LOVERS AND DIVERS: INTERPICTORAL DIALOG IN THE WORK OF JASPER JOHNS AND ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG

Part 2

The Robert Rauschenberg who made art before meeting Jasper Johns was a very different artist from the one who made art after, as even a cursory examination of his work makes clear. And as far as Johns is concerned, there is a good reason to wonder if he would ever have even become an artist had he never met Rauschenberg. 12 Compare, for example, one of Rauschenberg's pre-Johns White Paintings (Fig. 1) and his Yoicks, one of the first painting completed after they became seriously involved. The span between the empty all-white canvas and this lushly painted gestural work, replete with collaged comic strips and fabric, is a mere two and a half years. My point is that for both Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg the significance of this six year relationship is difficult to overstate. All the more remarkable, then, that it is rarely stated at all.
Not only will what follows proceed from taking that relationship seriously, it will also, rather tentatively, weave an argument for the consideration of gay relationships - at least in the closeted, pre-liberationist days before the Stonewall riots as, as it were, a special case, different from straight relationships not only in object choice and dynamics of course, but far more importantly, in terms of the work the relationship was called upon, and able, to do. As I hope to suggest in the following few pages, Johns' and Rauschenberg's relationship was not only the crucible of their art making, but of significant aspects of their identity as well.

My premise is, you should excuse the term, straightforward. For gay and lesbian people, coupledom operates differently, as indeed it must within a policed social context that not only pathologizes queer people, but strenuously enforces their social isolation as its chief mechanism of repression and control. A host of strategies have been employed in order to keep queers from finding one another, everything from sodomy laws to bar raids to the surveillance of public toilets. Loneliness is the hallmark of the closet, as the early lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness makes clear even in its title. How freighted was the search for contact and how risky. Given this state of affairs, becoming a couple carried with it a significant range of new possibilities.

Social isolation enforced by law was and is an enormously effective strategy of containment, interfering not only with the formation of community, but concomitantly, with the formation of identity, and thus a politics of liberation as well. But the importance of community as perhaps the defining issue in the development of gay subjectivity is clear. Recent scholarship in lesbian and gay studies, for example, has revealed the importance of World Was II in the development of lesbian and gay community in the United States precisely because it forced together individuals from diverse places and backgrounds, including lesbian and gay people, each thinking they were the only ones like themselves around. As they came to discover one another, they began to articulate their identity and develop communities of mutual support which continued, and in the face of countless repressive measures, even grew after the war.

Robert Rauschenberg, a member of the immediately post World War II war generation, is in his early work an artist of silence, refusal and negation, the very opposite of the image of garrulous possibility which we associate with him today. In this period before he met Johns, he is the maker of empty boxes, of erasures and of giant white empty canvases. At a time when the Abstract Expressionists were exploring the pyrotechnics of polychrome, Rauschenberg made work after work in black and white. Taken together, these diverse works - an erased De Kooning drawing, a series of all white and all black paintings, an automobile tire print on paper - are actively anti-expressive, seemingly carefully conceived to obscure and deny the artist's hand. If there was to be meaning in these expanses of blankness, it was transparently a function of the viewer's cognition, not the author's expression.

Repeatedly in these early works, Rauschenberg seeks to violate the Abstract Expressionist presumption of an equivalency between artist and work, wherein meaning in a work of art is a product of the expressive intentions of the artist. Indeed, in his first one person show at the Betty Parson's gallery, a number of works featured fragment of mirrors, reflecting the viewer's gaze back on itself and thereby literalizing Rauschenberg's refusal of authorial privilege. Given that Rauschenberg was deeply closeted at this time when the confessional became the watchword of American painting, this authorial reticence and anti-expressive aesthetic adds up. For a gay man, expression promised not success, but censure.

For example, in his White Paintings, he proffers enduringly silent images in what was certainly the most cacophonous period of American art, a silence that must be understood in the context of Jackson Pollock's rage, de Kooning's slashes and Kline's ponderous portents. These all white paintings seem to be antipodal to Abstract Expressionism, about the size and scale of a Pollock, but so without gesture or incident of any kind that Rauschenberg decreed that they could be painted by others using house paint and a roller. The Abstract Expressionist's painters were, after all, his contemporaries, even colleagues. Rauschenberg knew them, and admired their work. And he seems to have tried to make an art that was in many respects the exact opposite of theirs. In a letter to Betty Parson, Rauschenberg attempted to convince his one-time dealer to show the White Paintings by arguing, "It is completely irrelevant that I am making them - Today is their creator" thereby once again refusing authorial responsibility and inverting the Abstract Expressionist equation of self and painting.

But there is one image produced during this early period in Rauschenberg's career that breaks this pattern of negation and refusal. Indeed, it seems almost traditionally expressive, although "written" in a kind of code. Called Should Love Come First? And now destroyed, it was painted in 1951 and exhibited at Rauschenberg's first one person show at the Betty Parson's gallery that same year. Should Love Come First? Draws its title from a collaged fragment of a magazine that appears in the upper left corner and reads, "my problem: Should love come first." The problematic stated in the title certainly achieves new poignancy considering the fact that the picture was painted shortly after Rauschenberg had met and become involved with Cy Twombly, while still married to his then pregnant wife, Susan Weil. Their son Christopher was born in July that year, while Rauschenberg and Twombly were together at Black Mountain College.

In a letter that winter, Charles Olson, poet and director of the college, wrote to fellow poet Robert Creeley giving us some insight into the situation perhaps inspiring Should Love Come First? And its bittersweet title:

"(I had noticed, a few nights ago, Twombly's concern for this boy when we were all talking in the study building entrance, and Rauschenberg was sitting too carelessly on the railings over the wall's edge - that sort of attention, and warning ones takes as feminine, guarding the beloved:) … he is in the black, just now, his marriage smashing, probably over the affair with Twombly, his contract with the gallery not renewed, and - I'd also bet as an added hidden factor - the terrible pressure on him of the clear genius of this lad, Twombly, the success of his year and the total defeat of Bob's." 13

Rauschenberg and his wife Susan Weil separated almost as soon as she arrived at Black Mountain with their baby. They divorced the following year.

In addition to the charged question asked in the title Should Love Come First? also contains the imprint of Rauschenberg's foot contiguous with a male position Arthur Murray waltz diagram - a male/male dance. 14 When, shortly after meeting Rauschenberg, Johns completed a painting entitled Tango (1955), which featured a music box set into the canvas with the titled stenciled across the upper left, could it have been a tribute to his new lover inspired by the precedent of Rauschenberg's earlier tribute to Twombly? A waltz with Twombly had become a tango with Johns.

And what does it mean that Should Love Come First? was overpainted and transformed into one of the Black Paintings in 1953, following Rauschenberg's break with Twombly in Europe and subsequent return to the U.S.?

The dense web of autobiographical expression buried in Should Love Come First? was not to be repeated until after Rauschenberg met Johns in the winter of 1953. The cool, largely black and white images he produced until then would be replaced by drips and splashes, drawn hearts and found fabrics. While Rauschenberg largely stopped titling works after the Parsons show in 1951, he resumed after met Johns. Indeed, pre-Johns and post-Johns Rauschenberg seem to be two very different artists.

Shortly after they met, Rauschenberg began the wholesale cultural appropriation that made him famous - "letting the world in again," as Johns once put it. The artist's hand returned in a range of autographic gestures henceforth immediately identifiable as Rauschenberg's. And the work of this period seems if anything almost conventionally romantic (Untitled and Red Import, both circa 1954, have drawn of collaged hearts as key elements in the painting). All the customary Abstract Expressionist signs of emotional engagement so rigorously excluded from Rauschenberg's art - dripped paint, saturated color, gestural brushstrokes - reemerge all at once. After image upon image of largely empty black and white paintings, the replete redness of these works dense with collage and fabric is almost a shock. The Rauschenberg beloved today, the Rauschenberg of the combines, of the big, colorful, baroque excesses, of boundless confidence and expansive vision, emerges only after the beginning of his relationship with Johns. As a female character says to her boyfriend in a comic strip collaged into the upper right corner of Rauschenberg's Collection (1954), the largest painting completed just after Rauschenberg and Johns met, "How depressing life would be, if our lucky stars hadn't introduced you to me."

Johns and Rauschenberg met in the winter of 1953-54, and shortly thereafter Rauschenberg completed a painting, Untitled, which may well stand as an index of his feelings at the time. The surface of Untitled is busy with collaged fragments of comic strips, overpainted but sometimes with their speech balloons intact. One reads "Darling, you're here, thank goodness." Another, "And I now pronounce you man and wife." My point, of course, is that Rauschenberg selected out, employed and "misread" comic strips in his paintings to signify what he wanted them to signify. Like the comic strip in Collection quoted above, these strips had the ability to speak directly to Johns about Rauschenberg's love while appearing to be nothing more significant than random collage. Of course, the readings I'm offering for Rauschenberg's selection of these comic strips were doubtless not intended by their original authors. But the other side of Rauschenberg's mistrust of his own authorial intention was his freedom to find meanings without reference to another's authorial intention as well.

Here we witness among the earliest examples of what would become a repeated thematic in Johns' and Rauschenberg's art, the careful pictorial accumulation of comic strips and other pop cultural materials which are capable of bifurcated signification. Following the precedent of Should Love Come First?, Rauschenberg here appropriates a wide range of public texts, and causes them to bear private codes and personal meanings alongside their "public" ones. The resulting compositions elegantly combine both public and private "meanings", such that in Rauschenberg's hands, a collage fragment can be both a comic strip and an expression of joy at new love. Their double edged comics also offered the advantage of camouflage, as they proved unreadable to anyone outside the intended audience. Coupledom provided Rauschenberg with precisely the discursive matrix (a private language he could share with his lover) from which to remake the stuff of dominant culture in his own image. Silence, therefore, was no longer necessary.

Like Untitled, Yoicks (1954) was completed shortly after Johns and Rauschenberg became involved. It contains a Terry and the Pirates comic strip reading in part "In view of the circumstances, I imagine your request to delay en route at Hawaii for a honeymoon will be granted, Capt. And Lt. Charles." Note how the address to "Capt. And Lt. Charles" in the context of a honeymoon not only seems to signify a male/male relationship, but resonates with the strips in Untitled and Collection alluding to the beginning of a love affair. Generally, the comic strips in Yoicks are so completely overpainted that their speech balloons are illegible, but emerging out of the murkiness one phrase is striking clear, "…five foot ten, hair sandy, eyes blue, 160 lbs. You're not as guilty as you think." - a fairly precise description, physical and psychological, of Jasper Johns at the time.

Titled by an exclamation taken from a comic strip, Yoicks is not only much lighter and more celebratory than his previous painting, it also references not only Johns himself, but his artwork, inaugurating what would turn out to be a long term interpictorial dialog between the two men. One of the green dots in Yoicks is surrounded by a series of concentric pencil lines, evoking Johns' Green Target, then under completion in a studio one floor below Rauschenberg's, while the stripes of Yoicks evoke one of Johns' now famous Flag paintings, especially as the canvas is divided into two flag-shaped sections, the lower one with a collage of comics precisely where the dense field of blue stars would be on an American flag. In place of the rigorous negation of impulses so characteristic of Rauschenberg's pre-Johns work, there is here a multiplicity of effects, a result of this picture's use of fabric and collage, and that very messiness which connotes passion and emotion, so familiar from Ab Ex and up till now in Rauschenberg's work so strenuously avoided.

The point is that Rauschenberg finally turns away from anti-expressiveness after he has something to express and more importantly, someone to express it to. For all of Rauschenberg's assertions of randomness in his artmaking, the fact is that there is little that is random about these works, as even a cursory reading of their surfaces makes clear. But given the content of their references, and the McCarthyite cultural context of the time, it's no wonder that Rauschenberg sought to camouflage his intentions. Queer artists, not surprisingly, did what queers have always done, because it was all they could do, constructing distinctions through the recontextualization of the extant codes of culture in such a way as to carry affections unrecognized under the very nose of dominant homophobic culture.

End Part 2