J.D. Welch - User Experience Design

Camp Iconography and Gender Performance

Rauschenberg 1955-61

Robert Rauschenberg was a significant force in mid-twentieth century American art, even hailed as "the most significant artist since Jackson Pollock (Tomkins 1983)." However, it seems that after 1961, when he stopped living with Jasper Johns and stopped making his signature 'combines,' the quality of his work changes with his change in technique; he never did again present all the themes that were heaped into the combines as efficiently and effectively as in this period.

They are inscriptions of his life experience, comments on gay life and candid illustrations of his body and his sexuality. They function as a bizarre and intriguing kind of esoteric yet public gender performance. Interestingly and unfortunately, this mode of production only lasted a relatively short while. Although it is unclear exactly what caused his breakup with Johns (as neither of them feels like talking about it) but this event does have a profound effect on Rauschenberg's art.

With the exceptional series of drawings for Dante's Inferno serving as an exclamation point to his early work, many compositions after 1961 lack the clarity, immediacy and formal presence of the earlier combines. His later pieces do deal with autobiography, the body and homo/sexuality, bust in more bizarrely experimental and conceptual ways. Later works deal with themes of bodily fragmentation, body processes, and the human presence in its environment, while earlier pieces focus on history, relationships, camp icons and allegories of sexuality.

Rosalind Krauss, in a footnote to her essay for the catalogue of the 1997 Guggenheim retrospective, expresses her concerns about using the

"conventional procedures of iconography" to 'decode' the ' encoded' message in Rauschenberg's art. She specifically cites attempts to read Rauschenberg's work for its queer content and refutes these inquiries, claiming that the works are "allegories" and that "allegory is precisely not the subject of iconography (Krauss 1997 222-3fn)."

I agree that we cannot express all the content of Rauschenberg's work purely in terms of "decodable" iconography, but this is not an unreasonable starting place, as I aim to show that references to queer culture in his work (which I firmly believe exist) are based in part upon a system of invented symbolic iconography, that is to say, Camp.

The gender performative

If we accept the theory that gender is "performative" and that gender is an individual creation based upon a series of repeated acts (see Butler 1990:134-41), can we consider works of art part of this act, or is anything external to the physical body ineligible for consideration on these terms? Allowing works of art to be considered as gender/ed constructions creates interesting possibilities. If we can discuss an artist's body of work as taking a place in their performed gender, then the work of Rauschenberg in the fifties stands as a pointed and ecstatic piece of personal theatre expressing his feelings about his own sexuality and the system of Abstract Expressionism. In fact, it is the only outlet in which these issues are specifically expressed; even though he spends this period living with a same-sex partner, his life with Johns was basically in the closet.

Camp, kitsch and the "gay aesthetic"

The early work of Rauschenberg is characterized by what has been characterized as an anti-Abstract Expressionist tone, the impetus for which probably came from his inability to identify with the machismo of the swaggering, heroic figures of the movement.

How in this homophobic decade [the fifties] could [he] paint true pictures in the Abstract Expressionist sense, pictures revealing his inner state?... And even if he could paint such revealing pictures, hew could he ever believe that the images generated by a gay man could have universal intelligibility (Katz 194)?

In expressing whatever he was trying to express, he seems to have tried to find a language that would make his themes as universal as the vigorous brushwork and identification with heroic mythology that worked for the AbEx-ers and whether conscious or not, his imagery can be considered and explained in the context of the 'sensibility system' called Camp.

One reason that lesbians and gay men often make great artists may be that being gay and creating art both require similar strengths: the ability to create an original world of one's own, and a willingness to jettison the conventional wisdom in favor of one's own convictions. Sagarin wrote that "homosexual creativity" is " often freed from conventional thought, with imagination unbound and unfettered-- and sponsored by the need for perfection to overcome the doubt of oneself (Kaiser 89)."

Jill Johnston, in her controversial biography of Jasper Johns writes:
Neither Johns nor his three friends [Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham and John Cage] consciously created a homosexual aesthetic. But their closet status was reflected in the aesthetic they fashioned (1996:137).
While it is pejorative and exclusive to try to determine if there is such a thing as a "homosexual aesthetic," we can try to identify a corpus of standard iconography and aesthetic sensibility by way of the notion of Camp, most notoriously defined by Sontag, as "something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques;" seeing the world in terms of stylization, not beauty; and

[Camp is] the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling (Sontag 275-287).

Is there a difference between kitsch and camp? Kitsch was determined by Greenberg to be that which was not "pure" or self "self-sufficient" in painting, including the figurative image (Scruton 82). By this definition, the combines could easily be considered kitsch, and I would agree. However, the kitsch factor is mitigated by the fact that Rauschenberg is gay and aware that there is a queer kitsch system. Camp is this system and it takes kitsch a step 'further' by focusing on, as defined by Babuscio (1999), irony, aestheticism, theatricality and humor. For example: A bed is not campy. A bed displayed as art is probably kitschy. But a paint-splattered bed, previously occupied by two men, hung on the wall, is definitely campy. While this is an oversimplification, it raises a new issue: we have to (or at least should) know the details of production of the art object to express the "full" significance, but more on that shortly.

Rauschenberg clearly uses specific iconographic elements to represent allegorical themes. While the queer iconography can be relatively specific, the significance of the piece may extend beyond a simple iconographic reading. In fact, this ability of the combines to be both kitschy/campy and high art simultaneously is probably the key to understanding why they are important.

The discourse on camp is varied and its "meaning" is contested (see Newton, Grahn), so it might be hard to definitively "prove" that the combines are Camp, but many general themes expressed in the literature on camp I have examined seem to recur in the art. At any rate, it gives us a framework in which to discuss the work as part of a specific gender performance.

Gay. New. York.

A major trend in art history in the later twentieth century is to try to fit an artist's oeuvre in the context of their life and experiences. We want to know: Where did she live? What about his parents? and the like. Thinking in this mode, we now look at the context in which Jasper and Bob were living and working: that is, New York in the late fifties. While we think of New York today as a sort of gay Mecca of rainbow flags and same-sex couples walking arm-in-arm, historians paint a different queer landscape:

Despite its many hardships, New York City in the fifties still offered more possibilities than it did anywhere else... Because being a rebel is almost always an essential part of accepting one's homosexuality, it was both an especially difficult and especially satisfying to be gay in an age like this... The sterility of mass culture made the life of an outsider particularly attractive to writers, artists, actors and painters. Stress often feels the sublimation that produces a vibrant culture, and this synergy was conspicuous in the plays, poems, books and canvasses produced all over Manhattan (Kaiser 88-89).

So, while we see that it may have been possible to have what we would call today an effective gay life, Rauschenberg and Johns chose to forgo strong association with the gay community for the sake of acceptance into the straight art market.

Johns and Rauschenberg knew and were friendly with some figures in the gay avant-garde, but it was primarily the literary world and never their main social focus. The art world was still overwhelmingly heterosexual, and while Rauschenberg and Johns were always invited out together as, a couple, neither neither they nor their hosts were ever explicit as to the relationship between them. As a couple, they were able to reap the benefits of a shared subjectivity without having to identify or affiliate with a larger gay and lesbian community (Kaiser 206).

This 'shared subjectivity' and the greater 'gay context' in which he was working may give a reasonable explanation for why this was the only period of his work that can be called gay.

So what?: looking at the work

The combines are peculiar works formally. Not like painting, not like sculpture, these messy conflagrations of chairs, stuffed animals, thick globs of paint, drawings, photographs, newspaper clippings, clocks, telephones and fabric speak in a particularly innovative and interesting language. Relying neither on naturalistic imagery nor "pure" abstraction, these pieces are as just as messy to analyze as they are hanging on a wall.

Acting in a manner that could possibly be extrapolated into a precursor of 1980s and 90s identity art, several of the combines take the form of a visual autobiography, exploiting imagery from Rauschenberg's own life. For example, Untitled (man with white shoes) (1954) is adorned with many images from his life:

in a large combine, Rauschenberg specifically addressed his relationship with Johns and its place in his emotional life. He collaged onto the surface of the piece drawings by Twombly [who he was involved with several years prior], a photo of his young son, clippings about his family from a hometown newspaper (some going back many years), a naive oil painting by a relative, a photo of Johns that Rauschenberg called "gorgeous," as well as letters from Johns, judiciously torn up. The combine thus stands as a meditation on family and love, merging seemingly incommensurable fragments of past (family) and present (sexual) love into the integrated whole that was unavailable to the artist any other way (Katz 200).

Acting in a similar manner, Bed (1955), first functions as a parody of an Abstract Expressionist work, featuring a quilt and pillow adorned with splatters of thick, multicolored paint. He pulls out all the Camp stops, as it were, and mocks the heterosexually dominant tradition by showing off the bed that he shares with his partner of the same sex:

[Bed is] a messy combine of found objects that transmuted into art the very sheets and folk-style quilt on which he and Johns had been sleeping; these two works [along with Johns' Target With Plaster Casts] now seem like a pair of bookends testifying to the couple's love and to the limits on expressing it (Saslow 274).

While I agree with both Katz and Saslow in their readings of these works, I question what Saslow means about the "limits on expressing it." They could have done things more overt, but chose not to for the sake of advancing their careers.

Monogram (1955-9), that great piece with the stuffed goat wrapped with a and spare tire is

an obvious self-portrait (the piece bears his initials), showing the artist grounded (fixed to a heavy platform), stating his position directly, immediately-- a (scape) goat mocked by a tire (Johnston 1992:120).

The autobiography shows what he can do with factual material; now let's look at what happens when he calls into question the whole system of western art.

What about all that camp stuff?

Like many, many artists in the western tradition, Rauschenberg looked to art history for his imagery and themes to express. Like Rembrandt, he talks about Ganymede, Jupiter and Apollo; continuing the tradition of Ingres and Manet, Rauschenberg paints the odalisque. Or does he? He is not simply revisiting the standard canon of subjects, but rather shows what happens when a queer artist discusses the same topics in the framework modernism, abstraction, kitsch and camp. The results are fantastic: strong compositions chock-full of bizarre and interesting formal elements, commentary-even jokes.

Canyon (1959) presents myth of Ganymede; the story of

the beautiful Trojan boy abducted by Jupiter and borne to the heavens where he became cupbearer to the gods. Canyon is spiked with Ganymede references; it even bears a stuffed eagle (fastened to the canvas), the bird Jupiter was disguised as when he snatched up the boy and carried him off (Johnston 1996:268).

The piece may represent the artist being "ushered into the company of gods" by Leo Castelli, his longtime dealer, his lover Jasper Johns, and friends Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Thus, he reworks a serious art-historical tradition, using his bizarre, jarring aesthetic and straightforward camp-style iconography to encode a personally significant theme. Additionally, Pail for Ganymede (1959)

is a sly art-historical in-joke, referring to the painting where Rembrandt reduced the Greek ephebe to a urinating baby. The title is both a smokescreen and a clue, deflecting suspicions about the artist's own meaning onto an old master while signaling to those with a special interesting the now-obscure myth (Saslow 247).

Now, I will be the first to admit that the implication that every gay man knows what the hell the story of Ganymede is and therefore it is hard to claim that these pieces were appealing to a universal "gay sensibility," however it is too specific a quotation to dismiss as coincidence that he chose this particular classical theme to discuss.

Tapping another art-historical convention, Odalisk (1955/58) is a pun on the compositional device of the same name. Amid photographs of nude women are collaged images of roosters and a baseball player. Atop the box-like central structure, a stuffed cock stands proud. Continuing the phallic allusions on the underside of the piece, a piece of architectural detail penetrates a pillow and (literally) supports the rest of the composition. The piece is quite humorous and raises the question: is this piece a celebration of heterosexuality, or with its Abstract Expressionist splashes of paint, an attack on the machismo of the movement? Despite the implications of the piece: gender roles and art, sexual politics, etc., it has a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek feeling.

These represent Rauschenberg's ability to make compositions work on many levels. To the 'unknowing' viewer, he is just cleverly revising what western artists have been talking about for a very long time, thus, perhaps, establishing his legitimacy as a serious artist. At the same time, he is poking fun at the tradition and ironically and theatrically revising the stories and imagery, using the camp technique.

The peculiar pendant

The XXXIV Drawings for Dante's Inferno (1961) are a series of medium-scale solvent-transfer drawings of newspaper and magazine imagery, random scribbles and bits of collage, marked by only a few instances of loud color. In Canto XIV, where the fate of those sent to hell for sodomy, Rauschenberg's own foot is traced in red crayon. As the most boldly inscribed figural element in the series, its significance in any visual hierarchy is obvious. I would like to suggest that we can take this element as the basis for the rest of the series; that is, he begun with this personally significant passage and worked around it to fill out his own journey through hell. While many would argue that this ambitious series of drawings reflects Rauschenberg's "sustained inventive power" and "inter consistency (Tomkins 1965:225)," I would offer that this piece may be a testament to an obsession over his sexuality and an act of self-criticism and masochistic self-assertion and I think that the assertion that "Items are also camp if they are so ostentatious they're considered good taste (Rodgers 78)" could apply in this case.

The repetition of a photograph of a man standing against a wall wearing only a towel, almost naked and open to criticism, along with other photographs of athletic-looking men, perhaps akin to photos in "physique" magazines, may admit that the piece is not so serious after all, but is just another iteration of Rauschenberg's characteristic camp iconography, in this case making serious art of 1950s jock porn.

While it may be a stretch to suggest that Rauschenberg's work was specifically homoerotic, overtones of familiarity with gay erotic culture during this period (1950-60) are integrated every now and then. Especially in the Inferno series, Rauschenberg chooses to use photographs of athletic/unclothed males. The prevailing mode in which gay culture is presented in mass media, the "physique" movement-- that is the proliferation of gay erotic material under the guise of bodybuilding guides. Waugh (1996) claims that this movement is "one of the great achievements of gay culture... a camouflage for the sexualized male body (176)."

Whatever the "meaning" of the work, or any of the works mentioned, the significance to Rauschenberg himself must be acknowledged. It might be just a great coincidence, but Rauschenberg and Johns broke up shortly after Rauschenberg finished this series. While he continued to work with junk elements in the "combine-"esque mode after he and Jasper Johns dissolved their six-year stint as lovers, the obvious stylistic shift into the silkscreens, technology pieces, Hoarsfrosts, Jammers, and his über-projects the 1/2 Mile or 1 Furlong Piece and ROCI virtually abandon queer themes coded autobiography and sexuality.

Conclusion: Why should we care about Queer Rauschenberg?

One: Because it acts as historical evidence of the queer experience. In the same way that we can find a value in analyzing porn of the nineteenth century as cultural history (see Waugh), we can talk about Rauschenberg's work from 1955-61 in terms of a specific response to a specific set of situations.

Two: The iconography and allusions put forth by these compositions seem somewhat quaint by the standards for shock characteristic of queer art today (Mapplethorpe's bound cocks, Haring's cartooned penetration), and they do not address the more "important" themes of violence against queers or disease. In context, however, they are quite revolutionary in their ability to hold their own in the world of high art (if we believe Krauss's analysis) via their "allegorical" content and revolutionary mode of production, yet they still present a significant iconographic subtext to be discussed in terms of queer sensibilities and modes of expression. The proliferation of art-historical references in these pieces serve to offer these works to both groups: serious art historians will recognize Reubens, Dante and classical references, and the fags will possibly get the references to Ganymede, physique mags and Judy Garland.

Rauschenberg once said, in an often-quoted phrase, that he was working "in the space between art and life" and nowhere is this more evident than in the most essential group of combines. He incorporates references to art history into the disparate junk of urban life. He is also working-literally-in the gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop. He takes the most characteristic elements of each genre and fuses them with a uniquely "queer" worldview.


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Doyle, Jennifer, et al., eds. 1996. Pop Out: Queer Warhol. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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Johnston, Jill, "The World Outside His Window," Art in America (April 1992): 114-126.

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Tomkins, Calvin. 1965. The Bride and The Bachelors. New York: Penguin.

______. 1983. Off The Wall. New York: Doubleday.

Waugh, Thomas. 1996. Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film, from their Beginnings to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University Press.

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