Historian Jonathan Katz is disgusted by silence about and suppression of the fact that gays sparked one of America’s great artistic transitions
Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg are important figures in art history of the 20th century. Not only are they gay, they were lovers.
Johns’ richly worked paintings of maps, flags and targets led the artistic community away from Abstract Expressionism and toward an emphasis on the concrete. Rauschenberg, a native Texan, possessed an enthusiasm for popular culture, and his rejection of the seriousness of Abstract Expressionism led him to search for a new ways of painting.
Masculine heterosexuals, like Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, almost exclusively led the Abstract Expressionist movement. Johns and Rauschenberg’s work first emerged during the Cold War, when McCarthyism and the Red Scare were in full effect.
As a consequence of this, “Straight people, too, came to feel the eight of social conformity and the necessity of hiding their private feelings,” says Jonathan D. Katz, one of the first art historians to focus on queer studies. “So for the first time in American history, gay people and straight people traveled a parallel course.”
Johns and Rauschenberg succeeded the Abstract Expressionists. And their work served as the transition to the Pop Art movement.
“And looking at American cultural history, when I see an all-straight generation succeeded by an all-gay generation, my interest is piqued,” Katz says.
Katz, 47, was the founder of Yale Universities queer studies program. Currently, he’s a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook and working on a book, titled “The Silent Camp,” that explores the history of Johns and Rauschenberg’s relationship and work. This week, he visits the University of Texas at Dallas to lecture about his research and why it’s important not to gloss over the gay portions of these masters’ works.
After a four-month run, the “Dialogues” exhibit at Dallas Museum of Art came down on Jan. 8. “Dialogues” explored the artistic exchange between Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Johns and Rauschenberg. Through juxtaposition of objects, the exhibit highlighted overt and covert dialogues that reappear throughout the artists’ work. ?
But was Johns and Rauschenberg’s romance included?
“No, it wasn’t,” Katz says. “Here’s one of the fundamental dialogues in the history of American art: two partners and two of this country’s most important artists, and we can’t talk about the structure of their dialogue except as an intellectual exchange?”
It’s no secret that Johns and Rauschenberg are gay. But there’s a tendency to shift focus away from their sexual identity and their romantic relationship. And according to Katz, even Johns and Rauschenberg, who are both still alive, avoid queer analysis.
Rauschenberg is fairly accessible and still does press. He lives in Florida and was interviewed for “60 Minutes” last year. But he refuses to be interviewed by Katz.
“When I did a show of his work at Yale, Rauschenberg refused permission to reproduce the work in the catalog,” Katz says.
Katz has interviewed Johns, “But the interview was cursory and not terribly friendly,” he says.
“Even today, neither of these men would identify as gay not that they would disavow their relationship,” Katz explains.
These men are products of the 1950s. Today, being gay is understood as a political or social identity.
“But being gay is sadly something people still try to hide. And with Johns and Rauschenberg, their sexuality is not something that they’d proclaim,” Katz says.
So why bug these old-school dudes with newfound gay pride?
“Because it’s essential. I’m a good historian, and I’m tired of the outright lies that have been proffered as America’s cultural history,” Katz says.
His goal is to make it impossible to talk about American history without talking about sexuality.
“I want to put an end to a long and often violent history of suppression and segregation,” Katz says. “So that some baby dyke in a classroom in rural North Dakota will find herself reflected from the front of the class when talking about American art.”
Jonathan D. Katz, pictured, delivers a lecture entitled “Lovers & Divers: Interpictorial Romance in Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg,” which explores the artists’ personal and professional relationship.
University of Texas at Dallas, in the Media Room of the Visual Arts Building, 2601 Floyd Road, Richardson. Jan. 27 at 3:30 p.m.
THERE GOES THE GAYBORHOOD
The face of Oak Lawn changes faster than a Neiman Marcus window display. This week, three properties along the 3300 block of Knight Street, between Rawlins and Hood Streets, are being torn down. In their place, expect some fancy multi-family townhomes. Watching two of these properties come down a two-story brick triplex and a Austin stone duplex was a bummer. Big D never seems especially concerned about architectural salvation, but if you’ve ever scoured the queer neighborhood looking for an apartment, these properties seemed Lone Star versions of something along Barbary Lane.
According to Dwayne Jones, the gay executive director of Preservation Dallas, the properties were probably built around 1925, when the Melrose Hotel was erected and when Oak Lawn experienced a building boom. Jones hopes more properties in Oak Lawn will be designated as historical landmarks. Next week, at least two properties along the 3300 block of Douglas at Rawlins are scheduled to be torn down.
Daniel A. Kusner
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of January 27, 2006.