It has been said that Jasper Johns’s Painted Bronze (1960) was generated by an offhand remark uttered in 1960 by the Abstract Expressionist, Willem de Kooning. The Dutchman was apparently grousing about Johns’s suave dealer, Leo Castelli, and his ability to market works by emerging artists. “Give that son-of-a-bitch two beer cans,” de Kooning supposedly snarled, “and he could sell them.”
Although the tale may be apocryphal (Johns is its only source), Johns’s extremely modest-size sculpture is arguably one of the most important the now-91-year-old patriarch of American art has made. One cast can be seen at the Whitney Museum, another at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The two museums are hosting joint retrospectives that run until February 13, 2022.
Painted Bronze initially seems banal—two 12-ounce beer cans standing on a simple rectangular base. But for Johns, the gay South Carolina-transplant to New York, these faux-liquid containers were rooted in rich personal and aesthetic histories brimming with meaning.
First, they are not beer cans. They are bronze cylinders painted to look like beer cans. Each was individually cast from real cans and then set into the independently fabricated base, which means the sculpture is a marriage of three separate parts, the most important of which are not beer cans but ale cans. This is a critical distinction. In the 1950s, regular guys drank beer. Sophisticated men drank ale. It was “lighter” and “means real business,” as advertisements asserted during the decade. “No wonder Ballantine leads all ales in sales” billboards clamored, which would have resonated with the super salesman Castelli.
The final line of these ads would also have been particularly amusing for Johns, as they encouraged potential customers to “order a bottle for yourself … expect and get something wonderfully different!”
Everything about Painted Bronze speaks about difference. What looks mechanically produced for the mass market is actually hand-made for an extremely limited group of buyers. What seems consumable can only be absorbed by the eyes. What would be hand-held and raised to the lips cannot be touched, unless with special gloves. What is pliable is hard, what is a common material is precious, and what is cheap can be one of society’s most expensive consumer goods.
The piece is even confusing in terms of artistic category as it combines painting and sculpture which was standard in ancient art, but antithetical from the Renaissance onwards when they were deemed arch-rivals. (Leonardo was painting’s hero; sculpture aficionados claimed Michelangelo.) Johns declares a truce. Like Egyptian sculpture which Painted Bronze recalls in its silent, frontal rigidity, each side wins, because both are about art, Johns’s central concern.
The piece suggests further conflict. Painting a bronze is an aesthetic violation. Bronze possesses its own palette. It doesn’t need painting’s help. Moreover, Johns’s painting is perfunctory. The cans and base are unevenly coated with a dull gold-brown that makes them look old and tired, not the consistently shiny metal of the real cans. Worse, the labels seem stenciled or stamped, with the paint applied so crudely the cheating intermediaries create evident slippages. Close inspection reveals even more heinous faults as there are distinct variations from one letter to the next and from one can to the other. The paint also differs in density throughout. Conclusion? Fine calligraphy was not Johns’s intention, despite the sculpture’s startling first impression.
The sculptural integrity of the piece is equally problematic. For all their similarities, the cans are not duplicates. Their tops and circular bases are different, as are their surfaces. Moreover, they don’t stand on their base symmetrically nor do they have the same amount of space on either side. The pedestal itself isn’t smooth. One can easily detect Johns’s manipulation of the plaster model for the base, particularly along the beveled edges, which makes it seem the product of an amateur not an artist, one of Johns’s favorite contradictions.
Most surprisingly, one can is open, the other not. Suddenly, the latter appears heavier, purer, perhaps more innocent. Its top has not been violated; its contents are still virginal. The opened one seems lighter and more accessible, although you might not want to sip it unless you had done so already. In addition, whether still drinkable or empty (one doesn’t know), it’s one step closer to the trash whereas the other stands stalwart, ready to serve—or be served—whenever called upon.
They therefore are like the yin and the yang, objects of desire consummated and patiently waiting, the before and after, or as the poet/critic John Yau says, “the after and the before.” These opposites coexist because Johns insists his work is never one or the other, but rather one AND the other, ambiguity and aesthetic generosity being his constant companions.
But some facts help. When Johns made Painted Bronze, his amorous companion was Robert Rauschenberg who, despite having been married, was also gay. As many writers have demonstrated, this relationship was enormously productive for both men.
Nowhere perhaps is that more evident than in Painted Bronze, where two manly products confront us as a couple of ales or a couple of guys hiding as gay men behind the irregular writing which declares the superiority of the potentially intoxicating product disguised in the can.
Johns clearly understood the value of the company’s tag lines. The one in the three provocatively intertwined circles seems especially pertinent: “purity,” “body,” and “flavor.” It is the perfect cover for a gay man proclaiming his sexual preference, the XXXs above them suggesting it is also triple X-rated, i.e. extremely pornographic.
That’s not where this ends. In the 1950s, Ballantine was inextricably linked to New York and the Yankees, its primary sponsor. “Baseball and Ballantine” was the jingle. For Johns to align himself with the “The Center of the Universe,” as E.B. White labeled New York, and the most successful sports franchise in America, which really means the world, made perfect sense.
Then, there was Mel Allen, the voice of the Yankees. Born Melvin Allen Israel, he was a Jew ironically from Johns, Alabama. Precocious, he entered the University of Alabama at 15, graduated in three years, went to law school, and on a trip to New York, landed a job as an announcer with CBS. When management suggested he reconsider his name, he willingly shortened his first and dropped his last, suppressing his Jewish identity. He was equally adept at disguising his sexuality, although rumors he was gay circulated widely during his lifetime.
Johns may never have met Allen, who, as the most heralded sportscaster in the county, had to be discreet. But even rumors would have strengthened Johns’s choice of Ballantine to confront the machismo of the art world (de Kooning being its hard-drinking lead man) and to affirm his rightful place in that contested hierarchy.
The pedestal on which his “beer” cans stand is the ultimate irony. It takes its cues from the plinths of Henri Matisse’s early sculptures, but it also evokes the gold bars of Fort Knox, making Painted Bronze Johns’s claim to the gold standard for sculpture and the perfect investment for Castelli’s clients, underscored by the square, serrated label on the side of the cans which asserts the contents to be “Brewer’s gold.”