In the summer of 1953, after a stint in the army, Jasper Johns, aged 23, moved back to New York City. There, a few months later, he met Robert Rauschenberg. Their artistic and romantic partnership would last until 1961; the company they kept included John Cage and Merce Cunningham. In this heady atmosphere, Johns chose, in autumn 1954, to destroy all his prior work, and to begin the paintings that made his name when they were shown four years later: flags, targets and numbers crafted in encaustic (pigment mixed in hot wax) with collage (often mere newspaper) on canvas. Johns soon added alphabets to this repertoire of everyday motifs, and, a little later, maps. Told that their art was ‘neo-Dada’, Johns and Rauschenberg travelled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art some time in 1957 to see its great holdings of Marcel Duchamp, who soon became an avuncular touchstone for both artists; that the museum also has superb Cézannes wasn’t lost on Johns. Given this New York-Philadelphia axis, it makes sense that the current Johns retrospective, which comprises five hundred works produced over seven decades, is split between the Whitney Museum and the PMA, despite all the inconvenience this entails. The curators at the two institutions, Scott Rothkopf and Carlos Basualdo respectively, decided that the shows should mirror each other across several themes in ten galleries each. Delayed for a year by the pandemic, the retrospective arrives when Johns has turned 91 – an essential figure in the eyes of almost everyone who cares about postwar art.
Johns made an exceptional entrance in early 1958: his first show at the new Leo Castelli Gallery nearly sold out, with three paintings immediately purchased by MoMA, and one piece appearing on the cover of ARTnews. Then 27, he had sized up the New York art world precisely, dominated as it then was by the formalist model of ‘modernist painting’ used by Clement Greenberg to champion Abstract Expressionism, and deftly deflected its discourse towards what Leo Steinberg would term ‘other criteria’. ‘The subjects which Jasper Johns chose to paint up to 1958,’ Steinberg wrote in ‘Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art’ (1962), still the most influential essay on the artist, ‘have these points in common’:
1. Whether objects or signs, they are man-made things.
2. All are commonplaces of our environment.
3. All possess a ritual or conventional shape, not to be altered.
4. They are either whole entities or complete systems.
5. They tend to prescribe the picture’s shape and dimensions.
6. They are flat.
7. They tend to be non-hierarchic, permitting Johns to maintain a pictorial field of levelled equality, without points of stress or privilege.
8. They are associable with sufferance rather than action.
The 1958 show had the force of a great blague: do what modernist painting aimed to do – be at once complete as a composition and flat as an object – and do it with almost idiot ease, with everyday motifs ready to hand. In effect Johns reintroduced banality into modernist art, in the double sense of the common and the denigrated. A few years later Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol pushed banality further with their borrowings from cartoons and comics, and, along with Rauschenberg, Johns was soon slotted in as a transitional figure between Abstract Expressionism and Pop, an art-historical positioning that always irked him, as though his work could be reduced to a formula of modernist painting cut with its Dadaist opposite, the pigment of Cézanne (or, more proximately, Willem de Kooning) mixed in the wax of Duchamp.
For some critics, turning serial things into singular paintings was a conservative operation, a win for high culture over low. And in 1960, when Johns first made exquisite replicas in painted bronze of trashy things like two Ballantine ale cans or a Savarin coffee jar stuffed with paint brushes, the radicality of the readymade did appear to be recouped. For Johns, however, this was simply to follow his breakthrough work according to a logic of inversion, which became a signature strategy. ‘If the painting is an object,’ he told the curator Walter Hopps in 1965, ‘then the object’ – an ale can, for instance – ‘can be a painting,’ and mundane things can be added to paintings as pictorial elements too. Johns liked to render utilitarian items – a drawer, a spoon, a hanger – not only useless but also, in the process, homeless. ‘I thought how then to make an object which is not so easily defined as an object,’ Johns continued with Hopps, ‘and how to add space and still keep it an object painting.’ His means were sometimes simple (a tin cup or an old ruler attached to a canvas), and sometimes complicated: spatial bursts of bright colours stencilled with the names of those colours but in ways that rarely match up. Such developments close out the first decade of his work, one of the most consequential in the career of any 20th-century artist.
As important as the use of the commonplace is the attitude of sufferance: Johns suggested a shift in artistic voice from the active to the passive, from painting as an arena for existential self-expression (the alternative account of Abstract Expressionism put forward by Harold Rosenberg) to painting as a surface where external signs are impressed. Where Rauschenberg played ‘in the gap between … art and life’, a motto that suited his rambunctious personality, the taciturn Johns waited for the world to come on to him, metabolising its effects as he chose in painting. Encaustic was essential here, for it allowed Johns to suspend his brushstroke, almost to freeze his gesture – a distinctive mark that is another of his innovations – in a way that registers touch but not subjectivity. ‘I found I couldn’t do anything that would be identical with my feelings’ – as an Abstract Expressionist might – ‘so I worked in such a way that I could say that it’s not me.’ ‘My work became a constant negation of impulses.’ Rothkopf ascribes this turn to the negative – in 1961 Johns made austere works with titles like No, Disappearance and Liar, and his palette darkened to a deep grey – to his break-up with Rauschenberg, a reading that befits our melancholy-heavy, memoir-hungry times. Yet the early paintings had already shown a blank face; one well-known target is topped by a row of plaster casts of heads cut off at the eyes which are stonier than any death mask. From the beginning, then, Johns was deadpan, the Buster Keaton of postwar art (like Duchamp, he even resembles the silent comedian a little); the demeanour of art and artist alike is blasé – the term that Georg Simmel used long ago to describe the defensive posture of ‘the metropolitan type’ against the shocks of the modern world. Johns extended this blank suspension to his conception of the picture. Duchamp called his Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23) a ‘delay in glass’, a field of frustrated desire; Johns, who owned the book of notes that Duchamp assembled for this magnum opus, presented his paintings as delays in wax, screens where motifs could be held fast so as to test our responses (or lack of them). His voice is mostly passive, his verbs largely intransitive; Arrive/Depart is a typical title.
In a studied phrase Johns spoke of his position as one of ‘shunning statement’. This suggests an aversion to polemics, political as well as artistic, that goes beyond temperament, a fatigue with the heated ideologies of the period (the Korean conflict, the McCarthy hearings, the Cold War). And Johns did muffle his subjects along with his gestures; his large White Flag (1955) is literally whited out. Might this intimate a ‘painting degree zero’ in line with the ‘writing degree zero’ posed by Roland Barthes against Sartrean commitment at around this time? ‘I can’t imagine my work being used to accomplish anything socially,’ Johns said. This is less negation than neutrality à la Barthes, for whom ‘the neutral’ was a way to baffle conceptual binaries, to undo ideological oppositions, to mess with ‘the paradigm’.
This baffling might also pertain to the guarded language of his gay milieu in a straight world. (Dancing around the Bride, a brilliant show at the PMA in 2012, also curated by Basualdo, explored the Duchampian code that Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns shared.) More generally, it points to an obstructed agency pervasive in the Eisenhower era: ‘shunning statement’ is about feeling stuck historically, not moving forward dialectically. And yet, then as now, American flags and maps, not to mention targets, are hardly neutral, even for Johns, who was born in the South and named after a Revolutionary War hero said to have rescued a flag during a battle. Immediately after Barthes published Le Degré zéro de l’écriture (1953), he began to write the critical essays about everyday life collected in Mythologies (1957). Is there a hint of ideology critique in Johns too? He did, after all, witness the rise of both the Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement. Certainly, White Flag makes a statement of its own today, though one hardly intended by Johns.
In 1959, along with stencilled words, Johns introduced further devices to produce his marks. ‘Find ways to apply/make paint with simple movements of objects – the hand, a board, feather, string, sponge, rag, shaped tools, comb (and move the canvas against paint-smeared objects).’ Once again he credited this strategy to Duchamp, who ‘assimilated process itself into his work’. Rotating a ruler in paint around its own axis, as in Device Circle (1959), appears simple enough – his new method seems as self-evident as his early motifs – but it too is more complicated than it looks. ‘What seems literal can twist,’ Johns warned, ‘or be twisted into something else.’ Results can be fudged: the arced swath in Voice (1964-67) doesn’t quite line up with the ruler attached to the painting. Or they might be faux: the supposed teeth marks in Painting Bitten by a Man (1961) are the size of a baby’s. With Johns, indexical signs are no more reliable as evidence of procedure than as traces of presence. When he stencils ‘Liar’ on a painting and titles it the same, he does so as the Cretan who declares ‘All Cretans are liars.’ In short, what seems obvious in Johns rarely is. ‘This is a flag,’ we say, but it is not; as Johns attests, ‘I’m interested in the area [where it] is neither a flag nor a painting.’ He told Steinberg that he used ‘things the mind already knows’ because ‘that gave me room to work on other levels,’ but it is more accurate to say that the mind registers these things without understanding them. It is in this spirit that Duchamp called Johns the ‘Sybille des cibles’. Such ‘ambivalence’ – his term – is deepened with the addition of words. ‘My work is largely concerned with relations between seeing and knowing, seeing and saying, seeing and believing.’ By ‘relations’ Johns means ‘indecisions’ (another of his terms): we toggle between these activities without stop.
‘I’m believing painting to be a language,’ Johns noted in the early 1960s – or, more precisely, a language game. He read Wittgenstein in the summer of 1961, Philosophical Investigations in particular, but already by 1959 he had let colours and names slip away from one another, and in 1960 he superimposed numbers, 0 through 9, to the point of illegibility. With Fool’s House (1961-62), Rothkopf notes, ‘the support began to act more like a pegboard, covered with assorted objects and explicit references to prior works.’ And by the time of According to What (1964), category mistakes abound: this multi-panel work has no focal point, and it is impossible to connect its sundry items (an upside-down chair and a plaster cast of a leg, a vertical row of colour names in block letters, large abstract rectangles both brushy and matte): ‘according to what’ would we correlate them? Johns comes close to Rauschenbergian randomness here, but he risks it ‘to get rid of (destroy) the language value of anything at all’. ‘What is “red” out of many shades of red, or which “red” is the real red, this red or that red?’ Johns asked rhetorically in 1964. ‘When we gradually add yellow, exactly how much yellow will turn “red” into “orange”’? In short, ‘red’ is ‘an agreement’. Such conventions are ‘useful and necessary in our daily life’, Johns allows. ‘If we come closer and closer to that “something” to identify it, however, we will begin to wonder whether that “something” is really “something” or not.’ Along with his dose of Wittgenstein, Johns added a touch of René Magritte to his work (he purchased a Magritte painting, The Interpretation of Dreams, in 1965); the unwritten caption of every flag painting is ‘Ceci n’est pas un drapeau.’
‘Include one’s looking … seeing … using,’ Johns wrote in 1960. This note captures the great interest of his reflexive art: it makes one aware of observing, thinking and, more and more, feeling, however muffled this last might be. Basualdo is right to treat Johns as a crypto-philosopher. This move ‘to embody a sense of the experience of looking’ in painting often produces a split in viewing, which Johns personified in allegorical figures named the Watchman and the Spy: ‘The Watchman falls “into” the “trap” of looking,’ he explains in 1964. ‘The “spy” is a different person … The spy must be ready to “move”, must be aware of his entrances & exits.’ In effect, the viewer as watchman is invited to observe as a spy – to become a voyeur of viewing like Johns. This is no longer sufferance, or perhaps his passive demeanour discloses its aggressive side here. Is seeing also a targeting? Are our own mugs implied in Target with Four Faces? Is seeing ever free from desire, for good or bad? (Feminist theory has instructed us on this score, but it wasn’t a familiar idea at the time.) Sometimes Johns sounds a sadistic note, as in Painting Bitten by a Man or The Critic Sees (1961), a pair of glasses in sculpmetal in which teeth replace eyes.
This brings us back to the model of the picture developed out of Duchamp – and also, it seems, Freud. ‘Devise technique to imitate “magic picture pad”,’ reads an obscure note from 1970-71. ‘There may be the question of resemblance or substitution (Freud).’ Maybe with a nod to toys like Etch A Sketch, Johns here alludes to the ‘mystic writing pad’ that Freud used to describe how the unconscious operates, the way it retains inscriptions even though, or precisely because, they are effaced. Johns also likens the picture to the rebus of dreams (a ‘question of resemblance’) or to the formation of symptoms (‘a question of substitution’), which suggests another connection to Surrealism – quite a reversal for an artist who once aimed to suppress subjectivity. Probably with Magritte in mind, André Breton once offered the image of ‘a man cut in two by a window’ as the paragon of the Surrealist picture. This is close to what Johns presents: a model of painting that is neither window nor mirror, the traditional paradigms, but a semi-abstract combination of the two in which what is exterior mingles with what is interior, often to the point of obscurity. Some works even intimate invisibility or blindness, as in the murky Diver (1962-63) and Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), where they are also associated with watery suicide.
As this art looks at itself, it folds back on itself: it develops by recursion, by ‘repetition and recombination’, as Rothkopf puts it. Johns first juxtaposes motifs within a painting, then often transposes them from picture to picture and medium to medium. Such doubling is intrinsic to printing, which has long occupied him (the retrospective is full – too full – of examples across his career), but it is active from the beginning, in objects (the double ales), in paintings (the double flags), and intrinsically from his early stencilling to his later silkscreening. As Rothkopf notes, Johns plays on the bilateral symmetry of our bodies, mirroring it with paintings divided into left and right halves (the title of the show is Mind/Mirror). Often, too, he uses actual seams, on the horizontal or the vertical, as formal hinges between disjunct panels, which become more complex with the polyptychs of the mid 1960s and later.
Motifs are also mirrored, as well as rotated and inverted, in the flagstone and crosshatch paintings (begun in 1967 and 1972 respectively). The result of accidental sightings (a patch of wall spotted in Harlem, a pattern on a car glimpsed on a highway), these engaging series involve found images but also foreground traditional devices not often noticed. The flagstone shapes, in red, black and white, are glossy in a way that lifts them slightly above the dirty white seams (which mimic the cement that holds actual flagstones), and the patterns hover between the given and the composed, the readymade and the abstract (they are neither organic nor geometric, the usual categories of abstraction). These paintings rotate what is flat on the floor to what faces us on the wall, and so render basic orientations ambiguous (Rauschenberg and Warhol played with this idea too). Floor tiles, if not flagstones, helped late medieval painters begin to lock in the orthogonal lines necessary for one-point perspective; this allusion, along with others, is active in Harlem Light (1967), which juxtaposes, across panels from left to right, a flagstone square, a black and white area with an attached ruler, an abstract painting of three stacked rectangles, and a diagrammatic window.
The crosshatch paintings, which preoccupied Johns for a decade, centre a key device of pictorial illusion, the sign of shadow that gives shape to objects and figures. Here, though, what is often unseen is made blatant, what is usually colourless becomes colourful, and what evokes depth is flattened; the touch is varied, but just as the encaustic suspends gesture, the crosshatch appears semi-automatic. As with the flagstones, we struggle to work out the system that governs colour and arrangement, but cannot. Is there any system at all? An untitled triptych from 1972 is an early summa of the two devices with another thrown in: it presents, from left to right, a crosshatch panel, a flagstone square, and a wood rectangle on which thin planks are nailed askew and cast body parts attached. Depth, perspective and figuration are broken up in sequence. If the body-part section suggests that any stretched painting is already a crucifixion of a sort, this one has gone badly awry.
‘One of the most interesting things one can do is use something in a variety of adaptations,’ Johns commented in 1978, ‘and then ask the question “what does it mean?”’ Sometimes, though, this isn’t so interesting: the iterative becomes repetitive, the recursive hermetic, and as Johns shifts from ‘commonplaces of our environment’ to self-citations in the studio (the word crops up in titles from 1964 on), the work gets too imagistic, too fussy in its fragments, too tasteful in its arrangements – in a word, too involuted (at least for me: I’m an outlier among his devotees on this point). In the process Johns loses his connection to others; by contrast, Rauschenberg and Warhol always address the world, if only by way of references to our shared experience of capitalist junk and glitter. Here ‘sufferance’ takes on the note of arrogance buried in the history of the word: Johns suffers the world to come on to him. Is there a hint of the crown – of the sovereign – already in the Savarin can? It also calls up a fool’s cap, and early on Johns was both king and pawn of a New York art world revved up by a new market. (He knew it too: the bronze Ballantines were said to be provoked by a remark from de Kooning that Leo Castelli could sell anything, even two beer cans.)
In short, painting as rebus has its downside: the telling of dreams, let alone symptoms, can be tedious; it is one thing asking us to be spies, another to be analysts. Are we supposed to ‘unpuzzle’ Johns, as Rothkopf says, to parse his semi-private iconography, simply because he is a great artist? As usual, Johns was aware of the problem. ‘Avoid the idea of a puzzle,’ a note from 1968 reads; ‘I try to be less enigmatic,’ he insists in 1977. Yet he persisted with his semi-Freudian riddles and quasi-Wittgensteinian games (sometimes literally – the visual doubles of the duck-rabbit and the urn-face from Philosophical Investigations make repeated appearances). ‘The Glass is a pun on opaque meaning and transparent material,’ Johns noted of Duchamp. ‘He presents in literal terms the difficulty of knowing what anything means.’ Johns does too – but too often.
The curators claim that Johns has ‘staggering range’, but his painting is rather limited in format: primarily portrait and landscape modes, the vertical mirror and the horizontal window, plus assemblages that are partly derived from Rauschenberg. Johns once admitted that he isn’t a great colourist, and he’s not much interested in sculpture either (again, his objects have a pictorial quality). How then to explain his enormous influence? Johns opened up so much for other artists, most of them American but some European (Italians like Piero Manzoni, Nouveaux réalistes in France). Among the indebted are the abstract painters Frank Stella, Robert Ryman and Brice Marden; Minimalists Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Robert Morris; Conceptualists Sol LeWitt, Dorothea Rockburne and Mel Bochner; Post-Minimalists Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse; Pop painters Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Vija Celmins; and the African American artists David Hammons and Glenn Ligon, who have applied stencilling to very different ends. Duchamp, Johns wrote, turned art ‘into a field where language, thought and vision act upon one another’, but that lesson didn’t sink in until Johns reinforced it with his own suggestive example.
Perhaps because Johns was so influential early on he was treated as historical too quickly. (Most of us fetishise the early work – I have again here – but there are ample reasons to do so, as an excellent show in 2007 at the National Gallery in Washington demonstrated.) He was an art-historical fixture at the age of 35: it’s no wonder he entered his late style prematurely. Can such a style come early, though, and can it be conscious, even calculated, as opposed to the obsessive no-holds-barred reflection on art, life and death that we associate (maybe too romantically) with the notion? There isn’t much asperity or joy in the work of the last few decades; it has little of the ‘return to fundamentals’ of the elderly Matisse or the devil-may-care virtuosity of the old Picasso, though Johns alludes to both. Dotted with skulls, skeletons, silhouettes and stick figures, the paintings are often more morbid than mortal in spirit. (Some paintings include a diagram of a Halloween costume. Is Johns having us on here? But then we remember that many of these pieces were produced during the ravages of the Aids epidemic.) There are exceptions, of course, such as the bracing Catenary series, which Johns began in his late sixties. With the odd plank that droops from the support like a loose stretcher bar, or a tenuous string that sags across the brushy grey expanse of the canvas, these paintings convey, without imagistic tricks, the gravity of the aged body and the fragility of all life. But does even a great Catenary warrant a subtitle like ‘I Call to the Grave’? Celebrated for decades by museum and market alike, and Johns identifies with Job?
On the other hand, Johns treated loss, and his humour was melancholic, almost from the beginning. A note from 1960-61 reads: ‘A DEAD MAN Take a skull cover it with paint rub it against canvas.’ Perhaps the grave rubbing and the death mask were the secret ur-forms of his pictures and objects all along. Johns acknowledges that some assemblages have the disjunctive composition of the pictorial game known as ‘the exquisite corpse’, and sometimes his work evokes the coffin as well as the crucifix (he quotes Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece more than once). Two of his most beautiful crosshatch paintings are titled Corpse and Mirror, the two sides reflecting each other, and we are reminded that ‘cadaver’ and ‘likeness’ are the same word in some languages. That is the ultimate Johns puzzle for me: how he was able to take a medium associated with presence and plenitude and make it signify absence and loss, to preserve a gesture in encaustic or break it up like a fractured cast, to produce marks that seem more dead than alive, to imbue painting with the mournful temporality that Barthes ascribed only to photography: this will have been.