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A Banner With a Strange Device

Just as the Target with Four Faces has a newspaper horoscope and an article on astrology, because one of Johns’s early patrons was an astrologer, according to Jean Carpenter. And it features a laundry ticket, with soap and bleach checked, and a label with the address and telephone number of the Hotel Bilbao in Tétouan (identical with the eight labels that appear in a Rauschenberg collage of 1952) and a photograph of Billy Graham, along with want ads and stock and commodity prices.

Generally speaking, it appears that when using newsprint for his collages Johns favored amusing details from everyday life, rather than the main political or news headlines. The joke was to construct the sublime Flag out of the unsublime quotidian incident. Flag is not unpatriotic, it simply aestheticizes the whole panoply of patriotism. It is not a gesture of protest—very far from it. It is a gesture of profound amusement.


The biggest conceptions, thought Roderick Hudson, would bring forth the biggest performances—it was enough to pitch in and not be afraid. And there is something of this spirit in Jasper Johns when he describes the key moment in his early career: “Before, whenever anybody asked me what I did, I said I was going to become an artist. Finally I decided that I could be going to become an artist forever, all my life. I decided to stop becoming and to be an artist.” 26 Rather like a Roman emperor waking up one day and deciding that from this day forth he would be a god. As if the decision would guarantee the outcome.

But how does one become an artist these days? How is that elevation achieved? Robert Hughes has argued, on more than one occasion, that the prerequisites have not changed: one must learn “drawing from the live model and the natural motif” since “virtually all artists who created and extended the modernist enterprise between 1890 and 1950, Beckmann no less than Picasso, Miró and de Kooning as well as Degas or Matisse, were formed by the atelier system and could no more have done without the particular skills it inculcated than an aircraft can fly without an airstrip.” 27 The modern artist must, as it were, first serve his time as a pre-modern artist. “The philosophical beauty of Mondrian’s squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees.”

As an example of the kind of artistic development envisaged by Hughes, one could hardly do better than Ellsworth Kelly. Not only does the artist, as already noted, begin with an extensive study of the Old Masters, he also draws conventional cityscape as in View of Roxbury (1948) and still life as in Sneaker (1949). The story of his transition to abstraction is told: how, while working away in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, he suddenly began to find the window frames themselves more interesting than the paintings between them. So he started drawing windows, and then moved on to the awnings in the Avenue Matignon—in a witty geometrical abstraction which seems at the same time realist in spirit.

Kelly never entirely abandoned figurative drawing. Throughout his career he has executed the most elegant studies of plant forms, as if he has never wanted to kiss goodbye to that gift he started out with. But still, what we are being chiefly asked to consider at the Guggenheim is what is on the ramp, the monochrome geometric panels. It stretches credulity to say that the only way these could have been arrived at was through contemplation of organic form, that the only training that could have come up with these results was the type offered by the Museum of Fine Arts course in Boston. Suppose a mendacious curator were to lead us up the Guggenheim ramp, talking about Kelly’s education, and saying how he had learned everything he knew in, for instance, an architect’s office—would we immediately guess that we were being misled?

In the broadest, most romantic sense, anything we undergo in life can serve us in our art. In a slightly narrower sense, the study of any art form might serve the artist in another medium: a painter might study harmony and somehow profit from the time spent. But if we are talking in the strict sense of the skills learned in the atelier—whether the grinding and mixing of colors, or the drawing from life, the preparation of a panel, or the mastery of perspective—these things were taught and learned as they were needed. To say that such skills are needed even if they are later to be jettisoned is to smuggle an unexamined argument into the case. It would be hard to explain to a Renaissance artist why Mondrian had to study an apple tree in order to paint a grid.

In the case of Johns, we have an ambitious young artist whose background has somehow given him an allergy to education. He is anxious, insulted, quick to take offense. He is not the idiot savant he would have us believe, but he is not to be overpromoted either as a systematic thinker. Kirk Varnedoe, who elsewhere seems keen not to exaggerate Johns’s philosophical content, over-eggs the pudding by at least a dozen eggs in the following single sentence:

The displacement of Sartre’s Existentialism by Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, the challenges of Continental gestalt psychology to Anglo-Saxon empiricism, the weakening of behaviorist thought in the face of new ideas of language as paradigmatic for understanding cognition and culture—all these intellectual phenomena of the late 1950s provide a surrounding backdrop for Johns’s particular pressure on the intersections between seeing and knowing as a central matter of his art, and for the broadly attentive public reception of his self-conscious interplay of the retinal and the mental.

Our view of what happened in Johns’s early art is hampered by the fact that at the time he made his famous decision that he had now become an artist, he destroyed all the early work he possessed or could lay his hands on. What little survived that holocaust shows us that it did not differ so radically from what came after it. There is for instance a drawing from the Rauschenberg collection that shows Johns’s early affinity for the use of graphite—in this case on paper that seems to have been treated with motor oil.

Once he had become an artist, Johns painted the flags and targets and alphabets that established his early fame. And once he had done these, and looked at them, and seen that they were good—that the conception had brought forth the performance—then Johns made the unusual decision that he needed to be a draftsman, because now he had something to draw. The arrangement of the MOMA show emphasizes this reversal of the Hughesian paradigm. The paintings come first, the drawings later. The bronzes of the ale cans and the paintbrushes in the Savarin tin come first (and it is typical of Johns that he should delight in using not plain bronze but painted bronze), afterward the various graphic works recapping those themes.

All the drawings on display, even those entitled studies, have a very finished quality. If they were by Michelangelo one would call them presentation drawings (which is what quite a few of them seem to be—things to give friends). There are no sketches, and nothing on display—even the intriguing marginalia about the life cycle of the cicada—looks remotely tentative. Indeed, nothing could be less tentative than the wire coat hanger on which such attention has been bestowed. (See illustration on opposite page.)

When Johns began to make lithographs, he was working for the first time in a classic medium, unmodified, rather than one which he had adapted and made unique for his purposes. Perhaps this just shows growing confidence. But it is also worth recalling that this medium, at the time, was another wide-open field. For some reason American artists in those days tended to frown on lithography. Tatyana Grossman, the founder of Universal Limited Art Editions, had to build up her practice from scratch by touting for trade among the artists she admired. It is wonderful to think of her dropping off the very heavy lithographic stones at Johns’s loft (Rauschenberg and a vagrant had to be co-opted to carry them in) on the off-chance that he might be interested. On the first block, Johns summoned the energy and interest to draw a zero. Then he began to elaborate, and some of his later prints use as many as nineteen blocks; and one of his later screen prints uses as many as forty-one screens. The graphic work, for all its high quality, does not for the most part add to the number of original compositions; instead it provides a meditation on what the artist has already achieved. It is as if, at the most elevated level, the artist were doing his own merchandising.

It seems to have been sometime around the late Sixties that John discovered the potential for drawing on a certain kind of opaque plastic sheet. Presumably the charm of the material derives from the way one can form puddles on its surface, alongside the dramatic sharp lines that it also seems to favor. The earliest of these ink-on-plastic studies is the Scott Fagan Record of 1969. The last are the tracings from Cézanne’s Nudes in a Landscape (the version of the large bathers in the Barnes Collection); in these, Johns has decided that the ambiguous figure leaning against a tree on the right-hand side of the composition is a man, and he has awarded him a prominent erection. This comes as a comic, cheerful surprise at the end of the show.

The late tracings have not been universally admired. Reading some adverse remarks about them, I suddenly heard again in my head the voice of some teacher from years ago saying “and no tracing-paper allowed!” It’s that same old trick again of taking some despised or unpromising form or material, and doing a job on it. If the labels had not clearly said “Tracing after Cézanne,” but had said “study after,” the disapproval might have been less. But Johns has always been dissatisfied by his own ability to draw, which is why he made it his practice to paint first, draw later. If this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, Johns is only acting true to form. And after all, drawing has never been compulsory for genius. Caravaggio didn’t draw. Velázquez didn’t draw. El Greco left approximately one drawing. And if it seemed a good idea to Jasper Johns to take a piece of his favorite plastic and make a series of tracings of a reproduction of a favorite Cézanne, and if the voice of the critic sounded in his ear saying “You can’t do that!” it was correct for the artist to reply, as he must always reply: “Oh can’t Ithen? Just watch me.”


On Drawing: An Exchange January 9, 1997

  1. 26

    Crichton, Jasper Johns, p. 29.

  2. 27

    Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists (Penguin, 1992), p. 11.

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