After a brief break, during which I briefly pwned Miami Art Basel, the search for the Jasper Johns flag painting which was included in Robert Rauschenberg’s 1955 combine-painting Short Circuit [above], continues.
Actually, because I had to carry on the oddball contents of the gift bags I did for my #rank presentation, I went to the airport freakishly early and ended up with extra lounge time, which let me read through all the details and footnotes in my pristine, OG copy [apparently from the library of Artforum!] of Dr. Roberta Bernstein’s definitive 1985 dissertation-cum-catalogue raisonné, Jasper Johns’ Paintings and Sculptures 1954-1974, “The Changing Focus of the Eye.”
Only guess what, it wasn’t there. Not a mention, not a photo, not a footnote, not a trace.
[UPDATE: Since posting this in December, I have communicated with Dr. Bernstein about the Short Circuit flag and its absence from her thesis, as well as its status in her forthcoming Johns catalogue raisonne. Scroll down for her gracious and informative reply.]
Welcome to one of the oldest tabs in my browser: the inflatable balloon set for Merce Cunningham’s 1968 piece, Walkaround Time, which is based on Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, which was made by the company’s artistic director at the time, Jasper Johns.
I’d backed into the pieces–seven cubes of silkscreen-and-paint on clear vinyl, reinforced with aluminum frames–a few months ago, and realized I’d seen them–and not thought much about them–at the opening of the newly expanded Walker Art Center in 2005.
Which I now regret, but which makes Merce’s title resonate a little more. Cunningham dancer and longtime collaborator Carolyn Brown explains that Walkaround Time was a reference to a particular kind of purposeless movement taken from ancient computer history, when “programmers walked about while waiting for their giant room-sized computers to complete their work.” It’s just taken me this long to appreciate–or even to see–the work. And for some great additional links to appear.
I can already tell this is going to go long.
03/2012 UPDATE: Unfortunately, none other than former MCDC stage manager Lew Lloyd informs me that the term “balloon” is not really accurate; they were transparent vinyl boxes fit onto armatures, which could be broken down for travel. Given my noted satelloon bias, I will still think of them as balloons in my heart. For the rest of you, though, remember: not balloons. [end update]
Something Holland Cotter wrote today made me really think: “Short Circuit is a sweet reminder of Rauschenberg’s collegial generosity; he believed in art making as a communal endeavor, and acted on that belief.”
Collegial generosity is certainly one way to look at it. Because Rauschenberg had exhibited in the Stable Gallery’s Second and Third Annuals, he was supposed to be able to select artists to show in the Fourth Annual. For whatever reason, though, in 1955 Eleanor Ward decided only Stable alumni would be allowed in that year, and so Rauschenberg’s picks–Short CircuitJasper Johns, Ray Johnson, Stan VanDerBeek, and Susan Weil–were rejected.
And so the story goes that Rauschenberg smuggled them into the show anyway, as elements in his own combine painting. [It’s not clear why VanDerBeek’s work wasn’t included; Cotter says he didn’t get a piece finished in time, but I’ve also read that VanDerBeek declined the combine invite.]
Rauschenberg invited the artists to, as Walter Hopps put it, “collaborate in his piece.” A generous gesture, to be sure, but also a complicated one.
Short Circuit triggers a whole host of questions that I find the quite interesting: What is the status and relationship of the artworks Rauschenberg incorporated into his combine-painting? Do they still function as autonomous works? If so, why? Are they substantively different from the other cultural detritus he used–newspapers, postcards, fabric, objects? If not, why not?
In the bluntest sense, these questions are answered by the invitation for the show, which mentions none of Rauschenberg’s three collaborators:
Rauschenberg’s generous inclusion of his ex-wife’s painting, his friend’s collage, and his partner’s iconic flag painting–oh, wait, that’s right, this was the first flag painting of Johns ever to be exhibited, and it was as an element of another artist’s work–and behind a door to boot. Did anyone in 1955 even know that Jasper Johns’ Flag wasn’t Robert Rauschenberg’s flag?
The story of Johns’ promethean debut at Castelli Gallery in 1958 is well known. In this 1969 telling of it to Paul Cumming, Castelli visits Rauschenberg’s studio in 1957, and then they pop down to Johns’ studio, which is full of targets and flags, and Castelli offers him a show on the spot. Which makes the cover of Art News and changes the New York art world overnight. But check this out:
Jasper Johns was a real discovery in a certain sense because, although he existed, not many people knew about him. I saw him for the first time in a show at the Jewish Museum. That was in March of 1957, and that was the Green Target that the Modern has now. I saw that green painting. It didn’t, of course, appear as a target to me at all. It was a green painting. I didn’t know that he was doing targets. Well, going around and seeing the familiar painters of that time…. It was a show that had been organized by Meyer Schapiro and other people. There was Rauschenberg and Joan Mitchell, and, oh, all that younger generation. Well, I came across that green painting, and it made a tremendous impression on me right away. I looked at the name. The name didn’t mean anything to me. It seemed almost like an invented name–Jasper Johns.
[Emphasis added on the parts where, holy crap, two years after exhibiting Short Circuit, there’s still a question whether “Jasper Johns” exists.]
Johns had shown flags at Bonwit Teller [including White Flag, which he eventually gave to the Met], where he and Rauschenberg dressed windows under the commercial pseudonym Matson Jones. Except for a drawing in a group show, Johns only exhibited a flag painting under his own name in 1957, in a group show at Castelli a few weeks after their fateful studio visit.
Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit–and Johns’ first and most immediately important paintings of flags and targets–were created when the two artists were closest, and when Johns was essentially unknown. When the flag was stolen from Short Circuit, both artists were famous, and their split was so acrimonious, they were not speaking to each other.
These relationships and collaborations, these formative histories of the New York art world, and these contestations of autonomy, authorship, sourcing and appropriation all seem to converge on Short Circuit. And it makes me wonder, again in the bluntest terms, whose flag was it, and who was it stolen from?
In his review of the Robert Rauschenberg show at Gagosian, where the work is somehow different because it is for sale, Holland Cotter explains Short Circuit‘s origin as an attempt to get his recommended artists’ work into the Stable Gallery’s group show, but then whoa:
Only Mr. Johns and Ms. Weil, Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, came through with work on time, so into the cabinet went a little painting by each And, with one significant change, those two paintings are still there: Mr. Johns’s picture, a mini-version of one of his soon-to-be famous flag images, was stolen in 1965 and replaced by an Elaine Sturtevant copy.
Really? 1965? But didn’t I just get finished explaining how it was actually stolen in 1967? Yes, yes I did.
Or so I thought.
I won’t dwell on the fact that, though they were extremely responsive and helpful, Gagosian had already told me neither they nor the Rauschenberg Foundation had any record or idea of when Johns’s Flag painting was stolen.
But as I was about to send in my correction to the Times, I re-read Walter Hopps’ 1976 account:
The original flag painted by Jasper Johns was subsequently stolen and was replaced by a replica painted by Elaine Sturdevant [sic] at the time of the exhibition “Art in Process: The Visual Development of a Collage,” held at the Finch College Museum of Art in March 1967.
And you know what, it might be possible that the “subsequently stolen” does not, in fact, refer to the March 1967 show, and that the Sturtevant replacement took place “at the time of exhibition.” That is a possible reading.
But it doesn’t change the fact that texts and critical coverage of the Finch show so far makes no mention of the theft, or the replacement. And that a year into the traveling exhibition, Short Circuit‘s cabinet doors, which visitors had been able to open, were now nailed shut.
I’d also add that while the 1976 catalogue text mentions the theft, the reproduction of Short Circuit seems to include the original Johns flag. It certainly does not depict the Sturtevant Johns Flag that’s in there now. It’s almost as if the Sturtevant replacement decision was made in time for the 1976 show/catalogue, but not in time to have it photographed. [Or maybe Rauschenberg and/or Hopps didn’t see a need to rephotograph it? Which would be a separate set of interesting issues.]
So either Cotter knows something, or he’s wrong, and is just latching onto 1965 as the theft & replacement date because that’s when Sturtevant first showed her Johns Flags. Either way, I’ve added him to the interview list.
Alright, the search is on; I’m working to trace the history of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1955 combine Short Circuit and especially to figure out what happened to Jasper Johns’ flag painting, and when and how Sturtevant’s flag painting got in there, and what all that means.
When I first wrote about Short Circuit last week, there was no date or story or anything about how the flag disappeared, only that it had been described as “stolen.”
In his 1997 Rauschenberg catalogue, Paul Schimmel had mentioned the Johns Flag–which, like a painting by Rauschenberg’s ex-wife Susan Weil, was incorporated into the combine behind two cupboard-style doors–had been stolen while the work was on exhibit. Now I’ve found out where and when that was, I think.
In 1976, Walter Hopps curated a Rauschenberg retrospective at the National Collection of Fine Arts, which is now the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art. From the catalogue:
The original flag painted by Jasper Johns was subsequently stolen and was replaced by a replica painted by Elaine Sturdevant [sic] at the time of the exhibition “Art in Process: The Visual Development of a Collage,” held at the Finch College Museum of Art in March 1967. In his statement for the exhibition catalogue, Rauschenberg commented, “This collage is a documentation of a particular event at a particular time and is still being affected. It is a double document.”
For Rauschenberg the work remains “a double document” of the past and the ongoing present. Recently, in commenting on the stolen encaustic, he has stated, “Some day I will paint the flag myself to try to rid the piece of the bad memories surrounding the theft. Even though Elaine Sturdevant did a beautiful job, I need the therapy.”
Much to unpack there, especially in that second quote. Wow.
But at least now we have a date and a place: Finch College Museum, March 1967. Finch was a women’s college on the Upper East Side. From the archival photos, the Museum looks like the basement floor in one of the school’s townhouses on East 78th Street [between Madison and Park]. In the 60’s, under the direction of Elayne Varian, the Finch Museum had a pretty advanced contemporary exhibition program.
[One of the top Google hits for Finch College turns out to be from Calvin Tomkins’ Rauschenberg bio. Legendary dealer Ivan Karp tells the story of how he was showing some girls from Finch around Castelli Gallery when Roy Lichtenstein walked in with his first comic panel paintings under his arm.]
“Art in Process” was an innovative series of exhibitions that placed sketches and models alongside finished works to examine the working practices of contemporary artists. An “Art in Process” show on Structure, for example, which went up in 1966 within months of the Jewish Museum’s seminal “Primary Structures” show, contained works by Lewitt, Judd, and Smithson, including the latter’s Enantiomorphic Chambers [on the right in the image above, via aaa.si.edu], which, ironically, was also lost.
Anyway, after its Spring 1967 debut at Finch, the Collage show traveled under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts. Though I can’t find the complete list of venues, in February 1968, it came to the Phillips in Washington, DC, where the Post’s sportswriter-turned-art-critic Paul Richard panned it by repeatedly dismissing collage as mindless random gluing and comparing it to the tacky “Snoopy’s valentines” everyone had just exchanged.
Except for Short Circuit, that is, which Richard called, “the best in the show.” Take note of his description, though, and that he specifically mentions reviewing all the extra documentation of the show in the Phillips back offices:
(When first exhibited, viewers could open the collage’s two hinged doors to discover two paintings, one a flag picture by Jasper Johns. They’re no longer visible. The doors have been nailed shut.)
No mention of the theft, the missing Johns, or any replacement. And the doors are shut on the paintings by the artist’s ex-wife and ex-partner. No musing, please!
Despite the mind-boggling variety of its components, the piece somehow holds together. The composition is bright and strong. It’s nice to think about (the viewer can muse on the various associations generated by relics of Miss [Judy] Garland, Lincoln and [John] Cage), but tracing the development of this work would be a hopeless task.
We shall see, Mr. Richard, we shall see.
The Rauschenberg show at Gagosian is pretty incredible, but then again, I’ve had Walter Hopps’ incredible show of Rauschenberg’s 50s work imprinted on my brain from day one.
Anyway, here’s a little art history mystery about one of the great 50s pieces in the show, Short Circuit, 1955, which, in addition to a Ray Johnson collage and a Susan Weil painting, originally included a small flag by Jasper Johns, the first one he ever exhibited publicly.
The flag that’s in there now is by Sturtevant [above], because, as Calvin Tomkins put it,
Some years later, after Johns had become famous, the little flag painting mysteriously disappeared from the mother-work. Later still, a dealer brought a small Johns flag into Leo Castelli’s gallery and asked if Leo could identify it–he said it had been offered to him by a third party. Castelli recognized it immediately as the missing element from Short Circuit. He told the dealer it had been stolen, and said he did not want it to leave the gallery. The dealer refused to part with it. He took the little painting away, and nobody has seen it since.
Nice, but not true. At least two people have seen it since: the dealer, and the perp. If they fenced it elsewhere, you can add a third or more. You stay classy, art world!
So what’s it like, when did it get lifted, and more importantly, where is it?
Thomas Crow’s history makes it sound like the Short Circuit flag was straight [sic] oil on canvas, and that Johns only later switched to the more laborious, anti-painterly medium of encaustic, which he showed in 1958. [uh, or maybe it was encaustic after all. see below.] Either way, Sturtevant’s flag certainly looks more Johnsian than Johns’s flag.
Short Circuit stayed in Rauschenberg’s own collection, which would necessarily limit who had access to the work. Sturtevant’s first show, in 1965, included Johns Flag, which only puts a starting date for when Rauschenberg might have had the work replaced, but provides no help in figuring out when Johns’ own flag went missing.
Let’s try and nail down some of these dates, though, and then see who might have been around Bob’s place at the time, shall we?
- OK, it sounds like Johns’ flag was still there when Leo Steinberg was talking to Bob and Jasper in 1961.
- Wait, in a footnote in his 1994 book Figuring Jasper Johns, Fred Orton says the Short Circuit flag is, in fact encaustic, and that the combine is discussed in the Smithsonian’s catalogue for Rauschenberg’s 1976 retrospective. No mention of a missing flag, or Sturtevant.
- Am I looking way too early? Well, at least by
1997[whoops, 2005], the catalogue for Paul Schimmel’s MoCA Combines show is calling the flag an “Elaine Sturtevant replica.”
- It also says the flag was stolen “by an unknown viewer,” so it was taken while on exhibit? Bonus Short Circuit trivia: Rauschenberg also invited Stan VanDerBeek to stick a work in, but he declined.
Huh, a good question from a British reader, who sent along an amusingly embarrassing story from the Daily Mail about some poor chump reporter’s attempt to authenticate a glaringly obvious Johns forgery he bought for a hundred pounds on Portobello Road: has this Short Circuit flag ever been registered as stolen? Because it sounds like Scotland Yard hasn’t heard of any missing Johns.
Off The Wall: A portrait of Robert Rauschenberg [excerpt via google books, thanks art unwashed]