Release Date: December 4, 2015
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Without a doubt, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly are the three great post-abstract expressionists in American art, says Jonathan Katz, director of the University at Buffalo’s visual studies doctoral program and co-curator of the groundbreaking Art AIDS America, the first major, traveling art exhibit revolving around AIDS.
The dialogue started decades ago by these artists is picked up by Katz for his Scholars on the Road lecture, “Buffalo’s Journey to Becoming the Epicenter of Queer Art Scholarship” happening Dec. 10 from 6-8 p.m. at Just Vino, 846 Main St. in Buffalo.
While the abstract expressionists worked mostly without subject matter, the compositions of the post-abstract expressionists often to appealed to objects in pop culture and classical iconography. Their work, said Rauschenberg, was “in the gap between life and art.”
And explorations and surveys of that work are numerous. A search through the UB libraries’ catalog alone yields hundreds of items exploring the lives of the three and their creative output.
That they were lovers, however, is hardly mentioned, says Katz.
“The import of that is that it reframes some of the most classic images in American art. It allows us to examine issues of great complexity,” he says. “Most notably how they used their art to address multiple audiences at once.”
Now in its third season, Scholars on the Road features UB faculty members discussing their research and areas of expertise with alumni and guests, taking the classroom experience beyond the campuses and sharing their work with Buffalo and other communities around the country.
“These events are a wonderful opportunity for alumni and friends to connect to the university,” says Bruce Pitman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a relaxed setting to hear about the work and latest research ideas from our great scholars.”
Reframing the images of Johns, Rauschenberg and Twombly, for instance, allows for an understanding that moves beyond the assumptions of chance-based creations.
“Chance is one level, but these works are highly deliberate, carefully constructed missives from one man to another,” he says. “We regularly credit partners with the ability to encode, to say things to one another that by design are not understood by people who overhear them.
“They’ve done that in their work.”
That reality is an historical paradox.
This work came out in an era of entrenched homophobia, the 1950s, says Katz. Yet there was also an intensely present sense of double-identity that these artists engaged in.
“The inchoate sense that these artists were capable of saying more than one thing at a time rhymed with the broader culture under McCarthyism where, of course, one had to be very careful about what was said publically,” he said.
“The point is that in the most homophobic decade of the 20th century, gay and lesbian people came to represent America to itself.”
Katz’s lecture will make a case using images for the centrality of sexuality studies as an approach to understating the development of American art while also addressing what he sees as a broader mandate developing at UB.
“My PhD program in visual studies is already profoundly emphasizing sexuality and gender,” he says. “When you’re interested in studying queer art history we are the center.”
By using what is on the ground as a foundation, Katz wants to develop what would be the world’s first arts-based queer arts graduate degree.
“This idea is intended, in part, to reflect the multidisciplinarity of the figures in question. Even as far back as the 1950s, the distinctions between painting, sculpture, music and theater were breaking down. Rauschenberg is a maker of paintings, theater, music, costume design. How can we understand him according to one disciplinary framework when his work exceeded that?” he said.
“We are essentially remaking the field of art history at UB to attend to important questions long ignored or repressed regarding how sexual difference has animated some of the most important, substantive changes in American culture,” says Katz.