Essays by Katz
LOVERS AND DIVERS: INTERPICTORIAL DIALOG IN THE WORK OF JASPER JOHNS AND ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG
In 1951, the queer poet and essayist Paul Goodman offered a window into this culture of encoded interpersonal artistic creation. Expressing grave reservations about the possibility of the survival of an avant-garde in what he called his "shell shocked" Cold War society, he opined that if art was to stay alive, it would have to concentrate on a community of like-minded friends, create specifically for them, and through this safe-guard its potential for resistance and individuality in a culture of constraint. Goodman defined this so-called personal style thus:
"In literary terms, this means: to write for them about them personally. But such personal writing about the audience itself can occur only in a small community of acquaintances … As soon as the intimate community does exist - whether geographically or not is relevant but not essential - and the artist writes about it for its members, the advance-guard at once becomes a genre of the highest integrated art, namely occasional poetry."
Such so-called occasional poetry became a means through which gay artists established culture, commonality, indeed community in the face of an explicitly homophobic culture organized around the erasure of queerness. In contrast to the community of the Abstract Expressionists which was public, articulated, and theorized, the friendship networks of Johns, Rauschenberg and company were private, untheorized and highly personalized. The Abstract Expressionist embraced a communal but not cooperative practice in formalized spaces like The Club or the Cedar Tavern, while these post Abstract Expressionist artist pursued a much more cooperative practice in informal and highly privatized locales. These differences, of course, mirrored the differences governing their respective "sexual" cultures during the Cold War era.
Rauschenberg's 1954 Collection offers a vision of these new possibilities for occasional poetry most acutely actualized on its cluttered surface. Collection, the largest and most complex painting Rauschenberg completed immediately after becoming involved with Jasper Johns, is in some sense exactly that - a collection of material, some of which stands in a complex relationship with his new lover. On it richly collaged surface, fragments of comic strips and old master reproductions vie for attention with swatches of fabric, their identity often nearly obliterated with paint. Nonetheless, many of the collage elements betray a curious consistence, repeatedly referencing two general themes: the beach and two boys in various forms of interaction. For example, Collection contains a collaged Moon Mullins comic strip, so obscured by paint that only a bit of its dialog balloon is visible. This snippet, the only legible speech in the entire strip, contains the following conversation "And I bet you can swim like a fish. Yeh, better, I can swim on my back."
Rauschenberg may have left this exchange legible as a coded aside to his new lover, for the dialog between the two boys, when read through gay slang of the period, references the pleasures of anal sex. Swimming like a fish, i.e., in gay argot, a woman, is unfavorably compared to swimming on your back, which is to say in the male receptive posture.
Another comic continues the beach theme: "I can't get over him going to Belmont Beach." This intertextual richness in Collection is further evidenced by the inclusion of a Macy's ad containing the dialog, "I could have gone anywhere. But I've come to Jones Beach because it has everything I need for my vacation." Not only is the beach theme amplified here, but in the fifties, Jones beach had an celebrated gay section, the largest in the area.
Nearly seven feet off the ground and far from easy to see in the upper right of the canvas, there is that remarkable fragment of a comic strip reading, "How gruesome life would be if our guiding stars hadn't introduced you to me and …"Below it, in a fragmentary Timmy comic, the narrative concerns two boys trying to set up house in a pup tent in the most inappropriate places. After numerous rejections, they ultimately erect the tent in the only open space available, the dangerous middle of the street. Could this be an allusion to Johns and Rauschenberg setting up their domestic household together, the rejection and perhaps even the dangers therein confronted?
On the left side, Rauschenberg signed the image, as it were, with a large "R" cut out from a magazine. The three sections of the composition are differentiated at the bottom as predominantly red, yellow and blue, a compositional device Johns will shortly embrace (as he would, too, the tripartite division of the image). Finally, it seems that Cy Wombly may have executed some of his characteristic scrawls over the center mid section.
The very next painting Rauschenberg completed, Charlene, 1954, remarkably contains the same exact Moon Mullins strip as Collection, this time largely free of overpainting. Here we can now contextualize the fragment from Collection through reference to the entire strip. Beginning at the lower left of the widest panel, we can follow the narrative, which presents moon Mullins and his brother taking a bus to the beach, talking along the way about a newspaper story that said most accidents on the beach occurred because "guys" like to show off to "pretty girls." Moon's brother points out that the same thing happened to Moon the year before for the same reason. The brother then tries to impress two of the girls with his swimming prowess and dives into the water. It is here that we find the section Rauschenberg left unpainted in Collection about swimming like a fish. Moon, seeking to keep up with his show-off brother, then ups the ante with a daring back flip while shouting "Alley."
Rauschenberg then sharply cuts the frame, repeating the backflip once again further to the right with yet another copy of the comic, and then finally continuing it on the leftmost panel to the left of the light bulb with the concluding exclamation "Oop" as Moon painfully lands with his chin on the diving board. The careful repetition and division of this strip at the same dividing point, along with the fact that at least three copies of the same comic were purchased and employed, surely signals a shared significance beyond the frame of the actual narrative, perhaps something about showing off heterosexually (in front of the girls) but falling, painfully, on your face. Rachel Rosenthal reports that she was an occasional lover of Johns' at this point. 15 Could it be - and this is no more than speculation - such "failed" heterosexual activity that Rauschenberg is referencing?
Nonetheless, Charlene is certainly larded with many other points of private reference: it contains a handwritten, personal letter from Rauschenberg's mother describing his sister's participation in the Louisiana Yam Queen competition, and an ad for the Texas Utilities Co. taken from the New York Times (Rauschenberg's father worked for Gulf State Utilities Co. of Port Arthur, TX) among others. The point is that under cover of a seemingly random aggregation of objects, Rauschenberg's collection of artifacts is, at least for him, distinctly emotionally resonant.
Let us assume Johns, a frequent visitor to Rauschenberg's studio even before they moved in to the same building, understood these baroque chains of association. Johns reported a sense of competency in his lover's discursive modes, "I thought I understood what went into his paintings, so I could do one." 16 And in a certain sense he did, because four years late, Johns resurrected the same Moon Mullins thematic in his painting Alley Oop, 1958, which is, moreover, still in Rauschenberg's personal collection. Tellingly, the title of the painting is derived from the exact scene Rauschenberg divided and repeated three times in Charlene, the scene of the diving and crashing Moon Mullins. Johns' version, too, employs an overpainted comic strip, although now the comic appears to be from a strip called Alley Oop popular in the fifties (clearly referenced in the punch line of the Moon Mullins comic four years before.) The comic in Alley Oop is completely overpainted in thick, blocky strokes that at once trace and obscure the underlying narrative, with the exception of one small unpainted detail: a man's necktie remains visible. At around the same time Johns was completing Alley Oop, Rauschenberg was finishing Kickback, which features an actual necktie, bracketed by the collaged, barely coded camp phrases, "you want" and "King size." As Rauschenberg once paid coded pictorial tribute to Johns' art in Yoicks, Johns here returns the compliment through an obscure reference to Kickback.
In a profound sense, the key to understanding Johns' enigmatic Alley Oop may lie in Rauschenberg's Collection, just as the painting itself is in his collection. The complicated dialectic between these paintings can stand as a metaphor for the shadowy chains of influence between the two artists. Clearly, none of this careful interpictorial punning was intended for the casual viewer, and Johns, when queried about Alley Oop, responded in typically obscurantist formal terms, "I was trying to find some way to apply color in an arbitrary fashion, to incorporate the image within a color field." 17 But the fact remains that Johns not only returned four years later to an interpictorial thematic dialog with Rauschenberg, but did so yet again, yet another four years later in 1962, almost immediately after they broke up.
The post break-up series, too, concerns the Moon Mullins strip and its account of a failed diver - a reference point keyed to the origins of a relationship now eight years old, testimony to the power and persistence of such encoded thematics in Johns' and Rauschenberg's work. The central images in this most enigmatic series of post break-up paintings are the magisterial Diver of 1962 (fig. 2) (then Johns' largest canvas to date), and the related paintings which follow it in 1963 like Periscope (Hart Crane) and Land's End (fig. 3), as well as the monumental drawing Diver (fig. 4). While the elegiac quality of these images has long been noted, along with their multiple references to the gay American poet Hart Crane and his tragic shipboard suicide by drowning, the specific terms of Johns' engagement with this theme has remained unclear.
Periscope (Hart Crane) offers a clue as to Johns' particular interest in Crane at the time. The "Cape Hatteras" section of Crane's most famous long poem The Bridge is referenced in the title and concerns the subtle changes memory undergoes over time. Crane writes:
Moreover, perhaps Johns felt that Crane had personal experience with such feelings of deprivation and loss, for, upon returning to the United States from Mexico, the poet dived off the ship and killed himself. His suicide was presumably in part motivated by a self-loathing despair which followed a beating delivered by some sailors he had propositioned while nonetheless engaged to be married. Johns, who knew Crane's poetry well - surely knew the tale of the poet's suicide and its associations with loss and frustrated love.
We are, perhaps, now in a better position to engage the imaging of the diver that regularly crops up, again and again in various ways in these works - even well after the relationship with Rauschenberg is over. Perhaps this overdetermined comic strip of the diving Moon Mullins may help specify the utility of the diver thematic and its rich associative heritage for Johns. An image which earlier had seemed so keyed to Johns and Rauschenberg's life together, to shared intimacies and joys, now reemerges after the break up with a very different purpose in mind. Crane's suicidal dive merges with Rauschenberg's diving Moon Mullins to produce a complicated associative node; Diver and related images is at once a drowning leap; a sardonic commentary to Rauschenberg on love lost, an intimate correspondence concluded; an evocation of the "labyrinth submersed" that is memory; even perhaps a statement of Johns' own suicidal feelings. While we can probably never lock down a singular significance for the diver here, his reemergence after years in absentia testifies to his importance for Johns at this critical juncture in his association with Rauschenberg. Something in this diver, shifted from partner to partner, painting to painting, is shared; his meaning perhaps altered but his utility to the artists' unchanged. This diver signifies, powerfully for Johns, association with Rauschenberg - and in a voice unheard by outsiders, which is his chief strength.
The joyous accumulation of details that once accompanied the evocation of this diver in works like Charlene and Alley Oop is replaced by an oft-noted brooding quality after the break-up. In comparison to the light palette and giddy arrangement of the earlier images, the post break-up diver pictures are largely dark and somber. They can be understood as tracing a narrative of desperation, from the diving figure in the drawing Diver to the hands cresting the surface of the water in the painting Diver, to the downward pointing arrow submerged in watery depths in Land's End to the restored equilibrium, in Periscope (Hart Crane), wrought through the passage of time.
As far as I can tell, Rauschenberg in turn would evoke the diver theme just once more after his original use of it in the mid-fifties. In 1959, Rauschenberg began work on a suite of drawings intended as illustration of Dante's Inferno. In the 15th Canto, Dante meets his former teacher Ser Brunetto. He finds Brunetto among a group of sodomites cursed to run barefoot over hell's hot sand, presumably a reference to the placelessness of sodomites in the culture of the time and their life of continual flight.
In Dante Drawing XV, Rauschenberg outlined his own foot in red, placing it over a transfer drawing of the two men embracing - actually two superimposed photos of divers from a Sports Illustrated magazine. To the left, there is clearly visible the alternation red and white stripes of an American flag, connected to the image of the foot by a series of finely delineated footsteps. The flag, obviously referencing Jasper Johns, implicates his then lover in this scene of subjective identification with Dante's long suffering sodomites.
Here a medieval Italian classic, a modern American sports magazine, divers, footsteps and flags meet on unexpected pictorial terrain. Their conjunction is carefully orchestrated and stage managed, and richly expressive of an entire complex of themes and identifications by a gay male artist amidst the Cold War. Expressive, that is, if you know the code, otherwise the work is ambiguous, resistant, enduringly silent. Johns and Rauschenberg found a way to speak to one another in mid-century American art, while leaving that silence unbroken.
End Part 3