I have a passion for 20th century American art, & I have always been fascinated with the 1950s, when these geniuses produced their astonishing works while closeted, 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 was a Southern Gentleman from South Carolina. In 1953, after a stint in the army, he moved to NYC with the notion of becoming of an artist or writer. Within just a few years he had created the iconic- Flag, & White Flag & within a half a decade he would have 4 paintings in the permanent collection of MOMA. Within a decade, he would be considered the greatest living American artist.
Jasper Johns fell in love with fellow artist-Robert Rauschenberg, who became an inspiration to the younger man. Rauschenberg: “We gave each other permission.” Spurring each other on creatively, Johns painted many works of familiar objects: numerals, letters, maps, flags, letters, that captivated the art world, when NYC was the center of all things art. Johns & Robert Rauschenberg were lovers from 1955-1961, the era of their best & most important work. They had living/working lofts on the same building & went freely between their spaces. Although the men lived & worked together, it was Johns who received the most acclaim.
Jasper Johns: “I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings,” He painted conventional subjects, which left the critics to ponder the explanation of his rough brushstrokes & saturnine surfaces. Johns’s work is about tension between knowing & not knowing, the explained & the unexplained. His paintings carry a secret.
His 1955 work-Target With Plaster Casts consisted of 9 wooden boxes with hinged doors, each box held of a body part. One of them was a detailed penis. A representative of the Museum of Modern Art, asked I if it would be acceptable if that particular box stayed closed? Johns: “It would be all right to keep the lid closed some of the time but not all of the time.”
In NYC, Johns met musical composer John Cage & his partner choreographer Merce Cunningham,a significant contributor to the modern dance world concert stages. Johns collaborated with Cunnigham’s work by designing sets & costumes, & became an artistic advisor to his company. Johns, Cage & Cunningham collaborated in 1973 on Cunningham’s piece- Un Jour ou Deux. These 4 gay men, never displayed explicit homosexual content in any of their works.
Johns & Rauschenberg split up because of the discomfort of being recognized as a couple outside of their circle. Rauscheberg: “What had been sensitive & tender became gossip” . Johns recalled the time he was reading Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,& Rauschenberg stated: “One day they’ll be writing about us like that.” Johns was not pleased by Rauschenberg’s comparison to the lesbian couple.
Their breakup was so bitter that they both left NYC, & they both returned to the south for an extended period. They didn't speak for more than a decade. In 1961, as the relationship was ending, Johns produced a painting- In Memory of My Feelings, Frank O’Hara, taking the name from a poem by O’Hara about gay love & the price paid for suppressing it. The poem's first line: “My quietness has a man in it.”. Johns became reclusive, & moved to an estate in Connecticut. He almost never gives interviews. Johns’ & Rauschenberg’s relationship was the deepest & most important of their entire lives. Rauschenberg died 2 years ago this week
Robert Rauschenberg: “Jasper was soft, beautiful, lean, & poetic. I have photos of him then that would break your heart.”