LOVERS AND DIVERS: INTERPICTORIAL DIALOG IN THE WORK OF JASPER JOHNS AND JASPER JOHNS
by Jonathan Katz

He is like that butcher whose knife never becomes dull simply because he cut with it in such a way that it never encountered an obstacle.
John Cage on Robert Rauschenberg 1

I wanted something that wouldn't have to carry nature as part of its message.
Jasper Johns 2


In their work of the 1950s Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns repeatedly sought to denigrate the authorial "I" in favor of the spectatorial "you". They employed various diversions, games, codes, and, not least, silence in noteworthy counterpoint to the self-expression deemed essential to the integrity and authenticity of the Abstract Expressionist art of the time. Variously called post-modernist, deconstructive, even feminist to flesh out its contrast with the Modernist ideology of many (but by no means all) of its forbearers, their new authorial voice is characterized by a parade of personae, roles and masquerades such that any stable, essentialist construction of authorial intention is always undercut. After all, before Rauschenberg's all-white canvases whit is there to see but your own reflection, ideological and otherwise? As he once put it, "Meaning belongs to the people." 3

Yet, these carefully non-self identical and non-expressive artistic practices, in conjunction with statements such as the ones quoted above, had a corollary effect. Such a dutifully anti-expressive art - one that continuously articulated what it was not expressing or exposing the self - inevitably produced a sense of something missing, of identities deliberately repressed, of a self under siege. Especially in the immediately post-McCarthy American cultural context of policed consensus, a Cold War audience saw secrets here. What wasn't said was what couldn't be said. To cut, as Cage says of Rauschenberg, and not encounter an obstacle is to cut very warily indeed.

Today, we see post-Abstract Expressionist paintings differently. A triumphantly post-modernist cultural discourse recognizes these works as instead prescient exemplars of a now generalized suspicion of authorial presence. Today we celebrate the works decenteredness, sometimes even expressly correlating this art to the deconstructive methodologies of theorist such as Jacques Derrida. 4 In their perceived refusal to write a singular, self-contained authorial presence, in their free acceptance of audience and interpretation, Johns and Rauschenberg often seem strikingly, familiarly, postmodernist.

But to a Cold War audience, what was not present here - expression, self-exposure - wasn't refused so much as sequestered. In the Cold War context of policed consensus, the suspension of selfhood implicit in an anti-expressive art nonetheless led seemingly inexorably back to the authors themselves. As Fairfield Porter observed of Johns in one of the earliest reviews of his career, "What does he love, what does he hate?" 5 This sense of an identity withheld or buried is both what sparked interest in their often complex gestural surfaces and served to produce these surfaces as ironic or other than they appeared. Gesture, after all, was supposed to signal authorial presence, especially under Abstract Expressionism. Thus, to a Cold War audience, much was buried under the heavily worked paint and collage of these paintings - a discursive bivalence which thus signaled its own repressions. 6 In contradistinction to contemporary critical tendencies, once upon a time, when work of Johns and Rauschenberg was new, it was thought to be deeply expressive, deeply autobiographical, albeit complexly so.

William Rubin discussed these autobiographical elements in a 1960 review of Rauschenberg:

"Rauschenberg has developed this (autobiographical) dimension through the application of figurative collage elements within the framework of an abstract style of painting, rendering it even more personal, more particular, and sometimes almost embarrassingly private. Everything the eye delights in is eligible to enter the autobiographical poem. The iconography of the Rauschenberg pictures seems to reach back through time and consciousness, memory by memory." 7

As the artists' fame increased, a remarkable exegetical shift took place. The one-time maker of an "autobiographical poem" became the arch Cagean of the canvas, the man who picked up Duchamp's mantle before it even hit the floor. Meaning, intention, expression were seen as having no place in this artist's work; instead, his art was understood, as he once put, as but an expression of a "random order." 8

Such strategic self-silencing has now been canonized within postmodernist thought; silence is, after all, the logical endgame of the death of the author. As a consequence, iconographic readings of Rauschenberg and Johns have acquired a bad name. As recently as this year's Rauschenberg retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, Rosalind Krauss writes in the catalog, "This idea of the iconographic as the encoding of a relatively coherent text that underlies and explains the image is, of course, miles away from the complex theories of allegory…It is precisely the message of uncertainty, of slippage, of unreadability, and fragmentation that allegory not only conveys but also…in itself becomes." 9

I am certainly not going to deny the self-evident slippages, unreadabilities and fragmentations in the work of Johns and Rauschenberg. But I am also going to insist that there is a relatively coherent text that underlies the images as well, that there is both iconography and allegory here, coherence and incoherence. Indeed, my central thesis is that the authorial voice proposed and interpellated through the works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg cannot be so easily circumscribed according to such simple polarities. And I shall further argue that this bifurcated authorial voice, at once self-expressive and decentered, telling and silent, is a very careful, self-conscious construction crafted to allow a modicum of self-exposure while appearing entirely impersonal and unexpressive. Here, in short, is a pictorial self characterized by a kind of doubleness or ambivalence, at once private and public, expressive and anti-expressive, conveying neither pure "interiority" nor pure postmodern social construction or imbrication. It manifests a subject trapped within dominant cultural constructions and fully aware of being trapped, an existence both inside and outside the structuring ideologies through which the manifestation "self" is realized in social life. In short, I agree with Cold War critics like Rubin: there is a form of self-expression here, a paradoxical secret, silent self-expression.

Such a bifurcated account of identity - at once present and absent, telling and not telling - should not strike us as unusual. Indeed, it's been named in ordinary language; we call it the closet. Since Johns and Rauschenberg lived as gay men and lovers ion the midst of what was probably the singular most homophobic decade in American history, the closet was a central fact of life. But to be in the closet is to be conscious of that doubleness, that pull, the doubled vision that is the inheritance of all who exist in two worlds. As we will see, what makes this closeted self so difficult to describe, so slippery, is its refusal to be written through either of the two predominant accounts of identity available to art historians, expressive or anti-expressive, partaking at the very same moment of aspects of both. In embodying both terms of our structuring binarisms, the closeted queer collapses our conceptual apparatus, and eludes our grasp. This is after all what is means to play a role or don a mask or be in the closet: to at once embody a doubleness of identity, to be both self and other. Johns and Rauschenberg inhabit both terms of the structuring oppositions that critics have mobilized to describe them. With works that are both random and coded, open and closed, public and private, silent and self-expressive.

Close examination of works produced when Johns and Rauschenberg were lovers, roughly between 1953 and 1961, reveal that many carried deeply personal or private meaning alongside, and in spite of, their celebrated decentering from artist to audience. These meanings were unauthorized in every sense of the tem and their presence was not only a closely guarded secret, but subject to repeated denial and an ongoing conspiracy of silence. The fact that these "private" meanings have largely gone undiscovered is indeed evidence of this works' discursive success. But we haven't discovered these meaning in part because we haven't thought to look, believing wholeheartedly in their promise of audience-centeredness. Yet this promise was perhaps at least in part strategic, a useful cover for other meanings and other purposes. In this light, an important moment of presumptively postmodernist practice can be re-viewed through the very particular problematic of making an expressive art within a culture of constraint, resulting in a very unpostmodernist account of authors in context.

Since the anti-expressive character of Johns and Rauschenberg's art has been well-established in the critical discourse for quite some time, and still dominates the art historical establishment today, I shall focus on the other side of the coin and discuss a very particular interpictorial exchange between the two lovers that began shortly after they met and continued long after they broke up. 10 But I again want to underscore that I do not hold that this interpictorial conversation is the "real" meaning or import of the paintings in question. It is but one facet of their meaning, worthy of consideration here simply because, in our uncritical acceptance of the anti-expressive dimension of this art, it has never been noticed before.

Well, not exactly unnoticed. As early as 1961, Jack Kroll, writing in Artnews has this to say about expression in Rauschenberg's work: "But Rauschenberg sometimes snags his sweater between the sanctum of private reference and the littered tundra of commemorative decay. A poof on incense disperses the bracing pungency of the urban miasma; the sharp punning weapons of the inscrutable ironist corrode gracefully with a lavender rust; a Firbankian frisson ripples the confident, humanly demoniac Baron Corvo incognito; we get too close to the artist in the wrong sense." 11

From the lavender rust, to the Firbankian frisson, to the poofing incense, and baron Corvo incognito, this litany of homophobic codes has been marshaled to bear witness to what Kroll later characterizes as Rauschenberg's "Capotean" indulgence. From Kroll's perspective, we have indeed gotten "too close to the artist in the wrong sense," having uncovered his secrets: the expression of his ostensibly hidden homosexual life. What Kroll sneeringly refers to as the space "between the sanctum of private reference and the littered tundra of commemorative decay" is precisely the territory I want to navigate in my attempt to get "close to the artist." It is in this space between authoritative usage and "private reference" that the emergence of "other" meanings - seductive implications both "public" and "private" - emerge into discursive promise.

End Part 1