Relationships can have profound effects on our careers and the work that we produce. Unhealthy relationships are harmful on so many levels. Aside from the emotional damage, they can impose limitations on creativity, expression, and experimentation. My post about Lee Krasner & Jackson Pollock
illustrates this point. After reading that essay, I was feeling pretty dismal about relationships. Do they always have to impede personal development and growth?
Healthy relationships impact our creativity and professional careers, too. Obviously the level of impact varies from couple to couple. I’ve seen lots of healthy relationships, and know that a good partner will support your career and hobbies. But I’ve never really seen a healthy relationship where two people were in the same creative field and supported each other. The most encouraging essay from Significant Others
was The Art of Code: Jasper Johns & Robert Rauschenberg
by Johnathan Katz.
Robert Rauschenberg (right) and Jasper Johns (left).
Image courtesy of Outlawmarriages
Jasper Johns (b. 1930) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) were lovers for over six years. They met in 1953, a time when homosexuality was not just under scrutiny, but vigorously suppressed. Keep in mind that this was the McCarthy era, when fear of communism was everywhere. All kinds of political propaganda circulated – in particular that the gay and lesbian communities were somehow a security risk to the country.
Rauschenberg has been a recognized as an artist well before Johns had even started dabbling in painting classes at Black Mountain College
. Rauschenberg married Susan Weil in 1950 to keep up appearances, but a year later was secretly involved with artist Cy Twombly
. In contrast to Twombly’s work and the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists
of the time, Rauschenberg’s art was curiously quiet. In fact, his artwork was a radical opposition to the entire movement. His most famous piece during this time was Erased de Kooning
. Rauschenberg requested a drawing from de Kooning that he would later exhibit as his own after erasing the complex drawing.
Erased de Kooning by Robbert Rauschenberg, 1953. Image courtesy of Brown University.
He also created several series of White Paintings. Paintings like these usually irritate me. If I’m wandering around a museum on my own, I wonder why they are being exhibited. They don’t seem to require any sort of technical skill. Nor do any of the labels hint at why the composition might be ground breaking. What Johnathan Katz did in his essay was put the entire artwork into context. Rauschenberg’s White Paintings were a total negation of the self. Abstract Expressionism was about the struggle of self expression – to literally blurt out emotions, inner turmoil, and identity onto the canvas with paint. How could Rauschenberg do this when to be gay was so harshly received? To come out was perceived as anti-American.
So my perspective on Erased de Kooning and the White Paintings definitely changed after learning this. These works are Rauschenberg’s attempts to marginalize the idea of the self, of his own feelings, and his own sexual identity. The canvases leave little trace of brushstrokes or any indication of who the artist might be. They are completely and numbingly silent. Instead of just seeing white panels, I can feel a real sense of isolation. It’s like seeing Rauschenberg’s desire to erase himself – to obliterate a part of himself from existence.
Rauschenberg began seeing Johns in the winter of 1953. Johns was working in a bookstore, unsure if he wanted to pursue art. Rauschenberg encourage John to use his creativity designing department store window displays. The two worked on these displays and began painting together. This marked a new direction of art. Both Rauschenberg and Johns didn’t identify with Abstract Expressionism, and started making a move towards Pop Art.
This relationship gave each artist the opportunity for self expression, dialogue, understanding, and support that neither had experienced before. This gave way to unique compositions and paintings. They 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 . . .But 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.” (197)
Numbers in Color by Jasper Johns, 1958. Image courtesy of About.com
I love this notion of trading ideas. It shows that they supported each other’s work, that they were both willing to strike out in new directions – they were both willing to take risks and try new things. They gave each other permission to experiment with a new style of painting, and an environment for discussion.
This new direction went away from emotions on a canvas that was so common with Abstract Expressionism. They instead placed other material objects on the canvas. Everything from newspaper to cloth was fair game. Rauschenberg started creating Combines, his own hybrid of collage, sculpture, and painted images.
Yoicks by Robert Rauchenberg, 1953. Image courtesy of The Whitney.
Johns began painting single image canvases. His painting Flag in 1955 was such a hit because it made the viewer ask: “Is it a flag or a painting of a flag?” The sheer absurdity of the composition leaves the viewer wondering about what makes something art. The viewer isn’t trying to interpret the artists inner state, emotions, or sexual preference. The focus is on the actual canvas and larger questions like: What is art? And what is good art?
Flag by Jasper Johns, 1955.
Image courtesy of MoMA
The two artists started to develop a secret code in their artwork. They shared objects, like light bulbs. Johns would draw them, and Rauschenberg would include them into his Combines. They shared many inside jokes and coded language in their work. Some were photos, others were literary references. Katz explains in his essay:
“Exchanging ideas and motifs was an important part of the relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg despite their different approaches.”
To find a partner that gives you ideas, shares an ideology, and appreciates your interests and work is such a beautiful thing. I think as humans, we are all looking for a relationship like this, regardless of sexual preference. To find a partner like this is very rare. And it doesn’t always last. In the case of Johns and Rauschenberg, they broke up in 1961. They each moved far from each other, and their painting styles changed quite drastically, as you can see.
Sub Total by Robert Rauschenberg, 1971,
Image courtesy of Art Brokerage