Jasper Johns: Work Since 1974 Pennsylvania, (October 23, 1988–January 8, 1989)
Jasper Johns: Work Since 1974
Foirades/Fizzles: Echo and Allusion in the Art of Jasper Johns University of California, Los Angeles, distributed by the University of Chicago Press
S.I. Newhouse shifted his left hand slightly, Larry Gagosian responded to the sign by making a small one of his own, and John Marion then announced another $250,000 advance in the bidding for Jasper Johns’s 1959 canvas called False Start. However, it was finally not a wave from the publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair but a nod that passed the call for a half million boost in the pace of business from prospective owner through his agent to auctioneer, and overdrew the bankbooks of the competition. It was wholly appropriate, at this level of high finance, that the chairman of Condé Nast should bend his head and the chairman of Sotheby’s bring the hammer down while onlookers applauded the price of victory; for when fashion and gossip possess a fortune, where better to make a $17 million show of it than in the rooms where the idols of the marketplace are invested with their divinity. A few days before, Jasper Johns’s White Flag had reached $7 million at Christie’s, and a simple drawing slipped away to St. Louis for $3.9 million.
For a successful artist such as Jasper Johns, the blank canvas has become a blank check. Marks, yen, dollars, francs, and pounds must dance in the same head which once held sugar plums, and, despite the most pure and otherworldly of intentions, all the painter’s gestures seem to end as bottom lines. Like any commercial firm, an artist is supposed to make money for his investors—for those who, early on, bet on him—and perhaps, as in this case, put down $3,175 for another potential icon of income to hang in their home. Of course, the artist is not paid so applaudable an amount, since he labors at the low end of the system (up to half of the swag will be swallowed by the agent); but if the artist has confidence and self-esteem; if he will cooperate with the publicists and be polite to his wealthy patrons; if he will shrewdly release his work to avoid a glut, and keep back the best of his efforts for himself; then he or his heirs, even after litigation, will do all right.
The divinities of the dollar have been growing more numerous and more holy by bids and bounds. Back in 1980, the Whitney Museum of American Art made off with Three Flags for a mere million, while the record price for the work of a living artist ($1.98m) was paid for De Kooning’s Two Women in 1984, an eminence which is now, and for the moment only, occupied by False Start. Jasper Johns will occasionally give a painting an aggressively neutral name (Untitled, for instance), but for the most part his labels tease; they make puns, crack jokes, are rich in sly personal references; and they must be worth a hundred thou all by themselves, now, since some are stenciled on the canvas. Of course, hoary old gods like Van Gogh have been bringing far grander sums…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.