As if the tax fight over Robert Rauschenberg’s “Canyon” (1959, below) hadn’t already provided sufficient drama to spice up the Museum of Modern Art’s presentation of the work alongside other Rauschenbergs and pieces by Jasper Johns from the mid- and late-1950s in a small show titled “Johns and Rauschenberg,” the wall text accompanying the mini-exhibition has raised a few eyebrows for conspicuously neglecting to mention the fact that the two artists were lovers. In a typically masterfully headlined Slate article, “Is MoMA Putting Artists Back in the Closet?,” Mark Joseph Stern argues that the exhibition’s contextualizing wall text “doesn’t go nearly far enough.”
“Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were lovers during this six-year period of collaboration, and their relationship had a profound impact on their art,” Stern writes. “For years, the art world ignored this vital component of the Johns/Rauschenberg story, while the artists themselves kept mum on the matter.” Stern argues that for MoMA to do so is essentially to closet the artists, whose romantic, tumultuous, and very competitive relationship was the focus of a section of the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibition in 2010.
However, their relationship should not merely be acknowledged as a biographical detail, Stern says, but because — as the NPG exhibition demonstrated so convincingly — the artists’ sexuality and the nature of their relations enrich the potential interpretations of many of their works. After receiving no satisfactory response from MoMA, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, or Matthew Marks Gallery — which represents Johns — as to why the artists are merely referred to as “friends” in the exhibition wall text, Stern concludes that the biggest failure of “Johns and Rauschenberg” is “not that it puts gay artists in the closet, but that it keeps viewers in the dark.”
— Benjamin Sutton