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A Banner With a Strange Device

Jasper Johns: A Retrospective 1996-January 21, 1997.

exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York October 20,. Catalog of the exhibition, by Kirk Varnedoe, with an essay by Roberta Bernstein
Museum of Modern Art/Abrams, 408 pp., $32.50 (paper)

…He declared that he was above all an advocate for American art. He didn’t see why we shouldn’t produce the greatest works in the world. We were the biggest people, and we ought to have the biggest conceptions. The biggest conceptions of course would bring forth in time the biggest performances. We had to be true to ourselves, to pitch in and not be afraid, to fling Imitation overboard and fix our eyes upon our National Individuality. ‘I declare,’ he cried, ‘there’s a career for a man, and I have twenty minds to embrace it on the spot—to be the typical, original, national American artist! It’s inspiring!”’

—Roderick Hudson in Roderick Hudson

1.

They did not all live in vain, those American sculptors of a century ago. They did not all fall off the cliffs on the path to Interlaken, like Roderick Hudson (or die like Longfellow’s inexplicable banner-bearing youth). They survived Europe and they survived those Alps and they came triumphantly back. Masters of skills acquired in Paris and Rome, they returned to a country which looked to them to provide—what they were only too eager to supply—public expressions of spiritual values, the spiritual values of the state. Roderick, Henry James tells us, nearly swamped the gondola with the violence of his response when he perceived “that the only thing worth living for was to make a colossal bronze and set it aloft in the light of a public square.” His historical contemporaries felt much the same.

Their successes, it has been noted, were fewer on the private side.1 They could not insinuate too much of their marmoreal idealism into people’s actual homes. They were public artists, which was just as well when there were so many public commissions, so many squares to be filled, so many federal buildings to be adorned, so many dead heroes queuing up for commemoration. They needed all the moral ear-nestness they could lay their hands on, for such earnestness, we are told, was considered “the very foundation of artistic conscience.”2 “I mean to do the Morning,” says Roderick; “I mean to do the Night! I mean to do the Ocean and the Mountains; the Moon and the West Wind. I mean to make a magnificent statue of America!”

Magnificence of a kind they certainly achieved. Augustus Saint-Gaudens thought that the preparations for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 constituted the greatest gathering of artists since the Italian Renaissance.3 One may smile at the idea, but those fountains and “lagoons” do indeed look thrilling in the old photographs, and they resemble the great triumphs and ceremonial entrances of the Renaissance in this respect—that these festive assemblages of statues were not made to last. They were fashioned from “staff material,” a mixture of plaster and straw or hemp fiber. Such a medium would never survive a northern winter.

Saint-Gaudens survived, through his bronzes, but how many people would have set much store by his work around 1960, the year in which Robert Lowell wrote his poem “For the Union Dead”? The great point of the poem is that Saint-Gaudens’s monument on Boston Common to Colonel Shaw and his Negro infantry “sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat.”4 Like those “stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier” which “grow slimmer and younger each year” (that is, which are being eroded), the monument to Shaw belongs to a different era, a state with different spiritual values. It is being undermined, literally, by car-park excavations. It is “propped by a plank splint” and it shakes. Any moment now, it seems, it could go the same way as the old South Boston Aquarium.

Lowell bestowed a significance upon Saint-Gaudens’s work, just as Saint-Gaudens had been called upon to bestow a significance upon Colonel Shaw and his Negro infantry. Bestowing a significance was something Lowell was good at, which is why his admirers, on our first trips to Boston, like to pay our respects to 91 Revere Street and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial—watching out, on the way, for those “giant finned cars [nosing] forward like fish” and that “savage servility [sliding] by on grease.”

I am not confident that I shall succeed in bestowing a lasting significance upon another of those sculptors of the Jamesian era, Alexander Doyle (1857-1922). His story, as told by the Dictionary of American Biography, begins so promisingly, and lets us down with such a bump. His parents were so adventurous as to take him to Italy at age twelve, to study painting, music, and sculpture. He studied in Carrara, Rome, and Florence. He returned to America ready and fit to begin, and, according to his obituary in the Muncie Star, “at thirty-three he had done more public monuments than any other sculptor, and was producer of more than a fifth of those standing in the country.” He was, in other words, the antitype of Roderick Hudson, “state committees rightly having confidence in his ability to complete his contracts.” Yet he too came a cropper, and in a way that James might have appreciated. On the death of his father, Alexander Doyle inherited a limestone quarry in Bedford, Indiana, and he devoted the rest of his working life to its management.

As if life as a successful artist were no more than life in the chrysalis! Or as if filial piety had been lurking in abeyance, waiting to assassinate the talent. Or as if, perhaps, the son had attained a cool and admirable self-knowledge: he knew he had never really been much of an artist, but he had to wait until his father’s death before coming out as a businessman.

Some time in the early Forties,5 another father was walking with another son through Madison Square, Savannah, when they stopped at one of Alexander Doyle’s statues, a monument to Sergeant William Jasper, and the father told the son that the two of them were named for this man. The father was William Jasper Johns—by most accounts not a very satisfactory parent, who would not really have known his son particularly well, since they had hardly lived together. The son, Jasper Johns, would have read the inscription on the plinth, and learned that Sergeant William Jasper “though mortally wounded rescued the colors of his regiment in the assault on the British lines about this city, October 9th 1779” and that “a century has not dimmed the glory of the Irish American soldier whose last tribute to civil liberty was his noble life.”

Whether the knowledge that one’s parent was named for a hero would make a child alter his view of the man, whether he would suddenly see some latent heroism in him, is hard to tell. Certainly the day lodged in the boy’s mind, and left him with an association of his father with the American flag. We know this because Johns came up with it, in a moment of exasperation with an obstinate interviewer (he has faced many such interviewers over the years, sometimes playing them along, often fighting off their interpretations and displaying great ingenuity in the art of saying nothing). Here is the exchange as it fell out.

Paul Taylor: It has been said that the American flag in your paintings is a stand-in for yourself.

Johns: Hm?

PT: People have said that the flag, in your early paintings, represents you. Is that true? Is that how you used the flag?

JJ: I haven’t said that. Is that what you’re saying?

PT: No, but it has been said about you.

JJ: Well, a lot of things have been said about me.

PT: Nevertheless, I wonder if you think it’s true.

JJ: Do we have to go through this about everything that’s been said? Do you think something’s true just because it’s been said?

PT: No, but I would wonder whether this thing is true even if it had never been said.

JJ: That the flag is a stand-in for me?

PT: Yes.

JJ: Where?

PT: In your paintings.

JJ: In my paintings? I don’t believe so. The only thing I can think is that in Savannah, Georgia, in a park, there is a statue of Sergeant William Jasper. Once I was walking through this park with my father, and he said we were named for him. Whether that is in fact true or not, I don’t know. Sergeant Jasper lost his life raising the American flag over a fort. But according to this story, the flag could just as well be a stand-in for my father as for me.6

Savannah’s Madison Square has been tidied up since the Forties, and additional bronze plaques expand upon this passage of history. We learn, for instance, that the flag which Sergeant Jasper rescued was not the American flag (as Johns thought) but the colors of the second regiment of the South Carolina Continentals. Fred Orton, who, in Figuring Jasper Johns, goes into much detail about both it and the Stars and Stripes, quotes a description: “This flag so gallantly reinstated had been designed by Colonel Moultrie, and consisted of a blue field with white crescent on which was emblazoned the word LIBERTY.”7

One wonders whether, as father and son looked up at the monument to Sergeant Jasper, they had any sense that what they were looking at counted as a work of art, that it was an example of sculpture. We are told that, in the nineteenth century, only the American sculptors called what they did sculpture; to the general public these creations were known as statues.8 That they are objects of a certain popular reverence is clear: as I stood for a while in Madison Square, many people took photographs or shot video footage of Doyle’s bronze, presumably as an example of a historic monument. They were on their way to or from the house in the neighboring Monterey Square where, as told in the novel-of-fact (and hokum) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Jim Williams shot his boyfriend dead. And this house has another attraction: suitably transformed in the film Glory, it stood in as the Boston residence of Colonel Robert Shaw.9

So: Savannah stands in for Boston; the Stars and Stripes stands in for Colonel Moultrie’s flag; and the flag itself, or Flag, stands in, perhaps, for Johns’s father. That’s enough “standing in” for the moment. Enough coincidence. As I left Madison Square I noticed a small exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg’s “photems.” In the gallery, a video was playing. Rauschenberg was recalling that, as a young man in the navy, he had been doing a painting for which he needed the color red. So he had used his own blood.

As he told the story, very simply and slowly, a smile of wonderment came over his face. It was as if he was implying that, in his navy days, he was such a greenhorn he didn’t know that red paint existed. Or that blood would hardly serve his purpose, once it had dried. I got a powerful sense of Rauschenberg as a plausible rogue, a mythmaker, and thought what fun he must have been as a companion in the Fifties, when he and Johns set out to amaze the world, when they embarked upon their course of self-promotion.

  1. 1

    See Daniel Robbins, “Statues to Sculpture: From the Nineties to the Thirties,” in 200 Years of American Sculpture (Godine/Whitney Museum, 1976), pp. 113-114.

  2. 2

    Robbins, “Statues to Sculpture,” p. 115, quoting Adeline Adams, The Spirit of American Sculpture (Gilliss, 1923).

  3. 3

    Wayne Craven, “Images of a Nation in Wood, Marble and Bronze,” in 200 Years of American Sculpture, p. 55. The two essays cited in the catalog are accompanied by several photographs of the Chicago exposition and other fairs and triumphal arches since dismantled.

  4. 4

    Robert Lowell, For the Union Dead (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964).

  5. 5

    Between 1942 and 1944, according to a note in the MOMA catalog.

  6. 6

    Paul Taylor, “Jasper Johns,” in Interview (July 1990), reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, edited by Kirk Varnedoe and compiled by Christel Hollevoet (Museum of Modern Art/Abrams, 1996).

  7. 7

    Fred Orton, Figuring Jasper Johns (Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 107.

  8. 8

    Robbins, “Statues to Sculpture,” p. 113.

  9. 9

    John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Random House, 1994).

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