Read an Excerpt
"But the expression of our thoughts can always lie, for we may say one thing and mean another." Imagine the many different things which happen when we say one thing and mean another!Make the following experiment: say the sentence "It is hot in this room," and mean: "it is cold." Observe closely what you are doing.
We could easily imagine beings who do their private thinking by means of "asides" and who manage their lies by saying one thing aloud, following it up by an aside which says the opposite.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, 1959
Neither this book nor the work it describes can be considered easy. Jasper Johns's art is generated by complex and difficult ideas, and these cannot be avoided. We are seduced by the objects that Johns chooses to depict, ordinary, everyday things that appear unexpected or absurd as the subjects of this highly abstracted debate. Jasper Johns's art is treacherously difficult to write about. It is subtle, turned in upon itself, and hermetic, and critics are tempted to exaggerate to explain themselves. The allusions in the work are bound together in such a way that cutting the knot that ties them often leaves the critic with an unconnected bunch of ideas in his hands and the mystery still resolutely locked up.
The works are difficult to explain because they deal, often, with the problems specific to making paintings. They are, in that respect, technical, and their vocabulary is that of picture making and comparable with the language of scientific discourse. They are also "modern" in the sense that Clement Greenberg described as modernist. They are part of a discipline "whose characteristicmethods" are "to criticize the discipline itself." But modernism had also characteristically discarded objects and representation in favor of an abstracted art. Johns does much to subvert this.
Johns complicates matters by using a few subjects several times and shifting his meaning on each occasion. He refers to the new idea that is his principal concern and backwards to his own earlier uses of the object. He does not work in series; rather he "reproduces" objects or images many times. Each motif carries for him, and ultimately for his viewer, complex meanings. These meanings are symbolic; they give off signals that are poignant and enigmatic about ideas only recently thought suitable as a subject for art. Donald Kuspit summed it up in 1981. Writing of Johns's recent drawings, he said: "He clings to the overly familiar until it becomes emblematic, a secret code to classified information. Read properly, Johns's images reveal unconscious attitudes about the world that impress themselves on our every recollection of it. In this work, it is not only certain worldly themes that persist, but certain attitudes as well."
The use and reuse of a few ideas is so important to Johns that I will risk working from the particular to the general and trace the use of one image over twenty-two years. First, let us establish Johns's interest in repetition of the image. Christian Geelhaar asked him in an interview about his reuse of objects and images, and Johns replied:
"Well perhaps because it interests me I think of it as a complex subject. In part it connects with Duchamp's idea that an artist has only a few ideas and . . . he's probably right . . . one's range is limited by one's interests and imagination and by one's passion . . . but without regard for limitations of that kind, I like to repeat an image in another medium to observe the play between the two: the image and the medium."
In addition to that enjoyable interplay (which Johns admits that others might find boring and repetitious) he has always sought ideas that affect the viewer in more than one way. Irony is a particular weapon employed alongside a banal literalness. The viewer is unbalanced and doubtful about meanings in the work. Johns talks also about "the stress the image takes in different media" and suggests that it is possible to load the object with different meanings so that it works on several levels as the medium and context are changed.
One of his most familiar images is the Savarin coffee can with brush handles poking out. The Painted Bronze (Savarin) of 1960 was carefully made in plaster, cast in bronze, and painted: it is a replica of a coffee can used for brushes in Johns's studio and was produced in the same year as the Painted Bronze (ale cans). (The latter was made in response to an aside by Willem de Kooning concerning Johns's dealer, Leo Castelli: "Somebody told me that Bill de Kooning said that you could give that son-of-a-bitch two beer cans and he could sell them. I thought, what a wonderful idea for a sculpture.") Johns later told Michael Crichton: "Doing the ale cans made me see other things around me, so I did the Savarin Can. I think what interested me was the coffee can used to hold turpentine for the brushesthe idea of one thing mixed with another for a purpose." He made it painstakingly well, introducing illusionistic gestures, such as the silvered bronze rim of the tin, only to deny them with a thumbprint in the oil paint of the "can" itself, and offering us a studio still life and a representational sculpture. Johns returned to the Savarin motif in 1st Etchings (1967-68) and again in the prints and paintings entitled Decoy (Decoy and Decoy II, 1971 and 1972). He called it by name in the Savarin lithograph that was also the poster for his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1977. It appears in the Monotypes of 1978-79, in a lithograph of 1979-81, in the Monotypes of 1982, and in a recent painting, Untitled (1983).
If we were to pursue a few thoughts (by no means exhaustive) about the development of this motif during his career, we might begin to uncover Johns's process of thought.
In the Painted Bronze, are we to believe that the brushes have been or are about to be used again?i.e., are they active tools of the artist's imagination or, more darkly, are they embalmed, both impotent and dead? Does the title Painted Bronze increase our uncertainty about the object's status? It is no more than a description of the medium of the work, but it is the title of both this work and the ale cans that preceded it. Johns asks us to recognize the exactitude of the language through the (incomplete) information it conveys: these are indeed painted bronzes, but when calling the works by name rather than looking at them we need to know the brand name to tell them apart. Painted Bronze (Savarin) is not the same as Painted Bronze (ale cans) or (Ballantine).
In the Monotypes, does the motif become the artist's representation of himself, adopted almost as a self-portrait? Johns alludes specifically in this series to a self-portrait lithograph by Edvard Munch, and the Savarin can occupies the same position as the artist's face in the earlier work. Both Munch and Johns show the arm at the base; Munch draws a skeletal arm, Johns imprints his own arm and adds the initials EM.
Johns's ironic positioning of the image in the center foreground parallels the Munch and offers other, ambiguous readings. It is also as a representative of Johns that it appears as a monochrome image in his most recent work; there it takes its place in relation to other ideas. It comes to stand for Johns's public persona and, by implication, for the corpus of his work as he lays it out in these pieces. What began as a playful manipulation of a joke (the ale cans) has been transformed first into a critique of sculptural meaning and then, after a long gestation, into an important element of the artist's thought; at each stage its ambiguities have been compounded. Each time that Johns returns to it, he invests it with ideas specific to that period in his development: the "stress" that he talks about is as much here as in technical and formal preoccupations. On each occasion, too, the idea is modified by the beauty of the object.
While Johns has been accused of being a strict rationalist with a penchant for the nostalgic, I believe a clearer description of his work would be the one that T. S. Eliot applied to the wit of the seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell: "tough reasonableness beneath the lyric grace." Such wit is an alliance of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified); it has a toughness that might be mistaken by the tender-minded for cynicism.
When Leo Steinberg wrote his monograph on Johns in 1962, he generously offered grounds for criticizing it. Acknowledging that his book was subjective, that he had said nothing about the paintings as such or that he had reduced them inconclusively to ideas or concepts, he concluded, "He treats Jasper Johns in complete isolation, as if nobody else were painting at all!" All of the above is also true of this book, and it is extraordinary that, more than twenty years after Steinberg, the impulse is still to write about the work in isolation. The work appears to demand an exclusive attention and so is set apart from other works of a similar date. But if the works themselves are exclusive, their effects have been multifarious. It is commonplace now to regard Johns as having had enormous influence over the last thirty years, and it may be worth pausing to consider some of the consequences of this.
Johns's peers are those artists born in the 1920s and '30s who have also changed the history of American art: Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol. Collectively (except Kelly, who was heavily imbued with European experience), they were labeled "Pop artists," a term invented by critics to provide a useful catchall for superficially similar work in both the United States and England. Pop was a helpful invention, but its concentration on the nonart content of the works was detrimental to a real understanding of the motives of the artists. It may be easier to reconcile this view with the British artists, whose discussions included cultural historians, designers, and architects, but the Americans themselves seem isolated. It is true that they met and talked, but I suspect without the same proselytizing intentions.
Johns and his contemporaries were concerned with tackling the problems set out for them by the preceding generation, the Abstract Expressionists. Pollock had died in 1956, and we have only to recall that when Johns was looking for a gallery the following year he was anxious to find a neutral space, that is, one not infected by the second Abstract Expressionist generation. The weight of this generation would have fallen particularly heavily on the younger artists at a time when the Abstract Expressionists were being promoted extensively, at home and abroad, as the "true" American artists. Additionally, Abstract Expressionism had accrued a critical vocabulary and eminent apologists, such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, who regarded it as the true heir of modern art proper and the flagbearer for modernism. Abstract Expressionism and modernism became synonymous.
Johns's entry into this arena with his Flag and Target paintings signaled, for some, the end of the Abstract Expressionist stranglehold. He has put it another way. When talking to Peter Fuller in 1978, he denied that Abstract Expressionism had been looking tired and said: "Any ism will expire. By having an ism you are separating it from other things. Your attention has to deal with the entire field. Things displace one another in one's interest." The relative neutrality of the Flags and Targets, their acknowledgment of sources outside art was iconoclastic. They caused a rupture in critical thinking, and Greenberg even wrote: "Everything that used to serve representation and illusion is left to serve nothing but itself, that is abstraction; while everything that usually connotes the abstract or decorativeflatness, bare outlines, all over or symmetrical design is put to the service of representation."
What Johns and Rauschenberg had done was to make possible the use in art of materials and objects from outside the art worldsometimes from popular culture, sometimes from a general cultureand mediated them in such a way that art became implicit in them. They were not representing the world nor creating visual equivalents of their own emotions but rather offering a complex and messy restatement of particular aesthetic problems. They also acknowledged fully the psychological and rational processes that art could deal with alongside the emotional and the formal. This complexity was allied to images that, in Johns's case, triggered a specifically American response.
All the things that Johns made were objectsthey have the quality of a thing when you see them, not necessarily an art object but closer usually to something in the world around us and offering a robust answer to our questions about its nature. These things repose on the gallery wall with a substantial ability to transform the materials they are made from. This mute, real quality, so different from the objecthood sought by post-painterly abstractionists, was the generator for substantial areas of art that followed. What became known as the "art of the real," a title used in a Museum of Modern Art touring exhibition, took up the simply divided forms and the straightforward sculptural shapes that Johns and the others had produced.
Artists of an equivalent agesuch as Carl Andre (b. 1935) and Sol LeWitt (b. 1928)pursued another aspect, that of the conceptual propositions suggested by Johns's work. Their analyses produced simple, multipart works with a strongly serial or formal basis. These inventions relied heavily on the gallery space as the framing element of the work and often brought objects or elements previously disregardede.g., metal plates or fire bricksinto the art space, or used the wall of the gallery as the support for drawings of a highly organized formal structure. This segment of Johns's work has, arguably, been the most influential, and even so, it has taken several years to absorb its implications.
Johns's more recent work is regarded as outside the current "new painting" canon; yet the artists he has looked at recently are those that have been of interest to the "new" artists (George Baselitz, like Johns, has taken Munch's Between the Clock and the Bed as a subject for one of his own works), and his work contains as many references to psychological traumas as theirs. Moreover, it does so with a strong control of the means at its disposal, a reticence and an avoidance of bravura display for its own sake.
Johns recently bought from the Library of Congress a copy of a Walker Evans photograph showing a brick wall covered with posters of the Silas Green show from New Orleans, a Negro cabaret group that performed in the South during the 1930s. Johns has colored the print in faded reds and greens, the colors he recalls when he saw the posters as a child. He says that the dance troupe is the only exciting and glamorous thing that he remembers from his childhood.
Jasper Johns was born on May 15, 1930, in Augusta, Georgia, and his parents separated soon after he was born. John Cage gives this poignant and one worksI don't know what it's calledyou see something but do something else, but, in your head, what you're doing has a relationship to something you're seeing. It's not . . . you can say it's very important or it's not important at all. Often, it's not something you want to point toto say. You don't want to say I get here by examining that, by drawing conclusions from that, because then it suggests that you're making a picture of that, you can make a better picture of that, copying it a little more carefully or something. Still the mind often works that way using something and making something unlike it and occasionally one wants to say what one is doing. . . ."
"Q: You want to say, not see."
"Say. I don't, one does not want to be misleading, unless that's what one wants to do. . . . But one does not always want to be misleading and occasionally one wants to recognize that one is tied to certain procedures, certain ways of thinking, or not, forms of inspiration (that sounds too grand) but one often draws conclusions from one's experiences, and makes something. And I think that that kind of pointing in that way is simply an attempt to include thatjust to recognize it, really."
"Q: That pointing is something specific and cultural and it happens in the work for only a relatively short time."
"Well, if you did it all the time you would only be pointing backwards and you don't want to do that because really your work doesn't work, at its best, does not have a direction I don't think. It's just there."