Famed Writer Susan Sontag Had a Brief Affair With Jasper Johns—and It Ended When He Left Her at a New Year’s Eve Party

The affair, according to a new biography of Sontag by Benjamin Moser, started in 1965.

Artist Jasper Johns photographed in his New York City studio in 1971. Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.
Artist Jasper Johns photographed in his New York City studio in 1971. Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.

A new biography of writer Susan Sontag (1933–2004) by Benjamin Moser reveals that the famed essayist once had a short-lived affair with the painter Jasper Johns.

The revelation about the unexpected affair is included in an 832-page book, Sontag: Her Life and Work, published this month by Ecco.

“In early 1965, Susan began a relationship with Jasper Johns,” Moser recounts in a passage excerpted on Literary Hub. “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.”

(Johns, now 89, also had a six-year relationship with Robert Rauschenberg; Sontag’s partner, from 1989 to 2004, was photographer Annie Leibovitz.)

Already famous for his painting Flag (1954–55), Johns likely appealed to Sontag because “he was a master—a teacher,” Moser writes.

Sontag was also a fan of his art—although you might not think so from her writing. She once called Jasper Johns “boring,” while noting that “most of the interesting art of our time is boring.”

Susan Sontag on November 3, 1972. Photo by Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet for Getty Images.

Susan Sontag on November 3, 1972. Photo by Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet for Getty Images.

“For Susan, this uninterestingness was a virtue, implying a refusal of the easy accessibility she associated with commercial entertainment,” Moser writes.

Sontag’s friend, the writer Stephen Koch, told Moser that she was attracted to Johns’s egoistic and dominating personality.

“Jasper is as dominating, as egotistic, as ready to assume that anyone around him is going to take a secondary position, as the most besotted heterosexual male alpha who ever lived,” Koch recalls in the book. “She was very aware that Jasper never conceded anything but first place. That turned her on.”

Susan Sontag in the offices of her publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, New York, January 23, 1978. Photo by William E. Sauro/New York Times Co./Getty Images.

Susan Sontag in the offices of her publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 1978. Photo by William E. Sauro/New York Times Co./Getty Images.

But the affair fell apart in seemingly bitter fashion, when Johns, who had taken Sontag as his date to a New Year’s Eve party, left the event with another woman. Yet Sontag never mentioned the incident in any of her many journals, where she often agonized over her relationships with women.

The difference, Moser claims, is that, “because Johns was a man, Susan could be in his thrall intellectually and artistically while remaining emotionally insulated.”

Despite the breakup, Sontag took over the lease on Johns’s New York apartment, a penthouse on Riverside Drive. After moving in, according to Moser, she painted over the “elaborate preliminary sketches” that Johns had left on the walls.


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