May 15, 1930– Jasper Johns:
“To be an artist you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist.”
I have a passion for 20th century American Art. I also have always been fascinated with the the NYC of the 1950s, when these geniuses produced their astonishing works while in the closet, but whose gayness was really an open secret: Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Paul Cadmus, George Platt Lynes, Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden, James Merrill, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Lincoln Kirstein, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem, Langston Hughes, Philip Johnson.
Jasper Johns is a Southern Gentleman from South Carolina. In 1953, after a stint in the army, he moved to NYC with the notion of becoming an artist or maybe a writer. Within just a few years he had created the iconic piece, Flag, And White Flag. Within a half a decade he would have four paintings in the permanent collection of MoMA. Within a decade of arriving in the Big Apple, Johns was considered the greatest living American artist.
In 1953, Johns met fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg. It was exactly the era when homosexuality was not just scrutinized, but it was vigorously suppressed. It was the McCarthy era, when unnatural fear of communism was everywhere. All kinds of political propaganda was populating the press, and it was intimated that the gay community was in some way a big security risk to the USA.
Rauschenberg had been recognized as an important artist well before Johns had even started a painting class at Black Mountain College, the experimental Fine Arts school in, of all places, Asheville, North Carolina, which in its short run was the educational home to a group of gay artists including critic Eric Bentley, composers Lou Harrison and John Cage, poet Robert Duncan, and painters Cy Twombly and Robert De Niro, Sr..
Because of the political climate of his era, Rauschenberg married in 1950 to keep up appearances. A year later he secretly began an affair with Twombly. Johns fell in love with Rauschenberg, who became an inspiration to the younger artist. Rauschenberg:
“We gave each other permission.”
This relationship gave them each an opportunity for self-expression, discussion and debate, and an understanding and support that neither had ever experienced before. This partnership spurred them to explore unique compositions and a new way of painting. This new direction went away from the emotions in the paintings that were so common with the Abstract Expressionists of the time. They instead placed other material objects on the canvas. Everything from newspaper to found objects to pieces of cloth. The two men were totally supportive of one another. Rauschenberg explained:
“He and I were each other’s first serious critics. Actually, he was the first painter I ever shared ideas with, or had discussions with about painting. No, not the first, Cy Twombly was the first. But Cy and I were not critical. Jasper and I literally traded ideas. He would say ‘I’ve got a terrific idea for you,’ and then I’d have to find one for him. Ours were two very different sensibilities, and being so close to each other’s work kept any incident of similarity from occurring.”
Sparking each other on creatively, Johns painted the images of everyday objects: numerals, letters, maps, flags and letters that captivated the art world in the 1950s and 1960s when NYC was the center of all things art. Rauschenberg called his pieces “Combines”, a hybrid of collage, sculpture and painting. Johns continued to paint.
The two artists started to develop a secret code in their works. They shared objects, like flags and light bulbs. Johns would draw them and Rauschenberg would include them into his Combines. They also shared many inside jokes and coded language in their work. Some were photos, others were literary references. An exchange of ideas and motifs was an important part of the relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg despite their different approaches to the work.
Johns and Rauschenberg continued to be lovers from 1955-1961, the era of their best and most important work. They had living/working lofts in the same building and traveled freely between their two spaces. Although the men lived and worked together, it was Johns who received the most acclaim. Johns:
“I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings.”
Johns moved to do assemblages also. His 1955 encaustic and collage work Target With Plaster Casts consisted of nine wooden boxes with hinged doors, each box holding of a body part. One of them held a realistic penis. A representative of the Museum Of Modern Art asked if it would be acceptable if that particular box stayed closed. Johns answered that it would be all right to keep the lid closed some of the time but not all of the time.
Johns also began painting single image canvases. His most famous painting Flag (1955) was a hit with the critics and the public. It forced the viewer to ask: “Is it a flag or a painting of a flag?” The sheer absurdity of the composition made people wonder about what makes something art. Studying the painting, you are not trying to interpret the artist’s intentions or emotions. Instead you are left with: What is art? And what is good art?
While living in NYC, Johns became close with composer John Cage and his partner dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, significant contributors to the Modern Dance scene. Johns collaborated with Cunningham and Cage on dances by designing sets and costumes. He became an artistic adviser to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Johns, Cage and Cunningham worked together in 1973 on Cunningham’s piece titled Un Jour Ou Deux. These gay men worked together and separately, yet never displayed explicit gay content in any of their works.
Having a partner who shares ideas and appreciates your interests and your work must be a beautiful and rare thing. It is almost too good to be true. In fact, Johns and Rauschenberg broke up in 1961. They each moved far away from each other, Rauschenberg to the Florida Keys, Johns to rural Connecticut, and their painting styles changed quite drastically after they were apart.
Johns and Rauschenberg split up because of the discomfort of being recognized as a couple outside of their circle. Rauschenberg:
“What had been sensitive and tender became gossip.”
Johns recalled the time he was reading Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography Of Alice B.Toklas and Rauschenberg had stated: “One day they’ll be writing about us like that.” Johns was none too pleased by Rauschenberg’s comparison to the famous lesbian couple.
Their breakup was tough and bitter. They didn’t speak for more than a decade. In 1961, when the relationship was falling apart, Johns produced a painting In Memory Of My Feelings, Frank O’Hara, taking the name from a poem by O’Hara that addresses gay love and the price paid for suppressing it. The poem’s first line:
“My quietness has a man in it.”
In 2006, John’s painting False Start (1957) was sold by gay billionaire David Geffen to a private buyer for 80 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for the work of a living artist.
Johns has become more and more reclusive through the years. He made an appearance of sorts on a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, playing an artist named Jasper Johns. He lives alone on an estate in Connecticut. He rarely grants interviews. In 2011, President Obama presented Johns with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, the first artist to receive the country’s highest civilian honor since Alexander Calder in 1977 (Calder refused his award to protest America’s treatment of Vietnam draft resisters).
Johns and Rauschenberg shared a relationship that was the deepest and most important of their entire lives. Rauschenberg died six years ago this very week.
Johns’ art is about tension, knowing and not knowing, the explained and the unexplained. His paintings hold secrets.
“Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it.”