Jasper Johns’ sculpture of 1958-61 can be seen as an expression of his admiration for the art, intellect, and person of Marcel Duchamp and constitutes an act of homage to the artist 43 years his senior. Through a series of intuitive leaps and intellectual conceits, Johns responded to particular aspects of Duchamp’s art and thought through the forms of his sculpture, such that an act of homage gave rise to an art of originality.
Published Arts, April 1980
It has been over twenty years since Jasper Johns executed his first sculpture, Lightbulb I of 1958. Three years of highly concentrated sculptural activity followed, during which time the bulk of his three-dimensional images were created: the variations on the lightbulb and flashlight themes, the painted bronze ale cans and Savarin can with brushes, and the “biting” critic pieces. Subsequently, the production of sculpture has remained an extremely limited aspect of this otherwise highly prolific artist’s oeuvre.
Certain factors indicate that the sculpture of 1958-61 is of the utmost personal significance to the artist. The images developed in the sculpture have continued to stimulate his mind and energies up to the present day, particularly in the graphic medium, the most conspicuous recent example being the poster Johns created for the 1978 Whitney retrospective which featured the image of the 1960 Savarin can sculpture juxtaposed with the more contemporary crosshatchings. When Johns recently revealed his intention to return to the production of sculpture, his plan was to execute sculptures based on the early motifs—apparently to duplicate a bronze version of a flashlight that had been stolen and to create certain variations on the flashlight theme that had been conceived but never executed. Also significant in this context is the fact that Johns has retained a good deal of the sculpture for his personal collection and that when certain pieces, such as the Painted Bronze (ale cans) and The Critic Sees were sold, he created duplicate versions for himself.
The personal importance of these works to the artist can be understood if we consider that he began to produce sculpture concurrent with his “discovery” of Marcel Duchamp.1 Johns found in Duchamp a mentor—a distinguished older master with whom he shared patterns of thought, conceptions about what art should be, and a delight in wit, ambiguity, and paradox. Whereas Johns’ painting and graphic work have long been examined and reexamined with regard to the artist’s professed admiration for Duchamp, such discussions of Johns’ sculpture have not yet ventured beyond the notion of the sculpture as extensions of the Readymades. a critical interpretation which in the final analysis would evaluate the work as imitative and retardataire. This traditional discussion would describe the sculpture as three-dimensional counterparts to Johns’ “emphatically fiat” paintings of flags and numbers and, like them, as trompe-l’oeil representations of commonplace objects which call into question the nature of reality and challenge conventional notions about art. The one distinction recognized between Johns’ “Readymades” and those of Duchamp is that whereas Duchamp presented factory-manufactured objects as art, Johns continued to be concerned with process, handmaking his sculptures from art materials. The question of object choice—of why Johns specifically chose to represent lightbulbs and cans of Ballantine Ale—has not in any way been accounted for, most writers in the past having dismissed the issue by echoing Johns’ claims to a Duchampian “aesthetic anesthesia” in the selection of his motifs.
This article will demonstrate that Johns’ response to Duchamp in the execution of his sculpture was on the one hand more global, and on the other more intensely personal, than hitherto conceived, involving an act of the intellect and of artistic inspiration that far exceeded any relation to Duchamp’s Readymades. Johns’ sculpture can be seen as an expression of his admiration for the art, intellect, and person of Marcel Duchamp and constitutes an act of homage to the artist 43 years his senior. It will be revealed that specific iconographic sources for the sculpture of 1958-61 can be identified within Duchamp’s oeuvre. Through a series of intuitive leaps and intellectual conceits, Johns responded to particular aspects of Duchamp’s art and thought through the forms of his sculpture, such that an act of homage gave rise to an art of originality.
The Lightbulbs and Flashlights
Johns’ first sculpture was the sculpmetal Lightbulb I of 1958. It presents an object which is readily identifiable as a familiar, everyday lightbulb in its size, shape, and detailed socket-end. The surface of the bulb is highly textured and the object is nuzzled into a separate but integral cushion-like base which “receives” the bulb in the form of an indentation. In Flashlight I, also of 1958, a store-bought flashlight and a wooden rectangular base are heavily coated with sculpmetal—only the
glass front with its tiny bulb is left exposed. The flashlight is held suspended above the base on two thin iron rods.
Although several critics have described the effect of Johns’ lightbulbs and flashlights as inducing the feeling of frustration and dysfunction, certain versions of the motif, like the two detailed above, elicit response of a different character. In the first, the bulb is sensitively handled, caressed and fondled, while in the second the flashlight is held prominently erect and charged with a certain potency. The second variation on each theme, however, does evoke the noted response.
Lightbulb II of 1958, executed in sculpmetal, presents a baseless lightbulb which is shown complete with its socket and wire attachments. Because the coiled wire has been broken off and twisted, we are made especially aware that this once hanging lightbulb has been isolated from its source of power; lying alone upon a table it appears naked, impotent, its tortured wire evoking a certain angst. Similarly, Flashlight II of 1958, a replica in papier mache of the original store-bought flashlight, now brown in color, rests directly upon a thin slab-like base which is just slightly larger than the object itself. The flashlight appears dark, dull, powerless, especially when compared with the soaring monumentality of the first version.
Isolated in an art context, apart from their real-life functions, the bulbous shape of the standard
lightbulb and the elongated cylinder of the typical flashlight assume sexual connotations. These erotic implications are enhanced by the artist through a sensuous handling of the materials and texures and by a careful manipulation of the interrelationship between each object and its base. It will be demonstrated that Johns intended the flashlights and lightbulbs to serve as metaphorical surrogates for the male genitalia and, moreover, that the source of inspiration can be identified within the art and thought of Marcel Duchamp.
Eroticism is rarely, if ever, discussed in relation to Johns’ sculpture or to the artist’s work in general. Even works with such provocative titles as Painting with Two Balls of 1960 in which fragments of the newspaper collage visible on the painting’s surface refer to track and field sporting events (athletics = virility) have been discussed in strictly formal terms. The conspicuous lack of critical interpretation of Johns’ art in terms of sexual content necessitates that it be established that eroticism can be understood as an underlying element of the artist’s iconography. This will be demonstrated through an examination of the sculptures both in themselves and within the broader context of Johns’ oeuvre; through a consideration of Johns’ statements of artistic intention; and by exploring his interest in the erotic aspects of Duchamp’s art and thought.
That Johns indeed sought to provoke associations through the forms of his sculpture finds confirmation in pronouncements made by the artist throughout his career. Tellingly, one of the earliest was made in reaction to Duchamp’s annotation in the Green Box, “. . . to reach the Impossibility of visual sufficient memory to transfer from one like object to another the memory imprint.”2 Johns’ identification with this statement of artistic intention underlies his own search for an art at once allusive and elusive.
It appears that in each of the variations on the lightbulb and flashlight motifs, Johns is testing the extent to which the “memory imprint” can be transferred from the commonplace household items to the “visually-like” objects of the male genitalia. It is interesting to considerthat numerous critics have chosen to compare Johns’ Flashlight III of 1958 to such unexpected precedents as Michelangelo’s Captive Slave and the sculpture of Auguste Rodin. In this version of the motif, the form of Johns’ standard flashlight, now executed in plaster and golden brown in color, “emerges” in monumental fashion from the highly textured mound of its base. Although it is the contrast between finish and unfinish that these writers have focused upon in their comparisons, it would appear that the sexual content of the sculpture was sufficiently intuited so as to lead them to make so apt an association as that between Johns’ highly phallic object and the work of two sculptors who dealt so often with the subject of virility.
In Johns’ most recent version of the lightbulb motif, a sculpmetal work of 1968-70, the form of an English lightbulb is suspended on a wire loop above a rectangular base, lending the bulb a certain weightlessness and buoyancy. It was made specifically for Johns’ British assistant Mark Lancaster whose name is inscribed on the base. Lancaster maintains that what appealed to Johns in the English Lightbulb was the “bayonet fixture” which is distinct from the screw-end of the standard American bulb, adding, as it were, still another ironic “twist” to the lightbulb motif.3
Within the broader context of Johns’ oeuvre, more direct references to human anatomy did appear previous to the lightbulbs and flashlights and, presumably, before his discovery of Duchamp. In Target with Plaster Casts of 1955, casts of human anatomical fragments, among them a foot, a hand, an ear, a nose, a male breast, and a penis, are each painted a different color and are isolated within small boxes with hinged covers that are lined up above the form of a target. With the exception of body imprints and the cast of a human leg, such explicit depictions of human anatomy are not to be found in Johns’ art again until the 1970s, as in the enormous Untitled of 1972, in which irregularly shaped casts of illusionistically painted anatomical fragments are nailed to wooden planks on one-fourth of the canvas, while fields of the more neutral and abstracted crosshatchings and flagstones occupy the remaining areas.
Roughly analogous to the treatment of the human body in each of these assemblages is Johns’ Bronze, a lightbulb sculpture of 1960-61. This work presents a slightly later variation on Lightbulb II but it is now taken apart—the bulb, socket, and coiled wire are displayed as individual components lined up along a thin bronze ledge marked with a grid (through the imprint of a wire mesh). The round, sensuously textured bulb, the empty socket with its dark cavern in which to insert the bulb, and the nervous, twisted wire present an isolation and fragmentation that evokes a feeling of discomfort in the spectator. The following statement from Johns’ “Sketchbook Notes” is called to mind:
“Make something, a kind of object that as it changes or falls apart (dies as it were) or increases in its parts (grows as it were) offers no clue as to what its state or form or nature was at any previous time. Physical or metaphysical obstinacy. Could this be a useful object?”
This statement speaks of man-made objects that participate in the organic processes of growth and death, equating the animate with the inanimate and the organically natural with manufactured objects of questionable function. By replacing compartmentalized body parts with fragments of a hanging lightbulb, Johns diffused the psychological charge of such a mutilation, which is in keeping with his desire for an emotionally dispassionate art.4
The variation in the manner in which each of the lightbulbs and flashlights is presented, being either fondled by its base or left naked and alone, held prominently erect above its base or resting vulnerably upon a narrow slab, reveals Johns’ art to be one of supreme intentionality. Like Duchamp with his Readymades, Johns sought to “create a new thought” for his light-bulbs and flashlights. That this thought was specifically sexual in nature can also be understood as a response to Duchamp if we look beyond the Readymades to the erotic machinery of Duchamp. Eroticism has long been recognized as a basic component of Duchamp’s art, the master himself declaring that it could well be designated another “ism.” The eroticism of Duchamp parallels that of Johns in that it is an intellectualized sexuality, apart from the arousal of the hormones and geared to the stimulation of the mind. The basic difference between them is that Duchamp is explicit and outstated about his preoccupation with love-making, whereas Johns consistently masks all erotic content through the use of intellectual conceits and strongly veiled allusions.
Johns’ interest and familiarity with the erotic aspects of Duchamp’s art and thought is apparent in his having written a review in 1960 of The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors. Even, the first complete English edition of Duchamp’s Green Box, the notes for the Large Glass. Also significant is Johns’ acquisition in the early 1960s of limited edition replicas of erotic objects created by Duchamp in New York some ten years before, among them the Wedge of Chastity, the Objet-dard, and the Female Fig Leaf.
It is worthwhile to consider Johns’ interest in the latter, an object which Duchamp claimed has been modeled as a plaster cast against the pudenda of the nude female figure of the mixed-media assemblage, the Etant Donnes. It appears, however, that the Female Fig Leaf might just as well have been shaped against the buttocks of a person of either sex.5 In the year of its acquisition, Johns began to incorporate the imprint of the object into a number of his paintings, as in No of 1961 and Arrive/Depart of 1963-64. As has often been told, one critic, having seen the impression of Duchamp’s sculpture in one of Johns’ paintings and being unfamiliar with its source of origin, inquired if it was the imprint of a slice of bread. This suggestion of visually similar objects (involving the transfer of a “memory imprint”) so appealed to Johns that he created a relief sculpture of a commonplace slice of white bread, the lead relief Bread of 1969. Duchamp’s ambiguous, erotic object can therefore be seen to have served as the direct source of inspiration for a sculpture by Johns whose form, to the initiated, suddenly takes on the ironic and unexpected suggestion of a pair of human buttocks; Johns thereby created another thought for Duchamp’s sculpture.
Johns’ claims to a Duchampian “aesthetic anesthesia” in the selection of his motifs can be seen as evasive, belied by the metaphorical role the flashlights and lightbulbs were called upon to play. Since any number of objects of phallic and bulbous shapes could have been delegated to this role, the specific choice of flashlights and lightbulbs as the subject matter of the sculpture was supremely intentional. Before turning to Duchamp for the final analysis of these sculptures, it is important to examine the precedent for the use of lightbulbs in art that can be found in the work of Robert Rauschenberg, the artist whose influence on Johns seconded that of Duchamp.6
Beginning in 1954, Rauschenberg began to include electric lights and reflectors in his combine paintings, as in the huge red painting Charlene. In this work, amid a tumult of assembled urban artifacts interspersed with patches of red paint, a single unfrosted electric lightbulb asserts its presence by having been endowed with the power to flash on and off. As we have seen, Johns’ use of the lightbulb is entirely different. Not only are his lightbulbs functionless, being made of art materials, but they are depicted alone, apart from any larger context, and are tied to traditional definitions of sculpture. Rauschenberg’s approach to art, which was outwardly less cerebral than Johns’ and involved the desire to unite art and life, had developed under the influence of his friend, the composer John Cage. Cage had met Duchamp in the early 1940s and was a source of ideas and knowledge about Duchamp’s work for younger artists during the Fifties. Contrary to the opinions of a previous writer, although Johns met Cage through Rauschenberg in 1955 and probably acquired some familiarity with Duchamp at that time, given the differences in their approach to the older master it is evident that it was not “via Cage” that Johns came to develop “a neo-Duchampian art at the service of the mind” but via his personal discovery and investigation of Duchamp of a short time later.7 It was Duchamp who served as the direct source of inspiration for the sculpture.
Johns’ original idea for a lightbulb sculpture, as documented by a 1957 sketch, was for a hanging lightbulb suspended from a socket and coiled wire. According to Johns, the piece was never executed because the plaster model was too fragile and broke. In 1903-04. Duchamp executed a charcoal drawing, Hanging Gas Lamp (Bec de Gaz) while a student at the Ecole Bossuet in Rouen. The drawing presents a very literal rendering of a hanging metal gas lamp which emits a tiny flame. This is not only a prophetic work in Duchamp’s oeuvre in that it shows his early interest in the commonplace, but it has been determined that the gas lamp arose from pornographic imagery— from the posters of the Bee Auer gas lamp company.8 One such poster featured a bare-breasted young woman holding the name-brand gas lamp aloft with one hand, while seductively caressing with her other the long, thick stem of an oversized sunflower.
It is highly improbable that Johns knew of this early student drawing by Duchamp since it has remained in private collections in Europe and was not illustrated in the Lebel monograph (although it was listed in the catalogue). Johns was, however, undoubtedly familiar with Duchamp’s continued preoccupation with the gas lamp in the form of “The Illuminating Gas,” an idea basic to The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even of 1915-23 which was further elaborated in the Etant Donnes or Given: 1. The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas of 1946-66. Although “The Illuminating Gas” does not actually make an appearance in the Large Glass (it is invisible), it is given extensive consideration in the Green Box as an essential element of the bachelor apparatus. Formed by the Nine Malic Molds, the male protagonists of the glass, it is the product of their communal orgasm. In Given: 1. The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas, a title derived from an early note in the Green Box, the lighting gas once again finds materialization in the form of an actual gas lamp of Le Bec Auer type. Held upright in the hand of the reclining female nude of that tableau, its suggested function is to serve as an instrument of masturbation—as a surrogate for the male member. This erotic identification is reinforced by Duchamp’s etching Le Bec Auer of 1968 which shows the gas lamp clasped in the hand of a female nude, beside whom is a truncated, reclining nude male companion.
Although the Etant Donnes and the related etching date to after Johns’ first sculptures, sufficient evidence nevertheless exists to confirm that Johns knew of Duchamp’s having established an equivalence between the gas lamp and the male member: first, his knowledge of the notes for the Large Glass as compiled in the Green Box, a crucial portion of which appeared in Robert Motherwell’s The Dada Painters and Poets of 1951; second, his involvement with the erotic objects produced by Duchamp in the 1950s, some being byproducts of the fabrication of the Etant Donnes; third, his connection to Duchamp through the intermediary influence of John Cage who might have known of Duchamp’s preoccupation with the gas lamp and transmitted this knowledge to Johns, thereby accounting for the early (1957) dating of the initial lightbulb sketch.
In the light of this illuminating evidence it is possible to identify the source for Johns’ lightbulbs and flashlights, together with their erotic associations, in the idea of “The Illuminating Gas” of Marcel Duchamp, as it appeared in his art and writing from his early student days to 1968, the year of his death. That Johns specifically selected for the subject matter of his sculpture two objects united by the theme of illumination (the flashlight with its source of power internalized), and that his preoccupation with these objects was to continue to the present day, can be traced to his involvement with, and admiration for, Marcel Duchamp.
The Painted Bronzes
In 1960 Johns executed two sculptures which he entitled Painted Bronze. The first represented two cans of Ballantine Ale set upon a thin, shelf-like base; the shaky, uneven edges of the cylinders, the brushiness of the Ballantine label with smaller details illegible, and the “signature” left on the base in the form of a thumbprint reveal their handcrafted origins. The second was an exceedingly trompe-l’oeil recreation of a Savarin Coffee can out of which projected a spray of about sixteen paintbrushes of varying shapes and sizes; having no base to set this studio object apart from the real world as sculpture, it is ultimately the painterliness of the coffee can, and its heaviness when lifted, that indicate that it is not a “found object.”
Johns has maintained that the ale cans sculpture found its inspiration in a statement made by Willem de Kooning in which he criticized the ability of Leo Castelli (Johns’ dealer) to proffer such mundane objects as beer cans as art. This indicates that the sculpture is to be understood as an affirmation of the neo-Dada philosophy that even the most “lowly” objects can constitute a work of art, finding a precedent in Rauschenberg’s Coca Cola Plan of 1958 which apotheosizes three actual containers of the name-brand beverage by means of a pair of outstretched wings. Johns took a different approach. Rather than presenting the genuine ale cans or replicating them in a deadpan manner, he artfully handcrafted them and infused them with a certain autobiographic and philosophic content such that they rival, in all their humility, the grand, sweeping statements of the “higher” art of Abstract Expressionism.9
The ale cans sculpture operates on yet another level of meaning. I propose that during the complex formulation of the fraternal twins of the Painted Bronze, Johns derived added inspiration from his intimate knowledge of the art and thought of Marcel Duchamp, specifically as regards the annotations of the Green Box. Duchamp once said, “All along while painting it [the Large Glass] I wrote a number of notes which were to complement the visual experience like a guidebook.”10 While following the convoluted trail of Duchamp’s “guidebook,” Johns might well have discovered two cans of Ballantine Ale.
I first became aware of the further content underlying the sculpture when struck by the strong stylistic parallel between Johns’ Ale Cans lithograph of 1964 (which reproduces the 1960 sculpture) and Duchamp’s painting Chocolate Grinder #7 of 1913. Each of these works presents an illusionistic, bird’s-eye view of its subject, with chiaroscuro suggesting the roundness of the cylindrical forms, cast shadows, and a dominant golden brown (bronze) tonality. Richard Field noted that this lithograph is Johns’ only print “to cross into the realm of trompe-l’oeil experience.”11 suggesting that Johns might have sought to emulate Duchamp’s dry, perspective rendering. Reinforcement is found in Johns’ 1960 review of the Green Box in which he praises Duchamp’s “painting of precision and beauty of indifference.” The Chocolate Grinder #7 is the prime example of this in Duchamp’s oeuvre.
Significantly, the Chocolate Grinder #7 also has the distinction of being the first study for one of the principal elements of the lower portion of the Large Glass. Within the context of the bachelor machine, immediately to the left of the Chocolate Grinder, separated from it by an imaginary waterfall, is the Glider Containing a Water Mill in Neighboring Metals. As Duchamp describes in the Green Box, the Glider or Chariot (as it is often called) was designed to slide back and forth along horizontal runners while the Water Mill within rotates on its axis. This dual-action was to be set in motion partly by the waterfall but more directly through the erratic rise and fall of an (invisible) bottle of Benedictine. The Glider’s “journey” was accompanied by the Litanies of the Chariot, the refrain of the entire bachelor machine:
“Slow life. Vicious circle. Onanism. Horizontal. Return trips on the buffer. The trash of life. Cheap construction. Tin.
ropes, wire. Eccentric wooden pulleys. Monotonous flywheel. Beer professor.”
That this passage from the Green Box was both known to Johns and of interest to him finds confirmation in his drawing Litanies of the Chariot of 1961 in which the phrases of Duchamp’s chant are listed one below the other. The words “Beer professor” at its very end suggest Johns’ cans of Ballantine Ale. Given Johns’ preoccupation with language and verbal puns and spurred on by the Litanies’ final words, the correspondence between the brand-name beverages Ballantine and Benedictine might well have occurred to him. De Kooning challenged the sale of beer cans and Duchamp spoke of a “Beer professor”; Johns’ choice of the more elegant ale can perhaps be explained in that ale is thicker, richer, closer in texture to the sweet, aromatic liqueur indicated by Duchamp. The original telltale parallel between the Ale Cans lithograph and the Chocolate Grinder #7 serves as further evidence to establish that Johns had the bachelor apparatus of the Large Glass in mind during the formulation of the Painted Bronze. In this sculpture, as in the lightbulbs and flashlights. Johns responded to Duchamp’s erotic ideas through the literal representation of still-life objects. In each case, inspiration was found in one of the two “Givens” that spanned Duchamp’s career: the light-bulbs and flashlights having their source in “The Illuminating Gas’ and the ale cans deriving from aspects of the Large Glass intimately related to “The Waterfall.”
When asked about Johns’ ale cans in an interview shortly before his death, Duchamp claimed that the painting of the cans was “absolutely mechanical.”’12 This negation of the painstaking, sensuous execution of the sculpture is an expression of Duchamp’s own artistic concerns, not those of Jasper Johns. Johns sought to make the handcrafted origins of the sculpture apparent so that it would not be mistaken for a Readymade. Moreover, he entitled the work Painted Bronze. The choice of this title for both the ale cans sculpture and the Savarin can with brushes indicates that he deliberately sought to place the works within the tradition of past sculpture, to have them relate back to such art historical landmarks as Picasso’s painted bronze Glass of Absinthe of 1914. Johns’ material is the age-old, time-honored medium of bronze and he embellishes the surfaces through polychromy, another artistic process.
The key word here is, of course, process. Process is that which has long been recognized as the major distinguishing feature between the work of the two artists. With the exception of the first version of the flashlight which encompasses a store-bought flashlight heavily coated with art materials, none of the Johns’ sculptures are found objects or Readymades—each is built up through artistic processes. Johns is primarily a painter, the production of sculpture being confined essentially to the three year period presently under consideration. During this period, the fact that Duchamp had grown repulsed by the matiere of paint fairly early in his career and had rejected painting as “not a goal to fill an entire lifetime” apparently posed somewhat of a problem for Johns, challenging his own conceptions about art. In “An Appreciation” of Duchamp published shortly after Duchamp’s death, Johns wrote:
“In the 1920s Duchamp gave up, quit painting . . . One thought of his decision, his willing this stopping. Yet on one occasion he said it was not like that. He spoke of breaking a leg. “You don’t mean to do it,” he said.”
In Johns’ painting “M” of 1961, the initial “M,” which can be thought of as a reference to the name Marcel, appears twice in the lower left, while a paintbrush (labeled “brush”) hangs from a “screw eye” suspended by a “pulley,” calling to mind the sort of apparatus utilized in the hospital by a person with a broken leg. It appears that Johns was attempting to rectify the mishap that altered the course of Duchamp’s career so that he would once again take brush in hand.
The Savarin can with brushes embodies Johns’ initial resolution of the conflict he experienced between his and Duchamp’s artistic attitudes. It is a declaration of his personal identity as one who makes art: “I am a painter.”‘3
Upon entering Johns’ studio on East Houston Street, I was struck by the neat line-up of coffee cans with brushes that resembled so closely Johns’ Savarin can sculpture, except that these were genuine. Several brands of coffee were represented. This raised the question: Why Savarin? Answer: Sapolin. In Duchamp’s rectified Readymade Apolinere Enameled of 1916-17, Duchamp altered the lettering in a painted tin advertisement for Sapolin Paints so as to intentionally misspell the name of Guillaume Apollinaire. The advertisement shows a little girl engaged in the task of painting a bed; Duchamp added the reflection of her hair in the mirror behind her. The similarity between the brand-names Savarin and Sapolin recalls the verbal correspondence between Ballantine and Benedictine and suggests that the specific selection of the Savarin can was by no means accidental. The fact that Duchamp had chosen for this Readymade a paint advertisement which represents an individual in the act of painting must have struck the younger artist, especially since in this work he was reacting to his mentor’s having ceased to paint. Johns’ Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) can therefore be understood to operate on many levels, being at once a serious statement of artistic identity and a private joke (as it were), both of which were formulated in relation to Marcel Duchamp.
The Critic Pieces
Of the sculptures produced 1958-61, those that most readily reveal themselves as Duchamp-inspired artifacts are those based upon the critic theme. The Critic Smiles of 1959 is, quite literally, a toothbrush; Johns transformed the object of thrice-a-day use into a punning, witty sculpture by replacing the bristles with the forms of four human teeth, coating the whole with sculpmetal, and setting it upon a rectangular base. Two years later, Johns executed another sculpmetal work which presents an even more unexpected juxtaposition of elements, The Critic Sees (Fig. 19). In this sculpture, casts of human mouths, one partially open as if in speech, the other with teeth clamped firmly shut, are seen through the lenses of a pair of men’s eyeglasses which project in low relief from the side of a small brick-like form.
Johns has indicated that his intention in each of these sculptures was to comment upon the art world and its critical mechanisms. In the first he satirized the critic’s much-sought-after smile of approval and in the second the pathetic situation of the critic who is unable to apprehend anything beyond his own words, opinions, and preconceived notions about art. On another level, a review of that portion of Johns’ “Sketchbook Notes” which introduces his concept of the “watchman and spy” clearly indicates that the identity of the “Critic” is ambiguous, and intentionally so, since artist and spectator alike scrutinize the finished work of art. This parallels Duchamp’s conviction that the audience is as significant to the completion of the work as the artist. Duchamp said, “It is the spectators who make the pictures.”
Both of Johns’ sculptures on the critic theme make manifest his supreme involvement with visual pun and verbal paradox, a preoccupation which is at the root of his admiration for Duchamp. Each of these works finds a precedent in Duchamp’s With My Tongue in My Cheek, an assemblage relief that combines a drawn self-portrait with a plaster cast of his cheek and jaw, executed for the Lebel monograph in 1959. Like Johns’ critic sculptures, this work embodies a comment on the art world and on how his art is to be received by others. Making its appearance in the same year as The Critic Smiles, this relief also presents a materialization of a verbal idea; but rather than translating into literal terms the name of a commonplace object, Duchamp took as his subject a familiar, overused cliche.
The sculpture The Critic Sees can be understood to operate on another level of meaning. It constitutes a far-reaching philosophical statement by Johns concerning his personal attitudes toward aesthetics and the perception of works of art. In 1969. Max Kozloff presented a masterful interpretation of this sculpture. Rejecting the criticism of art critics as “the surface meaning,” he explained that by replacing a pair of eyes with two mouths Johns established an equivalence between verbal activity and sight. He wrote:
“.. . verbal activity, or possibly that from which it derives, conceptual thinking, is juxtaposed to the process of vision. . . Taken in itself the object would imply, not that sight is more important than speaking, but that they are peers. . .’14
The sculpture can be interpreted as a graphic illustration of the union of mental and visual processes which occurs within the “critic” when viewing a work of art. It also can be understood as a three-dimensional realization of the idea of art as language, contained within the form of a sculpture that “speaks” so uncannily to us.15
Given our present understanding of Johns’ involvement with Duchamp in the execution of his sculptures, we can now take Kozloff’s interpretation one step further to reveal the connection between The Critic Sees and an oft-quoted statement eulogizing Duchamp made by Johns shortly after his mentor’s death. Johns wrote, “Marcel Duchamp. .. moved his work through the retinal boundaries established by Impressionism into a field where language, thought, and vision act upon one another.” The equivalence of verbal, mental, and visual processes is that which Johns discovered and prized in the art and thought of Marcel Duchamp. The Critic Sees represents the embodiment of what Johns considered to be Duchamp’s supreme artistic achievement and constitutes an act of homage.16
That this tribute was recognized by Duchamp finds confirmation in that a print of a later version of The Critic Sees motif, The Summer Critic of 1966, appeared in the book To and From Rrose Selavy, Selected Words of Marcel Duchamp, published in 1968 by Duchamp’s alter-ego. In this embossed print, a pair of men’s sunglasses, upon each of whose green acetate lenses the word “mouth” has been silkscreened, projects in low relief from a brick-like form. The inclusion of Johns’ print in this book suggests that Duchamp sought to pay respect to the artist 43 years his junior for whom he had become, as Kozloff wrote, “an unwitting mentor.” It is in keeping with the irony basic to both artists that of all of Johns’ sculpture, it was the chatty motif of The Critic Sees that finally provoked Duchamp to reply to the monologue of continued responses that Johns had initiated with his art and writing some ten years before. With the publication of Duchamp’s book in the year of his death, a dialogue had been established between Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp.
When I visited Johns’ studio in January of 1979, his assistant Mark Lancaster mentioned that Johns was contemplating presenting the sculpture in his personal collection to a museum. It should come as no surprise that the museum cited was the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the home of Duchamp’s Large Glass, Etant Donnes, Chocolate Grinder #1. Female Fig Leaf, etal.
- Johns maintains that it was in 1958. after the first solo exhibition of his paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery when several critics labeled his art ‘neo-Dada.’ that he first became familiar with the art and thought of Duchamp. Although there is a good deal of evidence in his work to suggest that he was at least minimally aware of Duchamp previous to that time, I see no reason to doubt that it was not until 1958-59 that he began his full-scale, personal investigation of the work and writing of Duchamp. To familiarize himself with Duchamp’s oeuvre he read the Robert Motherwell anthology, The Dada Painters and Poets, published in 1951; went to see the Arensberg Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and read Robert Lebel’s monograph on Duchamp published in 1959. In the same year Johns met Duchamp through the critic Nicolas Calas who brought the older master to his studio. By the early 1960s, Johns had begun to amass a sizable collection of works by Duchamp. The only publications to Johns’ credit, other than the printing of fragments of his own “Sketchbook Notes,” are three short articles on Duchamp; a review of The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, a typographic version by Richard Hamilton of Duchamp’s Green Box, in Scrap, 1960; “Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968): An Appreciation.” Artforum, 1968; “Thoughts on Duchamp,” Art in America, 1969.
- Dorothy C. Miller (ed), Sixteen Americans (exhibition catalogue), (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1959), p. 22.
- The international scope of Claes Oldenburg’s monumental sculptures of utilitarian objects, i.e. the English, Swedish, and American three-way plugs of 1965-70, might have inspired Johns in his English Lightbulb. In contradistinction to Johns, the eroticism of Oldenburg’s sculpture has long been acknowledged.
- That Johns sought to diffuse both psychologically loaded and erotic content through the representation of still-life objects parallels the apples of Cezanne as interpreted by Meyer Schapiro. “The Apples of Cezanne: An Essay in the Meaning of Still-Life.” Art News Annual,1967, pp. 35-53.
- That the Female Fig Leal is both ambiguous and androgynous is in keeping with Duchamp’s desire on the one hand for an art of multiple meanings and with his possession of a female alter-ego. Rrose Selavy, on the other. This androgynous content is echoed in Johns’ relief sculpture Subway of 1965 in which plaster casts of two kneecaps protrude from a rectangular ground—the left knee is labeled “HIS,” the right “HERS.”
- From 1955-61 Johns and Rauschenberg lived in the same loft building and saw each other’s work daily, so that they were in direct contact during that period in which the sculptures under consideration were created.
- Irving Sandler, The New York School (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 170.
- Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine (eds), Marcel Duchamp (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973), p. 234.
- Close examination reveals that the cans are not identical. One can is open, hollow, and light in weight; the other is closed, “full,” and unexpectedly heavy, being made of solid bronze. Human presence and absence is thereby implied as is past and present time. The open can is slightly smaller and the top is marked with the three-ring logo of the Ballantine Brewing Company and with the word “Florida,” the can being of Southern origins, while the lid of the other is blank, having been produced in the North. This can be understood as a reference to Johns’ own past and present, the artist having been raised in South Carolina but living from 1952 in New York.
- D’Harnoncourt and McShine, op. cit., p. 296.
- Richard S. Field, Jasper Johns: Prints 1960- 70 (Philadelphia and New York: The Philadelphia Museum of Art and Praeger, 1970), unpaginated.
- Jeanne Siegel, “Some Late Thoughts of Marcel Duchamp,” Arts Magazine, vol. 43, no. 3 (December 1968-January 1969), p. 21.
In a more general sense, the Savarin can with brushes can be regarded as falling within the tradition of the artist’s tools serving as attributes of the artist, finding a precedent in Rauschenberg’s Paint Cans relief construction of 1954, in the collection of Jasper Johns. Johns’ self-identification with the Painted Bronze has been reinforced in more recent years as he has made it clear that the brushes are to be regarded as extensions of his hand. In the 1978 Whitney poster, the image of the sculpture was set before a field of crosshatchings. the color of the brushes echoing those of the lines, and it is evident that Johns sought to establish an equivalence between the pick-up-stick accumulation of the brushes and the scatter of the lines. Still more recently, Johns has begun to form the lines of the crosshatchings in his paintings and prints with the imprint of his hand and fingers, thereby bringing the equation full-circle.
- Max Kozloff, Jasper Johns (New York: Harry N. Abrams. 1969), p. 10.
- Various writers, among them Max Kozloff and Barbara Rose, have described The Critic Sees as presenting an “uncanny” image. It appears that there is a psycho-sexual basis to the disturbing power of the work. Freud’s discussion of the uncanny revolves specifically around the dread of the loss of one’s eyes which appeals to the unconscious as the fear of castration. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” On Creativity and the Unconscious (New York: Harper and Row. 1958), pp. 122-161.
- It is hoped that the present analysis will help to confirm the notion that Johns’ art was as least as much a precedent for various manifestations of Conceptual art in the 1960s as it was for Pop. While Johns’ Painted Bronze (ale cans) does offer, at least on face value, a precedent for Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans, it can at the same time be understood as a forerunner of Robert Morris’ Litanies of 1963 (Coll. Museum of Modern Art). In this work a bunch of keys hangs from a large ring, each ring inscribed with an individual word from Duchamp’s “Litanies of the Chariot”; the piece is accompanied by a sworn affidavit that withdraws from it all aesthetic content Likewise, Bruce Nauman’s From Hand to Mouth of 1967 (Coll. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Helman, Rome), which presents a green wax and plaster cast of the artist’s right arm and mouth, materializes a verbal idea in the manner of both Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp.