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.
This period in Johns’s work culminates in Diver of 1962–1963, a picture that would find a place on any list of the masterpieces of American art (one can get a partial glimpse of it in black-and-white on the right-hand panel on the cover of this issue). Johns has revealed that the seven-foot-high drawing in charcoal, pastel, and watercolor was inspired by an account of the suicide of the American poet Hart Crane, who jumped from the deck of a freighter in the Caribbean in 1932. Alcoholic, depressive, and homosexual, Crane was the archetypical suffering artist.
Johns started by hinging two vertical canvases together to form a diptych. He then used a straight edge to draw the vertical column that runs from the top of the image down both sides of the join between the two canvases, ending in two sweeping upward curves at the bottom. Imprints of the artist’s bare feet facing upward appear at the top of the column, while two sets of palm prints appear elsewhere—one on either side of the column toward the center, the other at the bottom.
Johns has said that Diver shows “the idea of a swan dive,” a concept we might visualize as the blurred moment after the diver has launched himself into space from the diving board. The downward trajectory of his body is represented by the central column, but all that remains of the diver’s presence is the trace or memory of it left by the imprints of his hands and feet. The diver has already plunged straight down, legs together and arms extended straight over his head as indicated by the palm prints at the bottom.
What can be read as a second stage in the dive, the moments after the diver has entered the murky waters and pulled his arms backward in a breast stroke, is shown by the two upward curves at the bottom of the drawing, and the palm prints in the middle of the gray field. Those upward curves end in arrow-like points, turning them into an anchor that draws the body of the elusive diver to the bottom of the sea. The handprints and footprints impressed into the black charcoal resonate with echoes of the Crucifixion and the Turin Shroud. But because they belong to the artist, Johns could have found no more intimate way in which to identify his body with the poet’s. The long strokes of dark gray charcoal represent both turbulent waters and inexpressible grief.
When Johns paints a flag, a map, or a number, we viewers never have to ask what we are looking at. Invariably he shows these motifs on their own, never in combination with others, so that a map doesn’t appear in the same picture with a flag or a number. An exhibition last year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, “Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955–1965,” looked at a group of paintings in which the artist explores ideas he doesn’t treat in his pictures of flags, maps, and numbers. Though I didn’t see the show, I learned a lot from the catalog essay in which the curator Jeffrey Weiss argues that between 1955 and 1965 Johns obsessively returned to four different motifs—the target, the “device” (a wooden slat used to scrape paint), the stenciled naming of colors, and the trace or imprint of the body. Weiss shows how Johns used each of these motifs (either alone or in combination with the others) to create works of art that, before they are anything else, are about how they were made.
Weiss sees the picture plane as a field on which Johns performs a series of quasi-mechanical operations (rotation, stenciling, and imprinting) on the paint surface. The artist disguises none of these procedures or the order in which he performs them, so that when we look at the pictures in which they appear we have to use our brain as well as our eyes to understand what we are looking at by reconstructing step by step the artist’s creative process. According to Weiss:
The ambition of Johns’ work is one not of merely exposing process but of being plainly self-describing …. The work insists that any further claims for meaning must respect its physical and material dimensions…, which are the only things about it that can be quantified or fully known…. Johns has nothing to say about the inner life of his work, although he freely acknowledges or accepts suspicions of such a thing by his observers.
Weiss rightly points out that Johns has “nothing to say” about the inner life of the work—he leaves that to the viewer. And, as we’ve seen, one of the things that is so poignant about Johns’s work is that in it he has consistently tried to tell us who he is—or rather what it feels like to be under his skin. Target with Plaster Casts of 1955, for example, combines two of Weiss’s motifs, the target and the body imprint. Above the impersonal target Johns lines up three-dimensional plaster casts of parts of a man’s body—a foot, face, hand, nipple, ear, genitals, heel—each displayed in a separate lidded compartment that can be opened or closed at will.2
In looking at any work by Johns it is sometimes useful to think in terms of the human body, with the head at the top of the canvas and torso below. Here the target would stand in for the body, the compartments for the mind. The former, though lifeless, is whole, complete, and, as with the flags, almost indistinguishable from a real target. But a plaster cast is like a trace or memory of something that is absent. The isolation of each body fragment is an unforgettable way of visualizing what happens when we compartmentalize different aspects of other people in our minds. The man is apprehended as elusive and fragmentary because Johns does not or cannot connect the different sensory and sexual organs that would make him whole. What feels so melancholy about the work is its matter-of-fact sense of helplessness: this is just the way things are.
Target with Plaster Casts obliquely alludes to Johns’s deepest and most protected feelings, a sense that people are real and lovable only in parts.3 More than thirty years later, when his subject matter had become openly autobiographical, he based a series of pictures on a twelve-year-old schizophrenic’s drawing of her mother, who died when the child was two.4 The original drawings, which Johns saw reproduced in an essay by psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, place the mother’s eyes and breasts in each of the four corners of the blank page with the mouth and nose in the center. Bettelheim explains that when sucking at the breast, the infant apprehends the mother not as a whole person but as two breasts and two eyes split off from the rest of the body. For the child who develops normally, these body parts will coalesce into a real person whom it will identify as “mother.” For the disturbed child—the one from whom the mother is taken away before this stage in its development is complete—that never happens. When we ask ourselves why Johns became fascinated by this drawing, it is relevant to know that his own mother sent him to live with his paternal grandfather—in effect abandoning him—when he was two years old.
Tennyson, Target with Plaster Casts, Disappearance, Device: in all these early paintings absence is a consistent theme. Striking too is how closed off they are, how they frustrate any attempt to interpret them. Then in 1961–1962 Johns showed a series of gray paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery in which the emotional tone subtly shifts. In No, Liar, In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara, and Good Time Charley, previously suppressed emotions are now released in a frenzy of furious brushwork. As Rondeau writes, the “blank neutrality and self-reflexivity of earlier gray works [are] replaced by heated, accusatory, and outwardly directed speech related to personal betrayal.”
Their titles alone invite us to interpret these pictures with respect to Johns’s relationship with Rauschenberg, if only to help to explain their baffling iconography. But within the trajectory we have been following in this show what is much more important is that they feel alive. However bitter, Johns’s pictures now have a voice. Over time that voice becomes louder and clearer until by the 1970s the artist is openly making reference to intimate details of his private life in pictures like The Dutch Wives and Tantric Detail, which allude respectively to masturbation and sexual intercourse.
By the time of Racing Thoughts of 1984, the reticence of the early work is long gone. To oversimplify its complex iconography, the picture is again divided vertically, turning it into another diptych, and reiterating the theme of splitting or division (between body and mind, sight and thought, the real and the imaginary) that runs consistently through Johns’s work. In the background on the left side we see the hatching motif Johns frequently used in the 1970s, on the right a wall in one of his houses. On both sides he paints a trompe-l’oeil still-life including (among other things) a photo of his dealer Leo Castelli, a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, a Danger sign with a skull and crossbones, and a framed print by Barnett Newman. At the bottom of the picture an illusionistically painted running tap implies an unseen bathtub, which in turn suggests that the artist is lying in his bath looking at and thinking about the things on the wall in front of him. All are real to him, but some are remembered, others actually “there.” Each of the separate elements in the still life on the wall has a personal meaning for him.
One detail is particularly significant. The white vase on the wicker hamper at the lower right is one of those visual jokes that for Johns demonstrates the unreliability both of the mind and of the eye in determining reality. For when our eyes focus not on the body of the vase but on its outline, the silhouetted portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip become visible. For Johns, daydreaming in his bath, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t illusion replicates the way we see and think, for a thought or an image can be held in the mind’s eye only for an instant before disappearing, and what is not there—the portraits—is as real as what is—the vase. And Johns himself is both there and not there, for although we can’t see him, it is his consciousness that holds together the images we see.
At the end of this show, I had trouble connecting the mellow, meditative artist who painted Racing Thoughts with the ice-cold depressive who made Tennyson. But then “to connect” is precisely what so many of his works tell us that Johns has spent his life trying and failing to do. In a series begun in 1997 he hangs a flexible cord loosely from two fixed points, to make what is called in engineering a “catenary curve,” used in the design of suspension bridges. For Johns the curve becomes a symbol for connecting things that life and time have separated. Though some are abstract, in others the imagery refers to memories of his childhood, natural phenomena, and works of art.
There has always been a literary dimension to Johns’s work. In the first forty years of his career you find pictures inspired by the poems of Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Samuel Beckett. In these latest works, I am reminded of a different literary form, the memoir. Though there may be no direct connection between them, the Catenary paintings remind me of Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, and Truman Capote, all of whom have drawn on memories of their childhoods in the Deep South. The overall tone of gray is still there in these latest paintings, but the gray is softer, subtler—the gray of reverie, not loss.
April 3, 2008
Johns himself said in 1977 that he is “not a very accomplished colorist” and connected this to his occasional incapacity to discriminate between colors. ↩
Of the nine compartments the second is empty and the last contains the cast of a bone from an animal. ↩
“My experience of life is that it’s very fragmented. I would like my work to… [indicate] those differences.” Quoted by Richard Shiff in Jasper Johns: Gray, p. 124. ↩
“Untitled” from 1991 is from the series shown when “Jasper Johns: Gray” was at the Art Institute of Chicago, but is not exhibited at the Metropolitan. It is reproduced as plate 125 in the catalog. ↩