The fact that Rauschenberg and Johns made their momentous break- throughs in thought and deed when, where, and how they did constitutes one of the great creation myths of late (not to mention post) Modernism. But it’s myth nonetheless.What is important to what happened subsequent- ly is what each artist did or began doing around the time they met each other—not that they relied on one another to do it. In fact, they didn’t.They sparked one another in a unique way, to be sure, and proved crucial to each other’s development. But they were sparked at the time by many other stimuli as well. As much as they communicated, cooperated, and shared, and as much as their vision overlapped, they were not united in purpose, and their sensibilities, crucially, were (and remain) diametrically opposed.They did not work shoulder to shoulder in an aesthetic laboratory the way, say, Picasso and Braque did. Rather, they determined an alpha and an omega—a Dionysian version and an Apollonian—of an emerging artistic attitude. From our vantage, in fact, the relationship between Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s work is more like that of Picasso’s and Matisse’s than Picasso’s and Braque’s; emergent at the same critical moment, they mani- fest very different responses to that moment and extend it with equal and seemingly opposing force. This was no less apparent then, a half-century ago, than it is now. Equally apparent, however, was the source of both oeuvres in a new aesthetic—an aesthetic for which those oeuvres quickly became the touchstones.
This aesthetic turned its back on the prevailing ethos of exis- tential angst and the willful theatrics that accompanied it. While both Johns and Rauschenberg valued the tactility of Abstract Expressionism’s gestural surface, they were primarily concerned, each in his own way, with what lay beneath—and on top. They sought a less self-impor tant, more thoughtful approach to investing art with meaning, an approach willing to experiment, meander, and debase itself in order to challenge perceptual presumptions. For Rauschenberg, this meant continual experimentation with the fab- rication and the physical contents of artworks, contents as readily drawn from the “real” world as from the world of the studio. For Johns, it meant the thorough conflation of painting with subject matter, so that the artwork became wholly occupied by the thing it showed. Both bodies of work found their source in impulse—Rauschenberg’s in continual discovery outside the studio and improvisation within, Johns’ in the response to (including dream of) the image itself. But neither ar tist sought to invest their reaction with meaning; for them, the meaning was in the artwork itself—that is, in the objects that were “found” and the objects that resulted. They weren’t proving something; they were finding something.
In both Johns’ case and in Rauschenberg’s, the “common object,” in all its quotidian banality, didn’t simply become incorporated into the artwork, it became the artwork. Even as both artists undermined the integrity of the artwork as artwork, they elevated the integrity of things as artworks, and artworks as things.“No ideas but in things,”William Carlos Williams wrote, and both artists moved beyond the romantic excesses of their elders toward such mat- ter-of-factness. With their surrealist heritage and Atomic Age zeitgeist, the abstract expressionists claimed a spiri- tual kinship with the French existentialists; but it was the attitudes and practices of Rauschenberg and Johns, engaged as much with fact as with facture, that, in their reliance on things, were genuinely existential.
There were certain “elders,” however, whose ideas, whether or not in things, profoundly impelled Johns and Rauschenberg both. They were profoundly swayed by the ideas and practices of their friends (and frequent col- laborators): composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, performance- and sound-oriented ar tists who moved beyond “expression” and the control- ling ego towards a regard for sound and movement as appreciable for themselves, not their “meanings.” Cage and, to some extent, Cunningham regarded ar t simply as life discerned aesthetically—a construction of art that permitted Johns and Rauschenberg to invest and stimu- late interest in the uninteresting. The model of Marcel Duchamp further reified this “aesthetic of indifference,” defining the artist’s role as less a fabricator than a dis- cerner, someone who enters into dialogue with an audi- ence through the presentation of something designated “art.” Rauschenberg and, especially, Johns do not work for an audience, and their work continues to challenge viewers with the hermetic nature of its logic and even (in Johns’ case, at least) its contents; but they both continue to make work that in form and content seems to require viewers, in Duchamp’s terms, to “complete” it.
The voluble Robert Rauschenberg is a public man, an erstwhile per- former and a creator of and participant in worldwide programs of communi- cation. The reticent Jasper Johns is a private man, quiet and reflective. Their oeuvres are perfect windows onto their personalities, which are so divergent as to mock the idea they could ever have had anything like a unity of purpose. But half a century ago they did; it was almost by accident, and it relied on shared stimuli, mutual admiration, and nurturing mutual friends to flourish. In their disparate spirits they realized a common artistic cause—and watched it change the world.
Pictured: Robert Rauschenberg, American Pewter with Burroughs VI, 1981. 5 color lithograph/embossing. Edition of 43. © 1981 Robert Rauschenberg and Gemini G.E.L. LLC.