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Lovable in Parts

Jasper Johns: Gray

an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, November 3, 2007–January 6, 2008, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 5–May 4, 2008.
Catalog of the exhibition by James Rondeau and Douglas Druick, with contributions by Mark Pascale,
Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 320 pp., $65.00


Born in the American South in 1930, Jasper Johns dazzled the New York art world with his first one-man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958. The paintings of targets, flags, maps, alphabets, and numbers he exhibited in the following decade helped to lead American art away from the then dominant New York School of Abstract Expressionism and to reintroduce representation into American art. By choosing to paint motifs that were instantly recognizable and already flat, Johns could dispense with illusion to focus the viewer’s attention instead on the picture’s texture, color, and brushwork. A superb craftsman, Johns skillfully applied encaustic (hot wax mixed with pigment) to canvas or newspaper to transform readymade images into achingly beautiful works of art in which each separate star, stripe, numeral, or letter is accorded equal importance in the aesthetic whole. Those who first saw the red, white, and blue flags, painted edge-to-edge on a canvas that was the same shape as an actual flag, had to ask themselves whether they were flags, or paintings of flags, or something between the two.

Johns also talked about art in different ways from the Abstract Expressionists. Barnett Newman once claimed that if “read…properly my work would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.” But in a sketchbook note from the early Sixties, Johns wrote, “Take an object, do something to it. Do something else to it.” At a time when the collectors John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Mark Rothko to paint monumental triptychs for their nondenominational chapel in Houston (1965–1966), Johns decided that “looking at a painting should not require a special kind of focus like going to church.”

Whereas Rothko’s floating expanses of dark color seemed to offer the possibility that art can provide transcendental spiritual experience, Johns’s work was down to earth. A flag or target by Johns is a real object occupying a real space, which the artist made by using certain procedures in a certain order. In his paintings you don’t find anything that Johns didn’t deliberately put into them—and that the viewer can’t see that he put into them. This is the moral center of his art. It doesn’t lie, it doesn’t deceive, and it doesn’t signify anything other than what the viewer can see in front of his eyes.

More than half a century has passed since Johns’s first flags and maps. They have been written about so often and seen in so many exhibitions, including an apotheosis of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1996, that you’d think there was nothing new to say about them. And yet a show about Johns’s use of gray that opened at the Metropolitan Museum in February focuses on an aspect of his work that has received little attention before: the large number of pictures in which he uses little or no color.

The show opens with a comparison between False Start and Jubilee, both paintings in oil on canvas from 1959. The first is a surprising picture to find in a show about Johns’s use of gray, since what we see is a red, yellow, and blue field of interlocking starburst patterns interspersed with slashes of orange, white, and gray. Its brushwork parodies the gestural expressiveness of Action Painting because paint is applied not in a frenzy of creative inspiration, but slowly and methodically. Johns then stencils the names of colors over the smears of paint—and nine times out of ten he gets them wrong so that the word RED appears over a yellow splodge, BLUE over orange, and RED over blue.

Jubilee is a near replica of False Start but slightly smaller and painted in tones of black, gray, and white. Look closely and you find traces of blue, red, and orange paint in the lower right, while buried in the center of the canvas you discover streaks of blue, red, and purple. The dark tones therefore have been used to cancel the bright colors out, as though the picture we see obscures a more colorful one underneath.

In False Start Johns used unmixed primary colors just as they come, straight out of the tube. The longer you look the odder it seems that the color names don’t match the colors over which they are stenciled. Is it possible that Johns got the names “wrong” because he couldn’t see the colors? Isn’t Jubilee—a black-and-white picture stenciled with the names of colors we can’t see—exactly what a colorblind person experiences when he looks at an abstract painting he has been told is full of color?

In a thoughtful essay in the exhibition catalog Douglas Druick raises the issue of whether Johns has difficulty distinguishing one color from another. Obviously this is a fundamental concern in an exhibition wholly given over to his use of gray since it would offer a simple explanation for the number of monochromatic flags, targets, maps, and numbers on view.1 But with Johns, these things are never—so to speak—either black or white. A lot of Johns’s paintings don’t have gray in them at all. As evidence of Johns as a skillful colorist you can point to any number of later paintings such as Usuyuki of 1979, in which he uses a subtle palette of flesh color and mauve with touches of ochre and light blue, while in recent years he’s used calypso colors of cockatoo green, red, and yellow in pictures painted on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. Still, since Druick raised the question, I wonder why no one associated with this ambitious show bothered to ask the artist himself what he sees when he looks at the world. All we can say for certain is that here, and in many other early paintings, Johns has painted as if he were colorblind or color-impaired.

Apart from this, the exhibition reminds us that monochromatic, achromatic, and gray paintings have been at the heart of Johns’s work since the first gray encaustics in 1956. Here is what he says about them:

I used gray encaustic to avoid the color situation. The encaustic paintings were done in gray because to me this suggested a kind of literal quality that was unmoved or unmovable by coloration and thus avoided all the emotional and dramatic quality of color. Black and white is very leading. It tells you what to say or do. The gray encaustic paintings seemed to me to allow the literal qualities of the painting to predominate over any of the others.

Johns’s explanation is perfectly straightforward. In the hands of any artist gray can suggest melancholy, loss, or indifference—or it may have no connotations at all. In a gallery devoted to his gray flags you see clearly how Johns takes a theme and then plays variations on it in oil, encaustic, collage, sculpt-metal, aluminum, watercolor, charcoal, and ink. As the medium and technique change in each work, so does the expressive tone. In an exquisitely refined early drawing in graphite of a flag (owned by the Museum of Modern Art), for example, the lack of color is simply a function of the medium. For all its sensuality, if there is any particular color symbolism in a massive painting in acrylic of 1959 in which two American flags are stacked one on top of the other, I couldn’t detect it.

But then we come to an exception. Most of Johns’s flags are horizontal in format, but in a collaged canvas of 1971 painted in dark gray encaustic, the flag hangs downward, as though displayed from a window or perhaps draped over a coffin. From close up, you see that the stripes are made from strips of torn fabric, like bandages. Here gray carries a connotation of mourning. The flag is still a flag, but by changing its orientation and by his choice of materials, color, and working method Johns turns the image into a symbol for a country mortally wounded by the ongoing war in Vietnam.

Interesting though all this is, it would hardly be worth doing a whole show about Johns’s work in gray if that’s all we learned from it. But by bringing together so many dark-toned works, this exhibition allows us to see something that I, for one, had not quite realized about Johns’s early paintings—that words like “melancholy” and “indifference” don’t begin to describe their utter emotional desolation. In them, he is capable of touching depths of feeling that you find in no other American artist with the exception of Jackson Pollock.

But he does it so quietly that you are hardly aware of what is happening. In Coat Hanger of 1959 Johns hangs an ordinary wire coat hanger from a canvas painted in mottled tones of dark gray. I had always seen the coat hanger as a banal motif taken from the real world, used like the flags and numbers to make us stop worrying about the subject and look at the painting as a painting. But seeing it in this show, it looks like a stark symbol of absence and loss—what’s left behind when the bags are packed or the lover has departed.

In the same gallery hangs Tennyson (1958), two vertical canvases bolted together from behind to form one monumentally scaled painting covered in dark gray encaustic. From a distance Tennyson could almost be mistaken for one of Ad Reinhardt’s all-black paintings. But the curator of the Met show, James Rondeau, convincingly argues that it is actually intended to be seen as an adult-sized, neatly made-up double bed, complete with a sheet or blanket (actually one canvas folded over another) and a place at the top for two pillows.

In his inspired discussion of the picture, Rondeau relates Tennyson to Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, a colorful combine (a three-dimensional assemblage combining sculpture, painting, and collage) made in 1955 in which the artist sloshed and dripped primary colors over a real sheet, pillow, and patterned bed cover. But whereas Rauschenberg’s turbulent sheets are alive with sex and violence, Johns’s bed is cold, untouched, a place not of love or hate but of sepulchre. As in Jubilee, we find traces of red, yellow, and blue at the bottom of the canvas, evidence of underpainting that in turn suggests feelings that have been damped down, denied, obliterated.

The picture’s title, stenciled in big letters across the bottom of the canvas as though on a tombstone, invokes the name of the author of “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” an elegiac poem about the poet’s love for his recently deceased friend Arthur Hallam. Tennyson doesn’t feel autobiographical, at least not in the same way Johns’s later work is, but it does reveal a lot about the artist’s state of mind when he painted it. As in nearby canvases incorporating a drawer that can’t be opened and a canvas turned face down, Tennyson shuts the world out. The painting speaks of loneliness and isolation so profound that even longing has no place in it.

  1. 1

    Johns himself said in 1977 that he is “not a very accomplished colorist” and connected this to his occasional incapacity to discriminate between colors.

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