You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re going to be a good abstract expressionist, and I’ve always considered that as a waste.
Robert Rauschenberg announces this while perched on a ladder, looking into the camera, both languid and serious. I watch him on YouTube and feel immediately close to someone I will never meet.
Rauschenberg—guilty of a bit of sass here—belies the nature of the artwork he and in many ways partner Jasper Johns would make, though they did not set out to centre their psyches as subjects. Even with their methodological depictions of signs and objects, they never really escaped themselves. With reference to the pair’s influence on my own work I will discuss the creative methodologies of purging and veiling, and even welcoming in ugly feelings as a means of assemblage making.
Rauschenberg’s work Cardbird door 1971, in particular, reaches out to me. It is beyond its time, unpretentious, and an example par excellence of an artist inventing a practice. Cardbird door is a critique on value: an assemblage of lithographs, screenprints and papers that recreates the look and feel of a cardboard box—sometimes with a strange trompe l’œil effect—but empties that utilitarian object of its purpose. No longer a container or conveyer of goods, the box has been brought into the realm of art. The work is built onto a standard door size with door handle, and may be installed in a door frame–it relies on this and the white cube of the gallery to assert itself as art.
In my work I bring together seemingly incompatible materials—commodities, objects, and images—in experimental combinations. Cute things, disposable things, toxic things and sci-fi thinking correlate with my subjecthood and what is floating around in my brain. Like Rauschenberg’s Cardbird door, my sculptural assemblage future cat 2019 relies on the white cube and traditional supports (steel armatures) creating a linguistic bridge, so that these materials may come into conversation with historical art logics, and direct viewers to new ways of seeing. The first importer of non-art materials into the realm of art was Marcel Duchamp. In an artist statement Johns cites the importance of a note Duchamp included in the The green box 1934,1 which read: ‘To lose the possibility of identifying/recognizing 2 similar objects—2 colors, 2 laces, 2 hats, 2 forms whatsoever to reach the Impossibility of sufficient visual memory, to transfer from one like object to another the memory imprint.’2 For me, this shows how studio practice has logics similar to language structures, how signs can be transformed and pushed into materials. This process leads to endless outcomes—experimentation, forgetting things, and working almost ‘headlessly’ become my subject. I speculate that, for Johns, this note supported a method of his purging of his own personality (artist as subject) from his works.
I read that ‘To enjoy a drug one must enjoy being a subject.’3 Stopping short of claiming art is a drug, I believe that to put yourself at the centre of your work you must enjoy being the subject. But one can also veil one’s subjectivity—a strategy I relate to in Rauschenberg and Johns. ‘Veil’ can be a verb or a noun, meaning to cover up with varying opacity, or referring to a thing worn for ceremony, tradition or to satisfy an oppressive regime. In speech it denotes a way of disguising what you actually think with alternative words. I check my veiling assemblage daily when I get out of the car: mask, phone, wallet, earphones and cap. Wearing this to the grocery store generates a lot of feelings, but mostly it makes me feel safe. The two artists at the centre of this exhibition had to decide between the safety of a productive and generous, but illegal, relationship and the danger of it being made public.
To move through the veil of Johns’s works of the 1970s—which were simultaneously achieving market records at auction and labelled conservative in the New Yorker—it is necessary to examine his process and experimentation. In the works Bent ‘U’ 1971 and Bent ‘Blue’ 1971, from his series Fragments—according to what, Johns abstracts letters, in the process creating semantic clues. The ‘bent’ letters and the ‘fragments’ could be emotive titling for bending a subject. ‘U’ suggests ‘you’ and therefore a relationship. There has been increased speculation on just how personal some of Johns’s use of language is.4 There is great care in these works—in the application of paint, the drawing into and over the figurations, and a purposeful looseness that directs your eye to what is important.
A curator recently said to me in a studio visit, ‘Your work is so loose, Marian—I wonder how loose it could get and still work?’ This I found funny, because each title and element of my assemblage is so specific, whether it is taken from a personal conversation or reflective of in-depth study. But it is also true that looseness is a way for me to open up compositional structures. I want eyes to dart around, piece together logics, or relax into mess. I credit compositions like that of Rauschenberg’s Booster 1967, which is made up of specific and thematically divergent signs, for giving me the confidence to make assemblages this way. I am reminded of literary theorist Maurice Blanchot’s thoughts on ‘resemblances’ to address objects and bodies, when he says that it is only when bodies or tools become images or ‘haunting resemblances’ that they become the most aesthetic and ideal versions of themselves.5 Booster, a composite X-ray of Rauschenberg’s body, was created as ‘a self-portrait of inner man.’6 Recently I have been incorporating reminders of the body via architectural structures, such as in when she received a seat at the table 2020 and lazy river 2022. Images of abandoned water parks, rollercoasters and lazy rivers, and blueprints for subsidised housing, offer places that imply the existence of a body so there is no need to directly represent it.
I was talking to a friend a while back, about ugly feelings toward people and objects, and she said she did not shy away from them but can have ugly feelings toward someone or their work and say exactly what she feels. This approach does not travel over to her art, which is both pristine and beautiful; she does not include any ‘ugly’ in her work. By contrast, I am a tragic optimist—I desire to see the potential beauty in all people and objects I come across—yet I confront and represent ugliness in my work, making assemblages that dart compositionally and sometimes chaotically between the sublime and the abject. In velocity myth 2020 I nestle Elon Musk’s Cybertruck between an abandoned water park and computer-generated proteins. I am trying to work though my spectrum of feelings on these aesthetic and engineering phenomena designed to affect bodies.
Johns and Rauschenberg could not—should they have wished to—express ugly feelings towards a darkly homophobic America in their work. They were ambitious, however, and they made the work they could. Instead of investigating their psyches in their work, veiling their homosexuality allowed the two separately—and as a team—to become the new heroes of American art. For Johns, a process-based practice in which he consciously purged as much as he could from his work, even colour, resulted in intellectually rigorous art that attracted critical attention. Rauschenberg employed focused symbols that could be read either as arbitrary or metaphorical. It is said that the two ended their romance because they were becoming too well known; the way to continue to veil their love was to remove themselves from one another.
After Rauschenberg and Johns had broken up, they still admired each other’s work from afar. Johns bought one of the edition of Rauschenberg’s Cardbird door 1971, and installed it as the door to his dining room. The human scale of the work and the act of passing through an original Rauschenberg daily must hold significance for Johns. Reflecting on Blanchot’s thoughts mentioned earlier, I think it is the processing of our worldly assemblages—objects, technologies, systems and bodies—to make an art of resemblances that allows us to get closer to intimacy to remember, or to find our subject for the first time.
Epigraph: Robert Rauschenberg, interviewed in the documentary feature Painter’s painting: the New York Art scene 1940–1970, 1973, 116 mins, dir Emile de Antonio.
- Jasper Johns, artist statement, Sixteen Americans, ed Dorothy C Miller, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1959, p 22, https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_catalogue_2877_300062200.pdf.
- Marcel Duchamp, The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even. A typographic version by Richard Hamilton of Marcel Duchamp’s Green box, trans. George Heard Hamilton, Hansjörg Mayer, Stuttgart, 1976 .
- Maggie Nelson, On freedom: four songs of care and constraint, Penguin Random House, Dublin, 2021, p 131.
- See, for example. Scott Rothkopf, ’Jasper Johns, mind/mirror | Whitney walkthrough’, from 1:43 mins, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBDtcARVGJ8&list=PLQEOKyGjDyMsKs9yjZcVw90fPqukScDqA&index.
- Maurice Blanchot, ‘The two versions of the imaginary’, The space of literature, trans Ann Smock, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1982 , p 254.
- Rauschenberg oral history project: the reminiscences of Sidney B. Felsen, conducted in collaboration with INCITE/Columbia Center for Oral History Research, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, 2014, p 6.