Over the rainbow


Today is the 30th anniversary of the first appearance of the rainbow flag at a gay pride event. Gilbert Baker designed the flag which was used for the 1978 Gay Freedom Parade in—where else?—San Francisco and he talked to The Independent last week about its legacy.


Baker’s original design can be seen below, with the stripes signifying (from top to bottom) sexuality, life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic, serenity and spirit. Subsequent changes dropped sexuality and magic to give us the more familiar arrangement seen in the photo above but it seems Baker would prefer everyone to revert to his original design. I tend to be ambivalent about rainbows, not only are they ubiquitous in other contexts—the spinning “Marble of Doom” on the left is a familiar sight to Mac users—but any spectrum arrangement presents problems for graphic designers. That aside, I wouldn’t mind seeing the original design returned to in order to distinguish it from the many other rainbow flags. But it may well be too late for that now, the six stripe flag is firmly embedded in gay culture. Garish it may be but it has the advantage of being highly visible, which is partly the point, of course. Flickr photos show how effective it is at standing out in a variety of surroundings.


I was hoping to find a credit for the gay pastiche of Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima photo but details about its creator seem elusive. If anyone knows who the photographer was, please leave a comment. I’ve noticed recently that this photo in particular, one of many pastiches of that famous image, annoys a certain type of knuckle-dragging American who sees it as an insult to the soldiers of the Second World War. In which case one has to hope they haven’t seen this Terry Pratchett book jacket. Here in Britain we regard it as bad taste to take flags too seriously, hence the increasingly common appearance at UK gay events of pink Union flags like the one below. Flags are signs, not religious icons, and as such they’re always open to change and reinterpretation; the evolution and appropriation of Gilbert Baker’s flag is the perfect example of that.

Update: The Joe Rosenthal pastiche is by Ed Freeman.


Previously on { feuilleton }
The recurrent pose #2
Michael Petry’s flag

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925–2008


Retroactive I (1964).

My youthful enthusiasm for art acquainted me with the name of Robert Rauschenberg (who died two days ago) earlier than most. Surrealism and Pop Art held an appeal that was immediate, if rather superficially appreciated at the time, and it was seeing works from both those movements which were the most memorable aspect of my first visit to the Tate Gallery when I was 13. Later on when I was reading JG Ballard’s stories and essays in back numbers of New Worlds, Rauschenberg was one of a handful of artists who seemed to depict in visual terms what Ballard was describing in words. In this respect Robert Hughes’s discussion of the “landscape of media” (Ballard’s common phrase would be “media landscape”) below is coincidental but significant. Retroactive I was painted a couple of years before Ballard began the stories that would later become The Atrocity Exhibition and it could easily serve as an illustration for that book.

There are and will be plenty of words written elsewhere about Rauschenberg’s work and influence. I’ll note here his inclusion in the list of gay artists at GLBTQ for his creative and personal partnership with another great Pop artist, Jasper Johns.

One of the artists (television) most affected in the Sixties was Rauschenberg. In 1962, he began to apply printed images to canvas with silkscreen—the found image, not the found object, was incorporated into the work. “I was bombarded with TV sets and magazines,” he recalls, “by the refuse, by the excess of the world … I thought that if I could paint or make an honest work, it should incorporate all of these elements, which were and are a reality. Collage is a way of getting an additional piece of information that’s impersonal. I’ve always tried to work impersonally.” With access to anything printed, Rauschenberg could draw on an unlimited bank of images for his new paintings, and he set them together with a casual narrative style. In heightening the documentary flavour of his work, he strove to give canvas the accumulative flicker of a colour TV set. The bawling pressure of images—rocket, eagle, Kennedy, crowd, street sign, dancer, oranges, box, mosquito—creates an inventory of modern life, the lyrical outpourings of a mind jammed to satiation with the rapid, the quotidian, the real. In its peacock-hued, electron-sweetbox tints, this was an art that Marinetti and the Berlin Dadaists would have recognized at once: an agglomeration of memorable signs, capable of facing the breadth of the street. Their subject was glut.

Rauschenberg’s view of this landscape of media was both affectionate and ironic. He liked excavating whole histories within an image—histories of the media themselves. A perfect example is the red patch at the bottom right corner of Retroactive I. It is a silkscreen enlargement of a photo by Gjon Mili, which he found in Life magazine. Mili’s photograph was a carefully set-up parody, with the aid of a stroboscopic flash, of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912. Duchamp’s painting was in turn based on Marey‘s photos of a moving body. So the image goes back through seventy years of technological time, through allusion after allusion; and a further irony is that, in its Rauschenbergian form, it ends up looking precisely like the figures of Adam and Eve expelled from Eden in Masaccio’s fresco for the Carmine in Florence. This in turn converts the image of John Kennedy, who was dead by then and rapidly approaching apotheosis as the centre of a mawkish cult, into a sort of vengeful god with a pointing finger, so fulfilling the prophecy Edmond de Goncourt confided to his journal in 1861:

“The day will come when all the modern nations will adore a sort of American god, about whom much will have been written in the popular press; and images of this god will be set up in the churches, not as the imagination of each individual painter may fancy him, but fixed, once and for all, by photography. On that day civilization will have reached its peak, and there will be steam-propelled gondolas in Venice.”

Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (1980).

Previously on { feuilleton }
Transfer drawings by Robert Rauschenberg
Jasper Johns
Michael Petry’s flag
JG Ballard book covers

The art of ejaculation


left: Sperman (2007) by Cary Kwok; right: Here Cums the Spider (2007) by Cary Kwok.

NSFW, as if you need to be told. It’s almost a commonplace of contemporary art that there are so many artists around today, producing such a volume of work, that any newcomer (as it were) has to find a niche and stay there if they want their efforts to stand out from the crowd. Cary Kwok’s niche seems to be the seminal emission which he depicts in a variety of ways, including showing various well-known comic-book characters shooting their respective loads. Kwok’s work has been shown recently at the Herald Street gallery, London, and Hard Hat, Geneva.

I like Kwok’s drawings, they’re carefully-done and funny, and serve to remind one that the cum shot is under-represented in art. Despite various Biblical prohibitions, women have been subject to no end of sexual display throughout art history, from copulations with gods in the form of animals to Danaë’s impregnation by Zeus as a literal golden shower. But male sexuality, especially at its most essential moment, has rarely been depicted outside the pages of pornography. The irony of this, as with arguments against erections in art, is that if it wasn’t for ejaculations we wouldn’t be here to discuss their pros and cons. Gay artists have been in the vanguard of addressing the sperm-drought, possibly because they have more than a passing interest in these matters; Michael Petry’s work earlier this year took a lateral view. There’s another sample (as it were) of Cary Kwok’s work below the fold plus some other seminal (as it were) artworks through the ages.

Update: Jack-Off Sculpture Sells For $15 Million.

Continue reading “The art of ejaculation”

Jasper Johns


Left: Handprint (1964).

Bull’s-Eyes and Body Parts:
It’s Theater, From Jasper Johns

New York Times, February 2, 2007

WASHINGTON — Art and crass are all but inseparable. So it’s no surprise to find an exhibition that brings together a record number of Jasper Johns’s famous target paintings being bankrolled by Target. You pass the corporate bull’s-eye logo, small but vivid, on a wall on your way into “Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965” here at the National Gallery of Art.

Mr. Johns’s targets, endlessly reproduced in the half century since he painted the earliest of them, have themselves become a form of advertising, a logo for American postwar art. Through sheer omnipresence they’ve become nearly invisible. What could change that now?

The answer: Seeing them live. The 15 “Target” paintings installed in the show’s first gallery look every bit as radical and mysterious as they surely did in New York in the 1950s, when, simply by existing, they closed the door on one kind of art, Abstract Expressionism, and opened a door on many, many others.

The National Gallery show, organized by the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Jeffrey Weiss, has mysteries of its own. It isn’t a survey of the decade 1955-65, but a selection of 90 Johns works from that time organized by visual theme: targets, “devices,” words and the human body. Other motifs at least as important to that phase of his career, like flags, numbers and maps, are nowhere in evidence. Nor can the connective “allegory” proposed by the exhibition title be readily discerned. No matter.

Walk in the door, and you’re hooked. Try to move through the show in a hurry, and you can’t. The work is too strong, too unusual. It keeps stopping you, here, then here, then here. Mr. Johns, you suddenly remember, doesn’t just create visual objects, he creates situations, events. Each painting is a mini-theater, with farce and tragedy silently acted out and the audience invited to participate.

Initially Mr. Johns wanted the participation to be physical. “Target With Plaster Casts” (1955) is a painting surmounted by a row of wooden niches holding casts of body parts: a hand, a foot, a penis, a breast. And each niche has a little flip-up door, designed to be opened and closed by viewers, to give them a different, more intimate art experience than usual. Of course, if you reach for them now, in a museum, you risk arrest. So the real message, which Mr. Johns must have anticipated, is: Touch, but don’t touch.

His art is built on such ambiguities. Most of his very early paintings, done in a thick encaustic medium that makes them look molded instead of brushed, feel like sculptures. Many of those done a bit later in oils have three-dimensional objects attached to their surfaces so that, like furniture, they carve out sculptural space.

Dada, cerebral and vacant, was a big influence on Mr. Johns. His group of paintings made up of the stenciled names of colors — red, yellow, blue — was inspired in part by Marcel Duchamp’s use of language as art. Duchampian too are the so-called “devices” paintings, which have rotatable wooden discs, with squeegeelike arms for smoothing arcs of paint, affixed to their surfaces.

One assumes that Mr. Johns was declaring his complete dissociation from gestural abstraction, with its fetishized brushstroke, its existentialist soul, its emotional acting out. But then you arrive at a word-painting like “False Start” (1959), which explodes with hysterical brushwork. Or “Device Circle” (1959), on which the attached wheel looks gloomily derelict, like a one-handed clock. Or “Painting Bitten by a Man” (1961), which has a mouthful of wax encaustic gnawed out of its center, leaving a mark like a frozen scream or guffaw.

What’s the story? Is he mocking expressive painting or declaring it compatible with Dada’s cerebral conceits? Is he exposing a reserve of hidden passion beneath Duchamp’s dandyish, bone-dry wit?

In 1962 Mr. Johns made a group of prints by pressing his face and hands, covered with baby oil, onto large sheets of paper. The resulting images suggest a person swimming up from beneath an opaque surface that he is unable to push through. Over the next two years he finished two paintings and a drawing that referred to Hart Crane, the American poet who jumped off a ship in midsea and drowned.

The larger of the paintings, “Diver,” is very large and holds a compendium of motifs from earlier work: stenciled words, turbulent brushwork and a rainbow-colored target. At the center, two long wooden arms, ending in palms-open hands, reach upward.

If the painting theatrically approximates the psychic splintering that drove Crane to suicide, the related charcoal drawing, also called “Diver,” suggests the aftermath of his leap. Here the arms have hands at both ends. They point both downward and upward, with the descending hands meeting to form the shape of a skull in a subaqueous twilight.

It is in these theme-gathering works that a narrative, or “allegory,” comes together, though how to interpret it is hard to say. Countless glosses have been applied to Mr. Johns’s art, which is always assumed to be thick with coded meanings. Critics and scholars have scrutinized the art he has looked at, the writers he has read, the thinkers he has thought about.

Others have parsed his life. The artist Robert Morris, in a powerful catalog essay, links the themes of targets, flags and maps to Mr. Johns’s stint in the Army from 1951 to 1953. The art historians Kenneth E. Silver and Jonathan Katz have noted the dark, personal turn in his art after he and his lover, Robert Rauschenberg, split up in 1961. Their relationship seems to have shaped the careers of both men. It lives on in an art-world game that pits them against each other in a who’s-greater competition, though they are very different kinds of artists.

And what kind of artist is Mr. Johns? Various labels have been advanced: post-Dada, proto-Pop. I would call him a metaphysical artist, in the way that the 17th-century English poet John Donne is a metaphysical poet. Like Donne’s poetry, Mr. Johns’s art is equally about body and mind, sensuality and reflection. It is unmystical, unromantic, unnostalgic but obsessed with transcendence and the reality of loss.

Despite the difference in medium, the languages of Donne and Mr. Johns share many features: deliberate awkwardness, ungraceful beauty, a virtuosity so extreme that it turns weird. Their work can be startlingly, even embarrassingly candid, but is more often self-protectively opaque. Metaphor, rather than statement or confession, is their method. Some people find Donne manipulatively difficult and withholding. They might feel the same about Mr. Johns.

Finally, both metaphysicians appeared when a culture was on the cusp of change. And they were prepared to engage with that change, boldly, anxiously, in long careers that were electrifying early but are of profound interest all the way through. Mr. Johns’s career is of course still very much in progress, and I look forward to each future phase. I know of no major postwar American male artist whose work more completely approaches the condition of poetry, that reads as richly as it looks. To me it always feels new.

“Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965” continues through April 29 at the National Gallery of Art, East Building, Constitution Avenue between Third and Ninth Streets, Washington; (202) 737-4215, nga.gov.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Michael Petry’s flag
Dada at MOMA

Michael Petry’s flag


Monument to an Unknown Soldier: Portrait of an American Patriot (detail) by Michael Petry.

American artist Michael Petry has made works in the past using freshwater pearls threaded on sheets of black velvet. Viewers can admire the pearls then be disconcerted when given the additional information that the shapes they make are derived from those produced by human seminal emissions. A new work by Petry uses the same effect with a full-size US flag taking the place of the black velvet. The emission pattern in this case was produced by a gay American soldier and serves as a comment on the US military’s ridiculous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards gay servicemen and women. The soldier in this instance must remain unknown or risk expulsion from the army.

It remains to be seen what reaction this will provoke when the work goes on display at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York as part of the America the Beautiful exhibition. The flag in the United States is a sacred object in a way it could never be here and many patriots won’t take kindly to seeing it “besmirched” even if it is by a small arrangement of pearls. In this kind of work context is all. If people were told the pearls were arranged in the shape of the Marshall Islands (where the US conducted its nuclear tests) they’d be less upset than when informed as to the real origin of the design. Yet nothing would physically change; the flag and pearls would remain the same, all that would alter would be a single piece of information and the perception of the viewer.


White Flag (1955) by Jasper Johns.

Petry isn’t the first artist to use the American flag as a subject, of course, Jasper Johns (another gay artist, incidentally) produced a number of flag-derived paintings in the 1950s and 60s. His famous White Flag of 1955 was intended to be abstract rather than political (although it’s debatable how using such a highly-charged symbol could ever be unpolitical) but it’s interesting to consider how this would be viewed if it had been painted today. White flags are only used to signify surrender; in time of war Johns’ exercise in abstraction gains a new resonance.

Sundaram Tagore Gallery
547 West 27th Street,
New York.

Via Towleroad.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Army Day