OU blog

Personal Blogs

New photo

Reflecting 'queerly' on Rauschenberg, especially 'Untitled' 1954, Man in a White Suit

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 20 Jul 2018, 19:00

Art, Life, and Relationships, and Meaning & Form: Reflecting on the play between words & conjunctions – on Rauschenberg as ‘made up’ by relationships and thoughts about them.

This is a somewhat playful reflection that stems from an unfulfilled desire to comprehend something about the art of Rauschenberg and the means we use to arrive at our understandings. It is playful because I sense that, in the end, all the understandings I have thus far about Rauschenberg reveal more about my own motivations and drive to know.

I became fascinated by the idea of Rauschenberg from an essay by the openly gay critic, Johnathan Katz, about the ways in which his ‘intimate partnership’ (in which ‘intimate’ almost here takes the meaning of ‘relatively secreted’) with Jasper Johns. [1] The essay (pioneering for the date of its original publication) uses the facts of the 6-year long relationship between the painters to link their work to some of the necessities of self-expression of ‘relationships’ that were still often marginal to social norms, covert (because illegal and/or considered socially shameful) and nevertheless urgent to be acknowledged. This leads to ‘coded’ patterns in Katz’s view that run through the work but in both cases, in his view, lose their urgency of self-revelation in both artists after their social divorce.

The latter point is I think very doubtful, particularly in the case of Rauschenberg, whose art is surely the product of multiple and often contradictory motivations and meanings. Indeed I think that may go for how the idea of ‘relationships’ were determined for him, even those between art and his life-choices, his formal innovations and the meanings which both synthesise and fragment within them. Yet I love Katz’s boldness. For here critique is also a political agenda which forces the meaning of gay relationship to the fore and queers conventional relationships between words and signs.

However, we need to be less married to secrecy as the drive to research in art with a gay theme and look to the more public issues that socially non-validated (and invalidated)  relationships bring to the  surface. For that (I dread to hear myself say it) we may still need good art history and, alongside it, better knowledge and use of that knowledge with regard to biography. As I read – I need to read more but I moved on to Bonnard now – I sense that locating the issue with Johns and the validation of couples is too easy and too tied to easy romantic paradigms. Better to step back to Rauschenberg’s first serious gay relationship and that which broke his marriage and family (severing him from his son, Christopher) was that with Cy Twombly. And we’ll see that this too was a relationship in which drive to art was synthesised with sexual and emotional and social reconfiguration in Rauschenberg’s life.

Good art historians cope with this. Krĉma (2016:14f.) shows how and why Rauschenerg’s art sometimes drives us to allegoric and/or symbolic clusters of meaning between the signs so apparently randomly arrayed in his art and other times fragments this meaning[2]. He ties this in particular to readings related to male sexuality but again rather tiredly ends up by relating this to the coupledom with Jasper Johns. Of course the preceding relationship with Cy Twombly never really added up to coupledom and that is why I think writers tend to focus on the former over the latter because the latter is less an already given pattern of social meaning.

However, my own feeling is that Rauschenberg’s dialogues with art and patterns of meaning precisely to figurate emotional and physical drives that aren’t easily patterned. I suspect that is why his major work will remain the 34 illustrations, gifted posthumously to MoMA, he did for Dante’s Inferno, since these query a large and influential authoritative source of allegoric practice that yearned (despite the implicit multiplicity of allegoric modes – saying something by narrating another thing) to unity. Here he could identify with the soul/sole of the foot-sore ‘sodomites’ in Canto XIV running forever over burning sand and mark his own appearance in the illustrations with an imprint (blood-red) of the sole of his own bare foot).

So the best reading I came across does read relationships more complexly in a way that shows that all relationships are ‘queer’ (meaning not easily codable in non-sentimental ways) such as father-son relationships and those in love and in art  and between love and art. And that is because he queers the relationship between reading form and meanings. This ‘best reading’ is in Chapter3 of Thomas Crow’s wonderful book on the origins and history of Pop Art.[3] It is of the wonderful sculptural art-object (Untitled c.1954), usually known as ‘The Man in a White Suit’ (Crow 2014 56ff, 68ff). 

View 1 (Untitled 1954)

Crow makes the point that Rauschenberg’s allegoric borrowings accrue meaning bi-temporally across his career. He sees this work as, with others, elaborating – as part of his disassociated armoury, the story of the Fall of Icarus, a story of art, love, hubris and fall. To me too it rings of the motif of the ‘gentleman-caller’ from Tennessee Williams (1944) The Glass-Menagerie, a story of ill-patterned and unfit codes of heterosexual and non-heterosexual desire. I won’t elaborate this here but happy to if asked.

As part of the images semi-associated with the theme are remnants of marks that became borrowed for this work under the rubric of ‘LOVE’ (see the detail) on 68f. that diagonally juxtaposes on either side of a found image of male despair, markings from a note to Rauschenberg from son Christopher (‘I hope you still like me Bob cause I love you. Please wright me Back love love Christopher’) and some typical scribble marks of Cy Twombly with their suggestive phallocentrism.

The reading is really rich and needs to be taken in the context given to it by Thomas Crow (a great art historian) and I can’t summarise its richness of content and analysis here (it goes over many pages in Crow’s chapter) but I do recommend it. It brings the art work into some kind of arena in which it can begin to be understood partly and appreciated more fully. It is the only thing I’ve read that has dome more than just intrigue me.

But of course, it has set off more interests. I’m looking at Cy Twombly but still working to know if and how if so one ‘understands’ the squiggles and free-flow drawings, the mix of textuality and visual form and the meaning of his classicism s link to photographic appropriation. But Bonnard calls. Now here is a really interesting painter, where there is much debate about what it is we see and feel when he paints!

All the best


[1] Katz, J. (1993 - 2018 Compact Ed.) ‘The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg’ in Chadwick, W. & Courtivron, I. (eds.) Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate partnership London, Thames & Hudson, 182-200.

[2] Krĉma, E. (2016) Robert Rauschenberg: Tate Introductions London, Tate Publishing.

[3] Crow, T. (2014) The Long March of Pop: Art Music and Design 1930-1995 Yale University Press.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post