A major traveling retrospective, organized by MOMA and currently on view at Cologne’s Ludwig Museum, traces Jasper Johns’s 45-year odyssey from esthetic impersonality to deeply affecting—though still formally encrypted—self-revelation.
Published Art In America, April 1997
The Jasper Johns retrospective recently held at the Museum of Modem Art was extremely timely. Although this might seem an odd comment to make about one of America’s most widely exhibited artists (Johns’s full exhibition history is so extensive that it is being supplied, together with a bibliography, on CD-ROM), the MOMA retrospective arrived at an opportune moment. There is now a sufficient amount of production since the juncture that occurred in Johns’s art in 1982 to evaluate this controversial body of work and understand its relationship to Johns’s earlier output. In 1984, Johns described the change in his art as follows: “In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly to do with my feelings about myself and partly to do with my feelings about painting at the time. I sort of stuck to my guns for a while, but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve.”1
The exhibition “Jasper Johns: Work Since 1974,” held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1989 (and first presented at the 1988 Venice Biennale), recorded the transition from the abstract, allover fields of the Crosshatch paintings to the illusionistic representations of the “bathtub” and Seasons pictures, works in which this famously impersonal artist first ventured into the realm of autobiography. In the exhibition catalogue, Mark Rosenthal noted the presence in these paintings of tracings after Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece as well as Johns’s attraction to Christian themes. The exhibition concluded, however, before Johns moved from investigations of his adult world—his art, possessions and artistic career—to examinations of his childhood experience. The same can be said of “Jasper Johns: A Print Retrospective,” which appeared at MOMA in 1986. A number of the more recent “confessional” works were included in the exhibition “The Drawings of Jasper Johns,” held at the National Gallery in Washington in 1990, but for Johns, drawing, like printmaking, is primarily a medium for revisiting and recycling motifs introduced in painting, his primary means of expression and the medium in which he typically develops and advances new ideas. In 1993, a small retrospective consisting of 14 well-chosen paintings spanning Johns’s career was held at the Leo Castelli Gallery in SoHo. Titled “Jasper Johns—35 Years—Leo Castelli,” it documented the changes that have occurred in Johns’s art over time, but on a limited scale.
Two print exhibitions were presented in New York in late October in conjunction with the current show. “Jasper Johns: Process and Printmaking,” which revealed Johns’s thought and decision-making processes in working proofs dating from the early ’60s to the mid-’90s, was held in MOMA’s print galleries. At Castelli, “Technique and Collaboration in the Prints of Jasper Johns” focused on the artist’s technical innovations in printmaking. Earlier in 1996, “Jasper Johns: The Sculptures” was presented both at the Menil Collection, Houston, and at the Leeds City Art Gallery; it examined a small but significant aspect of Johns’s production that lasted for a brief moment, for the most part from 1958 to 1961. A number of the same sculptures were re-presented at MOMA. “Jasper Johns Flags 1955-1994” appeared at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, in June 1996.
The MOMA retrospective, organized by Kirk Varnedoe, presented a comprehensive overview of Johns’s artistic career via 225 works occupying two floors of the museum. The installation offered a chronological unfolding of Johns’s development, with works grouped according to theme and coloration (gray and black-and-white paintings were hung together to brilliant effect). While focusing on painting, the show included Johns’s full range of mediums. Drawings and prints were occasionally interspersed with the paintings, but were most often displayed in separate rooms or alcoves, due in part to requirements for lower lighting, but also because Johns’s works on paper generally look back to motifs developed in earlier work and would have disrupted the “narrative line” set forth by the paintings. As was appropriate, sculpture was confined to two vitrines in a relatively early section of the exhibition.
The retrospective provided the viewer with the opportunity to witness not only the unfolding of Johns’s work as he moved through a succession of periods, styles, manners and techniques, but the unveiling of Johns himself. Johns’s art has long been understood as one in which the artist reconsidered the fundamental elements of picture-making—structure, color, surface, texture, objecthood—as well as how form is described, and how images are perceived. Viewing the retrospective, one was able to see that Johns’s art has also been engaged in a struggle with fundamental questions of existence—of sexuality, mortality, spirituality— with the experience of what it is to be in and of this world. That Johns’s work since the early ’80s has been preoccupied with such issues is well known. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, the expressive qualities of the early work come into focus as never before. Although the various movements that the early work helped foster—Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art—emphasized the detached, impersonal qualities of his art, a good portion of the power and brilliance of these works, as has been noted, derives from their denials and negations, from the struggles with self embodied within. Johns is himself responsible for the myth of impersonality that surrounds his art: with rare exceptions, in statements about his work to the present day, he has focused upon matters of intellect and form.
Many critics writing today favor the early, more dispassionate Johns. They prefer the signs of repression found in the early work (emotionalism channeled into a highly sensuous and tactile paint handling) to the revelations of self seen in work since 1982, which have been described as self-indulgent (“an aristocratic privileging of private experience”2). They claim that the newer works are overcrowded with hermetic allusions (“encoded …, like hieroglyphs”3) and replete with implicitly bland painted representations lacking in sensuality (geared to “optical experience”4).
Johns’s art since the early ’80s, however, strikes me as nothing short of heroic: it stands as a testament to a highly successful artist who in the sixth decade of his life had the courage to reinvent himself, challenging himself to begin anew. Johns introduced to his art at this time a myriad of new motifs, formats and images, each presented with intellectual rigor, technical control and sophistication that often go beyond those seen in the earlier work, the artist having both honed and expanded his range of skills through the years. These works witness Johns’s emergence as a colorist, as one who works with nuanced shades and tonalities rather than with predominantly primary and secondary hues, and as a draftsman, depicted form now playing a vital part in the work. Sensuality of touch tends not to be expressed through the buildup of individual brushstrokes (as in the earlier works), as much as through the handling of individual forms—of contours, edges and layered effects. The content of the work is also multilayered and complex, yet these works are easier to decipher, more accessible on purely human terms, than much of Johns’s previous work. Johns’s investigation of childhood memory and experience was motivated by his desire to understand aspects of his adult self and to come to terms with his religious beliefs. These endeavors have led to the production of some of the most moving and captivating works of Johns’s career.
It has often been said that late in 1954, Johns destroyed all of his early work in his possession because it resembled too closely the work of Kurt Schwitters.5 I believe, however, that Johns destroyed this work because it was too strongly derivative of the art of one much closer to home, his friend Robert Rauschenberg. It was Rauschenberg who stood behind Johns’s earliest works in the retrospective—intimately scaled box constructions and collages in which bits of fabric, newspaper and found objects were arranged in grid structures. And it was also Rauschenberg who inspired the format and conception of some of Johns’s most recent works—paintings which represent walls across which objects and images are layered and dispersed, engaging in an associative dialogue.
By the time Johns and Rauschenberg met in 1954, becoming friends and lovers, Rauschenberg had been to art school in Paris and at Black Mountain College, was a frequent visitor to the Club and the Cedar Tavern, and had been exhibiting in New York for several years. Johns, five years Rauschenberg’s junior and with little formal art training, absorbed his friend’s esthetic before moving on to develop his own. Leo Steinberg wrote in 1972, “I once heard Johns say that Rauschenberg was the man who in this century had invented the most since Picasso. What he invented above all was … a pictorial surface that let the world in again.”6 Of primary importance for Johns, along with certain techniques of picture making, was Rauschenberg’s conception of the canvas as a literally flat surface (what Steinberg called “the flatbed picture plane”) which served as a repository for familiar, man-made objects and images appropriated from the culture (what Johns referred to as “things the mind already knows”). Also essential to Johns was Rauschenberg’s refusal to depict the human figure except through photographs, tracings and body imprints; Johns extended the latter practice into three-dimensions with his body casts.
By late 1954, Rauschenberg’s Red paintings became splashy and extroverted, the underlying collage materials increasingly revealed on the surface and exploited as aspects of content—a content devoted largely to self. The surfaces of many of these paintings suggested walls in homey interiors. They were collaged with materials that referred lo his family and childhood in Port Arthur, Texas, as well as to his current status of living and working as an artist in New York. Among the materials found in Charlene, for example, are lengths of lacy and flowered fabric, wooden molding, a letter from his mother, a map of Texas, a newspaper headline that reads “Enjoy Growing Up Phases,” a scarf issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art with fine art reproductions, and a picture postcard of the Statue of Liberty.7 Odalisk (1955) and other Combines that followed continued in this autobiographical vein.
It might be said that Johns formulated his mature personal esthetic, as it was to emerge in his Flags, Targets and Numbers paintings, in direct opposition to Rauschenberg’s work. As against the latter’s art of polycentric imagery, multipart structures and diversified attention, Johns posited an art of isolated images, iconic structures and focused attention. As against Rauschenberg’s focus on self, Johns posited an art of impersonality. Target with Four Faces (1955), one of the first paintings Johns admitted into his oeuvre, is extremely revealing in this regard. Here, a target made of newspaper collage and encaustic forms the central image; above, a hinged wooden panel opens to reveal four plaster casts of eyeless faces. Visible below a transparent veil of encaustic to the upper right in the target panel is a newspaper heading which reads, “History and Biography.” As Joan Carpenter pointed out in a 1977 article which examined the content of the collage materials revealed by infrared photographs, the target also incorporates a torn letter, an illustration of a bird on a perch (often used as the symbol of Johns’s home state, South Carolina) and a bank receipt, among other things. Carpenter wrote, “Since one of Johns’s early patrons was an astrologer, a newspaper horoscope and article on astrology, and a page from a book concerning a similar subject may conceivably have autobiographical overtones. At any rate, astrological material seems appropriate in a collage design of wheels whirling within wheels which suggests the paths traced by the planets of the solar system. My interpretation in this regard is strengthened by the identity of the cut-out figure at the lower left who witnesses this celestial vision— Jasper Johns recently revealed it is a photograph of Billy Graham.”8
That Graham, like Johns a South Carolina native and Southern Baptist, should be seen contemplating the cosmos looks ahead to Johns’s art of the ’90s in which personal history and the transcendental become primary concerns. Literally buried by paint in this work of 1955, these issues were not to surface in Johns’s painting for almost 30 years.
Installed in one of the exhibition’s first galleries, directly opposite a few of Johns’s sensuously worked but impersonally conceived Number and Alphabet paintings (1956-59), was an extended series of object-oriented works of the same period which take concealment as their theme. The tricolor Book (1957), a painting in which an open book’s identity is obscured by layers of paint, was followed by the gray monochromes Canvas (1956), Drawer (1957), Gray Rectangles (1957) and Tennyson (1958), each carrying implications of information and contents hidden from view, a sense often enhanced by drips and strokes of color visible at the painting’s sides or bottom edge.
The next gallery, which contained False Start, Jubilee, Out the Window, 0 through 9 and other works of 1959-60, provided, on the level of pure visual excitement, one of the great moments of the exhibition. Each painting features an allover field of large, gestural flares of color (or noncolor— starkly contrasting black, gray and white). The surfaces tend not to be lush and sensuous, as might be expected, but caked and dry, the paintings serving as parodies of the gestural expressionism of de Kooning and others. Although bits of newspaper appear in many of the works to assert the flatness of their quasi-illusionistic surfaces, in Painting with Two Balls (1960) they also serve as aspects of content: prominently displayed articles on track-and-field and other sporting events work together with the paint-splattered balls inserted between the canvas panels to satirize the physical prowess implied in Abstract Expressionist painting.
A reference to maleness and “balls” is also found in Johns’s sculptures of light bulbs and flashlights, begun in 1958, seven of which were displayed in a vitrine. These sculptures, executed in a variety of craft materials, are identical in size, shape and details to the familiar manufactured objects. However, isolated in an art context, apart from their real-life functions, the bulbous shape of the light bulb and the elongated, rigid cylinder of the flashlight assume erotic connotations.9 In 1959, Johns wrote that the following suggestion made by Marcel Duchamp was of particular interest to him: “to reach the Impossibility of sufficient visual another the memory imprint.”10 I believe that to Johns, this meant the challenge of finding unlikely doubles, of using one thing to stand for another in a way that strains possibilities of recognition and discovery. Johns courted Duchampian “Impossibility” as a further strategy of concealment.
It plays a major role in the painting In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara (1961). In 1961, parodies of expressionism in Johns’s art gave way to true self-expression in a series of gray monochromes whose emotional content is revealed by their form and titles—Liar, Painting Bitten by a Man, Disappearance, Good Time Charley, No and Water Freezes. Similarly, In Memory of My Feelings, whose title derives from a Frank O’Hara poem about the pain of lost love, has been identified as marking the end of Johns’s relationship with Rauschenberg.11 A hinged painting with the imprint of a skull and the words “Dead Man” inscribed upon its surface, the work features a fork and spoon suspended together from a wire, the everyday kitchen utensils doubling as bodies pressed together in an embrace.
The years 1961-63 are widely understood as having been a period of intense personal crisis for Johns.12 It was at this time that he began to withdraw increasingly from the New York art world, spending time isolated in his then recently purchased beach house in South Carolina. In Diver (1962), his first monumental, multipanel work, and a series of related paintings, Johns turned to spiritual themes. Diver has generally been interpreted as an illustration of the suicide by drowning of the South Carolina-born poet Hart Crane, whom Johns read and admired.13 The figure schematically represented by hand and footprints at the center of the composition has been identified as Crane diving into a stormy sea. The painting also appears to represent the crucifixion of Christ.14 In the magnificent large-scale drawing which, atypically for Johns, began as a study for the painting (but was completed after, in 1963), a series of lines and arrows sweep out in arcs to the left and right of the lower set of handprints, so that a spreading of the arms is indicated. The resulting posture is that of an inverted cross. That the drawing, with its fearful symmetry and Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro, has gone unrecognized as a religious icon (a cultural symbol as familiar and convention-worn as the American flag) can only be ascribed to the power of the “Impossibility… to transfer… the memory imprint.” All of the other works in the Diver series— Passage, Out the Window II, Land’s End, and Periscope (Hart Crane)—with the exception of the Diver painting itself, are similarly dark and brooding in tone and share a centralized format (originated in Out the Window, 1959). They are among the most dramatic, lushly painted, gorgeous works Johns ever produced. In Periscope (Hart Crane), seen in the exhibition, the scraped half-circle, silhouetted against a windswept, turbulent field, becomes a surrogate for the cross; an arm-print bisects the form, thereby assuming the appropriate position.
In the Diver painting, the crucifixion image is set in the midst of a dispersed, multipart composition rendered in radiant colors. Its source may reside in Picasso’s small Crucifixion of 1930. Although Johns’s preoccupation with Picasso is generally dated to the mid-’80s, when he derived inspiration from two of Picasso’s paintings for the form and content of the Seasons cycle, the fact that Johns was looking at Picasso some 20-odd years earlier is suggested by the similar coloration of the two paintings: both are painted in an exuberant palette dominated by the primaries, with areas reserved for the play of black and white. At the same time, the steplike gray scale in the Johns serves as a reference (and compositional counterpart) to the ladder in the Picasso; the scraped circle finds an echo in Picasso’s oversized green sponge; and the arms of the crucified figures are similarly positioned and articulated.
After Diver and related works, Johns’s art moved in several directions at once. His work of 1964-72 was more varied in style, paint handling and compositional structure than at any other point in his career. These years reveal considerable growth for Johns as a printmaker, and he experimented with extending printmaking techniques into painting. (His exploitation of the gridded patterns and stippled textures achieved by pressing paint through wire mesh screens, for example, was to continue to be important to his art of the ’90s.) This period, however, has always seemed to me to be a problematic one for Johns’s painting, and the MOMA retrospective did not succeed in modifying my view.
The problem with the work of this period, I think, resides first in Johns’s lack of a consistent direction, and then in certain failings (primary among them being an impenetrability of content and intention) inherent in what I believe to have been his chosen path: the mining of the typographic version of Duchamp’s narrative The Bride Shipped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (known as the Green Box) as a source for much of his work. In 1964, Johns had opening revealed his continued preoccupation with the art and though of Duchamp in the complex, multipart According to What, based on the Dadaist’s last painting, Tu m’ (Duchamp’s profile and the mark of a Bachelor’s ejaculatory “shot” appear on a hinged panel at the lower left in Johns’s painting). To an extent still not recognized in the literature, for the better part of the next decade, Johns translated Duchamp’s Green Box, an encoded story of sexual arousal, frustration and death, into the hermetic forms of his art. The paintings Screen Piece 3, Wall Piece and Voice 2 shown at MOMA, for example, all feature a silk-screened image of a foot-long fork accompanied by the words “fork should be 7″ long.” This image corresponds to Duchamp’s instruction, “Hook. At the top of the glass a sort of fork … must fall…. (This fork will be an ordinary hook considerably enlarged.)”15
Johns’s painting once again gathered momentum—as well as formal unity—when he moved into the extended period of Crosshatch canvases in the early ’70s. Although references to Duchamp continue to be found in some of the early works of the series (as in Dutch Wives with its Bachelor’s “shot” and masturbatory content),16 Johns’s exploration of themes of sexuality and death soon moved from the carnal to a spiritual plane. The title, triptych format and handling of forms in Weeping Women (1975) has led several writers to suggest that the painting may refer to traditional Christian themes—the three Marys and the Crucifixion of Christ.17 The three panels feature elongated, dramatically animated hatching strokes, as well as dotted lines, scraped lines, drips and scumbles. Some of the lines suggest piercing rays of (divine?) light. The sense of figuration is strong, particularly in the central panel in which several iron imprints appear on either side of the “figure,” seeming to imply that it has been pinioned to the surface. In the panel to the right, imprints of circles overlapping drips of paint have been seen both as breasts and eyes spilling tears, an interpretation that would seem to be reinforced by Johns’s use of similar motifs in his paintings of the early ’90s.18
In the Cicada drawing (1979), and the Tantric Detail and Dancers on a Plane paintings that follow, Johns moves from Christian iconography to Buddhist images of death and regeneration, inspired by Tantric symbols as well as by a Nepalese painting of the deity Samvara in a dance of copulation.”19 Johns has said that at the time he painted these works, he was “thinking about issues like life and death, whether I could even survive.”20 A continued concern with mortality is demonstrated in Between the Clock and the Bed, a series inspired by Edward Munch’s late self-portrait of this title which contemplates the same theme. Johns’s interest in Munch at this transitional point in his career is telling, particularly in light of the direction he was to pursue: Munch’s art was devoted to a content of self—to exploring personal angst and pain, sexual awakening, and childhood experience and trauma.
The hauntingly beautiful, subtly jewel-toned painting Perilous Night, which (together with In the Studio) marks Johns’s transition from cross-hatch painting to a representational painting style, presents three plaster casts of arms suspended at the top right of a vertically bisected canvas, the central cast overlapping an image of the Between the Clock and the Bed motif. The body casts were made from the arm of the son of one of Johns’s artist friends at three-year intervals, thereby charting the passage of time and a child’s growth.21 The painting also introduces the tracing of the forms of the two soldiers who turn their heads away from the blinding light of the risen Christ in the Resurrection panel of Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. In the left half of Johns’s painting, Grunewald’s image is reduced to flat pattern, reversed, rotated 90 degrees and rendered in reddish-purple lines on a black ground, overlapped by white scumbles; a smaller, colorless version of the image is repeated in its correct orientation to the right. The painting also includes the cover sheet and score of Perilous Night, one of John Cage’s early, emotional compositions (executed before Cage developed his doctrine of impersonality) and the image of a crudely depicted handkerchief nailed to a freely drawn (scarcely trompe l’oeil) rendering of wood grain.
While the handkerchief (a reminder of Weeping Women), the Grunewald figures, and the “wounded” arms have all been interpreted as Christian references,22 Jill Johnston has recently made the intriguing suggestion that the painting can also be seen to carry strong autobiographical allusions. Following Charles Stuckey’s lead of 1976 in which Johns, the painter of flags, was connected with Sergeant William Jasper, the Revolutionary War hero famed in the South for having twice recovered the fallen flag, Johnston identified the soldier with a sword in the foreground of the Griunewald image as a stand-in for the sword- and flag-bearing Sergeant Jasper.23 She points out that in interviews since the late 70s, Johns has recalled having been shown a statue of the sergeant by his father, who told him that they had both been named for him (Johns’s father, who died in 1957, was William Jasper Johns.24) The Grunewald soldier can thus be seen as a surrogate for his father and himself. Perilous Night is therefore embroiled with references to Johns’s father, to growth and aging (the succession of arms and the image of Between the Clock and the Bed), and to Johns’s artistic past (his Flags). The inescapable association between the title of this work and the “perilous fight” referred to in the “Star-Spangled Banner,” once intriguingly elusive, has now found justification. One may note in this context that the painting’s wood grain section doubles as an upside-down flag; the wooden bar anchored in the lower right corner suggests the pole from which it flies.
The “bathtub pictures” that follow are more openly autobiographical and easier to decipher. Beginning with Racing Thoughts (1983), these pictures introduce a format Johns is to use in his art to the present day: the bathroom wall of his former home in Stony Point, New York, seen from the vantage point of the artist lying in the tub (the scene includes valves, a faucet with running water and a wicker hamper) while manifestations of his “racing thoughts” are distributed above. Seeing these works again, one is reminded that they are as rich in form as in content. These are Johns’s first paintings to offer depictions of real objects and images in quasi-naturalistic settings, and he takes full advantage of the opportunity to engage in plays of representation and illusion. Consider, for example, the contrast between the crudely drawn nails and the trompe l’oeil rendering of the masking tape; between the cartoon of wood grain and the convincingly rendered wicker hamper; and between the George Ohr pots, relief-modeled a la Cezanne, and the flat silhouette of the Silver Jubilee vase (a porcelain vase with profile portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in its negative space). Similarly, the space “in front of the tub is asserted by the implied volume of the hamper, then denied by the objects hanging flat againt the picture plane on the wall above. From 1983 to the present day, no body casts or assemblage materials have appeared in Johns’s art.
The bathtub pictures are generally interpreted as works in which Johns, naked and alone in his tub, contemplates the course of his adult life both as a man and artist—his art (the Flags and images from Foirades/Fizzles), his dealer (the puzzle-piece image of the young Leo Castelli), his preoccupation with other art (the Mona Lisa and Barnett Newman’s untitled lithograph), his possessions (the Ohr pots), and his aging body and mortality (W.E. Hill’s pretty wife/ugly mother-in-law image and the skull and crossbones from the avalanche warning sign). The latter preoccupation is reinforced by the inclusion of yet another image from Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece: a tracing of the plague victim or demon from The Temptation of St. Anthony panel—a figure with webbed feet, swollen belly, skin lesions and an amputated left hand.25 Rendered in striated, puzzle-piece form, this image serves as a ground plane to Johns’s inventory of found images. In Ventriloquist, Grunewald’s figures are replaced by Barry Moser’s wood engraving of Moby Dick. The reference to America’s great transcendentalist novel and its pairing with the reversed image of Newman’s 1961 lithograph evoking the sublime suggest that Johns had embarked upon his own spiritual quest. In this context, it seems hardly accidental that Johns, raised as a Baptist, would have chosen to represent himself submerged in a tub of water, a Baptism serving as the sign of a union with God. In Racing Thoughts, the Ohr pot is lilted so that its opening assumes the shape of a Christian cross.
Johns represented himself as a life-size shadow surrounded by his art and belongings in the brilliantly conceived, iconographically rich Seasons paintings (1985-86). whose formats were inspired by Picasso’s paintings Minotaur Moving His House, 1936 (Johns had himself just made a change of residence), and The Shadow (1953). While Summer, Fall and Winter focus on stages in his adult life and periods in his artistic career, the nursery pink and blue Spring panel, streaked by a rain of growth and generation, deals with childhood. It is therefore the most important with regard to Johns’s subsequent investigations of his early life. In the lower portion of the painting, overlapping the image of Johns’s shadow, is the shadow of a male child drawn on an image of an otherwise blank canvas. Geometrical shapes, widely assumed to represent the building blocks of art and matter, are superimposed upon the child’s form. As others have pointed out, the panel is replete with Johns’s favorite perceptual images— the duck/rabbit, wife/mother-in-law, and vase/profile “Rubin’s Figures” (so-called because they were first used by the Danish psychologist Rubin ca. 1920)—pointing to childhood as the time perceptions are awakened.26 The vase/profile forms, however, appear in multiple; most are set into a green, window-pane structure. Given the perspective afforded by Johns’s later work, one surmises that the profiles belong to family members important to his youth.
From this point on, Johns’s paintings become overtly autobiographical, filled with references to his family and to childhood events and traumas. These works are remarkable not merely because a hitherto private and even reclusive artist chose to reveal in them memories of his early childhood, but because they constitute a virtual self-psychoanalysis in public view.
It is here that certain details of Johns’s biography become relevant. His mother left his father, who was an alcoholic, when Johns was about a year old, taking him with her. As she lacked the resources to support herself and a child, Johns was soon left in the care of his paternal grandfather and his second wife, Montez; his mother moved from Allendale, South Carolina, to another town, where she remarried and had more children.27 After his grandfather’s death (when Johns was nine), the boy resided briefly with his mother and her new family, then went to live with his father’s sister. At various points, he lived with other aunts and uncles on his father’s side; he apparently saw his father sporadically. (It is his father’s family that is pictured in the family photograph that appears in a number of Johns’s prints and drawings of the ’90s; the photo shows Johns’s father sitting on his fathers knee.) Johns lived with his mother once again for one year during high school.
Memories of childhood play a part in Untitled (A Dream), 1985, a tellingly titled work, as a dream holds content we cannot repress or censor. This work introduces a new motif to Johns’s art—the image of a face originally inspired by Picasso’s Woman in a Straw Hat (1936). Although many of Johns’s subsequent paintings directly appropriate the “boomerang”-shaped woman’s face from Picasso’s painting, in Johns’s personal variation on the motif, the face is inscribed on a flat rectangular field with cartoonishly drawn eyes and lips relegated to its framing edges; a loopy representation of nostrils floats on the pale flesh-colored field. “Nailed” on the center of the field in Untitled (A Dream) is the traced image of Grunewald’s plague victim, rendered in a brightly colored hatching stroke pattern. A watch is also hung on the “face.” While referring on one level to the passage of time, the watch has also been seen as a reference to a story Johns has recounted from his childhood: his father owned a watch that he told Johns would be his when he grew up; at some point Johns, deciding he was grown up, took it; his father took it back.28 The eye at the upper left appears to shed some tears.
The “face” appears as a fleshy, textural field (through the use of sand and screen textures) in the remarkable painting Montez Singing (1989). The eyes and eyelashes recall biological diagrams of sperm seeking the egg; the lips are heavily rouged. Wispy hair and circle imprints (suggesting breasts as well as eyes) are found on the painted frame. A small illustration of a sailboat, water and a setting sun is hung from a “nail” at the center of the face, referring to Johns’s reminiscence of Montez Johns, his youthful step-grandmother, singing “Red Sails in the Sunset.” It is a painting of sexual attraction in which Johns memorializes his Oedipal feelings.
Although the “face” had its source in the Picasso, Johns’s adaptation apparently reminded him (after the fact) of an illustration he had seen in an article in the early ’50s (some 40 years before) by a girl who had developed schizophrenia after losing both her parents.29 In 1991, Johns recovered this image, “The Baby Drinking the Mother’s Milk from the Breast” (complete with its fingerprinted frame), from the original Scientific American article by Bruno Bettelheim and “nailed” it in the center of three “face” paintings, which were hung sequentially at MOMA at one end of a large gallery. In each painting, the cartoonish eyes also resemble breasts; the circle imprints at the paintings’ bottom edges clearly refer to the same. The first painting in the series is white—the color of mother’s milk—and exudes a feeling of purity and calm. The second is ocher and has a scumbled, textured surface; a tear spills from the baby’s eye. In the third (dated 1991-94), which is painted a jarring purple tone, the girl’s drawing is superimposed upon a field which contains both the “face” and Grunewald’s demon/plague victim. It does not take a degree in psychology to understand that Johns is reflecting upon the mother who abandoned him in infancy, leaving him as an adult feeling damaged, scarred and self-identified with Grunewald’s plague victim. It is a sad picture, expressive of a longing for nurturing and maternal care. His mother died in 1992.
Thus in these works, Johns explores the continued impact of childhood (and even infantile) experiences on his adult life. Some of the works, when understood (and their codes are not difficult to crack), are shocking in their confessional nature: a 60-year-old man permits us to watch him imagine himself returning to his mother’s breast. Johns lays bare feelings that are painful and raw in a profoundly human quest to understand himself.
In painting after painting displayed in the same gallery as the trio of “mother’s milk” pictures, Grunewald’s “demon” confronts Johns’s various incarnations of “woman”—the “face,” the wife/mother-in-law motif, and the image of Picasso’s Woman in a Straw Hat—representations, it would appear, of women in Johns’s life.30 At the opposite end of the gallery were two paintings of 1990 in which Johns juxtaposed yet another traced image mapped out in puzzle-piece segments with the “face” motif: it represents a horizontal form, often white, supported by a larger, more fragmented, generally multicolored, vertical form. Although the artist has declined to reveal its identity, from the time the image first appeared observers have sensed that it portrays a scene of nurturing—a mother and infant or, more specifically, the Madonna and Child. It has even been suggested, and I am inclined to agree, that Johns did not go very far afield to find this image; its source may reside in the Virgin and Child with Angels panel of the Isenheim Alterpiece?31
That Johns had returned yet again to intimations of traditional Christian iconography is reinforced by his print The Seasons (1990), in which abridged and somewhat altered versions of each of the Seasons paintings are united in the form of a cross. The image of the child from Spring is at its center. A strongly defined ladder, absent from the original painting, extends into the “heavens” above him, the painting’s stars now taking the forms of spiraling galaxies. Seen in tandem with Johns’s shadow and the duck/rabbit image, the Trinity—the Father, Son, Holy Ghost—is suggested. In the representation of the Fall panel below, Johns’s shadow is overlapped by a stick figure image—Icarus—derived from Picasso’s mural The Fall of Icarus (1958).32 In the Picasso, Icarus is shown upside down, falling, his hopes defeated; in the Johns, the figure is right-side up, internalized, his human failings and shattered hopes a part of the self.
An abbreviated version of the Seasons print recurs in Mirror’s Edge (1992), where it is overlapped by, among other things, representations of two of Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” drawings (both owned by Johns) and a photograph of a spiral galaxy in deep space. The Seasons print and the image of the cosmos appear yet again in the right-hand panels of each of the two monumental, untitled, “summary” pieces Johns created expressly for the MOMA retrospective (one in oil, the other in encaustic), works in which imagery developed over the preceding decade is superimposed upon the reversed image of a slightly smaller, untitled triptych of 1984. (The imagery in the untitled work from 1984 had, in turn, been adapted from Periscope [Hart Crane], Land’s End, and other paintings of the Diver series of the early ’60s.) Executed at the same time as the “bathtub” pictures of the mid-’80s, which seemed to express a longing for transcendental experience, the untitled work of 1984 appears to represent a kind of abstract “Last Judgment.” Lines radiate from the fingertips of the hand in the right-side panel, suggesting that its bearer is blessed with divine radiance; the hand in the central panel stands naked and alone, awaiting judgment; the great arrow sweeping down in the left-side panel, cutting through a passage filled with groping hands, seems to signal damnation.33
Although the untitled encaustic work of 1992-94 employs the apocalyptic image as its base, this foundation image has, for the most part, been obscured and transformed, the work as a whole becoming at once more autobiographical and more purely devotional. The large arrow now extends from the top of the right-hand panel, dividing its field in a manner reminiscent of one of Barnett Newman’s zips and sharing its divine associations. The arrow terminates at the forms of two open circles, which suggest the division of two cells or the splitting of the atom, ultimate acts of creation or destruction. In the center panel is the image of the child with the attentive, staring eye/nurturing breast, an emblem of the Christ-child and/or of Johns’s infant self. “Taped” to the left-hand panel is a motif Johns introduced in 1992: a blueprint drawing of the floorplan of his grandfather’s house where he spent the early years of his childhood. Overlapping this image is a bold outline tracing of the soldier with the sword from the Isenheim Altarpiece, a figure Johns has said is “in a state of awe [of Christ]”34; the soldier serves as yet another possible surrogate for the artist himself. The soldier’s visor is empty, his head turned to the side. This seemingly sightless figure, set into a context filled with history, biography and the contemplation of man’s place in the cosmos, leads back full circle to Target with Four Faces of 1955. To this viewer, the precise meaning this conjunction of elements holds for the artist remains unclear.
What is clear, however, is that in his most recent work Johns seems to have reached a state of resolution, of reconciliation. In the untitled work of 1992-94, the hand awaiting judgment from the 1984 painting is now dead center. After seeing Leonardo’s “Deluge” drawings in Windsor Castle in 1964, Johns had said he admired them “because here was a man depicting the end of the world and his hands were not trembling.”35 Thirty years later, after a confrontation with the “demons” of his long repressed past, Johns’s search for the spiritual and the self have come together so that he, too, could face mortality with an unshaking hand.
Thus Johns, once identified as the avatar of intellectual detachment, emerges from the MOMA retrospective as a late 20th-century heir to the Northern Romantic Tradition.38 His preoccupation with traditional Christian iconography, Buddhist emblems, religious symbols of his own devising, the cosmos, childhood experience and the art of the insane are all hallmarks of this expressionist tradition in which the artist explores his relation to the mysteries of the inner self and the great unknowns beyond. The retrospective provided a road map of a journey traveled. It allowed us to follow the course of artistic development of a man of supreme intelligence and integrity who chose to lead an examined life. It is fortunate for us that he did.
- April Bernard and Mimi Thompson, “Johns on …,” Vanity Fair, February 1984, p. 65.
- Christopher Knight, “Split Decisions: Jasper Johns in Retrospect: One for All,” Artforum, September 1996, p. 125. Knight questions whether Johns’s work since 1982 is to be regarded in this manner or as “a radical representation of social experience spoken in art’s language of idiosyncratic private pleasure.”
- Michael Kimmelman, “Sifting Among Icons for the Key to Jasper Johns,” New York Times, Friday, Oct 18,1996, p. B14.
- Rosalind Krauss, “Split Decisions: Jasper Johns in Retrospect: Whole in Two,” Artforum, September 1996, p. 82.
- Leo Steinberg, “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art,” Other Criteria, New York, Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 21.
- Ibid., p. 80.
- For more on Rauschenberg’s Charlene and for a further discussion of the artistic relationship between Rauschenberg and Johns, see Roni Feinstein, “Random Order The First Fifteen Years of Robert Rauschenberg’s Art, 1949-1864,” unpublished dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1980, pp. 170-79 and chapter 5, “Rauschenberg and Johns,” pp. 234-69.
- Joan Carpenter, “The Infra-Iconography of Jasper Johns,” Art Journal, Spring 1977, p. 223.
- For further discussion of these sculptures as erotic objects (and of their link to the art and thought of Marcel Duchamp) see Roni Feinstein, “New Thoughts for Jasper Johns’ Sculpture,” Arts, April 1980, pp. 139-42. It may be noted that in 1959, Rauschenberg launched an extended series of works based on homoerotic themes which are explicit in their references: they include poster letters spelling out the phrases “your ass” and “you want,” their surfaces are littered with articles of men’s clothing, and a puckered red circular form (the top, central portion of a flattened-out umbrella) makes a frequent appearance. For more on these, see Feinstein, “Random Order,” pp. 271-95.
- Jasper Johns, artist’s statement, in Dorothy C. Miller, ed, Sixteen Americans, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1959, p. 22. It may be noted that in the same year, Rauschenberg inscribed Duchamp’s statement about the “Impossibility” of the transfer of the “memory imprint” on the surface of his painting Wager.
- Fred Orton, Figuring Jasper Johns, Cambridge, Mass., 1994, pp. 72-74.
- Kirk Varnedoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1996, p. 191.
- Roberta Bernstein, “‘Things the Mind Already Knows’: Jasper Johns’ Paintings and Sculptures 1954-1974,” unpublished dissertation, Columbia University, 1975, p. 191.
- 1 first proposed the interpretation of Diver as a crucifixion in a lecture, “Jasper Johns’ Diver of 1962: A New Interpretation,” presented at the College Art Association Conference, New York, February 1983. With regard to Johns’s attraction to this theme, it is interesting to note that the nails Chris Burden used to crucify himself to the roof of a Volkswagen in 1974 are in Johns’s collection [Chris Burden, Relic from Trans-Fixed (2 nails in plexiglas case), 1974].
- The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even: A Typographic Version by Richard Hamilton of Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box, New York, George Wittenbom and Company, 1960, n.p.. Johns wrote a review of this book when it first appeared: “Duchamp,” Scrap, Dec. 23,1960, p. 4; reprinted in Kirk Varnedoe, ed., Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, and Interviews, New York, Museum of Modem Art, 1986, pp. 20-21.
- Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns (first published 1977, revised and expanded edition, New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994), p. 60, first pointed out that a Dutch wife is a wooden board with a hole, used by sailors as an instrument for masturbation. The title “Dutch Wives” also echoes Duchamp’s preoccupation with virgins, widows and brides. For more on Duchamp’s possible influence on the cross-hatch paintings, see Roni Feinstein, “Jasper Johns’ Untitled (1972) and Marcel Duchamp’s Bride,” Arts, September 1982, pp. 86-93.
- Barbara Rose, audiotape of a Dec. 8,1977 lecture, delivered at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, as part of a lecture series entitled “Jasper Johns and the Modernist Mind,” in conjunction with the retrospective exhibition “Jasper Johns,” Oct. 17, 1977-Jan. 22, 1978; Mark Rosenthal, Jasper Johns: Work Since 1974, Philadelphia,Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1888, p. 29.
- Mark Rosenthal, p. 29.
- Nan Rosenthal and Ruth E. Fine, The Drawings of Jasper Johns, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1990, pp. 247-48; 252-53.
- Michael Crichton, p. 62.
- Nan Rosenthal and Ruth E. Fine, p. 280.
- Mark Rosenthal, p. 65.
- Jill Johnston, Jasper Johns: Privileged Information, New York, Thames and Hudson, 1996, pp. 64-67, 79-83. Charles Stuckey, “‘Johns: Yet Waving?’ Letters to the Editor,” Art in America, May-June 1976, p. 5.
- Johnston, Privileged Information, p. 66.
- This figure was first identified by Jill Johnston, “Tracking the Shadow,” Art in America, October 1987, pp. 128-43.
- Roberta Bernstein, “Seeing a Thing Can Sometimes Trigger the Mind to Make Another Thing,” in Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, New York, Museum of Modem Art, 1986, p. 58.
- The information on Johns’s mother derives from Johnston, Privileged Information, p. 235.
- Jill Johnston, “Trafficking With X,” Art in America, March 1991, p. 164.
- Bernstein, “Seeing a Thing,” p. 60.
- In a luminous untitled watercolor-and-ink drawing of 1988, for example, images of the “demon” and of the head of the woman extracted from Picasso’s Woman in a Straw Hat appear on a bannerlike form “nailed” to a backdrop of puffy clouds in a blue sky. The woman’s eye/breast extends toward the recumbent figure. Johns seems once again to have cast himself as the “demon,” while the nurturing female role was assigned to Jane Meyerhoff, a devoted Johns collector and longtime friend of the artist, to whom the drawing was dedicated.
- Amei Wallach, “Jasper Johns and his Visual Guessing Games,” New York Newsday, Feb. 28,1991, n, p. 65; reprinted in Susan Brundage, ed., Jasper Johns—35 Years—Leo CasteUi, New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993, n.p. Also, Jill Johnston, “Trafficking With X,” p. 165, wrote that the English critic David Sylvester, seeing this image for the first time in London in November 1880, identified the Grunewald as its source (Johnston disagreed but did not propose an alternate source).
- This figure was identified by Bernstein, “Seeing a Thing,” p. 66.
- A connection between Johns’s art of the mid-’80s and the theme of the Last Judgment was also made by Kirk Varnedoe in “Introduction: A Sense of Life,” Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, p. 30. Varnedoe pointed out that the empty pair of trousers hung up in the center of the “bathtub” picture Racing Thoughts (1883) could be seen as “a melancholy, hollow husk of the self that in shape and in self-vilifying implications offers a distant echo of Michelangelo’s self-portrait as a flayed sack, in the Last Judgment fresco of the Sistine Chapel.”
- Quoted in Mark Rosenthal, “Jasper Johns,” in Artists at Gemini G£l.: Celebrating the 25th Year, exh. cat., New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles, 1883, pp. 58-67; reprinted in Kirk Varnedoe, ed., Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, and Interviews, p. 282.
- Bernstein, “Seeing a Thing,” p. 42.
- Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko, New York, Harper & Row, 1975.