Collaboration in the Dark

By Karl WhittingtonDecember 25, 2017

Collaboration in the Dark
This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 16,  Art

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Images by Robert Flynt


A fire alarm went off in the dark room. I was in a hotel room in San Francisco, and I had just taken off the last of my clothes; Robert was photographing me, shining flashlights across my body, painting on me with light over a long exposure. The alarm wasn’t well timed. I was posing for Robert for the first time, having finally gotten up my nerve. We had started off with portrait shots to make me comfortable, but the plan for the shoot was clearly to photograph me nude. We waited for a minute for the alarm to stop, and it didn’t; we laughed it off, I got dressed, and we went down to the lobby. When it finally stopped, we went back upstairs. Somehow the break had actually done me good, and I disrobed again, feeling far less self-conscious, even eager.

I was 26, a grad student in art history, and it was my first time really being part of an artist’s process. I felt totally alive, inhabiting my body in a way I hadn’t before, aware that I was being looked at by an artist whose work fascinated me, as well as by a man that made me nervous and excited. I didn’t know quite what I’d gotten myself into, and was lost in the moment.


As an art historian, I’ve encountered plenty of writing on the interpersonal or erotic aspects of collaboration between artists. Whether in the context of married couples (Kahlo/Rivera, Pollock/Krasner, O’Keeffe/Stieglitz, Currin/Feinstein) or torrid affairs (Man Ray/Miller, Carrington/Ernst, Michelangelo/Cavalieri) the erotics of collaboration have become an accepted, if still delicate, part of studying the production of meaning in these artists’ works. Sometimes the artists themselves lead the way in the interpretation, talking directly about their personal life, while other times they remain reticent, leaving it to art historians and critics to speculate about how it informs their process. What is missing within all of this, however, is an acknowledgment of the erotic interest of the scholar-critic who writes about it all, or even, dare we suggest it, participates directly in the exchange. In academia, personal identities are recognized grounds, though largely undiscussed, for why one might study particular works (why feminist scholars often study women artists, or gay scholars study homoerotic art), but there is rarely any further discussion of this interest beyond basic identity categories. Would we ask a scholar of medieval or Renaissance art with a research focus on images of violent martyrdom if she is into S&M? The question seems silly when put so directly. Yet the unexpressed motivations for what people write and study about have always fascinated me.

This essay is part of my own attempt to come to grips with a very personal collaboration of my own, with the contemporary artist Robert Flynt, in the matrix of my personal, professional, and intellectual lives. It is part memoir, part reflection on making the transition from subject to object, critic to model, and part rumination on why we keep the personal lives of scholars and critics so firmly out of view. The lives of artists, actors, and musicians — the most visible producers of culture — are mined for personal information, by both the public and by academics, yet the personal identities and interests of cultural critics and scholars are kept hidden, in the interest of maintaining a (perhaps necessary) fiction of distance and objectivity (and, of course, because critics and academics are not celebrities — no one particularly cares, perhaps, about our personal lives). It’s not that I think this objectivity isn’t useful, and we obviously can’t completely leave it behind. But it’s become increasingly apparent that in my own scholarly practice, the question of real attraction to certain artworks, artists, and subjects constitutes a vital part of my engagement with what I do and how I write and teach.


I met Robert in Rome in May 2007. I was 24, a grad student working for a month in Rome on my dissertation research on medieval manuscripts in the Vatican Library; Robert was around 50, a visitor at the American Academy, where he was working on a series of photographs called Memorials, which featured found family photographs (particularly 19th-century ones inserted into gravestones) juxtaposed against or over male figure studies and faces that he had photographed. We met over dinner at the American Academy, where I had come to see another acquaintance. There was instant electricity between us; I could tell that he was wryly amused by me — I like to think that something about my naïveté, enthusiasm, and nervousness was charming in a way that he liked. For my part, he was everything that fascinated me — someone who made art while I only studied it, who was part of a community of gay creative New Yorkers (easy to fetishize from the outside), and who had a cultural capital that I didn’t think I could or would ever possess but aspired to fervently. We also had similar interests — in portraits and memorials, in maps and diagrams, and above all in the depiction of the male body in Western art, in all its strangeness and contradiction. But did these shared interests really even matter? Or were they just a pretext for a chemistry that was obviously present? We spent a long evening talking (flirting?) and a few nights later he invited me to his apartment on the Janiculum Hill where the conversation continued. That night he asked me if I’d ever be interested in posing nude for his photographs.

It’s only now that I can really understand all of the intertwined reasons why I said no — why I wasn’t ready yet for that kind of collaboration. Certainly, I wasn’t ready personally — I was navigating the early years of a relationship with my now-husband, and I assumed that there could be no collaboration of this kind without sex (this was through no demand or insinuation of Robert’s — it was just my own assumption). I didn’t trust myself to behave if I took off my clothes to be photographed. But I also wasn’t ready professionally. As a graduate student, everything I was doing was grounded in the idea of becoming a “scholar”; not only did I have no real awareness of what it would entail to be part of his art, but on some level I didn’t think it was appropriate for a scholar to take that role — that even if Robert and I talked about his work, and even if one day I wanted to write about it as an academic, I couldn’t be a part of making it. But even as I said no to being his model, and we just spend a few hours talking, I left his apartment buzzing with energy — intellectual, sexual, who knows — as I walked back down the hill at midnight to my hotel room near the Vatican. Clearly he had touched a nerve, both through who he was, and through the possibility of this intimate collaborative space. I think I was listening to my iPod and singing along out loud as I walked down the empty streets, though I can’t remember anymore what I was listening to.


For my younger self, and even in some ways now, the kind of relationship that I fantasized about having with Robert seemed like a relic of a past time. Each individual facet of any potential relationship was recognizable to me — an academic mentorship between an older and younger man, a sexual or romantic relationship of the same nature, or the straightforward use of a younger model by an established artist. It was the possible combination of them that felt antiquated — it felt like the erotic pedagogy of Classical Greece, where erotic acts or feelings were a legitimate part of a relationship that was also about the transfer of knowledge and experience. At 24, I was still caught somewhere between being a prude and a libertine, and the erotic friendship or mentorship that I thought was on offer would have collapsed these poles together and, I think, overwhelmed me. It also seemed against my politics — this formation of intimate male space seemed to exclude women, and in the past had always had a tone of uncomfortable class-based exclusiveness. One famous example is the story of a young French nobleman named Jacques d’Aldelswärd Fersen, who in the first years of the 20th century escaped from the moral censure of Paris to a new villa at Capri, which he filled with erotic classical sculptures and young male friends/lovers, creating an all-male space of erotic and artistic exchange (one of the images here shows Jacques’s boyfriend Nino Cesarini photographed recreating scenes from classical myth). I didn’t want (or did I?) to reinvent myself, even in some small way, as a part of that history. All Robert had asked me to do was pose for a photograph, but in the request I imagined some whole mysterious homosocial world that I wasn’t a part of. Such behavior, I thought, was incompatible with the life of a contemporary gay academic — even just a taste of it. My erotic self had to be kept separate.


After Rome, the next time I saw Robert was in 2009, when he came to California for work and visited us. Somehow a lot had changed in those two years, and I was ready to move forward. My partner met Robert and came to adore him; he was fine with my posing for him, and so I did. One night when he was in town from New York, I went from my apartment in Oakland to his tiny hotel room near Union Square in San Francisco. We had dinner at a sushi place around the corner, but I can’t remember a single thing we said at dinner, besides him making me try sea urchin, which I hated. Then we went back to his hotel room. Robert usually photographs in the dark; he uses long exposures and creates patterns and strings of light with flashlights and laser pointers. Essentially, he paints on your body with light over the long exposure, only occasionally letting the light fall on himself as he moves catlike around your posed body. The resulting images are eerie, for lack of a better term, and really acquire their meaning for him when juxtaposed or superimposed with other images.

The small room was crowded with furniture, and I had no idea what to do or how to act. I signed model release forms (too eagerly?) and we cleared a space around the foot of the bed, near the door. Robert turned off the lights and we began. The fire alarm intervened but eventually everything came together.

How to describe the thrill of being in front of Robert’s camera? Being an artist’s model was such a simple thing, and something that so many others before me have experienced, but I was unprepared for how changed I felt by it — how validated on so many levels. I imagined that I was finally someone’s muse, even for a couple of hours — finally involved in mysteries of creation that I had so long felt excluded from, having little talent as an artist myself despite small efforts in that direction. Not only had I felt excluded from these creation mysteries in a practical sense, but in my academic training in the social history of art, I had almost come not to believe in them at all — for me, art had become the product of a time and place, of structures of power and gender and politics — not the intimate workings of an artist and model. It felt so good to be looked at in a way that could feel simultaneously safe and exciting — removed from an expectation of sexual action, but far from neutral or neutered. I had long had little or no sense of my own physical desirability, if indeed I possessed any, but Robert’s interest in my body (as an artist or a man — I didn’t care) felt overwhelming and new. It’s not that my previous sexual experiences hadn’t deeply influenced my sense of self; what was new was the sense that Robert had also accessed the sexuality of my academic or intellectual self (for lack of a better phrase) in a way that others hadn’t or couldn’t. I’m sure this was largely one-sided; he has photographed hundreds of models, and become friends with many of them. Maybe he was intrigued by photographing someone who thought about art in ways that made sense to him, and with whom he shared so many interests, but it seems unlikely that the experience had meant to him something analogous to what it had meant to me. Perhaps it was the delight that he could see me taking in it that kept him interested; the merest glance at his other photographs reveals the far more perfect bodies and faces that had been available to his camera. He tells me that almost every model he shoots makes that same comment, but that didn’t make it any less true for me — I felt like there was something special about me, some reason he wanted to photograph me, since I didn’t look like I thought a model should. Regardless, my intellectual and personal desires seemed intertwined in a way they never had before.


How often has an art historian become part of an artist’s practice? It’s a question that I don’t know how to answer. The most famous examples that I can think of seem, on the surface, much less interpersonally complicated. The art historian Meyer Schapiro advised his student Robert Motherwell to ditch art history for painting, and mentored him for years (along with other artists including Willem de Kooning). Benjamin Buchloh has had long-running professional friendships with the artists Gerhard Richter and Michael Asher (and was married to the artist Louise Lawler); he has written about them, interviewed them for academic and popular articles, and even sat with Richter for a portrait. Art historians and critics have often been connected romantically with artists, such as Clement Greenberg’s five-year relationship with Helen Frankenthaler. And certainly many art critics, museum curators, and gallery owners have become friends and champions of contemporary artists they admire; yet how often have the interpersonal aspects of these relationships been examined? Do they need to be? Robert and I have long joked about me writing about him; he says confidently that I’ll write his monograph one day, and perhaps I will. I find his work endlessly fascinating, though at this point it feels impossible for me to know what I’d think of it if I hadn’t experienced firsthand how it is created.

Robert’s photographs are about the intersection of vision, desire, and knowledge. His images don’t make arguments about the relationship of the body to broader networks and environments — they simply pose questions, invite speculation, and place things in dialogue. He printed a photograph he took of me and my partner in 2012 on a vintage map of Ohio, and the resulting image was surprisingly uncomfortable for me to see. We had recently moved to Ohio for my first teaching job, and it was strange to see my body inscribed on this place that didn’t yet feel like home. In the resulting image Ohio’s counties and highways stretched across my limbs, connecting them with our own bodies’ movement — again, not arguing a connection, but asking if one might exist. Nearly all of his recent works are photographic monoprints like this: photos printed on sheets of paper from old books on medicine, anatomy, history, or design.

Robert’s techniques produce bodies both familiar and estranged, intimate and distanced. The introduction of uncertainty and accident that emerges through his process — through taking photographs in the dark or underwater — reveals something of the fragility of the body, but when seen in multiples, his work reasserts the body’s vital presence and sexual potency within all the networks of meaning and matter that we’ve created around it, and which threaten to fragment it at every turn. The photographs connect in so many ways with the objects that I study in my own work: medieval images where bodies and worlds are overlapped, or images where the interior medical spaces of the body are abstracted into diagrams. They speak to linkages across time between people who were interested in how the viewed and inhabited body becomes part of the mental organization of knowledge — the body as an unstable but constant reference point for everything we think, do and believe.

I don’t know exactly how, but I am sure that posing for Robert’s photographs has affected both what I write about in my academic work, and the arguments that work puts forth. For one thing, it forces me to see my premodern images as part of a larger whole — to remove them from their immediate historical contexts where I can get bogged down in details. But the change in my work as a result of posing for Robert goes beyond just the way I write about images; it’s changed what subjects I choose and especially how I teach students about them. Over time I’ve become less guarded, less cautious in explaining things to my students about my own life and beliefs. Academic objectivity is useful of course, but it can also be something teachers hide behind — a way to avoid sharing ourselves with students in a way that can be vulnerable, but which students seem hungry for. I’m less afraid now to teach the paintings or photographs that turn me on; even if I don’t talk about them in precisely those terms, I’m less afraid that students might make those connections themselves. It’s not that I’m “out” to more of my students now — I’ve always made a conscious choice to be out in the classroom. Rather, it’s that I’m not hiding anymore the fact that being gay isn’t just about one’s identity, but also about desire — something that is impossible to exclude when talking about our responses to visual images. When talking about art and beauty, desire is nearly always in play.

Somehow I’ve become more comfortable with this collapse of public and private, with the idea of queer people creating spaces apart, and this feeling only increases with every passing year. In Columbus, Ohio, I’m in the midst of a thriving cultural and academic center, but I have also seen firsthand what happens to a gay community, good and bad, when it takes assimilation rather than difference as its goal. In a place where the pride parade consists of well-meaning church groups and corporate pandering, an ever-greater part of me longs for the spaces apart or outside, in which I can exist differently, simultaneously inhabiting all parts of myself, even if this space is only (re)created within the context of a single friendship or collaboration. My politics tell me that the conscious integration into the mainstream that is so evident in Columbus is exactly what has lead to such huge leaps forward for gay rights; my gut tells me that something else is being lost, and that my relationship with Robert is part of finding my way back to it.


I posed for Robert again in 2012, 2015, and 2016, each time with my partner. In 2012, after a long summer dinner in the backyard, we moved aside our dining-room table, pulled the curtains, and photographed in the dark. It was a thrill to watch my partner experience something similar to what I had felt years before, though from talking to him later the experience meant entirely different things to him than it had to me. During another visit in 2015 we photographed in the third-floor attic of our new house, posing together after our infant daughter had gone to sleep downstairs, the hum of the baby monitor overlapping with the clicks of Robert’s new camera.

Being in front of Robert’s camera feels different now that I am more invested in the collaboration. When I first posed for him in 2009, I was caught up in what I thought it meant to “model” for someone, wondering if I was doing it right. Over time, and especially from talking to Robert about how he envisions the way he works with me and his other subjects, it feels much less like there are two distinct positions in the relationship and much more like each session, even each photograph, is a kind of performance. For one, Robert is often on both sides of the camera. At times, in the dark, I forget where the camera is, as I watch Robert moving around me or feel him brush against me, following his flashlights to try to see where he is but also trying to stay still. Fantasy enters the picture, but even while he’s photographing, the fantasy is as much about imagining looking at the pictures of myself later, wondering how they will turn out and how he will change them as they become artworks, as it is about my bodily experience in the moment, and where the next click might take us. Whatever the fantasy, it feels fantastic and strange to have this experience where I am fully involved, but can give up control over the final work; where I can leave the scholar or writer in me behind and let someone else make the meaning for me.

Have any of these photography sessions ever crossed a particular line — have Robert and I actually had sex? I’ve been avoiding the question. It used to infuriate me when scholars very explicitly dodged this question about the premodern artists they studied, reminding us that we don’t know that these clearly queer people actually shared physical intimacy. “Of course they did,” I always thought; I didn’t care whether we had historical evidence for it or not — it seemed obvious. Yet now I don’t want to answer the question myself; it doesn’t seem to matter. I will say, though, that for Robert and many of his models, making this art together acts as a kind of surrogate or substitute for sexual relationships that they might desire. It’s just people, in the dark, in a room; the photographs themselves are the only details that come out of it, and even though part of me wants to tell everything about those experiences, I think it would ruin them to talk about exactly what goes on. Part of the images’ magic as final works is their incompleteness as documentation of the performance.

Sometimes in my life now, and especially when I think about this collaboration with Robert, I have the sense that I’ve figured everything out — that I’ve finally realized now that I can have all of these things rather than just some of them; that I can play all the roles I’ve been describing — writer, teacher, father, husband, model, friend — without it feeling like I’m an imposter in each as I switch between them. So much about being an academic is about this imposter syndrome; when everything you produce is judged as a measure of your intelligence or creativity, insecurity is always just around the corner. Relinquishing control over the final product with Robert lets me out of this cycle. What’s missing, though, is any acknowledgment, outside of our relationship, that it is happening at all — if it’s all a performance, as Robert says, then for whom? When I’ve tried to explain it to a few friends, I usually fail to do so in a way that explains what I’ve written about here — how deep the sense of fulfillment is that I get from this seemingly simple situation, and how many different parts of me it touches. I struggle with whether I want to keep it private, just for us, or whether knowing that others have seen the photographs and heard about their creation is precisely the final step I need to fully feel and embody the rhyme between what I perceive as these different selves. The question bubbled up again when I tried to choose photographs to include in this essay. The safe part of me wanted nothing too daring; after all, what if my students see this? Another part wanted to include the most explicit ones. I know I want people to see the photographs, but how much of my body do I want them to find? Some amount, I don’t know; here they are.

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Karl Whittington teaches art history at The Ohio State University. He writes about European medieval art and architecture, the history of science, and gender and sexuality.

Robert Flynt is a visual artist based in New York. His work has appeared in galleries internationally, and is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art in New York, and L.A. County Museum.


LARB Contributor

Karl Whittington teaches art history at The Ohio State University. He writes about European medieval art and architecture, the history of science, and gender and sexuality. His book, Body-Worlds: Opicinus de Canistris and the Medieval Cartographic Imagination appeared from the Pontifical Institute in Toronto in 2014.
Photo by Robert Flynt


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