Music for Desks: “Hearing Muted Music”

Originally published in Epiphany Literary Journal

Tango (1955) by Jasper Johns

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One of my current non-fiction projects focuses on the relationship between Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The title of the project, Tango, comes from Johns’ 1955 work of the same name. Now in Germany’s Museum Ludwig, the canvas depicts a beautiful blue encaustic with a music box behind the surface; it’s a poignant image of music in stasis, of beauty rendered mute. To me, it’s a reflection of someone in love whose most intense passions must be subtle to the point of oblivion. “They were more than friends, of course,” Calvin Tomkins, Rauschenberg’s biographer, observed of Jasper and Robert. “They were deeply involved with one another, both intellectually and emotionally, and the intensity of what passed between them filled up their life.”

Music is a vital part of imagining this muted yet pivotal relationship. Since lockdown last March, I’ve been surprised at how a playlist, skillfully orchestrated, can find the necessary voices in a story. This is different from cataloging music referenced by a work. (Phenomenal repositories revolve around the writings of Hanif Abdurraqib, Julio Cortázar, and Adam Haslett.) In 2021, my Tango playlist has become a tool to hear the silences around Jasper and Robert’s relationship — to make the hidden music in Tango play. 

In writing of their childhoods, I listen to Jimmy Kennedy’s “Red Sails in the Sunset.” It’s what John’s step-grandmother and inadvertent maternal figure, Montez Bramlett Johns, played on the piano in the late 1930s. Johns never viewed Montez as particularly warm, but he loved her audacity and brightly colored hats. In “Montez Singing” [1989], Johns conveys a fondness for the odd woman who sang about the ocean from a small, landlocked town. Montez was his first impression of an artist. “I think that idea of being an artist was involved with the idea of being somewhere else,” Johns says in 1990. “The idea must have had, as part of its fascination, that one would be somewhere other than in a little town in South Carolina.”

“Montez Singing” (1989) by Jasper Johns

I turn to “Turtle Blues” by Janis Joplin when writing of Rauschenberg’s childhood in Texas (when the two met at Max’s Kansas City in the late 60s, Joplin slipped him a note: “We’re the only two people who ever got out of Port Arthur, Texas”). Rauschenberg was also a turtle lover, by turns strapping flashlights to the backs of 33 turtles in the Park Avenue Armory “Spring Training” [1965] and naming an ambitious global art project after his pet turtle, ROCI (pronounced “Rocky”) [1984 – 1991].

Growing up, Rauschenberg sang the English folk song “Green Grows the Rushes, O” over and over. His Christian fundamentalist family loved the images of apostles and original sin. (I prefer R.E.M’s 1985 version, which focuses on workers’ rights.) By the time he was 25 and living in New York, Rauschenberg began to question his religion, sexuality, and the fundaments of art. In the process of discarding many of his foundational beliefs, Rauschenberg created the first work that he felt was entirely his own: “22 The Lily White.” He titled it after a lyric from the hymnal “two, two, the lily-white boys.” Around this time, Rauschenberg was growing closer (much closer) to Cy Twombly, and further from his wife, Susan Weil, with whom he fell in love while studying art in Paris. “22 The Lily White” reflects his grappling with sexuality and religion; Weil asked for a divorce after 16 months of marriage.

In the winter of 1953, Johns and Rauschenberg met through mutual friends. A vacancy in Johns’ building opened the following summer, and Rauschenberg moved into the loft below his new friend, five years younger. The two shared a fridge, a clawfoot tub, and a readiness to scurry away their beds should an inspector visit and catch them living in commercial lofts.

They worked with music more or less constantly in the background. One of Johns’ favorite tracks was “El Vuelo del Moscardón” (Flight of the Bumblebee) played by the cellist and composer Pablo Casals. It’s a jubilant rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition, and it helps me imagine this equally exuberant relationship silenced by the arts community — and the historical record. Because the intensity of their love was never directly acknowledged in public, neither artist was ever allowed to be as forthright as, say, Robert Motherwell in a 1951 personal statement: “I love painting the way one loves the body of woman.” Under the gaze of this kind of insistent heteronormativity, their own relationship was forced to recede. The art historian Jonathan D. Katz, who was asked to leave a conference in 1995 (then an opening in 1997) after suggesting the two were lovers, articulates homophobia’s curious and frightening power of social and psychic erasure:

Johns and Rauschenberg are in the curious position of being understood as a pair, but not a couple. Yet they were a couple; and the rather obvious silences, ellipses, and omissions that permeate the usual accounts of their history make no sense unless arrayed against an insistent and damaging homophobia that has led both artists to actually deny the substance of what they had together.

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I am writing Tango in the present tense, and it seems appropriate to add 21st century tunes to the playlist. Naturally, this includes “Objection (Tango)” by Shakira. The campy goodness is a welcome uplift from the daunting heteronormativity of the 1950s. It’s also a reminder of one reason why the two broke up in 1961: Rauschenberg fell for the dancer Steve Paxton.

Robert Rauschenberg (1958) photograph by Jasper Johns

“It’s not her fault that she’s so irresistible/ But all the damage she’s caused isn’t fixable.”

This brings quite the smirk to my face: the idea of a Latina pop superstar singing about two white titans of American art. It’s a somewhat ridiculous pairing that both Rauschenberg and Johns, I think, would also enjoy. Their art is a united rejection of the angsty austerity and tortured artist mandate of the macho-seeming Abstract Expressionists (Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko).

While their story does carry an overwhelming homophobia, it’s more about the joyous and immensely creative time the two have living together on Pearl Street (they’ll move to Fulton Street once their building is condemned.) They keep a pet sloth; play Skee-Ball at Dillion’s Bar; title each other’s work; and encourage the other to follow through on his ambition (their most famous works have roots in these mutual assurances: Rauschenberg suggests Johns act on his dream of painting an American flag; Johns coins the term combines.)

The track that really gets me is “Two Slow Dancers” by Mitski. I add it to the Tango playlist. It’s here that the disjointed notes of their past together finds its time signature: the quiet chords, the confessional yet non-committal lyrics, the intraplate caresses of synths and organs, trough and crest of a seismic love. Under these notes, it’s easy to imagine two young men in the 1950s discovering their artistic and emotional potential, the magnitude of which they had to – willfully or not – hide.

Rauschenberg makes perhaps his most explicit acknowledgement of his love for Johns in a 1990 interview. Given the era’s horrific apathy toward HIV and NEA sanctions against queer artists, the Australian critic Paul Taylor presses Rauschenberg on the nature of his relationship with Johns. Taylor was HIV positive and knew it was important for renowned artists like Rauschenberg to help make HIV an issue the U.S. could no longer ignore. Coming out also proves to young queer people that despite their culture vehemently proclaiming that they are diseased mistakes, they’re as capable of greatness as anyone else.

RR: Well, I think I’d better just leave it alone. I’m not frightened of the affection Jasper and I had both personally and as working artists. I don’t see any sin or conflict in those days when each of us was the most important person in the other’s life.

PT: Can you tell me how you parted ways?

RR: Embarrassment about being well known.

PT: Embarrassment about being famous?

RR: Socially. What had been tender and sensitive became gossip. It was sort of new to the art world that the two most well-known, up-and-coming studs were affectionately involved.

PT: I wonder if things are different nowadays?

RR: I think it’s different. The 50’s were a particularly hostile, prudish time.

Taylor died two years after this interview, at the age of 35.

Rauschenberg lives to 82. Eleven years after he passes, Johns – largely reticent with the press since becoming an overnight sensation at 28 – surprises an interviewer in 2019 with a candid quote. “The relationship with Bob was extremely important to me…. As an artist and as a human being. So to end contact with an honest opinion that you are willing to accept — to have it or not to have it is a huge difference.”

On record, that’s the closest Johns comes to discussing the importance of his relationship with Rauschenberg. The rest is in their art.   

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Once at lunch on the Upper East Side, the poet and critic John Yau asks Johns who else he has told that Flag [1954/1955] – his most iconic work – is made from a bedsheet, one he likely shared with Rauschenberg when they lived and worked together on Pearl and Fulton Streets.

“Oh,” Johns replies. “I told lots of people; no one ever listened.”

When Rauschenberg first exhibits Bed [1955], one critical refrain is that it looks like the site of a murder — also a common perspective toward homosexuality in the 1950s. But to Rauschenberg, the inverted bed is a site of joy. “I think of Bed as one of the friendliest pictures I’ve ever painted,” he tells Tomkins. “My fear has always been that someone would want to crawl into it.”

It’s easy to see why Rauschenberg would look fondly at Bed. When you look beneath its quilted folds, you’ll find a fading photo of Jasper Johns.

Bed by Robert Rauschenberg (1955)
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