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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.

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.

Pratt and Fizel give accounts of no fewer than seventeen contemporary artists working in encaustic, or what they call encaustic, but many of these are of the direst quality. One notes James Penney, instructor at the Munsen-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, New York, who produced “the charming and sensitive Head of Jimmy,” his son, “an excellent likeness…done from memory in less than two hours,” which looks like the kind of painting one sees hanging from park railings on a Sunday. One notes Professor Salvatore Lascari, who is “understandably enough…loath at this particular date to reveal his secret” but who claims to have cracked the mystery of encaustic wall-painting, a technique which Praxiteles is said to have brought to perfection.

Encaustic Materials and Methods reminds me of those books one comes across as a child in public libraries, full of enthusiastic recommendations for some improbably bright idea—I am thinking of a volume I once read avidly, called Hay-box Cookery, which assured readers that the modern housewife was busily lining tea-chests with hay to create an insulated space into which she could pop a bubbling casserole, which she would retrieve a dozen hours or so later, and it would be cooked to perfection! There were some serious artists who had experimented with encaustic—Karl Zerbe in Boston is cited, and Diego Rivera, and we are told that the Romanian Surrealist Victor Brauner experimented with beeswax when short of artists’ materials during the war—but for the most part one would say that the field was open. And that was what Johns seems to have needed.

Generally speaking, Johns was not the kind of artist who puts himself through an education by studying the works of others. He looked at the works of others in order to cross them off his list, to “fling Imitation overboard.” Told that his collages looked like those of Schwitters, he investigated the matter, found the remark just, and stopped working like that at once. Compare him, again, with Ellsworth Kelly. The Kelly catalog informs us about the pictures he knew from reproduction as a child, the volume called A Treasury of Art Masterpieces which the army published in 1944 and handed out to soldiers on request, the paintings he copied in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, when he was a student under the GI Bill, his studying under the aforementioned Karl Zerbe, his introduction to Max Beckmann, his going to Paris, his delight in the Romanesque, and on and on. It is not a privileged education, but it is a complex and wide-ranging encounter with every sort of art.

Compared with this, Roberta Bernstein’s researches in the Johns catalog come up with very little. The early Johns flunks art school twice. He may be interested in a few select geniuses—Leonardo, Cézanne, Picassobut then who isn’t? The story is told that on his first trip to Paris, Johns was concerned to see whether it was true, as he had heard, that Leonardo’s St. John was not a very good picture. So he went to the Louvre, examined the picture, decided it was, on the contrary, very good. And then he went back to his hotel. Looking at anything else, at that time, wasn’t on his agenda.

Johns shares Rauschenberg’s trick of talking about himself as if he were an idiot savant. Here he is again with Michael Crichton: “I wanted to show what had gone before in a picture, and what was done after. But if you put on a heavy brushstroke in paint, and then add another stroke, the second stroke smears the first, unless the paint is dry. And paint takes too long to dry. I didn’t know what to do. Then someone suggested wax.”19 Here is a man who has wanted since the age of five to be an artist, talking as if he only discovered in his mid-twenties that if you put wet paint on wet paint you tend to have problems. This seems a wildly improbable version of events.

Encaustic was a rare technique, but the 1949 handbook lists five suppliers of encaustic materials in New York, including one who offers “an especially designed lightweight hot palette with built-in heating element.” I suggest that Johns was drawn to the technique because (a) it was not oil paint, and was therefore without intimidating associations, and (b) he discovered it combined so well with newsprint, to produce a collage which looked unlike Schwitters and unlike his Cubist predecessors.

That it was not an easy technique to master is shown by the fate of Flag. When this painting was given to MOMA by Philip Johnson it was exhibited with the date 1954. A visitor to the museum wrote in to inquire how the painting could be dated 1954 when it clearly incorporates a Dondi cartoon strip from February 15, 1956. The museum asked Johns, who explained that Flag had essentially been finished in 1955, but that it had been damaged during a studio party, and mended later.20 In 1965, in an interview, Johns was asked about his first flag, whether it existed, and why it hadn’t been in any of the shows. He replied that it had been in a show the previous year at the Jewish Museum: “It’s a large painting; it belongs to Philip Johnson. It’s sort of in bad shape; it tends to fall to pieces.”21 In other words, it was a bit of a technical mess.

The story is regularly told that Flag was purchased by Johnson to be given later to the museum, because Alfred Barr was afraid the museum might be criticized for making an unpatriotic purchase. The question has recently been raised: Why should Barr have been criticized for buying Flag, when White Flag (which seems to pun on the idea of American surrender) had already been on display in Bonwit Teller without causing offense? After taking a close look at some of the newspaper texts embedded in the stripes, I have a theory about what might have happened.

In 1958, when Johns had his first show at Leo Castelli’s, Barr, to Castelli’s amazement, spent three hours at the show. According to Ratcliff’s account, he returned a few days later with Dorothy Miller, to discuss what MOMA might buy. Near the center of the lowest red stripe of Flag, there is part of an advertisement for vaginal deodorant, a photograph showing a Mrs. Nellie Bloom who “(Married—with) pe(ace) of m(ind).” Fred Orton found the rest of this advertisement, along with several other scraps that make up Flag, in the Daily News of February 15, 1956. Nellie Bloom had married with peace of mind which “only came…when she learned the importance of the proper method of douching with a fountain syringe, using an effective yet safe solution like ZONITE…an effective anticeptic-germicide that washes away germs and odor-causing waste and is harmless to tissues….”22 My guess is that Dorothy Miller saw some of this text (which has since fallen off or been obscured), and pointed out to the appalled Mr. Barr that here was a ticking bomb.

Barr was anticipating trouble anyway, because he was also thinking of purchasing Target with Plaster Casts, which includes a cast of a penis, painted green. (Leo Steinberg: “I did once ask why he had inserted these plaster casts, and his answer was, naturally, that some of the casts happened to be around in the studio.”23 Very funny, as if one might just happen to have taken a cast of a penis, without any idea what one was planning to do with it.) The first trouble Barr anticipated was from his acquisitions committee, and so he asked Johns if it would be all right to exhibit Target with Plaster Casts with its doors closed. Johns, who had practically never sold anything by then, replied admirably that it would be all right to close the compartments some of the time but not always. (See illustration on opposite page.) In the event, Barr made three purchases, but avoided both the green penis and the red vaginal deodorant. But Johnson was apparently persuaded against his will to buy Flag with a view to donating it to MOMA. Then he grew to like the painting more and more, which is why he wasn’t persuaded to hand it over until 1973.24

The fact that the early paintings are constructed out of texts receives surprisingly little attention in the Johns literature, but it seems to me an important fact about, for instance, Map (1962), which is a grey map of the United States, that on the border between Idaho and Wyoming, we find the following text:

Both kinds of orgy, the…reduced to the same principle…tension. One is likely to be successful, since it attacks the true root of the trouble, and if not accompanied by too-intense feelings of guilt and self-disgust will probably continue to function smoothly. The other kind, that of the rebels, may also, providing the equation of oppression with society is correct, be…altogether happy.25

What is this? Some kind of analysis of homosexual promiscuity, an analysis of this promiscuity as a form of political rebellion, placed on a grey map of the United States, at a position which might be considered perhaps most oppressive from a homosexual point of view? Why does the mind immediately react with caution against the idea that the text might provide a clue, or the clue, to the meaning of the painting? Does it seem banal to associate the oppressiveness of grey with the oppressiveness of the country? Or does it seem, rather, like a category mistake?

Johns said, in the interview with Walter Hopps quoted earlier, that generally with the collages, whatever printing showed had no significance for him. The interviewer expresses pleasure at the line of newspaper type on a target which clearly says: “A very far-sighted man.” Johns says, laughing: “I was not aware of that. That’s the first I heard of it.” One may easily believe that he had forgotten what is anyway not so striking a line, but I simply do not believe that the painter was unaware of the textual material he was using. It may well be, of course, that this material has become more interesting over the years, in the way that a piece of newspaper used to line a drawer acquires interest the longer it is left, but I cannot imagine that it was by accident that a recipe for applesauce found its way onto Flag, along with the reference to the new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Pipe Dream, to Radio Free Europe and the Voice of the People, “A Famous Hollywood Figure Tells You How To Reduce,” “Manuscripts Invited,” “Stock Prices Ebb as Market Idles,” and the numerous other fragments which build up a picture of life in the United States. It is a painting made out of newspaper, depicting the Stars and Stripes, which is the name of a newspaper. It is a pun, a depository of private jokes.

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.

4.

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.”

Letters

On Drawing: An Exchange January 9, 1997

  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).

  10. 10

    MOMA catalog, p. 126.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 13

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

  14. 14

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

  15. 15

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

  16. 16

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

  17. 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.

  18. 18

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

  19. 19

    Crichton, Jasper Johns, p. 30.

  20. 20

    See Joan Carpenter, “The Infra-Iconography of Jasper Johns,” Art Journal (Spring 1977).

  21. 21

    Interview by Walter Hopps, in Artforum, Volume 3, No. 6 (March 1965).

  22. 22

    Orton, Figuring Jasper Johns, p. 126.

  23. 23

    Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 35.

  24. 24

    Ratcliff, The Fate of a Gesture, p. 132.

  25. 25

    My transcription.

  26. 26

    Crichton, Jasper Johns, p. 29.

  27. 27

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

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