In 1953, two young American artists, Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Jasper Johns (b 1930), met and fell in love. It was at a time when same-sex relationships were illegal and New York’s art scene was dominated by Abstract Expressionism, an art movement that focused on ideas of revealing the artist’s inner psyche.
The National Gallery of Australia’s touring exhibition Rauschenberg & Johns: significant others reveals how these two artists began a private creative dialogue, introducing everyday objects, media and signs into their artwork, to rebel against the art of their time.
Mindful of their personal circumstances, Rauschenberg and Johns claimed their art was not about themselves and did not reflect their personalities. Their works expanded on ideas developed through their private discourse and relationship, shaping a new movement in American art history, and positioning them as two of America’s most celebrated artists of the twentieth century.
Drawn from the National Gallery’s Kenneth Tyler Collection, Rauschenberg & Johns brings together prints and multimedia works, including Rauschenberg’s masterpiece Booster and Johns’ iconic Color numerals series.
Both Rauschenberg and Johns worked with Kenneth Tyler, a master printer who collaborated with some of the most influential artists of the twentieth century on projects that pushed artistic and technical boundaries of printmaking. Working with Tyler, Rauschenberg combined the processes of lithography and screen printing to create Booster which was the largest and most technically sophisticated hand-pulled lithograph ever produced, taking printmaking into a new era of experimentation.
Test Stone #5A from the Booster and Seven Studies series 1967 demonstrates Rauschenberg’s eclectic aesthetic: combining disparate images including newspaper articles, photos, and images of power drills, this non-linear work resists easy interpretation, leaving the viewer to create their own narratives within the work.
Jasper Johns would often speak of his work as being like a spy. He used everyday signs and symbols such as numbers that could easily be overlooked. But like a spy, these works could speak in code. Johns’s Color Numerals series encoded ideas of the human body into the works, with each lithograph titled as a ‘figure’, suggesting the human figure.
David Greenhalgh, the National Gallery’s Kenneth E Tyler Assistant Curator, Prints and Drawings, says that the success of both Rauschenberg and Johns is a result of them privately encouraging each other to create work that defied the artistic thinking of their time.
As queer artists, they rebelled from the artist-centric Abstract Expressionist movement and elevated the role of the audience in creating meaning in art.
Drawing inspiration from the iconoclastic Marcel Duchamp, their rebellious work appropriated objects and images from the world around them to reflect the growing material prosperity and media proliferation of their time, while also co-opting these subjects into private allegories for their lived experience.
This extraordinary exhibition is a unique opportunity for Cairns audiences to view major works from the National Gallery of Australia, by two of America’s most influential twentieth century artists.
Rauschenberg & Johns: significant others is a National Gallery Touring Exhibition supported by Visions of Australia.
The National Gallery gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Tyler Charitable Foundation in presenting the exhibition and supporting the digital publication
Robert RAUSCHENBERG, Gemini G.E.L.
Test stone #5A; from Booster and 7 studies 1967
lithograph, printed in three colours
62 x 73 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, Purchased 1973
© Robert Rauschenberg. VAGA/Copyright Agency.
Figure 7 from Color numeral series 1968–69
published by Gemini Graphic Editions Limited, Los Angeles
National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased 1973
© Jasper Johns/Copyright Agency, 2023
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