Jasper Johns’ subtle, enigmatic art has influenced many but can be practiced by no one but its creator.
In the only dream he has ever recounted, Jasper Johns saw himself painting the American flag. Having dreamt it, he did it. Flag (1954–55) is five feet wide, its stars and stripes meticulously rendered in encaustic, a medium consisting of beeswax melted and mixed with pigment. After the mid-1950s, Johns usually worked in oil paint or acrylics, and yet he returned to encaustic now and then, most notably in the Crosshatch paintings that preoccupied him during the 1970s. Quizzed about his preference for a medium that has been employed by very few painters since medieval times, Johns said he likes it because it makes a precise record of each touch of the brush. “It drips so far and stops,” he added. “Each discrete moment remains discrete.” This desire for control was remarkable in a time when Willem de Kooning’s brushwork and Jackson Pollock’s drip method were merging colors in surging, improvisatory currents. Their imagery was hot. Johns’ was cool. More than that, his paintings had a disquieting air of pensiveness. And they still do, as is evident at “Something Resembling Truth,” the Johns retrospective now on view at The Broad in Los Angeles (through May 13), presented last year by London’s Royal Academy.
In his early work, Johns did not impose a strict order on the rambunctious energy of the Abstract Expressionists so much as confine it to the linear patterns he found readymade in the American flag, the concentric circles of his Targets, and the repetitive angles of the grids through which he sent numbers and letters marching, zero to nine and A to Z. Traditionally a sign of sincerity, painterly painting acquired from Johns a tone of skepticism. The AbEx claim to heroic self-revelation vanished under a patina of irony. Yet we are not put off by Johns’ elusiveness. On the contrary, his sphinxlike presence in his art has exercised a persistent fascination, in part because it conveys a peculiarly American way of being—one of which certain artists and writers have long been aware, if only intuitively.
In Henry James’ case, of course, this awareness was hyper-conscious. James’ lengthy appreciation of Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1879, makes the point that the earlier novelist’s milieu was not as rich, not as dense with historical and social complexity, as that of his French or English counterparts. In America, wrote James, “The very air looks new and young; the light of the sun seems fresh and innocent, as if it knew as yet but few of the secrets of the world and none of the weariness of shining.” Like his friend, the painter John Singer Sargent, James was more at home in the labyrinthine subtleties of European society than in the improvised openness of American life. By contrast—and this is a contrast as consequential as the one that sets the agrarian Thomas Jefferson at odds with the mercantile Alexander Hamilton—Hawthorne felt at one with that openness, rife as it was with possibilities traceable to early American roots. Viewing the Old World with bemused detachment, he was a model of tolerance in comparison to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who expressed irritation at what he saw as the impacted stasis of Europe. The Grand Tour of its cultural monuments, he felt, is only superficially interesting; one’s time would be better spent by staying at home and cultivating one’s unique and inimitable self. The goal is to find “an original relation to the universe,” as Emerson put it in the introduction to Nature, his still-daunting essay from 1836.
Accepting no mediation from history or tradition, indifferent to cultural norms and social expectations, one creates one’s place in the world from insights prompted by the flow of personal experience. In the process, one creates oneself. Viewed soberly, this is dubious. We cannot, after all, step outside the culture to which we owe the ideas of self and originality. Illogical as it may be, Emerson’s exhortation is still stirring, especially in America, where belief in the possibility of thoroughgoing self-invention remains strong. Call it the Gatsby Syndrome. Turning to postwar American art, we see Jackson Pollock revising utterly the very act of painting. Removing what he called “the eyeglasses of history,” Barnett Newman saw his way to a radically new concept of geometric abstraction—one that extricated painting from the constraints placed on it by Piet Mondrian, who played in Newman’s scenario the part of an Old-World oppressor. To be American is to be free. By painting the American flag, Johns claimed that freedom for himself. Moreover, he joined Pollock and Newman and a few others in the small band of artists who can be said to have achieved an Emersonian degree of originality.
In 1958, Leo Castelli gave Johns his first solo exhibition. With its encaustic Flags and plaster body parts lurking in compartments above deadpan Targets, the show was that year’s sensation. Johns became the artist about whom it was necessary to have an opinion. Detractors saw him as an upstart bent on undermining everything passionate and authentic. Admirers were enchanted by all that surprised them in his paintings—the unapologetic banality of their motifs, the geometric rigidity of their structures, the rubbery elegance of their surfaces. Casting about for a label to apply, Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art came up with “Neo-Dada.” Like Man Ray, Francis Picabia, and other Dadas, Johns introduced the mundane into the realm of high art. Like them, he devised odd juxtapositions. But the label didn’t stick. The spirit of Dada was antic. Johns was calm, disquietingly so. The Dadas were in revolt against the past, bourgeois respectability, even art itself. Immersed in his own subtleties, Johns could not have been less militant. Turning inward, he had achieved at the age of 28 a full measure of self-reliance, that Emersonian virtue; and this gave him an “original relation” not to nature but to art. In the six decades since then, no one has tried to corral him in a stylistic category. Johns stands alone, distant even from the many artists who have borrowed and revised his strategies.
Among the most salient examples are Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and other Pop artists who learned from Johns that art has a place for the readymade iconography of the supermarket. Before there was a Campbell’s Soup Can by Warhol there were Johns’ three-dimensional renderings of a Savarin Coffee can and two Ballantine Ale cans, both from 1960. Lichtenstein’s comic-book images of love and war were preceded by Johns’s Alley Oop (1958), which deploys a field of orange paint as a backdrop for a multipaneled page from the comic strip by that name. Alley Oop and the other characters are masked by touches of paint that set them adrift in a border region between the abstract and the figurative. Dispensing with these ambiguities, the Pop artists opted for sharp edges and inflected patches of color. So did the Minimalists, whose further borrowings from Johns included grids, symmetries, and the literalism of his early sculptures.
The quasi-Minimalist patterns of Frank Stella’s black stripe paintings evolved directly from the red and white stripes of the Johnsian Flag. And Brice Marden’s early monochromes reprise, with slight shifts in hue, the blank passages in Johns’s early gray paintings. By the end of the 1960s, Johns was recognized as the era’s most influential painter, for he had established for that moment the look of serious art. This authority was unsought and of course many resisted it, yet the New York art scene of the following decade was crowded with newcomers performing ham-fisted variations on Johns’s sooty, ruminative brushwork. His influence did not, however, make him a chef d’école. Though there has always been much for other artists to learn from Johns, he has never displayed a teacher’s approachability. Artists must borrow from a distance, across the immense gap that separates his sensibility from theirs. It is possible to paint a Picassoid painting or de Kooningesque painting, but only Johns can paint a Johnsian painting.
Presiding over a landscape we cannot imagine sharing with him, a Flag by Johns is the symbol of an America of his own devising, a New World populated solely by him and built in part from old-fashioned objects and logos and typefaces recalled from his childhood in South Carolina. Thus, Johns takes his place in our imaginations by occupying a place far from the rest of us but very near our ideals of self-sufficiency. He exemplifies independence, his solitude moderated only by his use of motifs borrowed from other artists.
The first of these was Marcel Duchamp. Never officially a Dada, Duchamp was nonetheless sympathetic to the spirit of Dadaism, and his use of readymade objects and images seemed to find an echo in Johns’s Flags and Alphabets. Hence the attempt to attach the “Neo-Dada” label to these paintings. The “Neo” prefix implies a conscious development of an earlier style, as in Neoimpressionism or Neo-Geo. Yet Johns was unaware of Duchamp and his work until the 1958 exhibition at Castelli suggested a connection to artworld denizens on the look-out for historical patterns. “Everyone said my work was Dada,” Johns recalled in 1970, “so I read up on it, went to Philadelphia to see the Arensberg Duchamp collection, was delighted by it.” Soon afterward, the artists met and liked one another.
Duchampian devices began to appear in the young painter’s work—color charts, painted shadows, real objects in place of representations. A note in Duchamp’s Green Box (1934) describes a hinged painting. Johns used hinges to affix a small canvas to the surface of a big painting called According to What (1964). Swing the small canvas outward and one sees a Johnsian version of Duchamp’s Self Portrait in Profile (1958). Yet this homage did not make him Duchamp’s acolyte any more than his paintings of the stars and stripes made him a flag-waving patriot. Johns claimed the Duchamp portrait for himself by giving it a modest place amid the carefully deployed clutter of According to What—the alphabetical fragments, rendered here in raised aluminum; the wax cast of a leg seated on an upside-down chair; the photo-silkscreen of a newspaper page; the coat hanger; the gray scale; the emotionally reserved variations on Abstract Expressionist brushwork.
An incomplete list of Johns’s other sources might include Pablo Picasso, the 16th-century German painter Matthias Grunewald, Leonardo da Vinci, the illustrator Barry Moser, and an eccentric early 20th-century American potter named George Ohr. Regrets, a series of paintings and prints from 2013–14, takes a complex shape from a John Deakin photograph of the young Lucian Freud seated on a bed with an anguished hand pressed against his forehead. Identifiable only after Johns provided a clue, this form is anything but photographic now that he has subjected it to a multi-colored revision. Whatever Johns touches becomes his own, an emblem of him, whether it is an obscure borrowing or one of the body-imprints he transferred to paper in 1962. Fully present in his art, he is nonetheless its principal enigma. And his commentaries raise more questions than they answer.
Asked about the origins of his Crosshatch paintings, Johns said that he first glimpsed this pattern on a passing car, adding, “I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me—literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning.” Of course, that is only one possibility offered by Johns’s art. Another is an overwhelming plethora of meaning, an abundance all the more formidable because it is up to us to generate it from an immersion in his world. Johns is of course nearby. His shadow falls across all four panels of The Seasons (1987). Yet he is not about to step forward with any definitive explanations.
By Carter Ratcliff