A good mythology needs a Genesis story. For Jasper Johns, the dawn of creation came in the late fall of 1954, and was instigated not by divine revelation but something close to it: a vision in a dream. A year out of the army, asleep in a loft in lower Manhattan, Johns closed his eyes and saw the Stars and Stripes in the dark, not fluttering, not flying over a battlefield, but on an easel—and he was there, too, painting it. It’s hard enough to remember a dream the next morning, let alone decades on, and Johns recounted his vision of himself painting a flag with slight variations in the decades that followed: he may or may not have told Robert Rauschenberg about it over breakfast. But the next day he was at work, and by the spring of 1955, he had completed the painting he had seen in his vision.
Flag now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, and it is painting no. 5 in the enormous new catalogue raisonné of Jasper Johns, a five-volume monument to the most inscrutable figure in modern American art. The painting is five feet wide and three-and-a-half feet tall. A canvas of that size would have been too expensive for the young artist, so he took a bedsheet and stretched it across three wooden supports, one for the spangled canton, two for the stripes. He then applied layer after layer of enamel paint, but it took forever to dry, so he picked up a package of beeswax at a store around the corner from his Financial District loft. Melting the wax on his hot plate, stirring in oil paint and varnish, he produced a fast-drying encaustic that would yield a textured surface and would embalm collaged clippings from The New York Times and New York Daily News, a rag found on the street, and even a certificate of American citizenship. The stars, their points somewhat raggedy, cohered through the collaging of wax-dipped fragments, white or blue, along carefully penciled outlines.
Johns would go on to paint or draw more than three dozen flags. White Flag, painted in the summer of 1955 and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is larger, ten feet by six and a half, and the flag pattern remains perceptible beneath its whited-out surface thanks to the collaged papers and a subtle use of charcoal. Gray Flag, from 1957, is even closer to a monochrome. There were double flags and triple flags, flags with forty-eight stars and flags with fifty, flags made from encaustic and oil paint and pastel and in one case Sculp-Metal, a medium for hobbyists that, as the ads went, “models like clay—hardens into metal!” One flag, drawn in ashy graphite, has sixty-four stars: an error Johns didn’t catch until he’d finished the drawing, and decided not to correct.
The painted flags are all accounted for in the Johns catalogue raisonné, which comprises three volumes of documentation of his paintings and sculptures; a one-volume bibliography; and a monograph by the art historian Roberta Bernstein, also available as a single book under the title Jasper Johns: Redo an Eye. (Johns’s complex, often extraordinary prints are omitted; a catalogue raisonné of those was published in 1994, and a new one of Johns’s monotypes was published last year. A multi-volume catalogue raisonné of his drawings is in the works.) Six of the flags were also on view this fall at the Royal Academy in London, where Bernstein and the curator Edith Devaney organized “Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth,’” a stately recapitulation of sixty years of Johns’s sphinxlike signs and symbols. One of the flag paintings on view, a fifty-starred beauty from 1967, belongs to Eli and Edythe Broad; the show is now on view, in an expanded form, at their private museum in Los Angeles. An even more substantial showcase is in the works: the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present an unprecedented two-part retrospective of Johns’s entire career in 2020.
I saw “Something Resembling Truth” in London this past October, and, especially abroad, the flags were hard to take. Johns’s ambivalent American paintings, equipoised between image and object, invention and preexistence, have long confounded art historians and critics—unsure of whether they stand for the United States and what sort of political orientation Johns imagined for them. (Only once, for a 1969 poster for the Moratorium Committee to End the War in Vietnam, did Johns produce a flag with a clear partisan aim. It had green and black stripes and an orange canton.) It has also become a commonplace, in the sixty years since Johns painted the first Flag, for critics to bewail how much wider the gap has grown between the ideals of America and the country’s brutal realities. But no critic until this past year has had to contend with Johns’s flags when the very survival of the American republic was in doubt, and when America’s economic power, cultural influence, and geopolitical clout were so clearly in decline. The mythology of Jasper Johns, after all, has always been predicated on the primacy of American art as the postwar successor to European modernism—and critics will have to reckon anew with postwar American art if American primacy becomes a thing of the past.
How much has changed, politically, historically, aesthetically, since Johns’s dream? And how best to come to grips with him? The Royal Academy show proposed a thematic study, opening with a remarkable trio of paintings—a Target from 1961, the crosshatched Within from 1983, and the barren, agglutinative interior scene Racing Thoughts, from the same year—and then presented about 150 works grouped by themes of time, objects, the seasons, and memory. I suspect, however, that the just-the-facts style of a catalogue raisonné—what was painted, in what order, out of what materials; where was it shown, by whom was it acquired, and where is it now—actually offers a better introduction to his poker-faced art. Johns has been a favorite subject of philosophers of aesthetics, psychoanalytically engaged critics, and queer theorists with a detective streak, but his art resists disentanglement, and his signs and symbols never fully reflect any biographical source or intellectual underpinning. (“I don’t know how to have thoughts,” he told The Guardian in 2004.) Even Johns’s disclosure of the dream of Flag offers just the barest of revelations. The painting may have sprung from his deepest unconscious, but what does that reveal, other than that even he cannot say what it means?
Johns was born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia; he had a difficult childhood. His parents divorced when he was two, and he grew up among an extended family in segregated South Carolina. At twelve, months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he won a statewide scrap metal drive, the prize for which was a new American flag for his school.
As a child he had little exposure to art, but he drew incessantly, and before he was out of his teens his teachers encouraged him to go to New York, where he enrolled at Parsons, then dropped out, did odd jobs, and barely got by. He saw the art of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and the other Abstract Expressionists before being drafted in 1951. He served for two years, though never in Korea; most of his service took place back in South Carolina, at Fort Jackson, where he trained in heavy artillery and organized art exhibitions on the base, including of his own (now destroyed) work.
Back in New York, he worked nights as a clerk in a bookstore that specialized in art publications, and he saw countless exhibitions, as well as performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The leading galleries were still dominated by Abstract Expressionism. In Willem de Kooning’s garish squiggles, Newman’s abstemious zips, and the last of Pollock’s trickles, advanced American painting took the form of confident, gestural nonobjectivity. Johns has often been misread as the gravedigger of Abstract Expressionism, and he and Rauschenberg were frequently called “neo-Dadaists,” a misnomer that stemmed from their interest in everyday objects and a dissolution of the distinction between art and life. In fact, Johns had an only cursory knowledge of Dada in the early 1950s, and would not meet Marcel Duchamp until the end of the decade. He was, however, a keen student of de Kooning, Newman, and particularly Jack Tworkov, whose brushy gestures were more contained and reserved than de Kooning’s and Pollock’s blasts. Yet Johns found that he couldn’t perform Abstract Expressionism’s emotional theatrics; he was too reserved for that. “I didn’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings,” he explained in 1973. A work of art, for the young Johns, had to have meaning and importance independent of the artist’s personality.
A flag is two-dimensional, abstract in most cases, and, unless you are Nepalese, rectangular. But had it not been for the Ab-Exers’ practice of decentralizing compositional elements into an all-over pattern, Johns might never have dreamed—literally and metaphorically—of depicting the Stars and Stripes across the entirety of the picture plane, such that Flag, as the art historian Fred Orton has written, “both represents its subject and is the subject represented.” The breakthrough of the flag, in other words, was not that it depicted a preexisting object as if it were an abstraction. Rather, it vitiated the whole distinction between pictures and objects; the symbol and the materials that constituted it were one and the same. In the catalogue raisonné Bernstein cunningly refers to this first painting as both Flag and “the flag,” in lowercase and without italics, as if to reaffirm its hybrid status. The same equivocal position would hold with Johns’s subsequent targets and maps, all of which, as she writes, “seemed to blatantly renounce the viability of the dominant abstract mode.”
“Things the mind already knows,” as the artist called them, were Johns’s escape routes from the dead end of gestural abstraction, and in the late 1950s and early 1960s he would rely on familiar symbols or everyday objects to dismantle expectations of unitary meaning, and personal expressivity too. The digits 0 through 9, painted in encaustic or stenciled in sequential grids, take on abstract form even as they still express numerical values, though in a few paintings, such as 0 Through 9 (1960), the ten digits are overlaid upon one another, their curves and straight edges just barely intelligible amid red, orange, and light-blue stains.
He also turned to sculpture, casting bronze lightbulbs and flashlights, or molding cans of beer or his own brushes in a coffee can, then painting the surfaces to create uncanny replicas. Like the flags and targets, these were not straight readymades in the manner of Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, bottle rack, or urinal, which Johns saw for the first time around 1958; they were, instead, sculptures that took the form of preexisting objects. Johns’s anti-illusionism also led him to treat paintings as objects in themselves, either by attaching rulers and dragging them across the surface, or by splitting a composition across multiple canvases and emphasizing the spaces between them. Objects in the real world became art (but works of art remained objects) through a sequence of undefined procedures, as expressed in Johns’s most mythologized formulation: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”
One part of Johns’s career that was not mythologized until recently was his relationship with Robert Rauschenberg—his collaborator, his studio mate, his first great critic, and his lover, though even today museums and books are sometimes loath to say so. Rauschenberg was nearly five years older, divorced, with a son. When they met he’d already shown at Betty Parsons Gallery, and he had befriended Cunningham and John Cage during his second stint at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which he attended with his first male lover, Cy Twombly. Johns was cerebral, taciturn. Rauschenberg never stopped talking.
The wall text at the Royal Academy primly disclosed that Johns and Rauschenberg “traded ideas and saw each other every day.” Yet the love and cooperation of Rauschenberg, as much as anything, catalyzed Johns’s whole career. In 1954, Rauschenberg was already somewhat established; Johns was not, and his decision to destroy or disclaim everything he’d made beforehand can’t be divorced from his intellectual and emotional intertwining with a man also committed to treating paintings as objects. The first painting in the catalogue raisonné—that is to say, the earliest surviving work Johns claims as his own—is a very Rauschenbergian combine, in which a plaster death mask sits nestled in a box beneath a yellowed newspaper collage.
This was fifteen years before Stonewall. To be out was a dangerous thing, and even gossip could ruin you. And yet amid this stifling atmosphere Johns and his lover emerged as the most important artists of the decade, the successors to egoistic Abstract Expressionists whose violent spills and gashes read as performances of extreme masculinity. By 1965, readers of Esquire were offered the caustic assessment of the critic Harold Rosenberg that “a feature of the past four or five years has been the banding together of homosexual painters and their nonpainting auxiliaries in music, writing and museum work.”
Johns has never enjoyed making public disclosures, in his paintings or in the press, and he has at times bridled when critics have focused on his sexuality. (When Jill Johnston, the Village Voice dance critic and one of America’s first out gay journalists, published her psychosexual biography Jasper Johns: Privileged Information in 1996, he denied her requests to reproduce his work.) His discretion has at times led scholars to treat homosexuality as a skeleton key that unlocks each of his hermetic puzzles. But not every hinge attaches to a closet door, and sometimes a target’s bull’s-eye is just a bull’s-eye.
Surely there’s a third way between overreliance on biography and the downright closeting that still sometimes attends Johns, as seen in “Dancing Around the Bride,” a Duchamp-themed exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012, which barely disclosed that Johns, Rauschenberg, Cunningham, and Cage were not just four gay men but two couples. Robert Storr, in a pleasantly hyperbolic essay in the Royal Academy/Broad catalog, reckons with Johns’s sexuality while acknowledging that one can be reserved without being unsexed. After all, as Storr writes, “Johns’s works include some of the most explicit depictions of male genitalia in contemporary American art.” A flaccid green penis appears within one of the hinged boxes of Target with Plaster Casts (1955), which forced Alfred Barr to pass on acquiring it for MoMA. The crosshatched Tantric Detail III (1981), displayed at the Royal Academy, features both a partial skull and a cartoonishly symmetrical scrotum, centered on the painting’s vertical axis and stippled with short black and white hairs. (A related drawing is now at the Broad.) That theme is evoked more metaphorically in the naughty Painting with Two Balls (1960), in which an all-over, nearly Abstract Expressionist surface of warm-colored camouflage gets gashed apart, the slit held open by a pair of wooden spheres.
“He may be among the most solitary, and often saturnine, artists alive,” Storr writes. Yet even this least forthcoming of artists could not restrain his emotions in 1961 when he and Rauschenberg broke up. That December Johns exhibited four paintings at Leo Castelli Gallery, on a single wall. They were all gray monochromes, one of them stenciled with the word LIAR, another affixed with two lead letters that spelled NO. The largest, just about the same size as the 1954–1955 Flag, was In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara, comprising two canvas panels joined by hinges (a Duchamp quotation), their surfaces masked by mournful, dripping splashes of gray. “My quietness has a man in it,” begins O’Hara’s poem, its title stenciled at the bottom of the composition. Three quarters of the painting include visible brushstrokes, but one quarter, the top-left canton, is scrubbed almost clean. It is a flag, obliterated.
In one of his very first interviews, Johns proposed that “looking at a painting should not require a special kind of focus like going to church. A picture ought to be looked at the same way you look at a radiator.” A painting, both as a picture and as an object, should be comprehensible in itself, and any further explication was just critical onanism—a point he underlined with his obnoxious sculpture The Critic Sees (1961), a brick embedded with eyeglasses behind which we discover not scrutinizing eyes but jabbering mouths. Yet even by 1961, with In Memory of My Feelings (on view at the Broad; the Royal Academy made do with a study), Johns was embedding within his compositions literary references, symbolic riddles (a fork and a spoon nuzzled into each other), citations of his own earlier works, and discreet personal disclosures. The flags continued into the 1960s; the numbers have ticked along into this millennium. But as both the catalogue raisonné and “Something Resembling Truth” confirmed, by the 1960s Johns’s painting, sculpture, and printmaking had shifted into another key, and its principal concern was no longer art’s ontological status (what is it?) but its elaboration through symbols and within history (what does it mean?).
The crosshatched paintings of the 1970s are fugues played on the ruins of modernism, their homogenous scores and nicks repeating and shifting across the canvas, and often obscuring designs beneath. Bernstein notes that the crosshatchings are the first Johns paintings that can be properly called abstract, though they are more like drawings than the gestural abstractions of Pollock or Tworkov, and they bristle with citations from Matisse, Picasso, the Surrealists, and other early-twentieth-century figures. Later he found a surprising resonance in an artist he loved: Edvard Munch, whose late Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed includes a bedspread articulated through abstract hatches of red and black. A suite of paintings titled Between the Clock and the Bed begun in 1981 (two of which were in the Royal Academy) retains the all-over crosshatching of the 1970s works, but the thin parallel lines, picked out with haloes of ghostly white, are cast in a more anxious, Nordic register.
Mortality was not a new theme for Johns—In Memory of My Feelings was initially titled A Dead Man, and Arrive/Depart (1963–1964) includes an imprint of a skull. Munch, however, seems to have led Johns to a new engagement with death, one that deepened amid the first awful years of the AIDS epidemic. Strictly representational elements start to appear in the 1980s, first in the skulls and scrota of the Tantric Details, and then in newly representational tableaux that incorporated Surrealist symbolism and spatial organization, as well as source materials or quotations from his earlier work painted as trompe-l’oeil clippings or posters. Racing Thoughts (1983), which opened the Royal Academy show but is absent from the Broad, is a prime example: it features a jigsaw puzzle of Leo Castelli, a lithograph by Barnett Newman, a cheap poster of the Mona Lisa (Duchamp again), a vase by the “mad potter” George Ohr, and a skull and crossbones from a Swiss poster warning of avalanches—all of which are integrated into a half-representational, half-abstract composition tied together with an obscure outline of a detail from Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.
Hard to interpret, fiendish to translate into words, these later paintings present an introverted formality that makes them tough to love. The art historian Fiona Donovan, in her new book, Jasper Johns: Pictures within Pictures, 1980–2015, makes a valiant effort to elevate the last three decades of Johns’s career, which she presents in humanistic terms far removed from the ontological games he played in the 1950s and 1960s. “His art of the 1980s and 1990s,” she writes, “has a dignified, timeless, interior character that suggests a corrective to the political moralizing and self-exposure rampant in the United States at that time.” Possibly so. But I don’t think the problem with late Johns is his froideur so much as the bluntness of his citations, whether in googly eyes borrowed from Picasso or in his own flags and coffee cans, and their easy equation to an interiority Johns doesn’t really divulge.
The best of Johns’s later works are his Catenary paintings, begun in 1997, in which strings hang in front of principally gray compositions framed with trompe-l’oeil wood and enlivened with astronomical imagery; the catenaries, suspended from two points and shaped by gravity, continue a Duchampian concern with measurement that harkens to Johns’s ruler-scraped canvases of the early 1960s. Too often, though, his recent art falls into pastiche, and occasions only an undemanding hunt for the greatest hits of his back catalog. The newest work in “Something Resembling Truth,” an untitled blue composition from 2016, has a painted ruler rather than a real one; the astronomical clippings from the Catenaries are back; and the Picasso googly eyes have been rounded and simplified so that they look like zeros. Johns’s tropes have themselves become, this late in the game, “things the mind already knows.” And yet still there is invention, as in his cheerless, Apollonian series Regrets, begun in 2012, which transmutes an old photograph of Lucian Freud into slabs of black and hidden skulls.
In 2008, on the occasion of his all-gray retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Johns told The New York Times that “artists today know more. They are aware of the market more than they once were. There seems to be something in the air that art is commerce itself.” And he was right. Young artists, thrust into an art world richer than ever (and a New York where studios, indeed where studio apartments, are now largely out of reach), have had no choice but to get smart about the economics of art. The result has been that any remaining formalist commitment to the autonomy of painting or sculpture is now well and truly dead; these days, the white cube offers no escape from the world outside.
Johns was himself one of the undertakers of an autonomous sphere of art, so central to the development of modernism. He invited you to salute his flags or shoot arrows at his targets when most of New York still defended art for art’s sake. Art’s use value and exchange value were also on his mind when he made his painted sculptures of beer cans, after de Kooning snapped, apropos Castelli, that “you could give that son-of-a-bitch two beer cans and he could sell them.” But there are relative degrees of autonomy and contingency, and as Johns himself admits, the artists that have followed him work amid commercial conditions he never had to face. To anyone under forty, the autonomy he disclaimed looks more and more like a lost privilege, a luxury we would give anything to regain.
Is it a painting or is it a flag? The question sounds practically quaint sixty years on—when art is encountered more and more on touchscreens and in social feeds, and when the market and other art institutions have more power than any philosopher to answer that question. Johns found a way to make a painting both a picture and an object. Today every single painting has that double role, and must function, as the art historian David Joselit has argued, as “a dynamic form that arises out of circulation.” It was that, more than any heartsickness for lost American ideals, that hit me hardest when I stared down Johns’s painting of a fifty-starred flag in London, and then peeked at the label to see which billionaire owned it. Anything in an art gallery is an object, an image, but an asset above all—those are things the mind already knows.