‘Construction With J.J. Flag’

tiny detail of a Robert Rauschenberg registry, dated 1957-9, which I can’t reproduce in full because of the terms of access to the Leo Castelli Gallery Archive at the Archives of American Art
Another day back in the Leo Castelli Gallery papers at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and barely further along in my project to piece together the surprisingly complex history of Robert Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit.
After finding Castelli’s insurance claim for the “loss” of the Jasper Johns flag painting which was originally included in Short Circuit–a claim which makes absolutely no mention of Short Circuit itself or Rauschenberg–and reading Michael Crichton’s first published account of what happened, I wanted to see if there was any record of Short Circuit entering Castelli’s collection.
There was not.
The folks at the AAA who’d processed Castelli’s archive had already warned me that there was remarkably little personal material, and little relating to Castelli’s own collection. Nevertheless, there were plenty of traces of Leo’s own holdings scattered throughout the files; when Rauschenberg’s Bed was discussed, for example, Castelli’s ownership of it was at least mentioned.
What I came to see, though, is that especially when compared with other combine paintings from the 1950s, or, other works in Castelli’s and Rauschenberg’s collections, Short Circuit was almost completely absent from the ever-increasing stream of notes, discussion, and paperwork related to the artist’s career.
It’d be weird to lay out all the places that Short Circuit wasn’t, but I’ll give two examples: until the 1965 insurance claim, it never showed up in the photo reproduction orders the gallery sent to Rudy Burckhardt, who apparently shot all Rauschenberg’s [and other Castelli artists’] work at the time. In early 1967, when the gallery was negotiating with the British writer Andrew Forge to publish Rauschenberg’s first monograph, Short Circuit was not included in any otherwise comprehensive-seeming works lists or photo lists he received.
I have to think this negation-by-withdrawal is linked to Rauschenberg’s breakup with Johns, and to what Johns referred to in 1962 as the “solution of differences of opinion between him and me over commercial and aesthetic values relating to that work.” So long as had Johns’ flag painting in it, Rauschenberg was to keep the work out of public circulation.
In fact, the only archive mention of Short Circuit at all before Rauschenberg’s 1976 Walter Hopps retrospective, is in an early artist’s registry. The looseleaf, ledger paper list is dated 1957-59, when Rauschenberg and Johns were together and both having groundbreaking first solo shows at Castelli [in 1958, Johns in January, and Rauschenberg in March].
And technically, it wasn’t even Short Circuit; it was listed as “Construction with J.J. Flag,” with the dimensions and date, “40 x 36 1/2, 1955.”
There’s alo a handwritten notation that the work had been exhibited at Cornell University in the spring of 1958. That would be the second showing Johns had referred to in 1962. [The first, the 1955 Stable Gallery show for which it was created, is not mentioned.] The idea that Short Circuit–a work which merged the two artists’ signature innovations–was exhibited immediately after their controversial, back-to-back, solo shows would seem like big news. But no. Paul Schimmel’s 2005 Combines catalogue only lists the “group exhibition” in a footnote, and I haven’t found any other reference to the show online. In 1958, the director of the Cornell Museum would have been the critic/professor Alan Solomon, who was tight with all those Poppy guys. [He’d go on to curate definitional Pop Art shows in 1962.] I’ve contacted Cornell; we’ll see if they have anything on the show.
If there was a “difference of opinion” about publicly displaying Short Circuit, I think we can assume that Johns did not want it shown, and Rauschenberg did. Because soon after the flag painting was removed, Rauschenberg put the combine into Elayne Varian’s traveling collage exhibition at Finch College Museum–with the doors nailed shut.
It’s funny, all this time I’ve been poking around this piece, I’ve thought of it in terms of “getting the Johns back.” But when you think about it, the one who got his work back in this caper is Rauschenberg.
UPDATE: Whoa, I just noticed that the dimension mentioned above–40 x 36 1/2″–don’t match up at all with those given in Hopps’s 1976 catalogue: 49 3/4 x 46 1/2. What up? Is “Construction with J.J. Flag” NOT Short Circuit after all? It is an error, another missing flag/combine combo, or an upending of the original Stable Gallery story? If the Johns flag is 17″ or so, there is no way that piece above is 50″, or even 46″. Gagosian lists the dimensions as 40 3/4 x 37 1/2″, which is close enough for me. No sweat, Hopps & co just had bad info.

Like Some Michael Crichton Novel

johns_crichton_cov.jpgMaybe it’s the CSI-ification of everything, but as I dig through archives and piece together timelines, and interview people–oh, I haven’t really mentioned the interviews, have I?–while trying to track down the story of Robert Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit and its little, missing, Jasper Johns Flag, I sometimes feel like a character in a John Grisham novel.
Which is funny, because the greatest book I’ve found on Jasper Johns so far is by Michael Crichton. Seriously, with his 1977 book, Jasper Johns, created for the artist’s mid-career retrospective at the Whitney, Crichton defined the exhibition-catalogue-as-pageturner genre.
After my most recent visit to the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art last week, I had a few minutes to spare, so I ducked into the Museum of American Art Library across the hall to flip through Crichton’s catalogue and to see if there was any mention of Short Circuit in the supposedly exhaustive catalogue for Anthony d’Offay’s 1996 show of Johns’ Flags. [There wasn’t, and though it had a couple of good ideas, David Sylvester’s essay was uncharacteristically uninteresting.]
Well, flipping through Crichton’s book was riveting. I could only read a few pages, but it felt like a mystery, a suspenseful, personal investigation into the artist, his thinking, his process, and his work. It was chock full of quotes from people who know and work with Johns, evidence of Crichtons’ conversations and interrogations. I wanted to read every one. And it was only the recurring image of my kid waiting, alone, on the curb outside her pre-school, wondering why her daddy had forgotten her, that forced me to stop. It’s an intense, infectious curiosity that I admit I haven’t really felt towards Johns’ work before.
In the course of this recent, somewhat intense look at Early Johns, I’ve been struck and sometimes a bit put off by the artist’s apparent/reported hermeticism, his opaqueness. Not that I want art spoon-fed to me, or served up like some all-I-can-consume Baselian buffet. But if Johns wants to be obscure, closed, personal, private–yeah, I’ll go with closeted–then fine. Far be it from me to pry. And far be it from me to take advantage of that reticence by projecting my own theories and interests and speculations on the artist and his work, as a great deal of critical writing about Johns seems to do.
But while he addresses and acknowledges Johns’ seemingly impenetrable work and persona, Crichton also quotes a close friend saying something like, no, “Jasper wants to be understood.” [I’ll look it up later when my copy of the catalogue arrives.]
the very flaggish, hinged In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara, 1961, Art Inst. of Chi., via NPG
And that, coupled with the remarks from the curators of “Hide/Seek” that it was the first time Johns has ever allowed his work to be seen in a queer context [that link it to Michael Maizels’ discussion of the show], makes me feel that this longer, closer look at this painting–these paintings–is not just alright, but right. And that Johns would agree.
Anyway, the point is, buy this book. No, no, the point is, Johns rewards close, intense looking, and Short Circuit, both in its original state and throughout its fraught, altered history, feels like a key touchpoint in the works, lives, and careers of these artists. And it turns out that no one has gotten its story totally straight yet, not even Michael Crichton.
There is a note in Crichton’s Johns story that begins:

As a curious historical incident, a Johns painting was seen at the Stable Gallery in 1956, as part o a Rauschenberg painting.

Actually it was 1955. But then there’s this bombshell:

Leo Castelli later acquired the Rauschenberg with the two doors. He kept the painting in his warehouse. One day he examined the painting and dsicovered that the Johns flag had been stolen.

Wait, what?? Castelli bought Short Circuit? So it was not, after all, in Rauschenberg’s personal collection his whole life after all. And I only find this out after I leave the Castelli Archive. I wasn’t even looking for this kind of stuff. While it explains what Short Circuit was doing in Castelli’s warehouse, it doesn’t explain when Bob sold it, or why Leo bought it. Or why or when Bob got it back.
The artist Charles Yoder told me last month that Short Circuit was in Bob’s collection–and had Sturtevant’s replacement Johns Flag when he went to work for Bob in 1971. [Though the first published mention of Sturtevant I can find is still the Smithsonian’s 1976 catalogue, which ended up using Rudy Burckhardt’s original, Johns-era photo.] I guess I’ll have to get back to the Archive and look for Castelli’s own collection records. And his correspondence with Bob. And then look for the 1967-8 Finch College Collage checklist and/or catalogue, to see who was listed as the owner of Short Circuit, which was, remember, still described as containing a Johns Flag behind its nailed-shut doors.]
So this means that sometime between–well, we really don’t know when it was, just sometime before June 6, 1965–Castelli bought Short Circuit. And found the Johns Flag missing. But Crichton’s not through. “Castelli recalls a final incident in the story,” he writes:

Years later, a dealer–we do not need to say who–came to me and said, “Someone has brought me this Johns painting and I don’t kno wit, and I wondered if you could tell me about it, the date and so on.” I knew immediately what it was; it was the stolen painting. I said, “The painting has been stolen and I would like to keep it right here. I don’t want it to leave my gallery.” But this person said he had promised the person he got it from, and he didn’t feel he could leave it with me, and he said he would have to talk to the other person, and he was very insistent. So I said, “Well, all right.” I never saw the painting again.

“Castelli recalls”! “We do not need to say who”!
Well, this saves me a trip into Calvin Tomkins’ archives at MoMA; because I will bet that Crichton’s footnote is the source for the secondhand version of this incident Tomkins included his 1983 Rauschenberg bio. And where Tomkins ended broadly–and obviously wrongly–with “and nobody has seen it since,” Crichton nails the quote from Castelli: “I never saw the painting again.”
Which puts us back to where this whole thing started. Except that I think I now know–because I have been told by people who would know–who that dealer was, and who he was presenting the painting for. And based on some interviews I’ve done since, I am pretty sure I’m right.
But that turns out not to be the same as figuring out when the Johns Flag went missing, or more importantly, where it went, and where it is now. And even when Crichton quotes Castelli himself as calling the painting “stolen,” and I’ve seen it mentioned [albeit as “lost”] in an insurance report, when Castelli had the painting back in his gallery–and had chance to get it back from someone he obviously knows–he let it walk out the door again.
Michael Crichton died unexpectedly in 2008 while undergoing treatment for throat cancer. His art collection, including the Flag painting he bought directly from his friend Jasper Johns, which he considered his single most important acquisition, was auctioned last Spring at Christie’s. Mike Ovitz waxes a little hagiographic, and I deeply don’t get the Mark Tansey thing, but the video that Christie’s produced about Crichton and his passionate, intellectual engagement with art is really pretty good.
Measuring 17.5 x 26.75 inches, Crichton’s Johns Flag [above] is much smaller than the Flag which Castelli first saw in 1958 in Johns’ studio, an experience he later called, “Probably the crucial event in my career as an art dealer, and… an even more crucial one for art history.” It was slightly larger, though, than the Flag in Short Circuit [13.25 x 17.25 in.]. And it was painted between 1960-66, exactly the time when Short Circuit‘s Flag was being contested and lost–and shortly before Castelli got it back, and let it walk back out of his door. Crichton’s Flag sold in May 2010 for $28.6 million.

‘Loss of Painting – American Flag – Jasper Johns’

So here is where, after a few months of searching, I basically get caught up to the editors of Johns’ collected writings, who noted in 1996 that Johns’ Flag painting disappeared from Leo Castelli’s warehouse sometime “before June 8, 1965.”
After a couple of days of digging through the newly opened Castelli Gallery archives at the Archives of American Art, I found that date on the gallery’s insurance claim reporting the “Loss of Painting – American Flag by Jasper Johns valued at $5000 $12,000.” [the higher figure is written in by hand.]
The insurance company’s memo acknowledging the claim said that “Mr. Mellors is to meet with the assured on Wednesday afternoon regarding the details of the claim.”
June 8th was a Tuesday, and sure enough after his visit, Mr. Mellors had more to add. A follow-up memo is titled more clearly, “Theft of Painting – 6/6/65 – “Desk Explosion 65″ by Lichtenstein.” Mr. Mellors, it said, “…when discussing the loss on “American Flag” by Jasper Johns was informed of the above loss by Mr. Castelli.”
So what we have now is not just a “before June 8,” and a “loss” [although that is still the word used in relation to the Johns], but a date: “June 6” and a “theft.” And not just one work, but two.
The only other documentation I could find is a small note, “Call headquarters for 9th Precinct,” “Warehouses/ 75 Cliff St/ 25 First Ave” and the name [?] “Kay Kaz.”
The 9th Precinct is the East Village, which makes me think it was the First Avenue location. Kay Kaz, I have no idea, and I can’t find anything online so far. But this was not Leo’s handwriting, so I am assuming someone was taking this information down on the phone.
Frankly, I can’t tell if I’m more Law & Order: Art Victims Unit or Columbo, but this is feeling very real to me, trying to piece together what happened, where, when, and with whom, just using a few old memos.
The 6th was a Sunday, so it seems as if someone made a weekend visit to the warehouse, found the Johns missing from Short Circuit, called the police, then called the gallery to give instructions about following up with the police. And then on Tuesday, they filed a claim for the Johns, while seeing if anything else was missing. And by Wednesday, they found a Lichtenstein gone, too.
As it turns out, both works are similarly sized: small and portable. The Johns Flag is 13 1/4 x 17 1/4 inches, and Desk Explosion is 20 x 16 x 4–wait, 4-in? It’s a sculpture. An enamel-painted metal freestanding sculpture on a 4-inch deep base, made in an edition of 6:
Small….Explosion (Desk….Explosion), 1964, : image via lichtensteinfoundation.org
Either way, maybe tracking the Johns is now a matter of tracking the Lichtenstein.
So what do we know now? First, that the AAA’s Castelli Archive is awesome. I could blog those boxes out for days if the photo restrictions were a little more conducive. Instead, I find them more illustrative of the way that art historical information is still transmitted: in relatively hermetic dribs and drabs.
My previous assumption that the Johns may not have been “stolen” stolen because it was never reported as such turns out to have been wrong. Well, those reports existedtl, anyway, even if the Johns wasn’t exactly described as “stolen.” [I was also wrong about a couple of other assumptions and speculations I made in earlier posts, which I’ll get to separately and soon.] But generally, the information I’m finding does appear to have been found by at least someone, sometime, before. So I wonder what I’m doing: if all these curators and scholars have already been over this before, am I just playing art detective for my own belated educational amusement?
But questions still arise that keep me on the hook:

  • Where’d those precise dimensions come from? Castelli? Rauschenberg? Johns himself? Someone had them on hand at the time the police were notified. I guess that answers the question about whether the Flag was an autonomous work?
  • Why were Rauschenberg or Short Circuit not mentioned at all in the insurance claim?
  • And the claim–and a half dozen 8×10 glossies of Rudy Burckhardt’s original photograph of Short Circuit was in Castelli’s Johns file, not his Rauschenberg file? [Just end it with an uptone and it becomes a question.]
  • And what was Short Circuit even doing in Castelli’s warehouse? Wasn’t it in Rauschenberg’s own collection his whole life? In which case, why wasn’t he filing insurance claims on it?
  • What IS up with that Lichtenstein?
  • Rudy Burckhardt?
  • And obviously, who is Kay Kaz, and what’s s/he doing in the middle of the memo about the polce?

‘Someone May Have Located The Stolen Painting’

It’s exactly the kind of scribbled note I dug through five boxes of Smithsonian archival material hoping to find: “Someone may have loc. stolen ptg. So Charles will talk to Bob about it.”
Well, I talked to Charles about it. The artist Charles Yoder worked for Robert Rauschenberg for five years, until around 1975-6. So I called him, and unfortunately, he had no idea where the Johns flag painting was, the one which had been removed from Short Circuit in the mid-60s [Michael Crichton says before 1965.] He did say there was “scuttlebutt,” at the time, a general awareness that there was a Johns flag painting on the loose. But it never went beyond the, “I heard some guy was trying to sell it on the Bowery,” type urban legendry.
But though I didn’t find any smoking guns, or burned flags, in the records from Walter Hopps’ 1976 Rauschenberg retrospective at the National Collection of Fine Arts, I did learn some more interesting details about Short Circuit and its complicated history.
Like, for one thing, the 1955 combine was not actually shown in Hopps’ retrospective.

Continue reading “‘Someone May Have Located The Stolen Painting’”

Jasper Johns’ ‘Short Circuit’ Flag: One Place It Isn’t

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.]

Continue reading “Jasper Johns’ ‘Short Circuit’ Flag: One Place It Isn’t”

Johns, Merce, Duchamp: Walkaround Time

image: walkerart.org
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]

Continue reading “Johns, Merce, Duchamp: Walkaround Time”

This Flag Is My Flag. This Flag Is Your Flag.

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?

Wait, What? I Thought Johns’ Flag Was Stolen From Short Circuit In 1967.

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.

Short Circuit 2: Wheeere’s Johnny?

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.

Have You Seen Me? Jasper Johns’ Little Short Circuit Flag

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]