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 and 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


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,…

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