“Jasper was soft, beautiful, lean, and poetic,” wrote Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most important artists of the 20th century, of Jasper Johns, his inamorato from 1954 to 1962. “I have photos of him then that would break your heart.” Johns had moved from South Carolina to New York City with the vague idea of becoming an artist. A mere decade later, he was one of America’s greatest living painters. He had fallen in love with Rauschenberg, five years his senior and already a working artist, who mentored and inspired the young man (known to his friends as Jap). “We gave each other permission,” Rauschenberg recalled before he died in 2008. During a period of frenzied invention, Johns produced a body of work — paintings of maps, flags, letters, and numerals — that transfixed and then transformed the art world.
The images Johns produced turned out to be the link between what came before (abstract expressionism) and pretty much everything that happened after (including pop art, with its bold appropriation of familiar images, and minimalist and conceptual art).
But for Johns, the permission he got from his relationship with Rauschenberg didn’t include coming out of the closet. The details of the relationship between the men was known only to art world insiders (including Leo Castelli, the gallerist who discovered Johns during a visit to Rauschenberg’s studio in 1956) and to close friends. The two also had affairs with women and never publicly identified themselves as gay. It was a closet of convenience. “A perk of their secretiveness,” explained Brad Gooch in an essay on Johns, “was the chance to be players in the larger world rather than put in a box and dismissed.”
Gooch is right that Johns might not have been taken seriously as an artist had he been known as Robert Rauschenberg’s boyfriend. Not only was the 1950s one of the most homophobic decades in American history, but the art world was dominated by macho egoists, epitomized by Jackson Pollock.
And what Johns wasn’t comfortable saying in words, he wasn’t comfortable saying in his paintings. He focused on images the mind already knows — flags, targets, and numerals — precisely to avoid giving too much away. “I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings,” Johns pronounced. But by painting familiar, even banal, subjects, he left critics to wonder about the meaning of his turbulent brushwork and crusty surfaces. Jonathan Katz, the queer historian, said Johns’s work was about “the tension between knowing and not knowing, saying and not saying.” He added, “The work always betrays a notion of something being buried or secreted.”
There were a few early bursts of directness. His Target With Plaster Casts (1955) included nine small wooden boxes with hinged doors, each containing a cast of a body part. One of them was a penis, perfectly detailed. Would it be all right, asked a representative of the Museum of Modern Art, which was hoping to acquire the work, if the lid to that particular box stayed closed? According to his biographer Calvin Tomkins, Johns said it would be all right to keep the lid closed some of the time.
But increasingly, he kept doors closed. Johns and Rauschenberg split up in part because of his discomfort as they became known beyond their immediate circle. “What had been sensitive and tender became gossip,” said Rauschenberg. In a rare mention of Rauschenberg, Johns recalled the time he was reading Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas aloud in their studio, and Rauschenberg turned and said, “One day they’ll be writing about us like that.” Johns, by his own account, was startled by Rauschenberg’s comparison to the lesbian couple.
Their breakup was so bitter that, according to biographers, each left New York City for an extended period, and the two men hardly spoke for the next decade. Johns made revenge paintings, according to Katz, who points to one canvas called Liar. More poignantly, in 1961, as the relationship was ending, Johns titled another painting In Memory of My Feelings — Frank O’Hara, taking its name from a well-known poem by O’Hara about gay love and the price paid for suppressing it. The poem begins, “My quietness has a man in it.” Over the years, Johns became increasingly reclusive, moving to an estate in Sharon, Conn. and almost never giving interviews.
Should Johns be claimed as a gay artist–something he would never call himself? His achievements were a direct result of his relationship with Rauschenberg. That their productive pairing occured behind the cover of familiar images made it no less real, and certainly no less momentous.