Are you a Rauschenberg or a Johns?

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Jasper Johns, "Map," 1961, Encaustic, oil, and collage, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Art (C) Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

A block of Grand Avenue in downtown L.A. was  completely blocked off a few days ago, but hanging across the barricades was a big red arrow pointing down Bunker Hill with “jurors” written across it. No other signs told passers-by anything about the construction or about detours, but to let the jurors get lost would be un-American. A friend of mine, an artist, was recently “Juror one” in an L.A. case thrown out after only a day. In that day, however, she parked below Disney Concert Hall and got in for free at MOCA. Jurors, it turns out, get certain perks.

Robert Rauschenberg, "Canyon," 1959, oil, housepaint, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, buttons, nails, cardboard, printed paper, photographs, wood, paint tubes, mirror string, pillow & bald eagle on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

The jury happened to include another, younger self-declared artist, who at first struck my friend as savvy.  The two of them decided to visit MOCA together, and, walking through the room with the Johns and Rauschenberg work from the museum’s permanent collection, G. asked the question: “Rauschenberg or Johns? Who’s best?” “Well, I really liked those Rothko’s,” the kid she was with said, “but I guess Rauschenberg, if I had to choose, but Pollock’s my favorite.” Clearly, he didn’t get it. Rauschenberg vs. Johns is the litmus test. Your answer shines a mirror on what you want from the world, and on the art scene, it’s a way better personality gauge than, say, Meyers Briggs: The repressed, introverted and calculating Johns vs. the all-out exhibitionist Rauschenberg.

Jasper Johns owned the work of indomitable ceramicist and Dadaist Beatrice Wood, currently the Santa of a Monica Museum of Art retrospective. Wood attended the Arensberg salon (“an inconceivable orgy of sexuality, jazz and alcohol,” according to artist Francis Picabia’s wife), with Duchamp in the 1910s, and then continued art-making, mostly in California, for the rest of the century, until her death in the late 1990s. She made drawings, figurative ceramic sculptures and then whole armies of outlandish teapots, plates and cups, getting all the more daring as she got older. One teapot from 1983 is shaped like a fish. Johns never owned that one, however. The two of the works that were his in the current show include a small brown chalice and a gold plate, both relatively conservative objects but both still exorbitantly shiny, fair examples of the Wood’s oeuvre.  It’s hard to imagine Rauschenberg choosing those two though; I imagine him going for the bolder, weirder shapes—like the teapot with figures dancing on the lid.

Beatrice Wood in her studio

Wood wrote a book called I Shock Myself in 1985, beginning with the line, “While the substance of ceramics is clay and chemicals, the stuff of life is most certainly people.” Which, I guess, is why thinking about the fact that Johns owns Wood, and playing the Rauschenberg vs. Johns game remain endlessly interesting: they acknowledge that what art you want and like have some bearing on who you are as a person.