Six-Year Sexual Relationship Between Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg Put in Closet by MoMa Exhibit


Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern notes some troublesome closeting by the Museum of Modern Art:

The Museum of Modern Art currently has on display a wonderful, compact installation titled simply “Johns and Rauschenberg.” Featuring art culled from the museum’s permanent collection, “Johns and Rauschenberg” focuses on works painted by each artist during the mid to late 1950s, using Robert Rauschenberg’s recently acquired Canyon as a centerpiece. The introductory placard describes the two artists as being “in dialogue with one another,” explaining how their works from this period led the way “beyond Abstract Expressionism” and toward Pop Art. At the heart of the installation is the relationship between the two men, an intensely collaborative yet highly competitive connection which pushed each artist toward his own artistic triumph.

It’s a nice narrative, as far as it goes. But it 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 thinks the MoMa is concerned about offending its patrons. Meanwhile, everyone seems to be toeing their line:

In an attempt to justify this re-closing of the artistic closet, MoMA’s press office first informed me that Johns and Rauschenberg “wish to be described” as just friends. (Rauschenberg died in 2008; Johns is 82.) When I asked whether the artists specifically requested such a label, the museum’s representative walked back the claim, instead stating that they “have been referred to that way [as friends, that is] historically,” but the rep would not say whether the artists themselves insisted on the “friends” phrasing. Neither would the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which officially had “no reply” to the question, or the Matthew Marks Gallery, Johns’ dealer, which failed to respond to repeated inquiries.


  1. says


    But their closetiness was why they wanted to keep such distance from Warhol. Andy admired then both enormously. But he was “too swish” (his words) to be around for their purposes. Worse still he knew they both decorated department store windows to make money on their way up the art world ladder. Andy was proud of his windows. Johns and Rauschenberg didn’t want anyone to know about them. Snobs!

  2. V-8 says

    I thought it was a well-known fact that the Rauschenberg estate wants to keep that in the closet… there r all kinds of closeting going on as far as his work and life is concerned….

  3. Fensox says

    UGH. MOMA isn’t doing anything and asking them to editorialize a a gallery section to play up on subjective and hearsay from 40 years ago is absurd.

    One, these guys are artists who were lovers for 6 years, that story will always be there in the art, you can’t take it out.

    Two, one of them is alive and it seems like the two of them don’t like gays or gay life so why would anyone force them into it?

    Being gay and being in a relationship are subjective in the sense that they are defined by the people involved. The rest of us define them out of perversion and necessity, there is no reason to push this issue. There are plenty of awesome gay artists to look up to.

    Also, I like MOMA, accusing them of this is a stupid thing to do. Andy, you could easily be accused of being a vile racist, look at your site that has tons of racism floating around. It would be an incorrect accusation, but it’s weight would resonate anyway if lobbed.

  4. Wisebear says

    Commercial galleries represent and market artists. They are free to present any story that sells. Museums are supposed to be educational institutions that tell the truth. Would they have a joint show of Kahlo and Rivera without mentioning that they were lovers? Of course not. And why do artists get to rewrite known details of their lives for a museum show? Should we let the artists write all the reviews of the show as well?

    This was a misstep by MoMA. The donors can handle this. I bet most of them have even caught an episode of Will and Grace by now.

  5. Troy says

    Racist and sexism are found in large heaping spoonfuls on this site daily, the Rauschenberg-Johns was so obvious then and now that to give it any air at all would seem all too obvious. But one has to think or maybe imagine what an installation of what it was like ‘way back when’ before rainbows and christopher streets and parades what a true underground ‘hidden world within a world’ must have been like and just how good, perhaps positive an influence this might have on the now ‘glee’ crowd so desperate for love, tolerance and simple understanding…What could their own lives inform us of in the here and now…

  6. jomicur says

    It’s one of the great recurring themes in American culture: No one who has ever accomplished anything substantial or important can possibly have been gay. There are even people who try to deny that Alexander the Great loved men. How long it will take us to break through that wall of silence is anyone’s guess. Long after DOMA falls and ENDA enters American law, homophobia will still be with us.

  7. UFFDA says

    This is a perfect example of gay people who SHOULD be known as gay. Influential artists and culture makers should Out themselves or if they are gone from us, be Outed. It’s important. And it is far from unprecidented. Any close look at Walt Whitman and Aaron Copeland for starters reveals their homosexuaity. Get used to it indeed. The world needs to firmly and unforgettably process this simple fact of life repeating it matter-of-factly in every biographical reference. Just as we commonly know that Kahlo and Rivera were lovers (nice point WISEBEAR, thank you).

    The only way to break the confining aspects of history, as of current culture, is to tell the whole truth all the time, every time, 24-7. MOMA should be unequivocally providing leadership in this.

  8. UFFDA says

    Right JACK – “a dialogue with one another” is vapid, hackneyed art speak from the ’60’s when someone had to come up with new expressions (there were about a dozen of them) to cover the art banalities of the day.

  9. anon says

    I’m guessing they borrowed language from articles written long ago that used all these euphemisms. Their thinking probably went like: this is how their relationship was described 40 years ago, so that’s how we should talk about it now. They fact they might be more open about it now wasn’t strong enough to change the language, so they played it very safe.

  10. David Hearne says

    I would be much more interested in knowing what engineers and industrialists were gay than artists. Seriously, when you thinkk of artists in the 1950’s don’t you automatically think of drugs, alcohol, and varying degrees of ruination?

    Who is more important in history? Frida Kahlo or Thomas Edison?

  11. Robert M. says

    I highly doubt that when MOMA holds a Picasso Exhibition that they sanitize out the sexual inspiration from his female muse(s) and rampant womanizing…

  12. Miguel R. says

    There is a scholar Jonathan Katz, who works on this topic. Here is an article on the internet about Johns and Rauschenberg.

    Look, I’m sympathetic to queering this story. But the exhibit didn’t actually make many claims. It was, as I remember it, just a room with some good pieces by both artists that invited some formal comparisons. Not much more. On the other hand, Katz has made some interesting arguments about the formal aspects of the work and homosexuality. Let’s talk about the scholarship that actually uses homosexuality as a lens to discuss AbEx painting, instead of bitching about museum labels. Museum labels are always a problem. They never convey enough or the right information. That is what scholarship is for.

  13. Miguel R. says

    @DavidHearne “Seriously, when you thinkk of artists in the 1950’s don’t you automatically think of drugs, alcohol, and varying degrees of ruination?”
    Umm, sure, I guess that is one stereotype. And if you are content with that view, go ahead and keep it rather than learning things that might challenge your view. But maybe keep your narrow categories on topic? Like when we are all talking about engineers of the 1950’s, go ahead and chime in.

  14. Bill says

    Like this is some deep, dark secret? Dear God – it’s 2013, why on earth would anyone care that these two were lovers? (Do we now erase history to simply honor the “comfort zones” of the overly fastidious?)

  15. Bill says

    Like this is some deep, dark secret? Dear God – it’s 2013, why on earth would anyone care that these two were lovers? (Do we now erase history to simply honor the “comfort zones” of the overly fastidious?)

  16. David Hearne says

    Miguel –

    Artist is one of the least respectable ways of being unemployed. Get your real estate license.

  17. Miguel R. says

    David, I’m not an artist. But I respect artists. Just as I respect real estate agents. But I don’t think that bourgeois respectability is the ONLY thing in life worth living for.

  18. Grover Underwood says

    I’ve been trying to find information on the NY MOMA website and I can’t find squat. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

  19. Miguel R. says

    Again, it isn’t a big exhibit or retrospective. It is simply a room with less than 20 works by the two artists. If I remember correctly. It is mixed in with the rest of the permanent collection. So that is why you won’t find any announcement of the exhibition.
    This is also why it seems unfair to criticize the “exhibit.” It is just a way of organizing the paintings in the permanent collection.