Benjamin Moser’s new book Sontag, a massive 832-page biography of Susan Sontag published by Ecco, sheds light on the thinker and writer’s vibrant love life. Much has been written about Sontag’s relationships over the years, particularly one with photographer Annie Leibovitz, whom she called her partner from 1989 to until the end of her life in 2004. Less has been written about Sontag’s time with one unexpected lover, however: artist Jasper Johns.
“Jasper Johns is boring,” Sontag once wrote—but clearly not boring enough to keep herself away. “In early 1965, Susan began a relationship with Jasper Johns,” Moser writes. “Like many of the men she had affairs with, Johns was mostly gay; and as with most of the men Susan was involved with, the relationship was brief.”
When Johns and Sontag began their fling, the artist had already achieved fame in the New York art world for his paintings and sculptures—Flag (1954–55), a painting of an American flag with newsprint still visible beneath its stripes, was widely seen as an important reaction to, and step forward from, Abstract Expressionist aesthetics. (Johns’s storied career will be the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York next year.) Sontag, in Moser’s estimation, was attracted to Johns because “he was a master—a teacher.”
Stephen Koch, a writer and friend of Sontag, told Moser that she also liked that Johns didn’t buckle on much of anything. “Jasper is as dominating, as egotistic, as ready to assume that anyone around him is going to to take a secondary position, as the most besotted heterosexual male alpha who ever lived,” Koch says, adding, “She was very aware that Jasper never conceded anything but first place. That turned her on.”
The relationship between Johns and Sontag didn’t last, however. On the last night of 1965, on New Year’s Eve, Johns invited Sontag to a party—and proceeded to take home another woman, in Moser’s telling. (Moser writes that this incident was one of the many in her life that she chose not to chronicle in her journals, which are rich with self-lacerating anecdotes of all sorts.) Although Sontag had fallen out of a relationship with him, Johns did give her the lease on his Riverside Drive penthouse in New York. According to Moser, there were “elaborate preliminary sketches” for Johns’s paintings on the walls of the apartment; Sontag painted over them, and that was that.