How an Eight-Month Trip Shifted the Course of Art History

IN FEBRUARY OF 1953, the pair returned to Rome from Morocco. While Twombly spent time sketching African objects in the ethnographic museum, Rauschenberg worked on three separate series: about 30 collages mounted on shirt boards from the laundry, 30 “Scatole Personali” and a group of “Feticci Personali,” which were assemblages incorporating sticks, bones, beads and fur.

According to Calvin Tomkins’s 1980 book “Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time,” when the “Scatole” were exhibited at L’Obelisco in Rome, in March of 1953, the show “was considered a joke by everyone, the gallery owner included. The objects were priced so low that several people bought them for laughs.” Days later, the “Scatole” and Twombly’s tapestries made in Tangier were shown in concurrent exhibitions in Florence at the Galleria d’Arte Contemporanea. None of the artists’ works sold. Today, only 13 of Rauschenberg’s “Scatole” survive.

Only in retrospect did their importance become clear. In 1955, Rauschenberg created “Bed,” one of his early “Combines.” In this work, Rauschenberg’s pillow, sheet and quilt are the canvas upon which he scribbled a Twombly-esque scrawl. In this sense, the work was very personal (like the “Scatole”), but in his willingness to deface his personal history, it also is the clearest representation of Rauschenberg’s work as a bridge between the emotional intensity of Abstract Expressionism and the cool detachment of Pop Art, a bridge he began building on his trip with Twombly. The trip was similarly transformational for Twombly. Not only would he reference Greek and Roman mythology in his work for decades, incorporating among his symbols the names of deities like Apollo and Venus, but he would also make Italy his primary home from 1957 until his death in 2011.

But if these months together have often been glossed over from an art historical perspective, it has been positively ignored from a queer one. Indeed, the men’s romantic relationship has been elided time and again: Both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have faced criticism for not identifying the artists as gay in exhibitions, and for downplaying how their sexual orientation may have influenced them. Both were gay at a time well before it was acceptable to be so publicly, and yet to this day, their identities as queer artists are frequently disregarded. Part of this was reflective of the age itself — there were no secret love letters between the two, no public acknowledgments of their romance. Rauschenberg’s sexuality was something of an open secret, known by everyone but never quite remarked upon, even by the artist himself. He never remarried, but for years, up until his death in 2008, he was in a relationship with the artist Darryl Pottorf, referred to in the artist’s obituary in The New York Times as his “companion.” Twombly, for his part, married the Italian artist Tatiana Franchetti, the sister of one of his patrons, in 1959 and remained married to her until her death in 2010.

BY THE MID-60S, Rauschenberg and Twombly’s paths had diverged. In 1966, Twombly, by then a famous artist, appeared in a Vogue story titled “Roman Classic Surprise.” The article was part of a series on interior design conceived by Diana Vreeland and shot by Horst P. Horst. Cullinan, who co-curated Twombly’s 2008 retrospective at the Tate, has argued that this article seriously compromised the artist’s career for a time: Twombly’s portrayal as a charmed expatriate with a wealthy wife in a woman’s magazine was not only at odds with America’s ideal of a macho artist but also with America’s idea of a heterosexual male. This was the year adventurous bohemianism crossed over into the popular mainstream, when Ken Kesey and Bob Dylan influenced the male identity as presented by Madison Avenue admen. Twombly appeared an effete: anti-American and, worse, unmodern.