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Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns: Drawings 1997 – 2007 Matthew Marks Gallery February 2 – April 12, 2008
Jasper Johns: Gray The Metropolitan Museum of Art February 5 – May 4, 2008
Jasper Johns/George Seurat: Drawings Craig F. Starr Associates February 15 – April 12, 2008

Jasper Johns,
Jasper Johns, "False Start I" (1962). Lithograph 76.2 x 56.8 (30 x 22 3/8) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Woodward Foundation, Washington, DC 1976.

Ever since he completed his groundbreaking Flag (1954-55), Jasper Johns has persistently and, for many, annoyingly defined himself as an individual of no special merit, fixed identity, or authorial “I,” who stands outside both the Marxist definition of worker and the romanticized notion of the artist as hero. Instead of letting himself become the center of attention, he has repeatedly stepped aside, so that it is his art that we must experience rather than anything he says about it. He refuses to make grand statements, generalizations, or be the public authority on his art, because, I suspect, he believes this demeans the intelligence of the viewer, as well as becomes a form of self-aggrandizement. For more than half a century, during which his work has received many accolades, he has rigorously rejected the bait that society has repeatedly offered him to turn into a vacant public figure, a kind of clown surrounded by lesser clowns.

Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, Matthew Barney, and Damian Hirst—so many others have gobbled up society’s bait as if the glory it offers them surpasses anything they can experience in their studio. They are happy to become a mouthpiece yammering on about this or that. Johns rejects this trade, which is probably one reason why so many critics began turning against him in the 1980s, a moment when the art world, and its mouthpieces, began to obsess over personality, self-promotion, and bravado. In a world where narcissism passes for intelligence, it is easy to make outrageous statements (Richard Prince is Walt Whitman, Julian Schnabel is the closest thing to Picasso, and Matthew Barney is the greatest wall-climber of his generation). Whenever a critic makes that kind of stretch, you can be pretty sure that the art they are writing about is most likely empty and shallow. Impotence seems to be the rage these days. After all, it’s not like Richard Prince became the Richard Prince of his generation. Others seem to be applying for that secretarial position.

Second, many refuse to accept the fundamental condition that artists, writers, and composers share, which is that someone who spends much of his or her time alone in a room can make something that illuminates the paradoxes of existence, and their brief moment in it. At its most basic, this project is both generous and anti-social, which many critics find repugnant, preferring to focus on those who are willing to display their vanity as well as their infantile need for constant attention. They want artists to be as parasitical as they are. Jeff Koons’ shiny, stainless steel Rabbit (1986) is emblematic of what I am talking about. It has a shiny exterior that you can’t touch without leaving fingerprints (think highly sensitive skin and hollow air-filled body, like a baby holding its breath until it gets your attention, which it does). And a rabbit, as we all know, is both virile and cuddly. No wonder so many fell over themselves comparing Koons’ falsely charming ready-made to a Brancusi sculpture; they looked similar, which is good enough in art, but not so good in mycology.

Johns’ definitions of anonymity extend to his practice, which for nearly three decades consisted of incorporating and transforming anonymous things that existed before and after he used them. He restricted his palette to primary and secondary colors, black, gray and white. These choices, while not devoid of personality, never emphasized taste or assigned some special power to color. Despite routinely being labeled aloof and hermetic, his work was very down to earth. From the mid-1950s to around 1980, Johns’ things were familiar: flags, targets, maps of North America, numerals, letters of the alphabet, a pair of ale cans, light bulbs, a coffee can crammed with paintbrushes, and a cluster of parallel brushstrokes. The two exceptions might be the profile of Marcel Duchamp and the allusions to the trompe l’oeil American painter, John F. Peto, but both men and their art are part of the public record and therefore available to everyone, which is central to Johns’ project and his refusal to single himself out as someone special, gifted, or even tormented. I would further add that in his references to other artists that he has made since the 1980s, he refuses to establish a hierarchy. He isn’t referencing works by Matthias Grünewald, Picasso, Richard Dadd, George Ohr, Barnett Newman, Edvard Munch, Barry Moser, Hans Holbein, and an anonymous schizophrenic child because we approve of them. This would be the equivalent of name-dropping at a party. And, lest we forget, at different points in his career, Johns has also referenced the poets Ted Berrigan, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, and, most recently Nikos Stangos, who are hardly household names.

The span covered by these three exhibition ranges from Untitled (1954), one of the artist’s earliest surviving drawings, to the recent painting Beckett (2005), the drawing 4 Paintings (2007) and the etching Within (2007). There is a literal hands-on feeling to everything in all of the shows. Johns seems never to have been interested in the level of production he could have attained if he utilized a more mechanically efficient means of fabrication or hired a lot of assistants to do the actual application. Never interested in the purely optical, which, according to some critics, was the domain of highest achievement, Johns has always been a painter; while Frank Stella and Andy Warhol aligned themselves with the optical, they made images rather than paintings. Johns’ work, however, is both visceral and visual. Highly focused, always attentive to all aspects of his art, he feels and sees his way through everything he does: painting, drawings, and metal reliefs. The linking of touch and sight is why the pairing of Johns and Seurat makes sense. And because of that simultaneity, isn’t it time that we stop thinking about his work and its relationship to either the Abstract Expressionists or his peers, and consider what’s there.

Gray, at the Metropolitan, traces Johns’ use of gray throughout his career in different media. It begins with two paintings, False Start (1959) and Jubilee (1959), in which the artist mislabeled messy, overlapping areas of paint. In False Start, a blue area in the lower right has the word “blue” stenciled on it in orange, while just below, in the corner, an orange area is stenciled “blue” (the “e” cut off by the painting’s physical edge) in black. The discrepancies are agitating in the color, but they are not in shades of gray. In the grisaille Jubilee, a black area has been labeled “orange” and a gray area “blue.” In both paintings, the non-systematized misalignment between words (names) and colors evokes two readings. First, within the context of a figure/ground relationship, the names (figure) and colors (ground) are both bonded and distinct, and, in many cases do not fit together but cannot be separated. Second, what’s the relationship between thinking (naming) and doing (applying the paint)? Can the two ever be united? Is every action the result of winnowing one’s options down? And if so, why this action and not another?

Johns’ interest in the figure/ground relationship and in simultaneously touching and feeling his way across a surface is evident in the early drawing Untitled (1954), which, according to the artist in a conversation with Nan Rosenthal and Ruth E. Fine in September 1989, was based on dried oranges. In retrospect, it seems that Flag, his breakthrough painting, gave him a familiar object in which he could bring these two concerns to bear. Like the dried oranges, the American flag was a thing. The difference is that it had a structure and it had a figure/ground relationship (white stars on a blue field). Given the emphasis on the permanent bond between surface and thing, figure and ground, and the use of things that preexisted him, might it not be possible that Johns’ lifelong preoccupation is with the individual’s relationship to time (both infinite and temporal) and reality (a constantly changing circumstance)? Isn’t it important to recognize that he privileges neither the visual (colors) nor text (names), and that he doesn’t align his work with either of the long prevailing hierarchies, namely the Christian ideal (image) or the Jewish ideal (text)?

I don’t mean these questions lightly. A lot of what has been written about Johns, and it could fill a medium-sized library, focuses on the fact that he doesn’t like to talk about his life. He refuses to tell us how to read his work, which means he’s being secretive and hermetic. In a comparison based on the superficial similarities between Johns’ Tennyson (1958) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955), James Rondeau, one of the curators of Gray, becomes the perfect concierge, speculating on people’s private lives. Are we supposed to know what goes on outside an artist’s studio in order to deal with what that individual makes when he or she is alone? Are all artists really wannabe confessional poets? Should we ask Richard Prince what dirty jokes he tells his wife when they are in bed? Will that help us understand his genius better?

Johns has found a way to examine the figure/ground relationship from a fresh perspective, one in which transcendence is unlikely and the individual is a thing among things (I should disclose that this is the title of the book I have written on Johns that will be published by D.A.P. in the fall of 2008). His ink on plastic drawings constitute a singular achievement, as well as a prolonged examination of the bonds between figure and ground. Throughout his life he has remained curious and focused, unafraid to look, refusing to elicit sympathy for our inescapable mortality, and even finding humor there. I am thinking of the charcoal drawing Untitled (1997), with its graphic telescope-like eyes popping out of their sockets. They are, by the way, looking from right to left. In one of the drawings titled The Aim Was To Put A Poem Together (2006), made for a posthumous book of Stangos’ poetry, Johns pairs every letter of the title with its equivalent in sign language. This was a drawing made in memory of someone, not an attempt to reinforce the perception that one is a genius. The fact that Johns has been guided by his curiosity, by the desire to not avert his gaze, all while remaining an individual alone in his studio, making art, is what I think critics and others don’t want to accept. Better to trade this sense of isolation in for whatever placebo you can get, because what awaits us all is chaos.


John Yau


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

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