and in a relationship with Jasper Johns.]:
And was Bob able to see him from time to time?
WEIL: Yes. Particularly when he was in New York, that worked out. He would see him from time to time. But Christopher, he always–they’d try to do things together, and of course at that time, Bob was really into making his art life bigger and broader. So he’d often cancel meetings with Chris, because he would have a meeting with a museum person or something.
And so Bob was supposed to take Chris to the circus, and he said, “Well, Mom, he probably won’t be able to come, because he’ll have something more important.” And I felt so terrible. And of course he did come, but Christopher had it all in his head that he was not at the top of the list.
The circus reminded me of this letter, which is collaged to the face of one of Rauschenberg’s earliest combines, Untitled (1954) [above], and which was mentioned in two essays in Paul Schimmel’s 2005 Combines exhibition catalogue:
“I hope that you still like me Bob cause I still love you. Please wright me back love LOVE Christopher.” And there’s a circus clown in the corner. Same circus? Who can say? What’s notable is not whether Rauschenberg was a good dad, but that he incorporated the letter in his artwork, and how.
Untitled (1954-58), also called Untitled (Man with White Shoes) and Plymouth Rock, collection: MOCA, image: RRF
The letter is just below and to the left of an overexposed headshot of a toddler Christopher, but the handwriting is not that of a 3-year-old. Though it’s dated 1954, Rauschenberg clearly kept working on Untitled for several years. This photo of the artist’s studio shows that Christopher’s letter and photo were on there by 1958, though, the year of his (and Johns’) breakout shows at Castelli.
Rauschenberg in his Front St. studio in 1958, with various combines behind him. photo: Kay Harris via RRF
In reviewing Schimmel’s show and catalogue, Yve Alain-Bois mocked the idea of seeking insights into Rauschenberg’s combines from close readings of their collaged elements, even as he pointed out the photo of Johns and the Twombly sketch on Untitled.
When I first connected Weil’s story with Christopher’s letter, it was tragic and infuriating. Rauschenberg wasn’t busy meeting any museum people between 1954-58, he was just not seeing his son. But in Weil’s later tellings, with her son sitting alongside her, a much more sanguine version emerges; as he got a little older Christopher recalled hanging out at his dad’s and helping him make work. He was a teenage studio assistant on screenprinting, rollerskated inside, and helped unleash the turtles at E.A.T.’s 9 Evenings. In short, it got better. And in retrospect, putting his son’s letter and photo on a sculpture meant he saw it every day; Rauschenberg used his combine as the studio equivalent of the refrigerator door, sitting right in that gap between art and life.
Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project [rauschenbergfoundation.org]
Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, the catalogue from Paul Schimmel’s 2005 exhibition, is great [amazon]
Previously: The Orgies of Art History
This is a great photo, btw. I love the edge, the space, the painting’s objectness. I assume it’s old, pre-frame, but I don’t really know; and the site I ganked it from didn’t seem to have any awareness, much less answers. Anyway, it’s here on purpose.
I’m not sure when I knew that the blur in the center of Gerhard Richter’s Tisch/Table (1962, CR:1) isn’t a brushstroke, but a smear, but I didn’t give it any thought until I started looking hard at Rauschenberg’s work on Erased deKooning Drawing. Then it completely changed for me.
The first time I saw it in person was 2002. Richter told Rob Storr that he had “canceled the painting by blurring.” I read Table‘s blob alongside the brushy blur of the early photopaintings. And those soupy loopy Vermalung paintings whose AbEx-style gestures preceded but didn’t exactly prefigure the squeegees.
But that’s not what’s happening.
In trying to understand what Jasper Johns did to Erased deKooning Drawing, I also had to figure out what Rauschenberg had done:
He was trying to make a mark with an eraser. It’s the difference between erasing a drawing, and drawing with an eraser. And when he was done, the result was both an erased de Kooning and a drawing.
At just that moment I read John J. Curley’s essay, “Richter’s Cold War Vision,” in Gerhard Richter: Early Work, which tied them together:
Richter’s Informel-esque brushstroke was not painted over the image of the table (as some have suggested), but was the product of erasure. The artist attacked the canvas with a solvent (perhaps turpentine) after the initial image was already painted. The new mark has diminished the original painted surface, leaving traces of bare canvas showing through.
But as with Rauschenberg, this is not negation; cancelation is not rejection. [Richter would later designate Table as the first work in his Catalogue Raisonné, even though it is not.] As Curley wrote, the erasure “naturalizes a false realism” in Tisch; its abstract disruption provides cover and credibility for the table’s “off-kilter” representation and “structural impossibility.” Erasure becomes “the crux of both the table and the painted gesture.”
Well that blew my mind. I’ve ended up thinking about Tisch all the time, at first because of the blogging, and then the Destroyed Richter Paintings project. But then mostly because there’s a lamp post near our place in DC that I pass almost every day on my way to the train or the store. It has a basic graffiti tag that someone tried to erase–I was about to say unsuccessfully, but I think it looks a hundred times better like this.
Jasper Johns Blue Ceiling, 1955, 12×10 feet [!], image: postermuseumblog
How did I miss this? Just a week after I posted about Matson Jones’ hand-painted plaster melons and pomegranates, poster dealer Philip Williams revealed an incredible Matson Jones find: a set of cyanotype/photograms titled Jasper Johns Blue Ceiling.
Each of the four panels depicts an underwater scene featuring a male figure holding a trident, or with a Trojan-style helmet; the only figure not in profile has pointy, Sub-Mariner-style ears. They’re all signed “Matson Jones” in the image, and apparently, the title, which is apparently a reference to Johns’s bedroom, is written on the back in what Andy Warhol said was Robert Rauschenberg’s handwriting. They surfaced in the 1980s from the office of Gene Moore, the guy who commissioned Matson Jones [the commercial pseudonym of Rauschenberg & Johns] to create window displays for Bonwit Teller. The prints were apparently a backdrop for a window made in 1955.
Rauschenberg & Weil making a blueprint photogram, 1951, LIFE Mag via tate
Rauschenberg, of course, had made and shown similar photograms with his wife Susan Weil. She [or a model] would lie on the photosensitive paper in a composition, and he’d swing a lamp around her, Pollock-style, to make the image. [MoMA has one.] Weil kept making photograms after their divorce, but I never realized they shared joint custody of the technique. Or that Rauschenberg would use it with his next model–and that’s the question here, I guess: is that Johns?
Who else could it be, right? And if it wasn’t Johns in 1955, it certainly was in 1962. These 1-to-1 scale photograms make me think of Johns’s Study for Skin drawings, which he made by pressing his oiled up face and hands against a sheet of drafting paper, then rubbing it out with charcoal. Richard Serra owns a full-body Johns Skin job from 1975, too, so it’s not like he gave it up.
Jasper Johns, Study for Skin I, 1962, image via nga
There’s also Rauschenberg’s large-scale, 1968 print triptych Autobiography, and though it’s a stretch across time, the shadows remind me of Johns’s landmark Seasons paintings and prints of 1986-7, which all feature the artists’ shadow.
Jasper Johns The Seasons print series from ULAE
Connecting Johns’s imprint of the body to Rauschenberg’s–and Weil’s–photogram process would be interesting enough; but these photograms also connect Matson Jones’ production more directly to the art practices of Johns and Rauschenberg.
It does not feel great to not be the first to make this connection. In a Feb. 1959 column in Arts Magazine that is a master class of insiderish gay-bashing, Hilton Kramer denigrated Johns and Rauschenberg as “visual publicists” working in the commercial art “gutter”:
Rauschenberg, for example, is a very deft designer with a sensitive eye for the chic detail, but the range of his sensibility is very small — namely, from good taste to “bad”…Frankly, I see no difference between his work and the decorative displays which often grace the windows of Bonwit Teller and Bloomingdale’s. The latter aim to delight the eye with a bright smartness, and Rauschenberg’s work differs from them only in ‘risking’ some nasty touches. Fundamentally, he shares the window dresser’s aesthetic to tickle the eye, to arrest attention for a momentary dazzle…Jasper Johns too is a designer…Johns, like Rauschenberg, aims to please and confirm the decadent periphery of bourgeois taste.
There are a couple of other examples of gender-coded criticism early on in Johns and Rauschenberg’s careers, but Kramer’s knowing sneers link gayness with non-seriousness, taking a double swipe at the artists’ rapidly growing reputations. Johns wrote an angry letter in response, saying “a kind of rottenness runs through the entire article.”
Which is why Williams’ post of what “may very well be the only known surviving Matson Jones work,” is unsettling. It ends with this shoutout, “Today, Friday May 15th, is Jasper Johns’ 84th birthday. From everyone here at Philip Williams Posters Happy Birthday Mr. Johns!” Almost as if they were inviting the artist–who has a penchant for destroying early work that doesn’t necessarily fit his preferred narrative–to buy it back. Frankly, they belong in a museum. If there is a museum bold enough to take them.
Jasper Johns Blue Ceiling by Matson Jones [postermuseumblog]
Flags, 1968, image metmuseum.org
In 1968 Jasper Johns produced an edition, Flags, with ULAE featuring two American flags and an optical phenomenon. After staring at the inverted spectrum flag, green, black and orange, on the top, a viewer would then switch to the bottom flag, which would momentarily appear red, white and blue.
American Flag in Negative Colors of the Spectrum, 1968, image: juddfoundation.org
This was more than a visual trick. It carried symbolic and political meaning. Or at least such things could be ascribed to an inverted flag. In 1968 Donald Judd had American Flag in Negative Colors of the Spectrum made. It was included in “The Public Life,” a 2011 show at the Judd Foundation about the artist’s civic and political engagement. I have not been able to find out much background for this object or its creation.
Flag (Moratorium), 1969
In 1969, Johns again used the inverted flag, for Flag (Moratorium), a fundraising/protest poster for the Committee Against The War In Vietnam. The small white focal point in the center facilitates the same optical phenomenon as the ULAE edition, in which the viewer is called to action to envision, produce, and correct the flag in her own mind.
African American Flag, 1990, image: moma.org
David Hammons’ 1990 African American Flag is different. It’s red, black and green colors derive from the Pan-African or Black Liberation Flag designed by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. Miami collector Craig Robins has a Hammons flag; Rirkrit installed it for Design Miami Basel in 2011. It is also in MoMA’s collection, and one flies over the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Short Circuit (aka Construction with J.J. Flag), c. 1958? photo: Rudy Burckhardt
Errol Morris’s new film about Donald Rumsfeld has me thinking a lot lately in terms of the known unknown, and the unknown unknown. As I’ve tried to find the missing Jasper Johns flag painting that was in Robert Rauschenberg’s 1955 combine Short Circuit I’ve kept running into another formulation which bridges the two: what we think we know.
It’s not that the story of Short Circuit as it trickled down through history in footnotes and parentheticals and anecdotes was wrong, so much as incomplete. . And the elisions have shaped the widely accepted understanding of both artists’ work. But it also prompts the question, “Who’s ‘we’?”
Because someone knows what happened to that flag painting. Someone’s always known. It just wasn’t me.
Alright, let’s get all these together in one place:
After claiming for more than 40 years that he had drawn it himself, Robert Rauschenberg acknowledged in 1999 that, in fact, Jasper Johns, who “lived upstairs,” created the graphite text label collaged onto Erased de Kooning Drawing. Or as one person who knew the work when it was made told me last year, “Bob made it, but Jasper made it art.”
Jasper Johns in 1999, as published on the site of the artist’s Foundation for Contemporary Arts [and first quoted here in 2011, in discussing collaboration and Jacob Kassay, actually]:
In 1954 I had helped Bob Rauschenberg a bit with his Minutiae set, his first for Merce Cunningham, and I continued to assist him with most of his stage work through 1960.
Rauschenberg is credited with costumes and/or set design for at least 10 works for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company between 1954 and 1960, including the iconic painted backdrop/leotards of “Summerspace” (1958). Johns’s first actual credit doesn’t appear until 1968.
Oh, but look, on this walkeradmin tumblr [? ;)], a detail from the “Johns/Rauschenberg backdrop for “Summerspace.” I’m glad it’s not just me.
Of the 18 works Rauschenberg is credited with between 1954-58 for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, 17 were for costumes, and one, “The Tower,” (1957) was for set design. Jasper Johns is credited with making the costumes for “The Tower.”
The Tower, by Rauschenberg & neighbor
The Tower, a 1957 Rauschenberg combine created for the dance set, which depicts a couple, was described by the Christie’s representative trying to sell it in 2011 as both “autobiographical” and “cryptic,” which, for these two, is redundant. For composer John Cooper’s part, the Feb 10, 1957 program said he had been considering the “pastoral themes of the Adonis-Persephone myth.” [Persephone and Aphrodite both fell in love with Adonis while babysitting him. So, yeah. Not sure what to do with that.]
Untitled (Gold Painting), 1956, Menil Collection
I recently met someone who owned a Rauschenberg Gold Painting. The collector said that once Jasper saw it, and said, “Oh, yes, this is one I did.” 10 existing gold paintings predate 1954, the year of Johns’s and Rauschenberg’s meeting, but according to Walter Hopps’ 1991 catalogue, “two or three” were made afterward, at the “special request” of friends. Alison Gingeras included Untitled (Gold Painting), 1955, in “Unpainted Paintings,” her 2011 show at Luxembourg & Dayan. The Menil’s gold painting [above] dates from 1956.
In 1977, in the SoHo Weekly, art historian Roberta J.M. Olson had posed to Johns this kind of remarkable question:
During his early days in New York City Johns and Robert Rauschenberg shared a closely knit friendship of cross-fertilization…It has been said [it has?? -ed.] that during this period the two artists also painted works in each other’s styles.
I asked whether any so-called “Johns paintings by Rauschenberg existed in collections today?
JJ: No, but there is one “Rauschenberg” by Johns. Really, though, it is a Rauschenberg because after I finished it, Bob fooled around with it and I do believe that he eventually signed it. It was a small painting and I don’t know its whereabouts today…The only time I remember Bob actually working on a painting of mine was when he picked up the red paintbrush and went to work on one of the white stripes in a flag painting” […]
One? Just one? Does no one ever ask follow-up questions? No, no one ever does.
Johns told Calvin Tomkins in 2005 that in 1960 Rauschenberg, who had been using maps as an element in his combines as early as Small Rebus (1956), “simply gave” him mimeographed maps of the US, which he painted on directly, and later enlarged into paintings like Map (1960).
UPDATE: In fact, Rauschenberg painted on maps as early as 1950, when he created Mother of God, which was part of SFMOMA’s massive 1998 acquisition.
Map, 1962, image via moca.org
In 1988, Deborah Solomon told a version of Johns’s Flag dream story that somehow includes direct quotes from–and a co-starring role by–Rauschenberg:
One day in 1954, Johns casually mentioned to Rauschenberg that he’d had a crazy dream the previous night. ”How crazy was it?” Rauschenberg asked. ”Well,” Johns replied, ”in this dream I was painting the American flag.” The American flag? Rauschenberg didn’t think it was crazy at all. ”That’s a really great idea,” he said.
And this all is aside from the Short Circuit saga; and the fact that Flag looks like it’s constructed like a combine; and his paintings from the earliest canvas & fabric, drawer, canvas, fork, spoon, flashlight, plate, and letter set are essentially combines, too, only we don’t call them that–even though Johns says he came up with the term.
There is so much we don’t know about how these two artists worked and collaborated. So much that doesn’t get asked, or is known and doesn’t get written. So much about the similarities and cross-references and resonances in their work that has been overlooked, dismissed or deflected for so long.
From the earliest days, curators like Alan Solomon and critics were assiduous about keeping these two oeuvres separate and distinct. Whenever asked about influence, Johns would say he always tried to stay aware and move away from it. Rauschenberg would emphasize how diametrically opposite their personalities were, and that was that. Whatever the forces at work, whether the closet, the AbEx legacy of the lone genius artist, or the market’s willful self-delusion, the work they made and discussed side by side, alone with each other, for six foundational years, is almost only ever considered in isolation.
1954: more than a decade before BMPT, and two decades before Prince & Levine [And multiple generations before Codax, BHQF, and Dylan]. What would it mean for the concept of authorship to find out Johns and Rauschenberg were making each others’ work?
update: And while the PMA’s amazing collaboration-related show has absolutely gotten me off my duff to post about this subject, I swear, I had no idea that Alistair Macaulay would publish his email q&a with Johns about his work with Merce Cunningham this morning. Great minds.
First things first, yes, I’ve heard the footsteps of the Tate’s awesome, new, online exhibition/project, the Gallery Of Lost Art behind me, and I will be trying to wrap up the search for the lost Short Circuit Johns flag painting very soon. At least soon enough to give them time to write my triumphant detective work into their essay. Ahem.
Meanwhile, let’s give credit where it’s due, because the Tatefolk have lured SFMOMA’s infrared imagery of Erased de Kooning Drawing out and onto the net.
Last year at CAA, one of SFMOMA’s design & web people Chad Coerver talked about the debates over whether or how to present the wealth of information in the Museum’s Getty-sponsored Rauschenberg Research Project. Whether to publish new infrared imagery of EdKD, for example, which might alter the way people perceive the object in ways the artist did not want or anticipate.
I guess they figured it out, because not only does the GOLA have it, the IR image is the teaser today on SFMOMA’s tumblr. [via wiblog and MAN]
Or maybe they’re still working on it. SFMOMA’s Erased De Kooning Drawing page has this footnote:
The use of advanced imaging technology and its implications for our understanding of Erased de Kooning Drawing will be explored fully through SFMOMA’s Rauschenberg Research Project, a four-year in-depth research program that will result in an online catalogue, slated for launch in summer 2013.
Carry on, then!
But the page also has this description, which seems to reflect a fuller, and different, understanding of the work than what was discussed during Rauschenberg’s lifetime:
After Rauschenberg completed the laborious erasure, he and fellow artist Jasper Johns devised a scheme for labeling, matting, and framing the work, with Johns inscribing the following words below the now-obliterated de Kooning drawing:
ERASED DE KOONING DRAWING
The simple, gilded frame and understated inscription are integral parts of the finished artwork. Without the inscription, one would have no idea what is in the frame; the piece would be indecipherable. Together the erased page, inscription, and frame stand as evidence of the psychologically loaded deed of rendering another’s artwork invisible, enacted in the privacy of the artist’s studio.
Which, hmm. It seems vital that Johns’s central role in creating EdKD is acknowledged. I’d even argue it was equal, or equivalent, his precisely drawn marks the precise counterweight to Rauschenberg’s vigorous erasures. And the title, even the titling, and thus the conceptual framing, is Johns.
Or at least it was. But the gilt and the current matting, has been changed, once and maybe twice or more, since Johns and Rauschenberg broke up. So it is Bob’s. And the evidence of this evolution can be seen even more clearly, thanks to the Gallery of Lost Art’s zooming feature, on the back of the work.
Jasper Johns, Ventriloquist, 1983, image via: MFAH
And now to the second oldest tab in my browser, an essay by Barbara Rose on Jasper Johns’ references to works by Barnett Newman, which accompanied an excellent 1999 show of Johns’s and Newman’s editions at Brooke Alexander Gallery.
From his earliest days in New York, Johns saw and collected Newman’s work, and Rose proposes an ongoing personal relationship between the artists that can be seen in Johns’s work, even from the very beginning:
In the paintings he exhibited at Betty Parsons [in 1951 and 1952], Newman accomplished a goal Pollock was also intent on resolving; he eliminated the distinction between figure and ground. Instead of separating one from the other, he proposed a format in which the image was identical with the field, with no background left over. No shapes were depicted, not even as flattened silhouettes. Rather the field was divided into regular zones. This is of course the format of the iconic Flag that Johns dreamed of and then painted for the first time in 1954. Because Johns’ image is both literal and identifiable, his medium is encaustic rather than oil, and he is more of an easel than a mural scale painter, the obvious debt of the horizontal bands of the flag, which line up to the horizontal framing edge as Newman’s “zips” line up to the vertical frame, has hardly been noticed.
In the 80s, Johns began inserting pictures within pictures, both of his own artworks and works he collected.
Barnett Newman, Untitled, 1961, image via baeditions
Rose discusses several examples of these autobiographical works, including Ventriloquist, top, which includes a mirrored/reverse image of Newman’s 1961 lithograph, Untitled, which Johns owns, and the artist’s own inverted double flag, a color combination Johns used for a 1969 fundraising edition/protest poster for the Committee Against the War in Vietnam. [The unsigned poster version, below, says “MORATORIUM” on the bottom; the signed, numbered edition does not. Maybe the customers for the more expensive version preferred their Johns Flags straight, so to speak, with less politics.]
Johns’ 1969 Flag (Moratorium) poster sold for just £300 last Spring
Anyway, two interesting things Rose doesn’t really get into much: the way Johns makes work about [and with] work he collects, not just work he admires. It’s something that would resurface later in his Catenary series, which seem to relate directly to an early Rauschenberg combine Johns owned, then sold, which has the shroud lines from a small parachute hanging off it. And the resonance this picture-in-picture construct has to Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit. I’ve always thought that Short Circuit was an outlier somehow for incorporating works by other artists; but it turns out that Johns himself eventually began doing something similar in his own paintings and prints.
Johns & Newman: An Encounter In Art, by Barbara Rose [baeditions]
Previously: Johns and Manet’s Execution of Maximilian
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.
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:
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.
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?
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 [pantherhawaii.com]
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”
Construction with J.J. Flag, aka Short Circuit, 1955 photo by Rudy Burckhardt
You know what, it’s way past time to wrap up this missing Jasper Johns Flag caper. I’m going to get right to it.
But first, a quick review of the work’s history:
In 1955, three years before his debut solo show at Leo Castelli, Jasper Johns painted a small Flag which was incorporated into a Robert Rauschenberg combine, which was shown at the Stable Gallery annual Stable Show, which opened on April 26. The combine also included a painting by Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Sue Weil. [Stan VanDerBeek and Ray Johnson were also invited by Bob to contribute a work, and several historical sources say it includes a Johnson collage, but the Art Institute of Chicago, which bought the piece last year, officially only cites the two painters. Though it was Rauschenberg’s stated intention to use the combine to get Johns’ and Weil’s works into the Stable Show, he was the only artist credited with participating.
Both paintings were enclosed behind cabinet doors, which could be opened, but which were originally exhibited closed. [In Paul Schimmel’s Combines show and at Gagosian, the doors were opened and, obviously, untouchable by the public, but I have heard from multiple people now that when Johns saw the Gagosian show, he confirmed that the doors were to be closed.]
The combine is now known as Short Circuit, but in Rauschenberg’s earliest works registry, it has the title, Construction with J.J. Flag. That entry referred to the work’s next known public appearance, in a show at Cornell University’s White Museum in April 1958, Collages and Constructions, curated by Alan Solomon. Johns was also included in the exhibition, which followed on the heels of both artists’ successful solo shows at Castelli that year. Even though Solomon went on to curate both Rauschenberg’s and Johns’ first museum shows at the Jewish Museum, and their participation in the US entry to the Venice Biennale in 1964, which Rauschenberg won, Solomon did not mention this show in their bios. And it was not included in Johns’ exhaustive chronology prepared for his MoMA retrospective.
In 1962, after Rauschenberg and Johns’ particularly bitter breakup, they came to a “solution of differences of opinion” about Short Circuit, which involved not selling the work, or publishing or exhibiting it again.
In his awesome 1977 Johns catalogue, Michael Crichton quoted Leo Castelli as saying that the Johns Flag had been stolen from Short Circuit at some point “before June 8, 1965.” [Crichton also wrote that Castelli acquired the painting, but the Rauschenberg Foundation told me that the artist never parted with the work.]
What’s not behind Door #1? Rauschenberg & Short Circuit in the 1967 Finch College “Art in Process” catalogue
The removal of the Johns Flag apparently freed up Rauschenberg to begin showing Short Circuit again, because he put it on a national tour of collage works organized by the Finch Museum in 1967. He said in the Finch catalogue that Elaine Sturtevant “is painting” a replica of Flag, but the artist’s photo blocks it from view. And the doors were nailed shut for the tour.
It’s unclear when Sturtevant actually painted her Johns Flag, but I’ve narrowed it down to some time between 1968 and 1971, when Rauschenberg’s one-time assistant Charles Yoder says he saw it in the studio. Short Circuit‘s next scheduled public appearance was in 1976, for Walter Hopps’ big Rauschenberg retrospective at the Smithsonian. Upon review of Hopps’ archive, it appears Short Circuit was originally included, then dropped from the show shortly before it opened. Burckhardt’s 1955 image was used in the catalogue. Rauschenberg wrote that he might repaint the flag himself because he “need[s] the theropy [sic].”
[One other thing I found in the Smithsonian archive: a memo from Hopps agreeing to cover Rauschenberg’s travel expenses to the DC opening, but refusing to pay for “his friend.”]
In 1980, Calvin Tomkins told the story of Short Circuit‘s missing Flag in his Rauschenberg biography, Off The Wall. He appears to have based his account on Crichton’s version, though he added a detail that could only have come from Castelli himself about an unnamed dealer bringing the Flag in for authentication. The notion that Castelli apparently let the painting walk back out of his gallery without a fuss is what triggered my interest in the first place. I mean, seriously, how could there be a Johns Flag painting on the loose, and no one does anything about it?
Anyway, Short Circuit was also not included in a 1985 show at the Hirshhorn on artist collaborations curated by Cynthia McCabe and David Shapiro. Shapiro later described the work as being in a sad state of repair and missing its Johns Flag. No mention of Sturtevant. According to the Rauschenberg Foundation, however, Short Circuit has never been damaged or repaired. It finally went on public view–the first time with the Sturtevant–in 2005 in Schimmel’s show at MoCA.
And that’s where we are.
So next week, I’ll finally get around to talking about what I’ve found out about the disappearance of the Flag, the aftermath, and its fate. And there’ll be a bit about how it alters Johns’ history–or at least it should–and then what it means for Rauschenberg’s, too. Stay tuned.
An admittedly imperfect way to see all the previous greg.org posts on the search for Johns’ Short Circuit flag painting