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American Beauty: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and the Case of the Missing Flag

Robert Rauschenberg at his retrospective exhibition at the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., 1976. GIANFRANCO GORGONI/WWW.GIANFRANCOGORGONI.IT/COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION

Robert Rauschenberg at his retrospective exhibition at the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., 1976.

GIANFRANCO GORGONI/WWW.GIANFRANCOGORGONI.IT/COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION

Robert Rauschenberg kept only one major example of his earliest, most influential body of work, the Combine paintings he made between 1954 and 1961. Short Circuit (1955) is similar to other works from the period; it incorporates sculptural elements with both painting and drawing and combines abstraction with images and objects plucked from the young artist’s world. But it was not included in his breakout exhibition, in 1958 at Leo Castelli Gallery. And though it was published in a couple of catalogues, Rauschenberg didn’t loan it to his 1976 or his 1998 retrospective, and he declined its inclusion in curator Paul Schimmel’s exhaustive Combines exhibition of 2005. Its appearance at Gagosian Gallery in 2010, two years after the artist’s death, was the first time the work had been seen in public in over 40 years. (It was wisely acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago.) Despite its low public profile, this Combine has had an extraordinary history and is a pivotal work of postwar American art. But Short Circuit’s significance is based not solely on what is included in it, but also on what is missing.

Short Circuit is made of classic Combine ingredients: thick brushstrokes, a lace curtain, a scrap of polka-dotted fabric, postcard images of a Renaissance painting and Abraham Lincoln, a word scramble, a program from an early John Cage concert, and a Judy Garland autograph, all affixed with paint to a chassis made of scrap wood and cupboard doors. Behind those doors Rauschenberg hid two smaller paintings, by two then-unknown artists: one was a landscape by his ex-wife, Susan Weil, and the other was a U.S. flag by his then-partner Jasper Johns.

Johns made over 40 paintings of the American flag beginning in the mid-’50s, none of which was shown publicly until his first solo exhibition, also at Castelli, in 1958. Do the math. Short Circuit was created for an exhibition in early 1955, which makes the flag painting in it not just the first flag painting Johns showed, but likely the first flag painting he made. The flag embedded in this Combine is one of the most important paintings in contemporary art history, and also one of the most valuable. It upends the commonly understood story of how Johns and Rauschenberg worked together and influenced each other, and of how Johns conceived his most significant work.

Or it would, if it were still there. Johns’s flag was stolen out of Short Circuit in 1965 and has never been recovered. Rauschenberg eventually replaced it with another painting, titled Johns Flag, a copy by his close friend and collaborator Elaine Sturtevant. This is the flag seen first at Gagosian, and then in Chicago, that made me wonder what happened to the works—both the Combine and the original flag within. Conflicting accounts of the disappearance of the Johns flag scattered in the footnotes of art-history texts and exhibition catalogues over the years do not help. People (or dealers, curators, and critics, anyway) don’t know what happened to a major work by two major artists of the day, and they seem not to care, content to pass along inaccuracies or offhand dismissals. Where is the original flag that would rewrite art history or bring an easy $100 million at auction (or both), and why isn’t there an all-out, Gardner Museum Vermeer–style hunt for it?

Short Circuit, 1955, displayed with closed doors. COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION/ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

Short Circuit, 1955, displayed with closed doors.

COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION/ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

I wanted to address, if not answer, these apparently ignored questions, and so I set out to find the Short Circuit flag. Beginning in 2010, I searched archives and emailed and interviewed every person I could find who might have firsthand knowledge of the Combine, its creation, its history, and the circumstances of the flag’s disappearance. And what I found affected the way I view Johns and Rauschenberg’s work, their relationship, and their place in history.

Rauschenberg’s Combines are very much products of his life and surroundings at the time of their making. The early ones especially, and Short Circuit most definitely, are loaded with personal, autobiographical, and even private esoteric references, which critic Yve-Alain Bois derided as “semantic traps,” good for little more than “keeping art historians busy for generations to come.” And here we are.

First, a little background. Rauschenberg married Susan Weil in 1950, over the objections of her father, who did not think Rauschenberg was the marrying type. The couple lived in a studio apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side, where they made art, cyanotypes on blueprint paper, and a baby—Christopher, born in the summer of 1951, when Rauschenberg was at Black Mountain College. Rauschenberg spent much of 1952 in North Carolina, then, in the fall, took off to Italy with fellow Black Mountaineer Cy Twombly, while Weil stayed stateside to file for divorce. Twombly and Rauschenberg came back to New York in 1953. The painter Jack Tworkov had chosen one of Rauschenberg’s black paintings for inclusion in the New York Artists Annual (better known as the Stable Annual) at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery. Rauschenberg and Twombly subsequently showed at Stable together, and Rauschenberg worked at the gallery as a maintenance man. Eventually, he met and took up with Jasper Johns, another aspiring artist.

In 1954 Johns helped Rauschenberg make a collaged, freestanding, screenlike prop for a Merce Cunningham performance. Called Minutiae, it is one of the first Combines, though it spent most of its early life strapped to the roof of John Cage’s Volkswagen tour bus and wasn’t shown in a gallery until 1976. Rauschenberg showed red paintings at Charles Egan Gallery, many of which contained fabric, images, and brushstrokes similar to those of Short Circuit. Tworkov once again chose a Rauschenberg painting for the second Stable Annual. Meanwhile, Johns destroyed most of the work he’d made up to and during 1954.

When the third Stable Annual rolled around, in April 1955, the gallery invited Rauschenberg to exhibit his work again. He wanted to invite other artists to be in the show, but the gallery wouldn’t allow this. And so Rauschenberg conceived of the work that came to be known as Short Circuit as a way to smuggle his curated picks into the Annual. He wrote letters to Weil and Black Mountain buddies Ray Johnson and Stan VanDerBeek, inviting them to make works for inclusion in his piece. In an email to me, Weil called Rauschenberg’s gesture sweet and generous. (Photocopies of Rauschenberg’s invitations to other artists to contribute to Short Circuit were shown alongside the work in a Finch College Museum group show in 1967, but these letters have not turned up since.) Short Circuit contained two small doors that, when opened, revealed the work of the two artists who agreed to participate: Johns and Weil. (A more pointed story was told by Castelli in a 1973 interview with Smithsonian archivist Paul Cummings: Rauschenberg proposed Johns and Weil for the show, but the vetting committee of artists from the previous Annual rejected them.)

Short Circuit, with open doors, featuring a Susan Weil painting and Elaine Sturtevant’s reproduction of a Jasper Johns flag. COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION/ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

Short Circuit, with open doors, featuring a Susan Weil painting and Elaine Sturtevant’s reproduction of a Jasper Johns flag.

COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION/ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

Rauschenberg was included on the Stable Gallery artist list; Johns and Weil were not. There is no works list, recorded account, or installation image showing Short Circuit in the show, but the story goes that the Combine doors, which have arrows and instructions to open them, were only ajar at the exhibition opening. Rudy Burckhardt took the first and only known photograph of Short Circuit in its original form. The open doors show Johns’s flag and a brushy scene painted by Weil.

In 1955 Johns was making Flag, the one we know, the one at MoMA, which the artist claimed to have dreamed about and then woken up and made. The art historian Leo Steinberg’s prediction that Rauschenberg would generate “dissertations galore, including of the fine print in the newspaper scraps that abound in Rauschenberg’s pictures,” applies to Johns as well. Flag is commonly dated 1954–55, but in her 1977 infrared imaging analysis titled “The Infra-Iconography of Jasper Johns,” art historian Joan Carpenter tells of a visitor to MoMA in the ’70s who noticed Flag contains a newspaper fragment clearly dating from 1956. The work was repaired after being damaged during a party in the studio, the artist explained. Similarly, I dated a fragment integral to the field of stars in the flag to a news report about the Eisenhower campaign from late May 1955, after the Stable Annual had closed. Whether or not Johns had begun Flag before he made the Short Circuit flag, he had not finished it by that time. The Short Circuit flag came first.

Rauschenberg made many Combines, including one he called Plymouth Rock, but which is officially untitled. Like Short Circuit it is full of autobiographical and familial references. There is a stuffed hen below a picture of Rauschenberg’s sister as a small-town beauty queen, a washed-out head shot of Johns, a photo of an infant Christopher, and a heartbreaking note, obviously added later, in Christopher’s kindergarten scrawl (“I hope that you still like me Bob cause I still love you. Please wright me back love LOVE Christopher.”) Rauschenberg and Johns frequently altered and added to works that sat in their Fulton Street studios for years before the spotlight fixed on them in 1958.

There is no mention of Short Circuit in any account of the momentous 1957 visit Leo Castelli and his wife Ileana Sonnabend made to Rauschenberg’s studio, where they first met Johns and offered him a show on the spot. (Rauschenberg got the next one on the schedule.) Short Circuit figured into no reviews of either artist’s debut exhibitions; if anything, their supporters officially ignored Rauschenberg and Johns’s collaboration and took care to differentiate the artist-couple and their work.

Cornell University included Short Circuit in a group show about assemblage that opened in March 1958 and was on view during Rauschenberg’s debut at Castelli and just after John’s own premiere, which made him into an overnight star. Alan Solomon, who organized the Cornell show, would go on to curate both precocious artists’ solo exhibitions at the Jewish Museum, in 1963 and 1964, respectively. Solomon never referred to Short Circuit again, and his shows put an early critical emphasis on the artists’ independence and differences from each other, in both practice and personality.

At the time of the Cornell show, Combines were still not called Combines; they were “assemblages” or “constructions.” Much later, Calvin Tomkins wrote in the New Yorker in 2005, Johns would remember coming up with the term Combine. Rauschenberg remembered otherwise. Short Circuit, too, was not yet called Short Circuit; the first mention of that title was at the Finch College show in 1967. Both Solomon’s Cornell exhibition checklist and a 1958 inventory in Castelli’s archive refer to the piece as “Construction with J.J. Flag.”

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, 1980. TERRY VAN BRUNT/COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, 1980.

TERRY VAN BRUNT/COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION

In 1961 Rauschenberg and Johns broke up rather bitterly over irreconcilable professional, aesthetic, and romantic conflicts. They each owned significant amounts of each other’s works, but only one work was the subject of an agreement over its fate: Short Circuit. This agreement came to light in 1962, when a dispute arose over the sale of images of Short Circuit by a subscription slide service called Portable Gallery Press. Editor Albert Vanderburg wrote that Short Circuit was an example of a more established artist giving newcomers a “helping hand” with their careers. That prompted Rauschenberg to deny Portable Gallery permission to sell slides of the Combine. (They had taken pictures of the piece while documenting other artworks in Castelli’s Lower East Side warehouse.) Vanderburg complained that the decision was part of a “cover-up of political maneuvering.” That charge, according to a tale Vanderburg loves retelling, including in an email to me, prompted Castelli to call him a “bitch” on the phone. In response to Vanderburg, Johns wrote a letter, published in the December 1962 issue of the Portable Gallery Bulletin. It is a powerful declaration of an artist’s agency, and his only public statement about Short Circuit:

Dear Sir:
I’ve always supposed that artists were allowed to paint however-whatever they pleased and to do whatever they please with their work—or not to give, sell, lend, allow reproduction, rework, destroy, repair, or exhibit it… Rauschenberg’s decision was part of a solution of differences of opinion between him and me over commercial and aesthetic values relating to that work. The painting itself has been publicly exhibited at least twice and, I believe, slides of it have been used in connection with public lectures.

The solution to these differences of opinion was to not show, publish, or sell the work with Johns’s flag in it. In Vanderburg’s own telling on his website, Portable Gallery decided to offer the Short Circuit slide for free to purchasers of their 1963 Pop art slide package. As for Short Circuit itself, the piece stayed in Castelli’s warehouse, at 25 First Avenue in downtown Manhattan, until at least 1965. From this point there are two slightly different versions of the story, both of which come from Castelli. The first is the public one, which Castelli told Michael Crichton in an interview for the Whitney Museum’s 1977 Johns retrospective catalogue, and which echoed through the writings of New Yorker scribe Calvin Tomkins.

According to this version, and the Castelli Gallery’s paper trail, the Short Circuit flag was stolen sometime “before June 8, 1965,” which was a Tuesday. The date Castelli gave the insurance company was June 6, a Sunday. Line that up with Crichton’s footnote on the “curious historical incident,” in which “one day, [Castelli] examined the painting and discovered that the Johns flag had been stolen.” But it was only “years later,” Castelli told Crichton, that “a dealer—we do not need to say who”—brought a flag to the gallery for authentication, a flag which Castelli recognized immediately as the missing Combine flag. The dealer said he couldn’t leave the work with the gallery, and, Castelli said, “he was very insistent, so I said, ‘Well, all right.’ I never saw the painting again.”

But in June 1965 Castelli filed a report with the NYPD 9th Precinct, which covers the Lower East Side, stating the theft occurred on April 15, nearly two months earlier. Edward Meneeley, an artist, photographer, and the publisher of Portable Gallery, recalled to me a very tense spring and summer in 1965, when he was shooting works for Ileana Sonnabend in the same warehouse where Castelli stashed Short Circuit. Meneeley “and everyone else” who had access to the warehouse were asked several times, he said, if they knew, saw, or heard anything about the missing flag.

This sequence fits better with Castelli’s second version of the story, which is really the first. It comes from a transcript of a 14-hour oral-history interview for the Archives of American Art, conducted by Paul Cummings in 1973. Though it was digitized in 2011 and is now readily available online, the transcript used to be restricted, and reviewing it required Castelli’s permission until 1993. (Castelli died in 1999.) In this telling, a dealer sought to authenticate “a very pretty flag of Jasper Johns’s”:

So he came with the flag and there it was, the flag that was inside the painting! I sent somebody down to the warehouse, and I told them to open that case and see if the painting of the flag was there, and it wasn’t there. So I said, “This is a stolen flag, so please leave it here.” He said, “No, it’s been given to me by somebody who would suffer direly if I didn’t give it back to her… please let me take care of it. I’ll get it to you.” I said, “Alright, if you promise that you’ll take care of it and get it back and straighten it out with her.” I never got it right back. He made a terrible, hysterical scene and said, “I must have the flag back.” . . . and the flag disappeared for good.

It would seem that when they learned of the theft, Castelli and company scrambled to figure out who was involved. When they couldn’t get the flag back by June, a police report and an insurance claim (according to Castelli’s notebook it was for “JJ,” not “RR”) were filed. In the copy of the report he left behind, the insurance agent, named Mellors, noted the flag’s dimensions (13¼ by 17¼ inches) and upped the initial value from $5,000 to $12,000. Mellors said that, in addition to the Johns, a small 1964 Roy Lichtenstein sculpture edition was also missing. The following week the gallery sent a cursory note to the Art Dealers Association of America that read, “Enclosed please find a photograph of the Rauschenberg work from which the Jasper Johns flag was stolen,” but with no titles, dates, details, or dimensions. According to the Art Loss Register (ALR), which was the successor to the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), whose Stolen Art Alert list was the successor to the ADAA’s registry, no report of a missing Rauschenberg or Johns comes close to matching the Short Circuit flag.

It is here that the narratives of Short Circuit and its flag inevitably diverge. There is no contemporary record of Rauschenberg or Johns’s response to the flag’s disappearance. In a 2011 lecture on Short Circuit, Art Institute curator (now director) James Rondeau said, “Bob actually called Jasper and said, ‘Jasper, the flag is missing. What do we do?’ And Jasper, according to the literature and my interviews, says two words: ‘Call Elaine’ ”—meaning Elaine Sturtevant, an appropriation artist who had been making direct copies of work by Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Johns. Sturtevant and Rauschenberg were friends. They posed together in the buff for a re-creation of Duchamp’s Adam and Eve in 1967, the same year they also shared a bill, along with Rauschenberg’s new boyfriend, dancer Steve Paxton, on the School of Visual Art’s fall performance calendar.

To the many inquiries I’ve made to Johns over the years of my search for the Short Circuit flag, he responded once to say he had no involvement in the decision to replace his flag with Sturtevant’s, a decision that stems from 1967, the year Rauschenberg fielded a request from Finch College Museum curator Elayne Varian, who wanted to include Short Circuit in a traveling exhibition, “Art in Process: The Visual Development of a Collage.” In the thin catalogue for that show, Rauschenberg posed with Short Circuit, its door propped open, but the cupboard was still bare. “Because Jasper Johns’s flag for the collage was stolen,” Rauschenberg wrote in the catalogue, “Elaine Sturtevant is painting an original flag in the manner of Jasper Johns to replace it. This collage is a documentation of a particular event at a particular time and is still being affected. It is a double document.” A double document at least. The future tense of Rauschenberg’s statement sent me looking for reviews of the ten venues for Varian’s show. If Sturtevant’s flag got in there in time, no one saw it, because according to all reports, Short Circuit’s doors were nailed shut.

Diptych of Rauschenberg and his dog Laika in Rauschenberg’s Lafayette Street studio, New York, ca. 1967. WILLIAM S. WILSON/COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION

Diptych of Rauschenberg and his dog Laika in Rauschenberg’s Lafayette Street studio, New York, ca. 1967.

WILLIAM S. WILSON/COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION

Charles Yoder, a Rauschenberg assistant, remembers seeing Sturtevant’s flag in Short Circuit in 1971. Castelli called it “ugly” in his 1973 oral-history interview. According to his notes in the Smithsonian Archives, curator Walter Hopps, who organized a Rauschenberg retrospective in 1976 at the National Collection of Fine Arts, held out hope that the original flag might be found in time for the show. When that didn’t happen, Rauschenberg wrote that he might paint a replacement himself, both “to rid myself of the bad memories surrounding the theft” and because he “need[ed] the therapy.” The only existing photo of Short Circuit with Johns’s flag is in the catalogue, but in the last draft of the exhibition checklist, Hopps dropped Short Circuit from the show. Other curators who visited Rauschenberg’s studio lamented the Combine’s condition or its unavailability. It was not until Paul Schimmel’s 2005 to 2007 traveling show of Rauschenberg’s Combines that a full color image of Short Circuit with Sturtevant’s Johns Flag was published. It turns out Sturtevant’s flag was installed higher than the original, in order to accommodate a stamped label strip below it that reads, “The original Jasper Johns Flag was stolen in 1965. It is replaced by an original Sturtevant 1967,” which clears that up.

And what of the original flag? In 2010 I called Ivan Karp, Castelli’s longtime consigliere, who told me that the dealer who had gone to Castelli in 1965 to authenticate the stolen flag was Robert Elkon, and that his client, so to speak, was Gertrude Stein (of Madison Avenue, not Rue du Fleurus). Elkon and Stein both ran secondary-market galleries; the former died in 1983, but the latter is still around and dealing. (Elkon and Stein had been embroiled in a lawsuit in 1993 over the 1967 sale of a Chagall gouache, which turned out to have been stolen from the Guggenheim in 1965. The museum, hoping to avoid publicity and suspecting an inside job, had never reported the painting’s disappearance. Stein, Elkon’s estate, and their buyer agreed to pay the museum in a confidential settlement.) Stein and I spoke many times over the years I spent looking into the flag, most often when I dialed from unrecognized numbers. Though I never pressed, I came to believe that she did indeed have some firsthand knowledge of the Short Circuit flag.

The last piece of evidence I found, Castelli’s previously restricted 1973 interview, was the most startling. This was not because Castelli offhandedly fingered Elkon and Stein in his story, or because of the matter-of-fact way with which he declared, “The flag disappeared for good.” I doubt he didn’t care; he must have known what happened to the flag, or known someone who did. What really caught me by surprise was Castelli’s candor in stating what seems obvious, but which was denied or refuted for so long.

CASTELLI: There were three people that were the gallery: myself, Rauschenberg, and Johns. As a matter of fact it was Rauschenberg hyphen Johns, because they seem to be sort of always mentioned in the same breath: Rauschenberg and Johns. As a matter of fact, later on Johns got (there were other reasons too) got so irked by this constant coupling that occurs that he—this is certainly one of the reasons why he broke with Rauschenberg.
CUMMINGS: Really?
CASTELLI: Because he just did not want to be constantly mentioned in the same breath as Rauschenberg. Well there were other reasons of course, they started diverging also on aesthetic grounds and so on. Rauschenberg did not approve of the direction that Johns was taking and Johns didn’t approve of what Rauschenberg was doing.

Rauschenberg-Johns. These two great artists had diverged, but before that, they were totally in sync, influencing each other and developing and making their work together. Short Circuit and its flag were the fulcrum of their relationship and their early practice. And it was gone.

After reading Castelli’s interview, I called Stein one more time, for the first time in almost a year, and asked her if Castelli and Elkon could have simply quietly sold the flag back to Johns, at which point Stein hung up on me. I guess we’ll never know.

Greg Allen is an artist, writer, and filmmaker, and has published his blog, greg.org: the making of, since 2001.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 80 under the title “American Beauty.”

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