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A Banner With a Strange Device

2.

Self-promotion is hardly supposed to be an artist’s business, but how else is one to live? The story has it that it was Rauschenberg who taught Johns how to survive as an artist, doing only just as much work as was necessary to stay alive. Rauschenberg was working as a window dresser, and he cut Johns in on his practice. They worked for Tiffany and Bonwit Teller. Gene Moore, who was in charge of the displays, says: “I’d tell them what I wanted, and they’d go off and make it. I never knew which one of them did what, they worked so closely together, even sharing the same joint pseudonym, Matson Jones…. They started using that name when they began to get recognition as artists—they didn’t want their commercial work confused with what they considered their real art.”10

One would like to know more about what their displays looked like, and the MOMA catalog of the current Jasper Johns exhibition obliges with two photographs of Bonwit Teller windows from 1956. In the first, we see Johns’s famous White Flag hung as a backdrop to two mannequins, in the second, a painting by Rauschenberg. At the front of each window is laid out a sort of elongated book, and with the aid of a magnifying glass one can just read the words: “Young classic clothes by (illegible); Painting by Jasper Johns, one of the young classic artists who (several words illegible) displays.” Something similar is written in Rauschenberg’s window.

Presumably these elongated books announcing the artists’ virtues were among the objects that Rauschenberg and Johns made in Johns’s loft. One imagines that they must have been tickled pink to be able to arrange such promotion for their work, until, as Gene Moore says, they began to realize there was an either/or, either decorative or serious. Then they took their decorative work underground, as it were, producing displays of a mushroom field, tilted paint cans appearing to pour paint on the floor, cave scenes, “recreations in dimension of eighteenth-century still lifes” and “Christmas…forest with trees.” Three years later, attacking Rauschenberg, Hilton Kramer said that he saw “no difference between his work and the decorative displays which often grace the windows of Bonwit Teller and Bloomingdale’s…. Fundamentally, he shares the window decorator’s aesthetic: to tickle the eye, to arrest attention for a momentary dazzle.”11 No doubt Kramer was disingenuous in choosing this comparison.

The photographs remind one in a forceful way how decorative these works were, even before they had been exhibited in any gallery and held up for serious consideration as works of art. Kramer used the term decorative in a derogatory way, but it does not have to be taken as an insult. An artist who fears to be thought decorative has only to remember that medieval manuscript illumination is unquestionably decoration and unquestionably art: the two terms may precisely coincide. But it is striking that these avant-garde paintings were absolutely acceptable as decoration well before their artistic status was discussed.

A similar case is recounted in Carter Ratcliff’s new (very handy and readable) book, The Fate of a Gesture, which deals with a tradition in American art descending from Jackson Pollock and defined by Ratcliff in a Roderick Hudsonish way as that of artists “driven by the unreasonable belief that to be American is to inherit the infinite.” We are told how, in 1950, just after some of Pollock’s drip paintings had been exhibited, Cecil Beaton was in town on assignment for Vogue. Beaton used Pollock’s paintings as backgrounds for a fashion shoot. He had immediately perceived them as decorative, albeit in a newsy, controversial way.12

The clever decorator is constantly on the lookout for new sources of decor. He will be delighted to exploit any artist who suits his purposes, and this puts the artist in a quandary. Constantly at pains to distinguish his work from “mere” decoration, he may feel that his integrity is under attack from those who would associate his art with merchandise. The surprising, not to say improbable, story that Jasper Johns, before the current major retrospective, found that a jigsaw puzzle had been made of his Flag without his authorization, and that he forced MOMA to destroy all copies of the puzzle, shows some insecurity on Johns’s part.13 Most people by now would assume that Flag would stand or fall on its own merits, and not be affected by being turned into a puzzle. Besides, as another artist in the same position pointed out to me, as long as the jigsaw is well-produced, what better way is there of inducing the public to look very carefully at the texture of a painting than to get them to align the jigsaw pieces?

Art has often shaded off into merchandise. An elegant example is given in the catalog of the current Ellsworth Kelly exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.14 The slightly older artist, struggling to make ends meet in the early 1950s, designed fabrics which drew directly on his own experiments in which he made a black and white drawing, cut it into pieces, and rearranged the fragments by chance. One could hardly say that the fabric designs (one of them made up into a dashing outfit by Pierre Balmain) cast doubt on the integrity of his art. But they definitely exploit it.

Perhaps the difficulty for Johns arises from the fact that, since his original works are based on puns, metaphors, and transformational tricks, there is a danger of interfering with their effectiveness by transforming them further. Johns is said not to have liked it when, on Flag Day in 1960, his dealer, Leo Castelli, presented President Kennedy with a bronze Flag. A friend told him not to worry, but to think of it as a pun on his work.

3.

It was typical of the artists of Johns’s circle in the Fifties that they took a kind of artistic procedure that was, on the face of it, somewhat unpromising, and turned it into something fresh. No doubt Rauschenberg would have replied to Kramer’s objection about the window-dressing that a work like Monogram (the one with the stuffed goat and the car tire)15 was indeed constructed like a window display, but why should it not be? Here are three other technical transformations with which Johns was associated early in his career.

Everyone has tried placing a coin under a piece of paper and rubbing it with a pencil. A casual schoolboy trick, it is also, carefully done, an extremely accurate way of recording the surface of a coin or medal, much better than most photographs. The technique became a fad earlier this cen-tury in England, as a way of recording medieval brass memorials in churches. One bought at the cobbler’s a stick of black cobbler’s wax, and at the stationer’s a roll of lining paper, and proceeded, by bicycle usually, to the churches where these brasses were to be found. This was an Educational Hobby and therefore a Good Thing, until it was discovered that the popular brasses were being damaged by all this attention. Then brass-rubbing was abolished by the Church, to be replaced with a pointless hobby of rubbing reproduction brasses.

Nothing could sound less promising for an American artist, but when Johns returned to New York after military service he fell in with the artist Sari Dienes, who went in for “urban frottage”—exactly the brass-rubbing technique but applied to surfaces normally held beneath consideration: “She went around making rubbings of the streets in the early hours of the morning with sheets of paper twelve feet or longer. They were rubbings of manhole covers and things like that.”16 Johns occasionally helped her. This interest in bestowing significance on banal urban surfaces crops up again in Johns, and “frottage” is a word that could be used to denote the process by which Skin was produced (Johns apparently smeared himself with grease, rolled over the paper, and then sprinkled it with charcoal dust, producing a sort of Turin shroud negative).

Then there was sculp-metal, a substance regularly advertised in Art News in the 1950s, not aimed at serious artists so much as at amateur modelers. It was and is one of a class of substances that was supposed to make things easy, to cut out the hard grind or the expense of having one’s work professionally cast. The ad read: “The new creative medium! sculp-metal. It models like clay—Hardens into metal! 1001 uses in Arts and Crafts. Send 10å¢ for handbook ‘working in sculp-metal.’ Sculp-metal is applied with palette knife or fingers. Pieces air harden; burnish to rich aluminum.” The photograph accompanying the ad showed a small metal bust of a child with a bowl cut.17

One can guess that most artists would not have been caught dead working in sculp-metal, and that was precisely the attraction for Johns. It was a medium devoid of respectable history, perfect for his banal, dadaist purpose, which was to make a sculpture out of a flashlight (he had some trouble in finding the banal, commonplace flashlight that he had in mind). Later he found he could paint in sculp-metal, and no doubt one reason for the attention that has been paid to Johns’s work is that he has alerted other artists to the possibilities of the medium.

The third act of technical rescue-work was carried out on encaustic as a medium. This is often passed over in accounts of Johns’s work, or referred to briefly as if we must all understand what is meant by encaustic. Johns is sometimes said to have revived a lost classical technique of painting in hot wax. But in his essay on Johns, Michael Crichton writes that Johns was a “provincial artist from South Carolina, working alone in New York City, following his inner impulses with the only tools he had—a ruthless logical sense, and a remarkable technical virtuosity.”18 This picture of the artist working quite alone, with a technical virtuosity that appears to have come out of thin air, since Johns at this stage “had seen very little art of any sort,” is a piece of mythmaking akin to Michelangelo’s suppression of his early apprenticeship; the detailed chronology provided by the MOMA catalog informs us that Johns had spent much of his time in the military organizing art exhibitions.

There is a story that, while working at the Marboro bookstore in New York, Johns came across a book about the encaustic method. This would most probably have been a work called Encaustic Materials and Methods by Frances Pratt and Becca Fizel (New York: Lear Publications, 1949). From this he would have learned that encaustic, a method in which pigment is mixed with beeswax, applied to the surface, and then burnt into it, was used in antiquity, and that it is the medium of the remarkable Fayyum portraits, made in Egypt between the first and fourth centuries AD. The technique was lost, but various attempts were made to recapture it, none of them resulting in anything of great value.

  1. 10

    MOMA catalog, p. 126.

  2. 11

    Hilton Kramer, “Month in Review,” in Arts Magazine, No. 33 (February 1959), cited by Jill Johnston in Jasper Johns: Privileged Information (Thames & Hudson, 1996), p. 144.

  3. 12

    Carter Ratcliff, The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996). See also Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture (Yale University Press, 1996), Chapter 2, which reproduces one of Beaton’s test shots.

  4. 13

    Jasper junks museum’s jigsaws,” New York Post, October 28, 1996.

  5. 14

    Diane Waldman, editor, Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective (Guggenheim Museum, 1996), p. 23.

  6. 15

    Monogram (1955-1959) is in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

  7. 16

    Johns, quoted on page 122 of the MOMA catalog, which shows one of Dienes’s works.

  8. 17

    See the essay by Fred Orton in Jasper Johns: The Sculptures, catalog of an exhibition at the Menil Collection, Houston, and Leeds City Art Gallery, 1996, pp. 16-19.

  9. 18

    See Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns (Abrams, 1977; revised 1994), p. 30.

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