I have a passion for 20th century American Art. I just can’t help it. Plus, I have a longtime fascination with New York City of the 1950s, when these geniuses produced astonishing work while in the closet, but whose gayness was 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, Stephen Sondheim, Ned Rorem, Langston Hughes, Philip Johnson.
Jasper Johns is a Southern gentleman, born in Georgia and raised in South Carolina. In 1953. After a stint in the army, he moved to Manhattan with the notion of becoming an artist or maybe a writer. Within a few years he had created many works including the iconic piece, Flag, and White Flag. Within a half a decade he had four paintings in the permanent collection of MoMA. A decade after arriving in the city, Johns was considered the greatest living American artist.
In 1953, Johns met fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg. It was exactly the era when being gay was not just scrutinized, it was also being vigorously suppressed. It was the McCarthy era, when an unnatural fear of communism was running rampant. 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 was recognized as an important artist well before Johns had even started painting classes at Black Mountain College, the experimental Fine Arts school in, of all places, Asheville, North Carolina. In its short run, the school 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. Then, Johns fell in love with Rauschenberg, who became an inspiration to the younger artist. Rauschenberg:
“We gave each other permission.“
Their relationship gave them each an opportunity for self-expression, discussion and debate, and an understanding and support that neither had ever experienced before. The partnership spurred them both to explore unique compositions and new ways of painting. This new direction moved away from the emotions, technique and media of the paintings that were so common with the American Abstract Expressionists of the time. They placed other material objects on their canvases; 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 public and the art world in the 1950s and 1960s when New York City was the center of all things art. Rauschenberg called his pieces “Combines”, a hybrid of collage, sculpture and painting. Johns continued to just paint.
The two artists started to develop a secret code in their works. They shared objects, like flags and light bulbs. Johns would draw and paint them and Rauschenberg would include them in his Combines. They also shared inside jokes and coded language in their work. Some were photographs, 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 were lovers from 1955 to 1961; it was the era of each 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 a body part. One of them held a realistic penis. A certain representative of the Museum of Modern Art asked if it would be okay 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. The idea was to force 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 asked to interpret John’s intentions or emotions. Instead you are left with: What is art? And what is good art?
While living in New York City, 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 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 OuDeux. These gay men worked together and separately, yet never displayed explicit gay content in any of their works.
Having a partner who shares everything is a rare thing. Too good to be true, in fact, Johns and Rauschenberg broke up in 1961. They each moved far away from the 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 a time he was reading Gertrude Stein‘s The Autobiography Of Alice B.Toklas and Rauschenberg 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 love between two men 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 the ultimate 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 Barack 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 War draft resisters).
Johns and Rauschenberg’s relationship was the deepest and most important of each of their lives. Rauschenberg died nine years ago this very week.
Johns’ art is about tension, knowing and not knowing, the explained and the unexplained. His paintings hold secrets. That’s why I find his work hard to shake.
“Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it.“
Check your garage and attics!: