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  • Robert Rauschenberg’s “Red Show”: Theater, Painting, and Queerness in 1950s Modernism

Deep and dark is the abyss of the theatre.

—Henry James, 18951

During the early fall of 1954, Robert Rauschenberg invited a group of friends, including musician John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and dancer Carolyn Brown, to his Fulton Street studio in lower Manhattan. Brown, who was with the newly formed Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the time, remembers viewing a series of large paintings, mostly red in color, leaning against the wall. “We were thunderstruck,” she recalls. “The new work was garish, giddy, Gypsy caravan-esque. There was an audible, almost communal intake of breath. No one said a word. What an eyeful!”2 How far from the staid abstractions of postwar New York School painters these works seemed to be! Attached to the surfaces of the paintings, and in some cases even providing the framing support, was an array of collaged objects and fabrics, garish in a bright palette of reds and pinks. These would become known as the “Red Paintings”; the exhibition that opened in December 1954 at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York was soon dubbed the “Red Show.” For many art historians, this series of paintings also mark the beginnings of the “Combines,” a hybrid form of painted, sculptural assemblages with which Rauschenberg’s name has become synonymous. Brown’s remarks invoke the raced and classed category of the Roma or “gypsy,” long a charged symbol of flamboyant otherness in Euro-American culture. But I want to suggest that Brown perceived early on a theatrical sensibility in the Combines that [End Page 87] would emerge full-blown in the 1960s when Rauschenberg created experimental, multi-media theater works such as Homage to David Tudor (1961), Pelican (1963), or Map Room II (1965). It is not unusual, of course, to broach the topic of theater in connection to these works or even the Combines proper. Art historians have routinely cited a theatrical impulse in the artist’s work, due in part to his association with Cage, Cunningham, and choreographer Paul Taylor, with whom he began working around 1954. In many cases it has been seen as part of Rauschenberg’s involvement with the neo-avant-garde, which mounted anew in the 1950s an assault upon modernism. The thread of theatricality in Rauschenberg’s work, where the “aesthetic of the Combines was extended to the interaction of performance and props,” as Branden Joseph describes it, has generally been understood through the logic of Michael Fried’s infamous essay, “Art and Objecthood.”3 Fried argued that the viewer-oriented and durational nature of theater exerted a dangerous influence upon modernist art in that it constituted an abrogation of medium specificity: “What lies between the arts is theatre.”4

Fried’s argument, which is largely a formalist one, is so well known that “Art and Objecthood” has had the effect of defining theatricality for generations of scholars of modernist and postmodernist art. The bulk of the literature that describes a theatrical impulse in Rauschenberg’s art, whether tendered in defense or attack, thus relies on a definition that occludes a social dimension—what Henry James long ago described as theater’s “deep and dark” abyss.5 Theater has often been regarded as a rather debased form of imitation in Western culture, to be sure. As theater historian Jonas Barish recounts in his book The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice, “terms borrowed from the theater—theatrical, operatic, melodramatic, stagey, etc.—are hostile or belittling.”6 Within modernism, theatricality came to stand for an ineffectual mimesis—an inhospitable position in a culture that increasingly privileged the laying bare of the processes of representational form. Most relevant to my argument here is that the theater also has a specifically queer timbre betraying a long-standing bias in modernism towards nonnormative constructions of masculine identity (which would include both femininity and male homosexuality). Art historian Amelia Jones has argued that the “alignment of theatricality . . . with a feminized inauthenticity has been a strategy of long standing durability within modernism, and it reveals much about the assumptions built into the formalist mode of modernist criticism.”7 Can this trope of theatricality be brought to bear upon the Red Paintings? Jones is, after all, pointing here to the ways in which women and/or femininity as well as gay men are defined through theatricality as inauthentic subjects within heteronormative constructions of modernity.8 Without eliding the complex relationship—and differences—between feminist and queer politics, can a reading of Rauschenberg’s Red Paintings that mobilizes this “debasement of the virility of ‘pure’ modernism” be put forth as constituting a queer response to the reformulation of modernism in New York School painting during the postwar years?9

Carolyn Brown’s description of their “garish, giddy, Gypsy caravan-esque” nature suggests that the works on display in the Red Show might be read as a queer counterpart to the grandiosity of postwar Abstract Expressionist rhetoric—queer (lowbrow) comedy to heteronormative (highbrow) tragedy. This would require a different account of [End Page 88] Rauschenberg’s Red Paintings, one found not in the abandonment of medium-specific questions of painting, but in the paintings’ embrace of a queer logic of the picture plane where theatricality is set against the purported authenticity of postwar painting. Indeed, this is my argument: the theatricality of the Red Paintings runs parallel to or makes visually manifest a historically specific model of 1950s queerness, in which the homosexual male was often associated with a theatrical presentation of self. While the term queer itself is historically specific (it was once a term of derision like “nelly” or “pansy”), I am using it in a double sense: as a reclaimed political designation that issues from contemporary critical discourse but one that also functions as a designation of a non-normative subject category in the postwar period before the Stonewall riots and the rise of the modern gay rights movement.

I should state at the outset that while my reading of the Red Paintings is meant to open up a trenchantly critical space for these works, I am not ascribing to Rauschenberg, a gay male artist operating in the context of Cold War modernism, a conscious strategy of queer opposition, coded or otherwise.10 Such an argument would have to attend to the historical parameters in which a virulent anti-communism was often paired with an equally virulent homophobia that destroyed careers on merely the suspicion of either identification. Rauschenberg began these paintings in the years immediately following the House Un-American Activities Committee’s expansion of focus to include homosexuals employed in government and the culture at large, where there was certainly a climate of fear as a result.11 If it is indeed true, as I will demonstrate, that Rauschenberg and his coterie of friends, artists, and critics embraced this theatrical dimension, it does not mean that it constituted a conscious political agenda around issues of gender and sexuality or even a hidden symbolic language. This has been, I think, the error of a so-called “gay art history” where coded admissions of coherently formed subjectivity are proposed through iconographic entrance points into a world that did not exist as we would know it today. As Cindy Patton put it, homosexuals, while persecuted in the 1950s, were “not yet officially discursively constructed as a class . . . the very idea of [gay] identity, as we think of it now, is inextricably bound to the rise of civil-rights law” in the 1960s (“To Die For,” 331–32). Patton points to the amorphous nature of homosexual identity in those years and how radically unformed, unfixed even, were its contours. Jonathan Katz, whose writings on Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns have been influential in the field of queer studies, nevertheless has overestimated, I believe, the degree to which the work of these artists can be deciphered as self-declamation and the extent to which their identities can be summoned as discrete entities. Although increasingly nuanced in his later writings, Katz’s central premise remains: gay artists of the postwar period found ways around the confessional nature of abstract expressionist painting through coded means of self-disclosure.12 Katz describes the work of Rauschenberg as containing hidden messages available only to the initiate as “pictorial communiqués.”13 Such an iconographic method must rely on the implicit assumption of intentionality—that Rauschenberg was, in other words, using his collage or Combine method to telescope confessions of sexual identity. My own thinking is that such disclosure, particularly when it comes to Rauschenberg, who only once publicly hinted at his homosexuality, is not only unlikely but also discursively impossible. [End Page 89]

Rauschenberg’s opposition to mainstream modernism, I argue, was couched in the language of form. But what does it mean to suggest that Rauschenberg’s work itself is queer? Following Eve Kosokfy Sedgwick’s argument that in queer theory “the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically,” my use of this term is meant to deploy the very kinds of slippages, evasions, and resistance to categorization and naming that sets queer in a critical relation with sexual and gender identity.14 An opposition to a particular subject position (the heroic male artist) and refusal to conform to identity norms (rather than their symbolic or iconographic affirmation) is what the work of Rauschenberg metaphorically mobilizes in relationship to the New York School painting of the 1950s.15 Rauschenberg’s art was, if anything, an act of refusal to disclose, a scrambling of codes of legibility in an era of confessional painting. The White Paintings of 1951, which reinvented the monochrome as meditation on silence, made that point clear, as John Cage later recalled. In a 1963 interview on the Black Paintings (1951), Rauschenberg stated that he wanted his paintings to have “complexity without their revealing anything.”16 Indeed what Cage noted about the Combines—“an entertainment [sic] in which to celebrate unfixity”—neatly encapsulates one of the central claims of queer theory: David Halperin describes it as an “eccentric positionality occupied by the queer subject,” in which is envisioned a “reordering of the relations among sexual behaviors, erotic identities, constructions of gender, form of knowledge, regimes of enunciation.”17 This liberatory pleasure in the un-fixing of gender and sexuality from being rooted in biology, queering those connections, is what Judith Butler has described as part of an opposition “to the unwarranted legislation of identity.”18

Theatricality, as I will claim, is a key facet of this kind of queerness operative in 1950s modern culture. As opposed to the macho posturing of postwar American painters, the theatrical quality of Rauschenberg’s Red Paintings embody Abstract Expressionism and inhabit its forms to such an extent that they could be considered Abstract Expressionism in drag. My use of the designation “theatrical” in relation to Rauschenberg is not in order to conjure an identity. It is, instead, to define an oppositional sensibility and engagement with a given cultural norm—in this case the “action painting” rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, the first major movement of the so-called New York School of painting. It will be necessary, however, to interrogate theater’s relationship to “performance” (or “theatricality” to “performativity”), the latter a trope with which the former has been, inversely, linked. But are they necessarily that distinct? Here I make use of theater historian Stephen J. Bottoms’s findings that the association of theater with a culture of homosexuality, particularly strong during the 1950s and 1960s, necessitated it being cleaved from the more high-minded world of performance studies.19 Bottoms provides a very rich account of paradigm shifts that saw the emergence of the term “performativity,” which connotes active, efficacious doing. Performativity supplanted the seemingly passive and (male) homosexual associations of the term “theatricality.” But to return to this earlier instantiation of what would only later be called performance provides an important basis for understanding how the Red Paintings—and specifically the exhibition nicknamed the “Red Show”—offered a powerful corrective to the [End Page 90] dominant theory of modernist painting in the early to mid-1950s precisely through this discredited trope of the theatrical.

The Red Show

Nobody had understood Rauschenberg before. I had been wildly enthusiastic about his show a few years before at Egan’s, the so-called red show, which was a fantastic event that nobody understood.

—Leo Castelli20

Rauschenberg’s “Red Show” exhibition of December of 1954 is a largely unexamined one in the literature on the artist. No records of the Charles Egan Gallery exist from this period, and most accounts of the exhibition are based on the few extant photographs of the installation (fig. 1). Walter Hopps states in Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s that Egan put all the gallery records out on the street.21 Exhibition reviews are said to be less than factual; Roni Feinstein, in her oft-cited dissertation, suggests that Frank O’Hara’s review of the exhibition was “poetic” rather than accurate in his description of actual works.22 More significant still is the fate of the works themselves in art history. Beginning with Andrew Forge’s 1969 monograph, the Red Paintings have been treated as antecedents to the Combines (this is the case with both Feinstein and Hopps) when they are discussed at all. They have generally been folded into the larger body of the Combines produced between 1954 and 1965, all of which are assumed to act in concert, thematically governed by the general logic of collage, assemblage, or interactive multi-media objects.23 The Red Paintings are generally assumed to have stemmed from the series of monochromatic canvases—the White Paintings and the Black Paintings—Rauschenberg had begun at Black Mountain College, North Carolina in 1951.

It is important to dwell for a moment on the peculiar construction of the Black Paintings as they reveal much about the artist’s own method and how idiosyncratic was his approach to the act of painting. As opposed to the almost bare surface of a stretched canvas in the Abstract Expressionist manner, upon which the indexical traces of the artist’s brush were marked in the characteristically gestural fashion of that movement, the Black Paintings were an encrusted mass of built up surfaces, often over an earlier painting. Rauschenberg layered newspapers dipped in black paint upon more layers of the same material, repeatedly covering what had come before. The result was a rippled and crumbled surface, an almost emergent objectness in place of a translucent pictorial flatness. This layering of paint had already begun with the White Paintings, which were composed simply of several thickly applied coats. After those works, it seemed a logical step to the Red Paintings, the work Brown was so astonished to see in Rauschenberg’s studio; here the incorporation of found objects, fabric (often used in place of canvas, as were newspapers), and other sundry material was a pronounced feature. Assembled from uncommon materials and exaggerated framing support structures, the Red Paintings courted the viewer, and created an interactive engagement: hinged doors and shelves, lights, and veiling. Rauschenberg went so far as to have a [End Page 91] gallery concert with composer Morton Feldman performing a piano work, the gallery replete with gold chairs for Christmas Eve.24

Fig. 1. Robert Rauschenberg, Installation view of Joyeux Noël, Egan Gallery, New York, December 13, 1954–January 22, 1955. Works shown are Rauschenberg’s Untitled, Yoicks, and Untitled (all 1954). Photo by Robert Rauschenberg.
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Fig. 1.

Robert Rauschenberg, Installation view of Joyeux Noël, Egan Gallery, New York, December 13, 1954–January 22, 1955. Works shown are Rauschenberg’s Untitled, Yoicks, and Untitled (all 1954). Photo by Robert Rauschenberg.

© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

In 1959, Rauschenberg told the magazine Print that “the paintings changed as the printed material became as much a subject as the paint.”25 The earliest Red Paintings, both Untitled, were completed in 1953. Two relatively monochromatic works, their surfaces were built up through layers of paint, fabric and newspaper in much the same way as the Black Paintings. In the 1954 Untitled (Red Painting), the monochromatic surface is broken further by the introduction of a small swatch of striped and paisley fabric; this occurs more markedly with Yoicks (1954), whose ground consists entirely of polka-dot fabric and newspaper (figs. 2–3). Yoicks actually comprises two separately stretched and joined canvases. With newspaper as a base, the artist stretched over the painting’s support a yellow fabric with a green polka-dot print onto which he painted horizontal bands of red and yellow paint that drip downward. Underneath the fabric, [End Page 92] sections of the newspaper are visible on the edge of the left center of Yoicks where cartoon panels, placed vertically, peer out from under the paint. An overall flatness is still retained here, but the vibrancy of the color, and the daring decorativeness of the polka-dot fabric—its shimmery, satin quality particularly—is strikingly, dramatically employed and renders flatness, at that time being heralded by Clement Greenberg as essential to pictorial authenticity, as mere effect. In Pink Door (1954), any overall notion of the picture plane as a cohesive field is dispensed with altogether. A bipartite work, it is hinged at the center with the right side containing a large oblong mass of pink silk stretched between unpainted planks of wood. In stark contrast with the flat expanse of the pink screen, the left half of Pink Door is comprised of crumbled material laden with paint. To approach this work—particularly in its original incarnation where touching it, or even opening the “screen door” would have been encouraged—is to engage with it, share in its materiality, or imagine something beyond the pink screen.

One of the first characterizations of these works as explicitly theatrical comes from Rauschenberg’s friend, the painter and critic Elaine de Kooning. Writing in Art News a few months after the exhibition at the Egan Gallery, de Kooning declared the Red Paintings to be “gorgeous, theatrical objects.”26 We might recall that this was only two years before Harold Rosenberg coined the influential phrase “American Action Painting,” in the title of the selfsame Art News article in which a heroic new style was announced. Greenberg’s 1955 essay “American-Type Painting,” staking its own claim on this new movement, was less overtly patriarchal and more Apollonian in its stress on the internal structure of pictorial flatness, but it was still underwritten by many of the assumptions about gender that governed Rosenberg’s more existentialist take. The Red Paintings clearly hewed to neither model and, in fact, seemed bent on subverting both. To unpack de Kooning’s peculiar description, written at a time when a war-torn European modernist tradition was being reinvigorated within the American context of a reconfigured postwar masculinity, requires some explication of the genesis of the Red Paintings as well as the context of de Kooning’s vividly descriptive phrase.

Beginning with Yoicks, Rauschenberg began to break down the picture plane into component and disjunctive parts, while flouting the rules of the bare canvas or expressive mark. Untitled (Red Interior), Untitled (With Stained Glass Window), Charlene, and Collection (all 1954), take on startlingly architectural, even stagey forms. Doors opened, objects moved, lights burned, even the umbrella in Charlene, disconnected from its handle and splayed out like a fan, was meant to spin upon contact with the viewer. An entire range of brushwork was displayed along with a bizarre assortment of clothing, crumbled fabrics, gauzes and veils, objects such as a flattened umbrella stripped of its ribbing, light bulbs, and even the work of other artists: a work by Cy Twombly (with whom Rauschenberg had a relationship before he met Jasper Johns) can be seen in Collection (fig. 4). Another work, Untitled (With Stained Glass Window) (1954), towers over the viewer (fig. 5). It was one of the more dramatic works in the Egan Gallery exhibition. Dominated by a large stained-glass decorative panel that juts out above, this work has a platform attached at the bottom that presumably caught drips of paint in its earlier incarnation as a studio floor. In a 1978 interview Rachel [End Page 93] Rosenthal, a frequent visitor to Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns’s studios, told Calvin Tomkins the following:

Fig. 2. Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1954. Oil, fabric, and newspaper on canvas, 70 ¾ x 47 inches. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles, RRF 54.016.
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Fig. 2.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1954. Oil, fabric, and newspaper on canvas, 70 ¾ x 47 inches. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles, RRF 54.016.

© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Fig. 3. Robert Rauschenberg, Yoicks, 1954. Oil, fabric, and newspaper on two canvases, 96 x 72 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of the artist, RRF 54.020.
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Fig. 3.

Robert Rauschenberg, Yoicks, 1954. Oil, fabric, and newspaper on two canvases, 96 x 72 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of the artist, RRF 54.020.

© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

I remember one of the paintings, he’d liked the look of the floor where his paint had dripped, so he cut out a section of floor and attached it to the bottom of the canvas, brought it up into the picture—this was the first time his work had started to extend out into the space around it.27

The stained glass panel above originally had three yellow light bulbs burning behind it that heightened the spatial effect produced, as well as illuminating the colored glass. The center of this work is a mass of fabric (including a section of the same polka dot print used in Yoicks), paint and collaged reproductions that create an environment that is not so much a picture plane as a place—a stage even—one steps into. Paint itself takes on a theatrical dimension, transforming the treasured accidental stain or flung mark of the New York School into something rather different in effect; Andrew Forge described the wallpapered surface of Untitled (Red Interior) as “splashed as if by a careless decorator” (Rauschenberg, np).

A “careless decorator.” The phrase gestures to a sensibility decidedly out of step with the seriousness of the painterly project in the postwar years, in which careful attention [End Page 94]

Fig. 4. Robert Rauschenberg, Collection, 1954. Combine: oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed reproductions, wood, metal, and mirror on three canvas panels, 80 × 96 × 3 ½ inches. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, RRF 54.001.
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Fig. 4.

Robert Rauschenberg, Collection, 1954. Combine: oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed reproductions, wood, metal, and mirror on three canvas panels, 80 × 96 × 3 ½ inches. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, RRF 54.001.

© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Fig. 5. Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (With Stained Glass Window), 1954. Combine: oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, and printed reproductions on canvas with wood, stained glass, and electric lights, 75 × 56 ½ × 18 inches. Private collection, Paris, RRF 54.021.
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Fig. 5.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (With Stained Glass Window), 1954. Combine: oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, and printed reproductions on canvas with wood, stained glass, and electric lights, 75 × 56 ½ × 18 inches. Private collection, Paris, RRF 54.021.

© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

[End Page 95]

to the inviolability of the picture plane was meant to compliment the new sense of internationalism of which American modernism was the harbinger. Rauschenberg’s exhibition, by contrast, was not careful but excessive. The artist emerged as a gaudy showman, a purveyor of cheap amusements whose penchant for artifice and theatrical outrage was noted by Leo Castelli, who remarked of the Egan show that it was a “a great sensation, an astonishing event. It was like Coney Island, with umbrellas turning, lights flashing.”28 The increasing staginess of the Red Paintings as they progressed from relative monochrome to assemblage was heightened by the artist’s inclusion of lights and various interactive devices. All this recalled the production of props, lighting, and the setting of scenery in place before the curtain rises. Frank O’Hara concluded his review in the January 1955 issue of Art News of the Charles Egan Gallery exhibition with the prescient declaration that “there is a big talent at play, creating its own occasions as a stage does.”29 When Elaine de Kooning declared them to be “gorgeous, theatrical objects,” the verdict, it would appear, was in: Rauschenberg’s new works were garish, theatrical constructions and outrageously so; they seemed more at home on the stage than within the confines of the white-walled gallery. As I will explore further below, the tenor of all these remarks—a “careless decorator” who constructs “gorgeous theatrical objects”—deliberately or not conjures up a homosexual sensibility. It is difficult to imagine the same kind of commentary attending the work of Pollock or Barnet Newman. Citing an interview with Newman, the critic Herbert Crehan noted his description of his studio’s neighborhood as a “very masculine world” where “one never trips over fur coats and runs into anyone walking poodles,” and went on to say that “Newman believes in a masculine environment and he gets this idea across in his paintings.”30 Thus one would not be surprised to see that that same critic denounced the Red Paintings as “contraptions in a sideshow,” as he did in Arts Digest review of the exhibition.31 Crehan did not share the exuberance with which Rauschenberg’s friends greeted his work, presumably because they were not serious works of art capable of producing a requisite masculine identity. The contrast with the disembodied eye that was the sine qua non of large-scale abstract paintings of the time and part of the reigning discourse on modernist art is striking. Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950–51), itself a largely red, somewhat monochromatic painting, is the model for the contemplative repose of the heroic Abstract Expressionist, inscribed, in fact, in the very title which translates as “man, heroic and sublime.” The painting was to be an encounter between viewer and an elevated, transcendent experience of sublimity.

In one instance the sense of theater the Red Paintings summoned became literalized. O’Hara remarked that these hybrid assemblages were “reminiscent of his structure in the Merce Cunningham ballet,” a reference to the work Minutiae (1954) (“Reviews and Previews,” 47). Simultaneous with the Egan Gallery exhibition in December 1954, this Combine had its debut, literally, on stage. Commissioned by Cunningham, Rauschenberg designed a freestanding structure with billowing fabric, comic strip paper, and a revolving mirror (spun just before the beginning of the performance) hanging within a hole carved out of one of the panels. Accompanied by a John Cage musical score, the performance entitled Minutiae (as is the Combine) opened at the Brooklyn [End Page 96] Academy of Music on December 8, 1954 (fig. 6). Assembled from two free-standing panels—the smaller one placed well in front of the larger to provide greater mobility for the dancers—Minutiae had its genesis as a stage set for a dance performance but was strangely hybrid; the outlandishness of its construction led a dance critic at the time to liken this new work, echoing Carolyn Brown’s impression earlier that fall in Rauschenberg’s studio, to “something like a Victorian scrap screen and something like a fortune telling booth.”32

The Red Paintings evoked for these critics something of the fair, the carnival and the theme park, popular forms of entertainment paradigmatically distinct from the exalted terrain of the nascent New York gallery scene where the seriousness of the enterprise that was American modernism in the postwar years meant a careful policing of pictorial forms. As theatrical constructions, the Red Paintings breached that requisite seriousness—as did the supposedly decorative canvases of Lee Krasner or the dubiously saccharine pictures of Theodor Stamos—and in this they courted an almost certain critical failure. Resistance to “the heroicization of masculine display,” as Andrew Perchuk has suggested, came at a cost. Adherence to the abstractly recapitulated norms of gender identity “valorized certain artists and certain types of artistic productions, creating a coherent but delimited reading of postwar American art, with obvious consequences for those who could not or would not participate in it.”33

At the time of the Red Show, New York painting was for the most part a heroic discourse of action and self-revelation—Rosenberg’s characterization of a new group of American painters was, to use a more contemporary argot, a shoring up of the contours of heteronormative subjectivity in the postwar years. “The American Action Painters” described the act of painting in existentialist terms—in terms that we would now call performative. “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event,” Rosenberg famously intoned, construing that canvas as not product but process, not representation but the real itself, invoked as the guarantor of the authenticity so important to masculine artistic subjects in the postwar era.34 The topic of painting—its social relevance, its cultural urgency—in the years following World War II was hotly debated at the “Club,” the organization that Phillip Pavia founded in 1948 and that served as an informal meeting space for members who would soon become leading figures in the Abstract Expressionist movement—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and others. Rather “than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, or ‘express’ an object,” Rosenberg argued, painting was “an arena in which to act” (“American Action Painters,” 33). The canvas was thus the staging ground for the artist and integral to the postwar myth of the heroic male genius in the reiterative performance of a heteronormative subjectivity: “he gesticulated upon the canvas and watched for what each novelty would declare him and his art to be” (Jones, Body Art, 55, 68; Rosenberg, “American Action Painters,” 31, emphasis added).

Modernist painting (and to a lesser extent sculpture) emerged in the years following the end of World War II as an inchoate synthesis of surrealism, cubism, Parisian abstraction, and an overall fascination with myth and primitivism. Michael Leja has shown in his important study of the popular/sociocultural context of postwar painting [End Page 97]

Fig. 6. Robert Rauschenberg, Minutiae, 1954. Combine: oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, metal, and plastic with mirror on braided wire on wood structure, 84 ½ × 81 × 30 ½ inches. Private collection. Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth, RRF 54.004.
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Fig. 6.

Robert Rauschenberg, Minutiae, 1954. Combine: oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, metal, and plastic with mirror on braided wire on wood structure, 84 ½ × 81 × 30 ½ inches. Private collection. Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth, RRF 54.004.

© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

how central myth and the unconscious were to the new postwar “man,” but also how conflicting theories of painting were proposed during this time.35 Rosenberg was the first American critic during this period to offer a compelling account, one based on the philosophy of existentialism as espoused in the writings of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. The rhetoric of action painting was dominant. Indeed it would only later be supplanted by the formalist theory of Clement Greenberg, who proposed that Rosenberg’s “arena” be construed not in explicitly bodily and existentialist terms but as an abstract picture plane (in theory more than practice, as Willem de Kooning and [End Page 98] others’ work clearly demonstrate) in pursuit of the ontological nature of the medium itself (the very condition of autonomy that Michael Fried would later characterize as a kind of “presentness”).36 But whether it be the psychic interiority of the unconscious plotted in abstracted dream-language on the flat ground of the bare canvas or the outer existentialist posturing of action, or even as a field of pure form suspended in self-regard in the Greenbergian view, the end game was the same: a heteronormative subjectivity of universal significance was to be a vital center of this new American painting. As Ann Eden Gibson has noted, describing how “Greenberg called [gay artist Theodor] Stamos’s painting Altar ‘sickeningly sweet,’” even the critic’s language, while not couched in the terms of heroic self-discovery or existentialist action, was nevertheless marked by a blatantly gendered discourse that aligned homosexuality with a disreputable femininity.37 Thus, for both women and homosexual artists, what had to be negotiated, but could never be acknowledged directly until the emergence of a fully articulated feminist critique beginning in the 1970s, was the sense that modernism was a masculine pursuit, one that vigilantly warded off any “impurities” that could accrete as the result of incursions onto this terrain by non-masculine subjects. The anxiety over this was palpable and expressed sometimes in the most pedestrian manner, as Crehan’s comments about a “masculine environment” suggest. The internalization of this “environment” as the condition for a “good” painting meant that there could be no proclaiming of a bodily or any kind of essential identity for homosexual artists, women artists or even artists of color on the plane of the picture field without relinquishing a bid for a successful artwork.

From the retrospective vantage point of the 1990s, things looked a little different. In 1995 feminist art historian Amelia Jones argued that Pollock’s drip paintings were compensatory acts of masculinity during a period of doubt about the American male and his power, not only within the re-industrialized, postwar workplace but also in relation to women. Women’s power over men was a source of anxiety attested to by articles on the postwar male in any number of popular cultural magazines like Look and Life. At the same time as they decried a masculine loss of power, popular magazines sought, in tandem with cultural institutions, to buttress it. Life published its now iconic article on Pollock as the “greatest living artist” in 1949; Art News published an equally iconic series of photographs by Hans Namuth to illustrate an essay “Pollock Paints a Picture” in 1951, the same year that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) screened Namuth’s film of Pollock painting, all part of what Jones describes as the “photographic and cinematic staging of Pollock as masculine genius.” Inscribed within the very formal, pictorial process of constructing an art work are “masculinized, heterosexualized codes of artistic genius” (Body Art, 82).

Those codes were abstract, and as Jones suggests, unstable and in need of reiteration. It would make no sense for Rauschenberg—a younger member, after all, of the abstract expressionists —to abdicate this dominant language of advanced modernist abstraction (in which he was schooled at both Black Mountain College and the Art Student League in New York). Rauschenberg was no more likely to smuggle in hidden iconographic “content” than Krasner was to proclaim a “feminine” aesthetic. But neither [End Page 99] was there a capitulation to the rhetoric of action painting on the part of these artists disenfranchised from the claims of masculine abstraction. They needed to find ways in and through this language. And neither, too, was Rauschenberg’s work “performative” in the manner of Pollock. But here is where I want to construct a critically queer model of theatricality as providing a window through which Rauschenberg was able to engage this performativity in ways that were disruptive and deconstructive. We are not used of course to thinking of theatricality in such a way, for, by the 1990s, the discourses of performance and performativity had shuffled aside theater and its adjunct theatricality as offering any kind of critical interface with constructions of gay subjectivity.

Performance, Performativity and Queer Theatricality

What’s so surprising . . . is to discover the pervasiveness with which the excluded theatrical is . . . linked with the perverted, the artificial, the unnatural, the abnormal, the decadent, the effete, the diseased.

—Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick38

What is the difference between the theatrical and the performative? Performativity has become central to any contemporary discussion of gender and sexuality, following the arguments first proposed by Judith Butler in her landmark 1989 study Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Feminist discourse at that point revolved around the relationship between the female body, femininity, sexuality and the system of patriarchy within which these terms were often negatively inscribed. If social construction theory argued that gender did not inhere in biology but was instead cultural, Butler wondered whether or not the result was merely a different kind of determinism:

On some accounts, the notion that gender is constructed suggests a certain determinism of gender meanings inscribed on anatomically differentiated bodies, where those bodies are understood as passive recipients of an inexorable cultural law. When the relevant “culture” that “constructs” gender is understood in terms of such a law or set of laws, then it seems that gender is as determined and fixed as it was under the biology-is-destiny formulation. In such a case, not biology, but culture, becomes destiny.39

In Gender Trouble, Butler brought to bear upon feminism the denaturalizing tenets of poststructuralist philosophy and turned attention to the binary frame that produces and regulates gender in the first place. If gay and lesbian identity movements in the post-Stonewall period had inherited from feminism a hypostatizing notion of gender that was unwittingly complying with its social regulation, the emergence (or more precisely the increased presence) of transgendered and transsexual persons arguing for representative legibility suggested to Butler that there is “a crisis of gender that is specific to queer contexts” (Gender Trouble, xi). Increasingly dislodged from its rootedness in either anatomy or sexual orientation, gender became a performance rather than the expression of some natural state. Often misread as averring a certain kind of [End Page 100] choice or freedom in its adoption as well as the assumption of a “self” that precedes gender, Butler insisted that, just as in poststructuralism there is no self prior to its designation through language, there is no self that precedes its expression through gender. Performativity, she argued, is part of enforcement. Subjectivity is constituted in the very act of adhering to the binary categories of femininity or masculinity; these states of being must be constantly asserted through performative acts that require adherence to but often contravene the restrictive norms that govern recognizability and thereby partition sexual desire along the binary axis of male/female or masculine/feminine.

In Gender Trouble, Butler defined this system as a heterosexual matrix, which positioned anything exterior to it as abnormal. The 1990s saw a new wave of activism around sexuality in large part due to the ongoing crisis of the AIDS pandemic. Identifying as queer was for members of these new movements revolutionary; “queer” embraced the abnormality that “gay” attempted to normalize; embracing that abnormality in queer theory provided a critical strategy aimed at examining, negating, and deconstructing the assumed naturalism of the heterosexual matrix that Butler had identified, or heteronormativity, itself a term of queer theory.40 If gay meant assimilation and normalization, queer insisted upon perversity as fundamental to the new politics of identity that queer named. Queer theory emerged as an embrace of this perversity and importantly as a critical discourse that challenged assumptions of gender/sexual normalcy; as David Halperin put it, “queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” Gay or lesbian identity, on the other hand is “rooted in the positive fact of homosexual object-choice” (Saint Foucault, 62). Instead of the proud proclamation of a stabilized homosexual identity, queer inaugurated a more open, unfixed, and indeterminate alignment between gender, sexual desire, and biology. It opened up spaces for trans-people and for heterosexual orientations that don’t follow familiar patterns of alignment. Performativity—doing, not being, gender—became the operative term of queer theory. And theatricality? Despite its inherently performative nature—after all to be theatrical is necessarily to acknowledge the fiction of self-presentation—theatricality became relegated to the past, the relic of a less enlightened era just as the designations “gay” and “lesbian” suddenly seemed old-fashioned carrying within them discredited political ambitions of tolerance and assimilation.

The splicing of theater from performance had already begun in earnest during the 1960s. Performance studies, Bottoms points out, became the emergent paradigm promulgated in the pages of The Drama Review, the influential journal that was founded by Richard Schechner in 1955. Reference to the term “performance” in the performing arts assumed the tone of serious inquiry; a development of experimental theater, performance became the term associated with happenings, body art, and any seemingly unmediated, anti-narrative or ritualistic cultural event. The rest—theatrical dramas and to a lesser extent cinema—was consigned to the realm of a suspect world of fantasy and make-believe. The theater was, moreover, increasingly linked to a homosexual subculture. “[P]ost-war American drama,” wrote a New York Times drama critic in a 1966 New York Times article, “Homosexuality and its Disguises,” “presents a badly distorted picture of American women, marriage and society in general.”41 This [End Page 101] itself was, perhaps, old news by 1966: in a 1955 tabloid screed the headline ran: “Why they call Broadway the ‘GAY’ White Way.”42 The tabloid, called Tip-Off, was concerned to alert its readers to the preponderance of homosexual men occupying positions of authority in the theater. But over the ensuing decade this danger migrated from merely staffing Broadway productions to defining the ontology of theater itself. The disguise of homosexuality, in the New York Times’s clearly panicked dispatch, is the theater, as we discover, judging by the plays that were written for it. Stanley Kauffman, the author of this polemic, was troubled by a number of gay playwrights—Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams among them—whose stage plays depicted the family as an institution riven by crisis. In Kauffman’s view, theater’s duplicity was of the same nature as that of the deceptive homosexual. Because the (male) homosexual playwright was unable to disclose or draw upon his own experiences, homosexual dramas were often couched in the terms of heterosexual relationships, and were, as a result, fundamentally a distortion of heterosexual relations. They emphasized instead

deceptive “manner and style” over serious moral content, “because these elements of art, at which [homosexuals] are often adept, are legal tender in their transactions with the world.” To be gay, is in other words, is to be theatrical—and presumably vice versa.

(Bottoms, “The Efficacy,” 176)

Previously associated with a weakened form of representation, theater now became the staging ground for a homosexual assault upon an unknowing heterosexual community. How easily an ineffectual mimesis morphs into cunning perversion!43 Theatricality is associated here with male homosexuality in two key, interconnected ways. The male homosexual, in the pre-civil rights and pre-Stonewall era, had no purchase on the authenticity of selfhood and was reviled instead as its very opposite—either as a mimetic copying of femaleness or a psychic failure to achieve full masculinity.44 “Camping” and the exaggerated femininity of “dragging” are examples of a theatrical presentation of self in which gender norms are both reenacted and equally deconstructed through highlighting the essentially unstable and fluid characteristics of gender identity (hence the danger of theater). The other is the theater proper—particularly popular or Broadway theater, whose links to homosexual culture in the 1950s and ‘60s seemed to have reached a zenith point in the post–World War II years when that association became a source of consternation for critics like Stanley Kauffmann.

Only anti-theatrical works—those performances that broke with traditional forms of illusionism and narrative—could prevent theater’s slide into perversion. There was in the theater itself an anti-theatrical strain, one that sought to divest itself of the reliance upon the perceived falsity of theatrical mimesis and, arguably, its links to a commercial, popular but increasingly queer realm. Theater of the Absurd maintained a disdain for plot and realism and shared with postwar modern painting a distrust of mimetic literariness as a basis for modernist aesthetics. Samuel Beckett, for example, was apparently “repelled by mimesis;” as Martin Puchner recounts, “this repulsion, or aversion, was caused primarily by the figure of the actor.”45 This is certainly a strong [End Page 102] reaction, especially to a representational trope. A disdain for theatricality licenses or certainly doubles at any rate the repulsion for the sensibility of the postwar homosexual whose mode of being was, as noted, primarily theatrical. Performance, by contrast, was bodily; it was real and authentic. But “because the theater itself is a denial of reality,” as Jonas Barish puts it, “[t]he search for authenticity involves a denial of theater” (The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice, 451).46 Even in contemporary queer performance studies, theatricality is tacitly acknowledged as some sort of earlier, weaker version of performativity. As Bottoms points out:

This is a translation all-too-familiar in contemporary theory and, particularly, in the discourses of Performance Studies: the notion of “performativity” is celebrated as efficacious—it is a potent word, a doing word . . . while “theatricality” continues to be associated, unthinkingly, with ingrained connotations of empty show and ostentation, lacking in transformative potential.

(“The Efficacy,” 180–81)

In a preponderance of art historical literature—gaining ground with work in performance art and gender studies—postwar modernism became newly legible within the context of performativity. Amelia Jones’s work on Pollock, described earlier, is an example of the idea that Abstract Expressionism is inherently performative in that the expressive qualities of the work’s repetitive tracing of gesture are embodied abstractions and metaphorically reiterate gender. The Abstract Expressionist picture plane conflates—in the performative view—the gestural mark with an abstract notion of selfhood through which some sort of authenticity (male, modernist, mythic) was mapped onto it. But the conceptual transition from theatricality to performativity that emerged out of the theater/performance duality meant that the specific model of queerness (one that trafficked in the semantic slipperiness that both affirmed and resisted legibility of gay identity and what would later become called the “closet”) central to the theatricality of the Red Paintings was lost. Even in Jones’s otherwise incisive account of Pollock and the ways in which his masculinity was performed, Rauschenberg’s work is seen to lack the requisite force that might counter such moves. Describing a 1995 performance by Keith Broadwee, whose Untitled (Purple Squirt) took up the legacy of Pollock (Broadwee squirted paint onto canvas from his anus), Jones describes the artist’s performance project as an “overt, aggressively queer performativity.” Rauschenberg’s work is foreclosed from offering any similar “overt, aggressively queer performativity”: Broadwee, Jones avers, “contrasts markedly with the veiled gay identification of Rauschenberg and Johns in their more ambivalent negotiations of Pollock” (Body Art, 100). This notion of a “veiled gay identification” (suggesting, as I pointed out earlier, the kind of pictorial cold-war communiqués for which Katz has argued) instead would become the only means through which Rauschenberg’s Combines of the 1950s became resonant with a newly emergent academic field of lesbian and gay studies in the 1990s.

In more formalist approaches, by contrast, the performative was used interchangeably with the theatrical while stripping both terms of any connections to queer modes of subjectivity. In terms that recall Fried’s formalist approximation of theatricality, curator [End Page 103] Nancy Spector, in an essay for the 1997 Rauschenberg Guggenheim retrospective, cited what she called the “defining characteristics of Rauschenberg’s theatrical sensibility: temporality, collaboration, and the elemental presence of a viewer,” and declared them to be fundamentally performative:

At its core, Rauschenberg’s art is performative: it exists literally in time or bears the layered traces of its production; it presents the body in motion or reacts to the motion of its audience members; and, above all, it seeks to invoke senses beyond the purely visual.

(“Rauschenberg and Performance,” 228)

Spector’s remarks raise a number of interesting points. On the one hand, her characterization is indicative of performance or performativity’s increasingly elastic—and ultimately formalist—usage in art history itself. It becomes a rather benign term when taken out of the realm of queer theory or feminism. More interesting—or problematic—is how readily it shows the still prevalent influence of Fried’s understanding of theatricality as a condition of durational experience that he first used as a characterization of Minimalist art. One year after Kauffman’s invective in the New York Times about a homosexualized theatrical sensibility infecting heterosexual culture, Fried published “Art and Objecthood” in Artforum. Fried posed theatricality—which he saw as the structuring logic of Minimalist art—as a corrupting and infectious influence upon modernist art. His targets in “Art and Objecthood” were minimalist art’s leading practitioners who included Donald Judd, Tony Smith, and Robert Morris. Fried defined the condition of modernist painting as “presentness,” a pictorial condition of self-containment that achieves autonomy of form independent of any relationship to a beholder. Fried echoes the sentiments of his mentor, the art critic Clement Greenberg, who had proposed during the postwar years much the same thing: advanced art must jettison literary and narrative subject matter and stringently adhere to the properties of the medium. It was an art turned militantly inward, and it demanded, in the case of painting, a gradual flattening out of spatial illusion, and in the case of sculpture, an exploration of three-dimensional form. Fried termed this “presentness” and, in a later work, “absorption.”47 In “Art and Objecthood,” however, there is no immediate context established for the danger that theater poses, aside from a tantalizing reference to “a dangerous tendency in culture at large” (141). Fried’s argument is pitched in near ontological terms; indeed, as Martin Puchner observed, “Nietzsche’s anti-theatrical position [in The Birth of Tragedy (1891)] is echoed, sometimes verbatim, by Michael Fried” (Stage Fright, 3).

Fried seizes upon Rauschenberg as exemplifying an erosion of the distinction “between painting and theater” and indeed singles out both Rauschenberg and John Cage in a particularly apocalyptic vision of an imploded modernist culture (“Art and Objecthood,” 141). In other words, his harshest condemnation of the trope of theatricality seems reserved for those figures most liminal to not only minimalism, but to heterosexuality, a fact not unknown in the art world of the 1960s. Pitching the corrosive influence of theater in the formalist terms of a lack of distinctions between [End Page 104] media, Fried’s assumption about theater here stems from a larger cultural ideology that positioned theater as an inherently compromised form, and, in the immediate postwar years, in increasingly gendered terms. The modernist denunciation of theatricality in visual art—a violation of medium specificity, of the anti-illusionism and anti-literary program of the abstract picture—ran parallel to the revulsion reserved for those who abdicated gender conformity and compulsory desire. Although minimalism would be later seen as an epitome of masculine authority, Amelia Jones points out that from the standpoint of Fried and formalist criticism in the 1960s: “minimalism began to challenge the authoritarianism of modernist formalist critical models in deep structural ways” (Body Art, 286n33).48

Transposed to the visual arts, and with the new interest on the part of 1960s artists in questions of duration and presentation, the queer implications of theatricality became merely formal terms in a debate about modernist art. To describe the geometric forms of Robert Morris or Frank Stella as theatrical, within the framework of Fried’s argument against minimalism, required a peculiar kind of displacement. The urgency of this danger was underwritten by the repressed queerness of the term. How else to explain the alarm with which Fried announced the dangerous impact of Rauschenberg and Cage upon a generation of minimalists and modernism in general? Here is the quote in full:

For example, a failure to recognize the enormous difference in quality between, say, the music of Carter and that of Cage or between the paintings of Louis and those of Rauschenberg means that the real distinctions—between music and theater in the first instance and painting and theater in the second—are being displaced by the illusion that the barriers between the arts are crumbling (Cage and Rauschenberg being seen, correctly, as similar) and that the arts themselves are at last sliding towards some kind of final, implosive, hugely desirable synthesis.

(“Art and Objecthood,” 141)

Fried’s essay, I should point out, is marked less by an overt homophobia than by the internalization of a strain of unacknowledged homophobia within the culture of modernism itself at least since Nietzsche’s late nineteenth-century excoriation of Richard Wagner’s operas as exemplifying theatrical mimesis.49 But then, again, it is rare that any critic of postwar art would directly acknowledge the sexuality of an artist outside of innuendo. This invokes one of the more curious ways in which homosexuality was structured as a visible/invisible presence in the pre-Stonewall era. Rauschenberg, like many of his generation, never publicly disclosed his homosexuality. But he equally never denied it, thereby conforming to its paradoxical nature before the idea of the closet became a structuring logic. D. A. Miller’s essay on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope offers an instructive discussion on homosexual subjectivity prior to its civil-rights era existence.50 Miller shows how the homosexuality of the film’s two male protagonists—never directly indicated in the film—was only conceivable at the level of connotative (as opposed to denotative) meaning: an articulation that could navigate between visible and invisible through the slippages of meaning that connotation allows. Rauschenberg himself, as opposed to the swish affectations of Andy Warhol, maintained the requisite [End Page 105] suit-and-tie straightness of 1950s masculinity even as his own work refused the heteronormatively heroic display endemic to Abstract Expressionism. Characterizing Rauschenberg’s work as theatrical mobilizes a kind of queerness in its relationship to the picture plane of the Abstract Expressionists. Mobilizing a pattern of connotative assertion and negation similar to that which Miller described in Rope, the Red Paintings have long managed to evade such signification.

The Shade of It All

There is absolutely nothing in painting going on. . . . Tell Jack [Tworkov] to write me about the painting and showing New York [sic]. You can put in the shades of the situations. I really am lonesome for MY PAINTING LIFE so if I know something of what’s going on it gives me a way to think of it.

—Robert Rauschenberg, 195251

Rauschenberg’s 1954–55 exhibition of the Red Paintings is one of the earliest inaugurations of a theatrical sensibility in postwar American art. It was a precursor of the durational and spectator-oriented nature of minimalist art and later performance work, but it was very much a relational practice of art in that it was bound up with the reigning discourse of modernist American painting. Key to unraveling the Red Paintings as a queer response to postwar modernism is the cultural climate of the New York School “Club” and Rauschenberg’s ambivalent relationship toward that group. It was an actual club, and membership was by invitation only. Minutes from the Club’s meetings show that Rauschenberg was one of several members who were voted in, in November 1951, along with Merce Cunningham.52 While there is evidence of his attendance at some of their weekly meetings, Rauschenberg’s membership was nominal—he didn’t in fact pay his dues—and it was around 1954, the year of the Red Paintings exhibition, that he stopped going to the Cedar Tavern, which served as a more informal meeting place for the Club. He described his relationship to the group that gathered there in a 1965 interview with Dorothy Seckler:

I still think that Bill de Kooning is one of the greatest painters in the world. And I liked Jack Tworkov, himself and his work. And Franz Kline. But I found a lot of artists at the Cedar Bar were difficult for me to talk to. It almost seemed as though there were so many more of them sharing some common idea than there was of me, and at that time the people who gave me encouragement in my work weren’t so much the painters, even my contemporaries, but a group of musicians that were working: Morton Feldman, and John Cage, and Earl Brown, and the dancers that were around this group. I felt very natural with them. There was something about the self-assertion of Abstract Expressionism that personally always put me off, because at that time my focus was as much in the opposite direction as it could be.53

Rauschenberg was not alone, of course, in experiencing a certain uneasiness regarding the central tenets of the Club and its emerging theories of modernist painting, [End Page 106] specifically the painters’ “self-assertion,” as he put it. A nexus of artists, Cage, Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, Lee Krasner, and Ellsworth Kelly, were all engaged in one way or another with contending or countering the heteronormative discourse of modernist art through various pictorial strategies that negated self-assertion. Kelly’s abstractions hewed to the logic of chance rather than authorial intention. John’s encaustic paintings subjected the pictorial mark-making of the New York School to its encaustic reification in a series of painted works that reduced gesture, color, and composition to an arbitrarily pre-determined system governed by his choice of already existing objects. Women artists were especially displaced. In an ironic play on gesture and masculine identity, Lee Krasner, in a 1956 canvas, Bald Eagle, took scraps from her husband Jackson Pollock’s discarded canvases in a “deliberate muting of their painterly heroics,” as David Hopkins described it, incorporating them here and elsewhere in a series of collage paintings she made in the mid-1950s.54 In Cy Twombly’s case, his scrawls and scratches across less than heroic-sized canvases were like an anguished and pseudo-infantilized re-enactment of large-scale gestural work like Franz Kline or Clyfford Still. Rauschenberg was close to both Merce Cunningham and John Cage. In their respective rejections of traditional dance and music, Cunningham and Cage may well have provided Rauschenberg with a template for his own interrogation of modernist painting and re-envisioning its premises somewhat along the lines of Cunningham and Cage’s de-centering of subjectivity through chance, randomness and the quotidian dimensions of everyday life.

Rauschenberg had known them both at Black Mountain College. As a student there, he participated in a 1952 event that has come to stand in art history as anticipating the happenings of Allan Kaprow and later performance art in general. Developed by Cage with Rauschenberg’s fellow student David Tudor (who would go on to become a composer) in the department of theater and dance, Theater Piece #1 was a work in which Cage read from a lecture punctuated by “time brackets” during which random activities were performed: Charles Olsen and M. C. Richard read poetry from a ladder; Merce Cunningham danced; and Rauschenberg played old phonograph records while a film may or may not have been projected onto panels of his White Paintings suspended from the ceiling.55 Cunningham’s strategic use of chance in disengaging choreography from music and even in the sequences of choreography itself was a direct assault upon the privileging of authorial presence. As for Cage, his rejection of psychic interiority was directed toward the emotional expressiveness of tonal music. Chance, randomness, and his infamous embrace of a philosophy of silence directed the composition of musical performances to an anterior space in which the ego was irrelevant. All of this, of course, was in strict opposition to the formalist aesthetics of action painting made co-extensive with the machismo of the male painters that gathered at weekly lectures and events at the Club and the Cedar Tavern. Caroline Jones describes as “superbly ironic” Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” in 1948, delivered at this key organization of abstract painters. Given the central impulse of the Club’s emphasis on the heroic nature of abstract art and its seemingly limitless possibilities, Cage’s lecture, extolling the virtues of a Zen-like nothingness, must have been perceived as a challenge to the [End Page 107] emerging sensibility that American painting was to constitute an existentialist quest. “To the yawning existentialist void,” Jones writes, “Cage merely yawned. The death of action was to be confronted not with a terrified gesture of individual heroism but placid restraint.”56 But while the earlier White Paintings might be read—indeed have been read—as an expression of the philosophy of “placid restraint,” they transposed the elements of chance, randomness, and the ephemera of everyday life found in Cage and Cunningham’s performance work into painting with such exuberance that they could just as easily be seen as a creative and strategic misreading on Rauschenberg’s part.57 Rauschenberg, the superbly ironic collagist, no doubt recognized—as when he said “[t]hey even assigned seriousness to certain colors”—that the overly determined masculinity of New York School painters might betray a histrionic nature in its striving for authentic subjectivity (quoted in Tomkins, Off the Wall, 89). And he was not unaware of Rosenberg’s conceptualization of the picture plane in the nearly theatrical terms of action painting. In a 1966 television interview, he said the following: “Theater has a lot more to do with action, the way it’s, the way theater is lived, than, than . . . a popular idea going on at that time about action painting which was a kind of abstraction.”58 But unlike his peers who rejected the expressive machinations of New York School painting—Johns or Kelly for example—Rauschenberg pursued the expressive logic of postwar painting and pushed it into the realm of a theatrical display. As Jack Tworkov himself noted, Rauschenberg was “doing much the same thing . . . just went a lot further.”59

It is important to remember that Rauschenberg was often considered a young member of the New York School painters, even though he was just as often dismissed as an interloper. This crossover between the world of the Abstract Expressionists and his new closeness with dancers and musicians, “the people who really seemed to accept my work,” he acknowledged, “while I was considered a clown . . . by nearly everyone else,” provided the context for the emergence of the Red Paintings (Solomon interview, 13). If it was gesture and its heroic possibilities that constituted the lingua franca of the discussions around painting that took place at the Club, and afterwards at the Cedar Tavern, it would take Rauschenberg’s newly formed membership in the Cage group to formulate his opposition in a series of canvases that became the Red Show. Counterpoising Pollock’s statement “I am nature” is Rauschenberg’s less well-known one: “I’m a romantic sensationalist. I think that ‘showing’ is a performance” (Rose, Rauschenberg, 48).


I don’t find theatre that different from painting.

—Robert Rauschenberg60

I have argued in this article that the social dimension to the excoriation of theater in modernist culture necessitates an understanding of this bias in relation to modernist painting and the emergence of the postwar modern masculine subject.61 The aversion [End Page 108] to theater and theatricality certainly runs deep in modernism—is it evidence of a more profound attempt to corral and extinguish an increasingly queer sensibility that found expression or near-visibility in the realm of artifice or mimesis? Obscuring the social dimension of the term “theatrical” was one means by which discussions of queer subjectivity became supplanted by formalist criticism in the work of Robert Rauschenberg. But this dimension of his artistic practice was even effaced in postmodern criticism that sought to position Rauschenberg—mostly due to his use of photographic reproductions in the Combines—as a forerunner of 1980s appropriation art. The “theatrical” for postmodernism was, to a large extent, divested of any queerness that the term might have previously accrued, even as it was being touted as one of the prime means by which modernist aesthetics were undermined by postmodern art’s interest in the social realm of imagery. Douglas Crimp’s landmark exhibition (1977) and catalogue essay “Pictures” (1979), for example, explored how Fried’s characterization of theatricality had been “transformed, and quite unexpectedly, reinvested in the pictorial image.”62 It was theater’s durational nature that became the postmodern basis for an assault upon the “presentness” of the self-contained modernist art object. Buried within this formalist preoccupation with theater’s structuring of experience through duration (which must strike one now as the least of theatricality’s ills) is a perverse queerness. Not surprising, then, that the queer dimension of theatricality in Rauschenberg’s Red Paintings was unintelligible given the parameters of postmodernism’s concern with issues of pictorial representation.

Belied by the excessive and seemingly messy object-paintings that comprised the work in the Egan show is a profoundly knowing sense of picture making. When Rauschenberg declared, from the vantage point of the 1960s, that he didn’t “find painting that different from theatre,” he was articulating a sense of his own social difference from the New York School painters vis-a-vis his new alliance, at the time that he had severed ties with the Club and stopped going to the Cedar Tavern. The abstract painters of the New York School sought to render the canvas as the visual counterpart to a newly heroic postwar masculinity. Rauschenberg’s violation of those principles—the purity of form and the sweeping lines of vigorous strokes that reiterated that masculinity—in the kitschy, messy, theatrical excesses of the Red Paintings queered the logic of the abstractly rendered contours of heteronormative identity. The Red Show turned the heroics of self-discovery into camp and theater. Rosenberg’s “arena” of action became a theatrical stage of artifice whereby masculine identity is yoked into a very unstable set of signifiers. For too long, however, the Combines of Rauschenberg have been seen to extend—rather than contravene—the masculinist aesthetics of action painting. In an essay for the 2007 exhibition “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines,” organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Charles Stuckey declared that they were “action painting come to life,” echoing a refrain dating from at least as far back as 1964 when Max Kozloff described the artist’s work as “holding on to the ‘action painting’ vocabulary, and forcing out tangible images into the spectator space.”63 Much as the flattened, overall patterning of the Abstract Expressionists needed navigation away from the merely decorative, so too did its gestural theatrics need conformity to [End Page 109] suitable gender alignments. Otherwise, a perverse theatricality might overwhelm or contaminate—and indeed this would be Fried’s preoccupation in his essay “Art and Objecthood”—the more constrained and masculinist aesthetics of the picture plane as a self-contained arena of authenticity.

Re-staging the authentic gesture of the Abstract Expressionists as artifice with a group of works that not only crossed conceptual thresholds of medium specificity, but in a few important cases existed as actual stage sets for theater productions, the Red Paintings might well have been Rauschenberg’s answer to the model of painting posed by Rosenberg two years earlier in “The American Action Painters.” Secured through gesture and “inseparable from the biography of the artist,” the result, as the critic averred, is a “new painting, that has broken down every distinction between art and life” (27, 28). For an artist whose chose to “operate in the gap between the two,” it is clear that, for queer subjects of 1950s modernism, neither was possible.64 Theater was all that remained.

Thomas Folland

Thomas Folland teaches art history and museum studies at Los Angeles Mission College. He is currently finishing an article on Marcel Duchamp and African Art.


Thanks are due to Julia Blaut, Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, and Gina Guy, Collections Manager, at the Rauschenberg Foundation for their generosity in providing images and for allowing me to peruse their archives. A number of friends read earlier drafts, provided feedback, and overall support: Heather Graham (and the Mammoth Lake cabin), Lisa Boutin, Robert Durocher, Robert Summers, Jayna Brown, Diane Hiscox, and Leta Ming. This article has benefited greatly from the expertise of anonymous readers at Modernism/modernity and the thoughtful guidance of editor Debra Rae Cohen and managing editor John Crawford.

1. Henry James: Selected Letters, ed. Leon Edel (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 28.

2. Carolyn Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 114.

3. Branden W. Joseph, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 215. Calvin Tomkins devotes an entire chapter entitled “Towards Theater” in which he discusses Rauschenberg’s stage work in Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 134–47.

4. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 116–47, 142.

5. Henry James to W. Morton Fullerton, January 9, 1895, in Henry James: Selected Letters, 282.

6. Jonas Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 1.

7. Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 111. See also her discussion of Michael Fried in Postmodernism and the En-Gendering of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 41–44. My use of the term “theatricality” is in some sense connected to what would later be called “camp,” a sensibility associated predominantly with gay men that prizes artifice, excess, exaggerated emotionalism, and a comically “failed seriousness,” as Susan Sontag would define it in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” (Partisan Review 31, no. 4 [1964]: 515–30). See, for example, Esther Newton’s later study of drag queen culture which saw theatricality as a central component of camp: “in any particular campy thing or event. . . . [t]he three that seemed most recurrent and characteristic to me were incongruity, theatricality and humor” (Mother Camp [Chicago: University of Chicago Press], 106). So while theatricality is often associated with the discourse of camp, I want to retain here somewhat of the specificity of the term, especially as it relates to identity in a pre-Stonewall context. [End Page 110]

8. Michael Warner introduced the term “heternormativity,” to name and therefore unmask the hidden assumptions of heterosexuality in concepts of “normality.” See his introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet, ed. Michael Warner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xxi–xv. I use “heteronormative” interchangeably with “masculinity” in describing postwar modernist art made by heterosexual white men, despite what might seem an anachronism. However, it should be pointed out that while the term itself is a contemporary one, the culture it describes is at one with modernism.

9. In an article published in 2010, I made what is part of a larger claim about Rauschenberg’s Combines of the 1950s; that they constitute a “queer modernism.” I explored the artist’s use of decorative material as central to a queering of the masculinist aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism, an undoing of its normalization of gender categories. In the present article, another facet of Rauschenberg’s queer modernism is explored.

10. Perhaps a note on terminology is in order here: I use “gay” as an aspect of common parlance for purely descriptive purposes. As I will go on to elaborate, there are historically specific distinctions among “gay,” “homosexual,” and “queer,” which will be used throughout this article in accordance with their particular analytic contexts. As will also be clarified later, but perhaps needs to be stated here at the outset, it is the assumption of this article that any ambiguity vis-à-vis Rauschenberg’s sexuality is the result of historical factors, interpretative claims, and especially a sensitivity on the part of critics and historians to the artist whilst alive, given that it was clearly a topic of some discomfort to him. His orientation is understood here to be homosexual. This raises, of course, one of the central paradoxes of queerness which will also factor into my analysis of the Red Paintings: it is not necessary for any given person to be homosexual in order to be queer (given the central idea of queer as an anti-categorical conceit), but in this case of Rauschenberg, his homosexuality is a structuring factor in his work, although not in any programmatic manner. This is not to deny that he had sexual experiences with women—it is commonly known, of course, that he fathered a child when married to Susan Weil. However, it is important to underscore that marriage—and even children—was common for homosexual men during a time when, as Weil herself put it, “McCarthy was so rough on homosexuals and so frightening.” As for his sexual orientation, she goes on to add: “we were very aware of it.” Describing her knowledge of his relationship to artist Cy Twombly at the time they married in 1950, Weil has only recently stated that “a lot of people who were gay felt they had to be married just for—it was so hated at that time. They just had to do it for their own security. And I didn’t understand anything about it, but now I look at it, and I say, well, that’s the way it was. And I know Bob. And we had a great bond, a work bond. And I know that he felt responsible to me and that the marriage was very real in that sense. And so that was the way it was” (Susan Weil, “Rauschenberg Oral History Project: The Reminiscences of Susan Weil,” interview by Mary Marshall Clark, Columbia Center for Oral History, Columbia University, 2014,

11. For an extended analysis of the government persecution of homosexuals, see David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). On the somewhat contradictory pairing of communism and homosexuality, see Cindy Patton, “To Die For,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 330–52.

12. For a selection of articles by Jonathan Katz, see “Jonathan D. Katz Index,” Queer Cultural Center,

13. Katz has nuanced his earlier take on the relationship between Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg as being the subject matter (as well as the driving motive) for the early Combines (see, for example, “The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg,” in Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership, ed. Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron [London: Thames and Hudson, 1993], 189–207), but even in later essays the autobiographical assumptions and stabilized signifiers of “gay” remain relatively intact. In “‘Committing the Perfect Crime’: Sexuality, Assemblage, and the Postmodern Turn in American Art,” Katz describes the subject of an early collage Should Love Come First as a meditation on Rauschenberg’s relationship with Cy Twombly, whom he met at Black Mountain College and was with at the time of his brief marriage to the artist Susan Weil, and his subsequent relationship with Johns (Art Journal 67, no. 1 [2008]: 38–53).

14. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 8. [End Page 111]

15. See Michael Leja’s discussion of the “modern man” myth in Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

16. John Cage, quoted in On Record: 11 Artists 1963, ed. Billy Klüver (New York: Experiments in Art and Technology, 1981), cited in Joseph, Random Order, 84.

17. John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Hanover, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 98; and David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 62.

18. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 7.

19. Stephen J. Bottoms, “The Efficacy/Effeminacy Braid: Unpacking the Performance Studies/Theatre Studies Dichotomy,” Theatre Topics 13, no. 2 (2003): 173–87.

20. Leo Castelli, quoted in Emile de Antonio and Mitch Tuchman, Painters Painting (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), 88.

21. Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Houston Fine Arts Press, 1991), 167.

22. Roni Feinstein, “Random Order: The First Fifteen Years of Rauschenberg’s Art: 1949–1964” (PhD diss., New York University, 1992), 337.

23. Hopps treats the Red Paintings as antecedents to the Combines in Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s. The chronology for the 1998 Guggenheim show states that the artist began the first Combine-painting in the second half of 1954, referring to Charlene and Collection, after he completed the final Red Paintings and Yoicks. The chronology then states that these combines were exhibited with the Red Paintings. See Joan Young and Susan Davidson, “Chronology,” in Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, ed. Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1997), 554. Feinstein treats the Red Paintings as a separate group that anticipates work such as Charlene, whereas Andrew Forge suggests that with Charlene, “the red paintings reach their climax” (Feinstein, Random Order, 140–189; Forge, Rauschenberg [New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1969]). Untitled (With Stained Glass Window) exhibited at the Egan Gallery was the first “self-nominated ‘combine’” according to Jonathan Katz (“Reading ‘Watchman’ Through the Archives,” Archives of American Art Journal 46, no. 3–4 [2007]: 28–35, 34). Hopps had as well described Untitled (With Stained Glass Window) as “in all likelihood Rauschenberg’s first combine painting” (Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, 166). Kostelanetz moves the origin point up to the late 1950s, with the advent of “three-dimensional collages or ‘paintings’ that stand up away from the wall” (The Theatre of Mixed Means, 78). Rauschenberg told Barbara Rose that “Bed could be considered the first combine except that it really doesn’t fit with the true combines. I think it was the Untitled piece at the Panza collection (Untitled [Man With White Shoes], 1955)—the one with the Plymouth Rock chicken, mirrors and shoes in it—that was the first real Combine painting” (quoted in Rose, Rauschenberg [New York: Vintage Books, 1987], 58).

24. Rauschenberg recounted to Barbara Rose that he and Morton Feldman rented gold chairs for the event, which he initially described as occurring on New Year’s Eve. Rauschenberg confirmed that it was actually Christmas Eve in a note to Nancy Spector. See Nancy Spector, “Rauschenberg and Performance, 1963–67: A Poetry of Infinite Possibilities,” in Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, 226–46, 242.

25. Robert Rauschenberg, “How Important is Surface to Design?,” Print 13, no. 1 (1959): 31.

26. Elaine de Kooning, “Subject: What, How or Who?,” Art News 54, no. 2 (1955): 28. Elaine de Kooning was married to Willem de Kooning, and the subject (ostensibly) of one of Rauschenberg’s earliest collages, Elaine’s Party (1954).

27. Calvin Tomkins, interview with Rachel Rosenthal, 1978, box IV.C, file 14, Calvin Tomkins Papers, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

28. Calvin Tompkins, “Leo Castelli (on Rauschenberg),” Castelli–Visit to Front Street, box IV.C, file 15, Calvin Tomkins Papers, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

29. Frank O’Hara, “Reviews and Previews: Bob Rauschenberg,” Art News 53, no. 9 (1955): 47.

30. Hubert Crehan, quoted in Michael Leja, “Barnett Newman’s Solo Tango,” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 3 (1995): 556–80, 558–59. [End Page 112]

31. Hubert Crehan, “Fortnight in Review: Rauschenberg,” Arts Digest 29, no. 7 (1955): 30. While outside the scope of the present article, there was also a class dimension to the references to amusement park culture and cheap commercial forms of culture. As much as the abstract painters themselves positioned themselves as anti-intellectuals and thus representative of the vox populi, their work was vigorously opposed to the idea of the commercial or the popular with its attendant working-class connotations.

32. P. W. Manchester, Dance News, January 1955, 11.

33. Andrew Perchuk, “Pollock and Postwar Masculinity,” in The Masculine Masquerade, ed. Andrew Perchuk and Helaine Posner (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 31–42. It is worth remembering that Rauschenberg only achieved success as an artist once he abandoned the Combines.

34. Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters” (1952), in The Tradition of the New (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 24–25.

35. See Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism.

36. “It is this continuous and entire presentness, amounting, as it were, to the perpetual creation of itself, that one experiences as a kind of instantaneousness” (Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” 146).

37. Ann Eden Gibson, Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 11.

38. Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, introduction to Performativity and Performance, ed. Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (New York: Routledge, 1995), 5.

39. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 12.

40. The origin of the phrase “queer theory” is attributed to Teresa de Lauretis, “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities,” introduction to special issue, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3, no. 2 (1991): iii–xviii.

41. Stanley Kaufmann, “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” New York Times, January 23, 1966, 2.1.

42. Elliot Weems, “Why They Call Broadway the ‘GAY’ White Way,” Tip-Off, April 1956, in Martin Duberman, About Time: Exploring the Gay Past (New York: Plume, 1991), 220–23.

43. The idea of the inadequate copy that has defined mimesis in Western thought since Plato is more and more subject to revision. See a recent “Notes from the Field,” especially Alex Pott’s discussion of mimesis, in The Art Bulletin 95, no. 2 (2013): 209–211. For a discussion of Aristotelian and Platonic theories of theater, and a revisionist account of Plato’s anti-theatrical bias, see Martin Puchner, The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

44. This was very much an internalized phenomenon as Edmund White in his memoir, City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s, recounts: “Because we were gay, we routinely referred to ourselves as ‘sick,’ which was only half a joke. We . . . saw shrinks off and on” ([New York: Bloomsbury 2009], 7).

45. Martin Puchner, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality and Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 157.

46. As Bottoms points out, Barish nowhere discusses the queerness of the term theatricality. Nor does, for that matter, Martin Puchner, despite the tantalizing title of “Stéphane Mallarmé: The Theatre in the Closet,” in his otherwise extensive discussion of the trope of theatricality in modernist and avant-garde literature (in Stage Fright, 59–80).

47. See Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, where he references the theatrical world more directly in the context of Denis Diderot’s criticism: “Diderot held that the actual influence on painting of traditional theatrical conventions had been catastrophic, and called for the reform of the theater through a conception of the pictorial which, although based in part on a canon of works by the same sixteenth- and seventeenth-century masters, affirmed as never before the radical primacy of dramatic and expressive considerations” ([Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980], 79). [End Page 113]

48. My reading here of Fried is very much indebted to Jones’s exceptionally trenchant reading of Fried’s essay in Body Art, 111–113. On minimalism and masculinity, see Anna Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts Magazine 64, no. 5 (1990): 44–63.

49. For an analysis of Nietzsche’s anti-theatrical critique of Richard Wagner’s operas, see Martin Puchner, “Richard Wagner: The Theatrocracy of the Mime,” in Stage Fright, 31–55.

50. D. A. Miller, “Anal Rope,” Representations 32 (1990): 114–33.

51. Robert Rauschenberg to Rachel (Wally) Tworkov, 1952, Jack Tworkov Papers: 1926–1993, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute. Uppercase letters are in the original cursive script. “Dear Wally” refers to Jack Tworkov’s wife Rachel.

52. Membership information for Cunningham and Rauschenberg is found in the Irving Harry Sandler Papers 1944–2007, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

53. Robert Rauschenberg, interview by Dorothy Seckler, December 21, 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. For a description of the centrality of the Cedar Tavern, and the role of the Club in formulating the postwar modern, see Natalie Edgar, Club Without Walls: Selections from the Journal of Philip Pavia (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2007). See David Hopkins on the club and masculinity in Dada’s Boys: Masculinity after Duchamp (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 109–35.

54. David Hopkins, After Modern Art, 1945–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 53. The question of subjectivity for Lee Krasner, like other women artists, was of a different tenor but plotted, like Rauschenberg’s, on canvas. Krasner’s relationship to Pollock is discussed in detail in Anne Wagner, Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 105, 90. See also Lisa Saltzman, “Reconsidering the Stain: On Gender, Identity and New York School Painting,” in Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, ed. Ellen G. Landau (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 560–80; and Gibson, Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics.

55. The account of the projection is in Tomkins, Off the Wall, 74. In the notes for his book Tomkins writes the following: “Cage . . . hung them above the audience during the 1952 ‘concerted event’ [sic] at Black Mtn” (box IV.C, file 10, Calvin Tomkins Papers, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York). Rauschenberg, however, denies this ever happened, according to Hopps (Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, 65–66). For a full description of the event, see Martin Duberman, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972), 350–58. In the absence of any documentation of the actual event, remembered accounts of the performance vary; Duberman’s description is based on several interviews he conducted, many of them with conflicted memories (Black Mountain College, 357). Cage only mentions that Rauschenberg was invited to show his paintings both in the book as well as in the full transcript of the interview conducted by Duberman. See “Transcript of Interview with John Cage,” box PC.1678, Martin Duberman Collection, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.

56. Caroline Jones, “Finishing School: John Cage and the Abstract Expressionist Ego,” Critical Inquiry 19, no. 4 (1993): 628–65, 646. Cage would also participate in a panel on Zen on December 17, 1954.

57. Jonathan Katz has argued that Cage’s silence, as much as it was a critique of authorship through reframing it in Zen Buddhist terms, was a resolution to the problem of his needing to conceal his sexual identity, and transforming it into an aesthetic mode of resistance: “Through Zen, Cage could thus connect his involuntary and highly individuated experience of the closet with a larger social/ethical politics of monadic non-interference” (“John Cage’s Queer Silence; or, How to Make Matters Worse,” in Writings through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art, ed. David Bernstein and Christopher Hatch [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001], 41–61, 46). Katz’s work has been central and important to my own thinking about Rauschenberg, as much as I disagree with the idea of disclosure through secrecy or iconographic enclosing that his work has proposed. My own work on this subject has been to argue that Rauschenberg’s queer modernism was an operation that took place on the structural level of signification rather than through a kind of imaging of repressed desire in pictorial form. [End Page 114]

58. Alan Solomon, transcript of interview with Robert Rauschenberg, National Educational Television, February 21, 22, 1966, sound rolls 1–6, page 13, Alan R. Solomon Papers 1930–1972, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

59. Calvin Tomkins, interview with Jack Tworkov, box IV.C, folder 4, Calvin Tomkins Papers, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

60. Robert Rauschenberg, “Conversations,” in Richard Kostelanetz, The Theatre of Mixed Means: An Introduction to Happenings, Kinetic Environments, and Other Mixed-Means Performances (New York: Dial Press, 1968), 78–99, 80.

61. The idea of an ineffectual copying that defines theatrical mimesis is not, in other words, a transhistorical truth. Sixteenth-century commentaries on Aristotle, for example, often stressed the dangerous authenticity of the theater, particularly in the reenactment of violence. See Thomas Puttfarken “Caravaggio and the Representation of Violence,” Umění /Art 55, no. 3 (2007): 183–95.

62. Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” October 8 (1979): 75–88, 77.

63. Charles Stuckey, “‘Minutiae’ and Rauschenberg’s Combine Mode,” in Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, ed. Paul Schimmel (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005), 207; Max Kozloff, “The Impact of De Kooning,” Arts Yearbook 7 (1964): 77–88, 83.

64. Robert Rauschenberg, “Artist Statement,” in Sixteen Americans, ed. Dorothy C. Miller (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1959), 58. [End Page 115]

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