JASPER JOHNS' ALLEY OOP: ON COMIC STRIPS AND CAMOUFLAGE
Jonathan D. Katz

It’s a relatively small painting, and weirdly made; a single three line Sunday comic strip collaged onto the upper half of a sheet of cardboard slathered in gestural orange paint. The comic, from a strip entitled Alley Oop, was popular in America in the fifties when this image by Jasper Johns was made. Johns calls the painting Alley Oop (fig.1), too, and in 1958 he carefully traced the chief features of the comic in thick, blocky, largely monochromatic strokes of paint which at once delineate and obscure the underlying narrative. All the speech balloons have been made illegible, obscured in white or red paint. The only part of the comic left untouched by overpainting is a small outline of a man’s necktie.

Alley Oop the painting is thus both an appropriation and a transformation of Alley Oop the comic. The comic featured the trials of a Neolithic caveman plunked down amidst contemporary life, where he finds everything unfamiliar and strange, and yet for all that, tries to fit in. There is, at first glance, nothing particularly gay about this image, save perhaps for a loose identification of an outsider’s perspective with a gay one, and of the shared struggle to get along in a world strange and estranging.

But then Johns does not paint explicitly gay themed pictures. Indeed, a deeply closeted artist and famously taciturn interviewee, he rarely reveals his personal feelings at all. As he once famously put it:

I have attempted to develop my thinking in such a way that the work I've done is not me--not to confuse my feelings with what I produce. I didn't want my work to be an exposure of my feelings. Abstract Expressionism was so lively--personal identity and painting were more or less the same, and I tried to operate the same way. But I found I couldn't do anything that would be identical with my feelings. So I worked in such a way that I could say that it's not me. That accounts for the separation.1

And yet upon closer inspection, works like Alley Oop reveal a deeply personal iconography which doubtless was intended to escape the eye of the general observer. To decode such a complicated iconography, we must return this image to the site of its genesis: Jasper Johns’ romantic relationship with fellow painter Robert Rauschenberg. Together, they developed a shared language of comic strip codes and dense wordplays in which , we will find, Alley Oop plays a central part.

Jasper Johns met Robert Rauschenberg in the winter of 1953-54. The two men encountered one another again at a party a short while after their initial meeting and the relationship developed quickly. From very early in 1954, Johns had become the major focus of Rauschenberg’s attention. They would be lovers over the next eight years and their break-up would be so bitter that both left New York for their native South and neither saw nor spoke to one another for over a decade.

From the start, Rauschenberg embraced Johns in unabashedly romantic terms, "I have photos of him then that would break your heart. Jasper was soft, beautiful, lean and poetic. He looked almost ill--I guess that's what I mean by poetic."2 A mere five years apart in age, they nonetheless differed vastly in experience. As Johns once put it, "He was kind of an enfant terrible at the time, and I thought of him as an accomplished professional. He'd already had a number of shows, knew everybody, had been to Black Mountain College working with all those avant-garde people."3 Two gay men working and living together, they were able to develop between themselves some semblance of the kind of community that the Abstract Expressionists took for granted. Pollock and De Kooning had the Cedar Bar; Johns and Rauschenberg had each other. Coupledom created in each of their lives a possibility for dialog, understanding, and support such as they had never, and could never, experience alone.

In a sense, Johns and Rauschenberg were almost a world unto themselves during the first few years of their relationship. Johns has said, "our world was very limited. I think we were very dependent on one another. There was that business of triggering energies. Other people fed into that but it was basically a two-way operation." Their intense emotional and intellectual rapport, in concert with the homophobic context of Cold War culture, created the conditions for a shared private language in their art, an expressive mode keyed to an audience of one. By design, this private language was hard to read and complicated, as it had to be in order to escape other, hostile eyes. Both Johns and Rauschenberg would later repeatedly deny any meaning to the specific content in their art at this time. Yet the seed of a challenge to this commonly accepted view of their art was planted by none other than Rauschenberg himself in 1961 symposium at the Museum of Modern Art:

Rauschenberg: Also, being a good artist is like committing the perfect crime--you don't get caught.
interviewer: I'm talking about crimes you get caught for.
Rauschenberg: That's not art"5

Alley Oop could have been a perfect crime, except for my chance close examination of a Rauschenberg painting called Collection (1954, fig. 2)--the most ambitious image Rauschenberg completed immediately after meeting Jasper Johns. Collection features numerous comic strip fragments on its cluttered surface and among these is a Sunday comic called Moon Mullins, so obscured with overpainting as to be almost completely illegible. Curiously, that same Moon Mullins comic strip is also in evidence in the very next picture Rauschenberg completed, called Charlene (1954) (fig 3). In Charlene, however, it is largely free of overpainting so that the narrative is revealed. The comic begins with the title character Moon Mullins’ report that he read that most accidents at the beach occur because of "boys showing off to pretty girls." Moon’s brother replies that the same thing happened to Moon the previous year, and then with the logic of comic strips, noticing they have arrived at the beach, he jumps into the water to show off to the girls. Moon, incensed, climbs a high diving platform in an effort to keep up with his show-off brother, and then ups the show --off ante with a daring back flip while shouting "Alley."

Rauschenberg sharply cuts the frame here, leaving the strip unfinished. He repeats this same backflip scene from yet another copy of the comic strip on a different section of the canvas, again cutting off the final frame, and then finally concludes it with still another rendition on the leftmost panel--this time including the missing conclusion. And here we finally come to the point of this long digression, for in the strip, Moon not only dives off the platform yelling "Alley," he brings the narrative to an end by yelling "Oop" as he painfully crash lands with his chin on the diving board. Clearly, to comic strip readers in the mid 1950’s, the curious exclamation was a knowing wink at the rival comic, Alley Oop.

Note, then, that Alley Oop, the phrase, is featured in two separate canvases by Robert Rauschenberg four years before the Johns painting of the same name. I hope you agree that the multiple paste ups of this same strip across two separate canvases, coupled with the careful division and repetition of this strip at precisely the divide between Moon’s diving off with an "Alley" and crash landing with an "Oop" points to a shared reference point for this phrase beyond the frame of the actual comic. Rauschenberg must have had to buy at least 3 different copies of the same Sunday paper with the Moon Mullins strip, one for use in Collection, and then at least two other copies to make Charlene. Something important about this image is shared and I find it tender and touching to watch Rauschenberg and then Johns scour the detritus of popular culture for some phrase or fragment capable of carrying meanings from one partner to the other.

A possible significance for this particular strip in 1954 suggests itself. Johns--then newly involved with Rauschenberg and deeply conflicted about it-- was also having an on again, off again affair with performance art guru Rachel Rosenthal. Rosenthal remembered that her relationship with both Rauschenberg and Johns was then quite complicated, " There was a lot of murkiness, and games being played, and crossed signals. Actually, I guess it was sort of god-awful."6 In light of Johns’ affair with Rosenthal, perhaps Rauschenberg’s theme of falling, painfully, on one’s face while showing off in front of the girls is a way of referencing showing off, as it were, heterosexually, and then falling painfully on your face.

Whatever the particular meaning of the comic for these men in 1954, something about it obviously hit home, for it was four years later that Johns resurrected this obsessively collaged comic in his painting Alley Oop. While it is not Moon Mullins, but an actual Alley Oop strip that is collaged, the reference to the exact scene Rauschenberg divided and repeated three times in Charlene is clear. Johns’ version was moreover created as a gift to Rauschenberg, and until recently remained in his private collection. In a sense, then, the key to Johns' enigmatic Alley Oop is in Rauschenberg's 1954 Collection, very much as the painting was itself in his collection. We could almost let this stand as metaphor for the shadowy chains of influence between the two artists.

That Johns’ Alley Oop is a kind of tribute to Rauschenberg can be inferred not only from its resuscitation of one of his partner’s earlier themes, but also by its oblique reference to what seems in retrospect one of Rauschenberg’s gayer painting--then under completion in his studio one floor above Johns’. That painting is called Kickback (1959, Fig. 4), and it features a man’s tie protruding from the crotch of a pair of khaki pants that Rauschenberg collaged to the surface. The tie emerges from a patch of scumbled , rather pubic black paint and is framed by two sets of words taken from advertisements. Above the tie, it reads "King" in large letters, while below is the phrase "What you want" in smaller type. As if to cap this surfacing of a distinctly more explicit, even comic, homoeroticism, Rauschenberg has collaged a photo of a submarine breaking the surface just to the left of the tie. The unpainted tie in one frame of Johns’ Alley Oop, notable in being the only unpainted element in the entire picture, may very well be a nod towards Kickback--a highly circuitous matching of referents in a highly privatized chain of associations.

But there is something precious about the foregoing analysis, isn’t there? To trace these complex interpictorial allusions or conversations ( or project them, as hostile readers would doubtless have it), one has to be nearly as steeped in these works as the artists themselves. And save for the political pleasures of being able to claim a certain queerness to some of the canonical images of post war American art, what good does this analysis do? Elucidating baroque, nearly invisible chains of reference and association is of limited value if we can’t come to terms with the simple fact that none of what I just sketched out is visible to the average viewer confronting this image on a museum wall. Johns’ Alley Oop, for all its collaged comics, hardly looks like a Rauschenberg, nor does it visually appear to be in dialog with his works. The presence of the phrase "alley oop" in Rauschenberg’s combines occurs not only a full four years before Johns’ painting, but is moreover fragmentary, carried by shreds of a comic strip --among numerous other comic strips--on a very large and cluttered surface. Only an obsessive would bother to read these faded fragments and so what’s the point of the foregoing extended analysis if it can’t get us closer to the way these images actually look?

Despite the fact that the particulars of what I’m claiming are hardly in evidence to the casual viewer of Alley Oop, a general sense of meanings buried or repressed is, I think, in some complicated way discernible on the surface of the painting. Indeed, I want to argue that the painting produces itself as an object of mindful restraint, theatrically displaying its manifold repressions. This is, after all, a painting which traces a narrative that has been both delineated and obscured, and a dialog at once in evidence and made utterly unreadable. And there is surely sweet irony in taking the most narratively explicit of the visual arts, the comic strip, and not only turning it away from its narrative functions, but then presenting, even underscoring, that act of concealment for all to see.7

Alley Oop, in short, can be taken to thematize Johns’ greater process of image making: the identification of subjectively resonant themes and subjects and then patiently layering them over with thick swaths of paint, fossilizing them, so that at core, a node of significance animates a flurry of concealing strokes. In a Cold War cultural context cross-cut by metaphors of hiding, spying, and revelation, these works were understood as essays in camouflage, totems of an inability to say or even see, what was, after all, literally painted on their surface. The eminent art historian and early Johns critic Leo Steinberg recently recounted a conversation he had with Robert Rauschenberg around the time he was finishing his famous 1962 article on Jasper Johns :8

I told him instead of the terrible problem I faced near the end, having posed the rhetorical question: "how improper is it to find metaphorical or emotional content in Johns’ work?"

Remember we’re in 1961, when Johns’ claim for his work was deadpan impersonal objectness, and that emotional content was neither overtly nor implicitly present. This seemed to me mere up-to-date rhetoric---it’s how Frank Stella would talk, and, of course, the gray eminence behind them all, the composer John Cage. Whereas Johns’ early work, the longer I looked at it, seemed to grow ever more secretive and confessional.; it spoke mutely of solitude , abandonment, desolation….And so I blurted it out--and Rauschenberg listened…And when I had done, he said quietly and in dead earnest, "I think you are very close."9

Alley Oops is speaking, but it can say nothing determinant beyond the fact of its own silencing and self-effacement. I want to bring on the metaphor of the closet here, but I can’t; it’s not quite right. The purpose of the closet is not only to camouflage identity, but to camouflage that camouflaging, so that one blends in seamlessly. Not here; Johns’ image performs its own self-effacement, transforming a silence into a silencing. This camouflaged comic bespeaks not speaking; it carries its closet, qua closet, on parade.

Alley Oop, the comic strip, foursquare and framed, is presented like a window in the painting Alley Oop, but it is a window onto nothing in particular. What happens when an image’s identity, not to mention its voice, its narrativity, is leveled or appropriated by another with different interests in mind? For Johns has done more than appropriate the strip; he has in effect translated it into a Johns painting, pushing and pulling it between registers of legibility such that we have to ask, in a formulation familiar from his famous Flag paintings, is it a painting of a comic strip, a painted comic strip, a painting with a comic? Here, made distant and mute, Alley Oop’s identity--painting and comic---depends entirely on the subjective response of the viewer. It no longer speaks--its is spoken for. In place of the comic’s once determinant narrative, we can construct this painting as we like it. That is-- is it not--a chief consequence of the closet, this allowing oneself to be understood, which is to say to be produced or spoken for, as the mere effect of the observer. The closeted gay man is surely in part defined by anticipation of the others’ subjective response, and thus allows that response to define his reality.

If I can be so crude as to label Alley Oop a visual analog of gay identity under constraint--and that is crudely put--then the gestural paint strokes that clot and clog its surface are deeply ironic, totems and traces of a self-creation realized in Abstract Expressionism as an internal procedure, but here made external--a cloaking, a coat. In place of the din and hubbub of Abstract Expressionist self-declaration, Alley Oop registers quiescent blockage, a baffle to any theory of the unity of art and artist.

This armature called Alley Oop, from my particular queer studies informed angle of vision, has thus been made to narrate its own exclusions and elisions. Yet the selfsame image could, from another angle of vision, surely be made to narrate something else. And that is the point, isn’t it? We can hang so much of our own interests and preoccupations onto Johns because he has worked so hard--this closeted gay man-- to make himself, and his art, opaque to us. And in that opacity, we can see a reflection of our own image. Success in the virulently homophobic cultural context of Cold War America was often a function of the quality of the camouflage (fig 5).

1 Vivian Raynor, "Jasper Johns: 'I Have Attempted to Develop My Thinking in Such a Way that the Work I've Done is Not Me,'" Artnews 72 (March 1973):20-22.

2 Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time. New York: Penguin Books, 1980: 109-110.

3 G. Glueck, Interview with Robert Rauschenberg. NY Times (10/6/77).

4 Tomkins, unpublished notes, quoted in Roni Feinstein, "Random Order: The First Fifteen Years of Robert Rauschenberg's Art, 1949-1964." unpublished PhD. dissertation, New York University: 249.

5Rauschenberg in unpublished 1961 transcript of the Symposium on Assemblage organized by William Seitz following the The Art of Assemblage exhibition at MOMA, MOMA archives:22.

6Rachel Rosenthal in Tomkins, Off the Wall: 113. The full quote is: " I used to work at night at my sculpture, with my cats, and cry because I couldn't have Jasper... At the same time I was very attracted to Bob. He was so seductive and yet so shrewed; he knew just how to play on your weak points. We had this weird relationship. I was crazy about Jap (Johns) and so was Bob, but Bob and I used to gang up on him and tease him. Jasper had such a quality of jeune fille in those days, he was so shy and his looks were so amazing...There was a lot of murkiness and games being played, and crossed signals. Actually, I guess it was sort of god-awful."

7Of course, Alley Oop is hardly the only Johns image to theatricalize its own resistance to the viewer. Numerous images like Disappearance II and No do likewise.

8Leo Steinberg. "Jasper Johns" Metro, nos. 4/5, May 1962, revised and expanded as "Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art," in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art, Oxford University Press, New York, 1972.

9Leo Steinberg, Encounters with Robert Rauschenberg. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 2000:12-15

ILLUSTRATIONS:
1) Jasper Johns Alley Oop 1958, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. S. I. Newhouse
2) Robert Rauschenberg Collection 1954 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
3) Robert Rauschenberg Charlene 1954 Stedlijk Museum, Amsterdam
4) Robert Rauschenberg Kickback 1959 Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
5) Andy Warhol Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York