Originally published in Modern Painters (Summer 1996)
With Jasper Johns, as with Samuel Beckett, everything means something, or two things, or nothing.†† On one occasion, he admitted that the idea of painting the American flag came to him in a dream.† Then in an interview with David Sylvester, when asked why he uses such things as flags, targets, maps or stencilled numbers and letters, he replied, "They seemed to me pre-formed, conventional, depersonalised, factual, exterior elements."† At once, therefore, the motif came from the artist's innermost being (revealed, like the best romantic inspiration, in a dream) and yet satisfied a need for impersonality, blandness, nonchalence, for a negation of the artist's self.
Elsewhere Johns has recounted how, as a boy, he was walking through Madison Square in Savannah, Georgia, when his father, who bears the same name as him, pointed out the statue of Sergeant William Jasper, who twice during the War of Independence risked his life to save the American flag (not, as it happens, the stars and stripes, but Georgia's state colours) the second time making the supreme sacrifice.† Johns Senior proudly told his son that they were both named after this hero.† The painter who looses himself in flags is named for a soldier who died for the flag.†
The American flag, Johns's "flagship" motif, is not his only motif.† If he never painted a flag, we would still think of him immediately on seeing one of his targets.† Or on seeing a cluster of brushes in a Saverin coffee tin.† Or on seeing a distinctive pattern of hatched lines, a sort of decentred herring-bone.† And yet, what is so distinctly his about these things?† The flag belongs to every American.† That, at one level, is why Johns painted them.† Other Americans have painted targets: Alfred Jensen, Kenneth Noland.† The hatching can be seen elsewhere, too.† Johns encountered a similar pattern (subsequent to his own use of it) on the bedspread in Edvard Munch's late self-portrait, "Between the Clock and the Bed" (c1949), and has since made a picture of the same title (1981), by way of backdated hommage.† It is not the "thing itself" which makes a Johns motif Johnsian so much as the insistence with which it recurrs.† We are put in mind of Morandi and his jars: "his" because he paints them again and again.† But Morandi fills his jars with painterly intensity to bursting point.† Can anyone really say the same of Johns?† Sure, there is an unmistakable Johns touch: brushy, but deadpan; agitated, but mechanically so, in no wise meismic.† The predictable agitation behind the brush is borrowed from the language of expressionism, but devoid of expressiveness as such.† His ecriture is as contrived (mannered, affected) as copperplate lettering, as ubiquitous as his trademark stencils. Even when, later in his career, a more dashed-off spontaneous look emerged, there was still no convincing urgency to take the edge of its deliberate banality.† It never seems worth trying to enjoy a Johns for its painterly accretions, its abstract qualities.† His nonchalence inverts the Kantian dictum: we get the purpose (conceptual superstructure) without the purposiveness (energy, beauty, rythm).
Johns in dialogue can sometimes read like a Beckett play.† Just like his work, his interview style is riveting or excruciating, depending on your taste and the threshold of your endurance for tedium and obfuscation.†† After several exasperated attempts to get Johns to comment on the typography of his appropriated stencils, Leo Steinberg finally thinks he has nailed him.† "Do you use these letter types because you like them or because that's how the stencils came?"† The reply: "But that's what I like about them, that they came that way."
Johns and his buddy Robert Rauschenberg shot to meteoric fame in the mid 1950s, when New York had had its fill of Abstract Expressionism, and modernist afficionados were ready for the next step.† After an overdose of the romantic sublime, these young men seemed to offer a much needed shot of canny subversion.† They were the alternative to the post-painterly alternative.† The "second generation" abstractionists offered precision impersonality, a further advance towards formalist purity; Rauschenberg and Johns came up, instead, with something hazey and haphazard, artfully reintroducing the real.† They were labelled neo-dada, and Rauschenberg certainly fitted that bill; while his "combines", with their stuffed goats and paint-spattered beds, are flamboyant props from the theatre of the absurd, he pushed appropriation to its anti-aesthetic extreme by taking a De Kooning drawing and rubbing it out.† It was too readily assumed, however, that Johns was a chip off the old block.† Actually, there is hardly any anger or bitterness or satire in Johns; his motifs are more ambivalent in their banality (the flags have angered and delighted both the left and the right); his juxtapositions rarely that disconcerting (disconcerting if anything for not being disconcerting enough); his laboured brushiness not sufficiently tongue in cheek to be straightforward pastiche.† He might have said about his brushstrokes and murky, muted (very fifties) colours, just what he said of his stencils, that what he liked about them is that they came that way.† Stylish and styleless, personal and impersonal, his and everyone's, post-Abstract Expressionist and proto-Pop, just coming that way and going that way, he was way ahead in nonchalence.† Looking back to their art historical double-act, Johns seems to play Laurel to Rauschenberg's Hardy, messing up the latter's audacious schemes with his simpleness.
There is a whole history to be written of how an aesthetics of nonchalance gripped the Manhattan avantgarde in the 1950s - if one can be gripped by nonchalance! - with its mixture of Zen, existentialism (without the angst), Duchamp, Wittgenstein, and various home-spun influences too.† An impressionable Johns obviously took much from the charismatic composer John Cage. Fascinating stuff for intellectual historians, no doubt, but where does it all leave a viewer confronted by the actual works?† There have been two shows of Johns in England recently: the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, presented what they claim to be the first exhibition solely devoted to the sculpture while Anthony d'Offay held a show just of flags.† Both these shows were seemingly intent on emphasizing the artist's monomania.†
Johns's sculptures mostly date from a four-year period early in his career, 1958-61, suggesting a short-lived interest.† But although Johns's enormous reputation rests on his painting and printmaking, the object is a crucial aspect of his work.† His paintings often include a collage element, with plaster casts or found objects protruding from the surface, or the support itself being an actual, identifiable object, such as a crate or an inverted, stretched canvas.† Furthermore, his sculptures, which are mostly in his own collection, often feature as subjects in his paintings or prints: Painted Bronze (Savarin) 1960, for instance, (brushes in a coffee tin which he had cast in bronze and then proceeded to paint, quite convincingly but in such a way that they look more like a three dimensional painting than the original) is a frequently recurring motif in paintings and prints.† Of course, this begs the question (the sort of question champions of Johns find so pregnant and exacting): is he painting his own sculpture, Painted Bronze (Savarin), or is he painting an object in his studio, some brushes in a coffee tin, which hitherto just happened also to be the subject of a sculpture, Painted Bronze (Savarin)?
Because Johns can offer seemingly little else by way of aesthetic consolation, this sort of epistemological tease can sometimes constitute the main interest in his work.† And however spiritually removed he is from the aesthetic that followed in his trail, Johns was undoubtedgly a prototype for the minimalists and conceptualists.† Donald Judd's dictum that art has only to be interesting is implicit in much appreciation of Johns.
At the time of writing, I have not seen the d'Offay show, or had sight of David Sylvester's text for it, but the Leeds show gathered half a dozen flags as a foretaste.† The first impression, on seeing them hung together, was of a series: the flags as haystacks.† On closer inspection, however, they transpire to be different casts of the same image.† The original, lent by Robert Rauschenberg, is in sculp-metal and collage on canvas.† Sculpmetal is a commercially produced material popular with model aeroplane makers: you can model it very easily, you can even paint with it, and then it will dry into metal.† In truth, the flag in Rauschenberg's collection is a painting in sculptural materials from which a set of reliefs has been cast.† It is a misnomer to classify these pieces as sculpture.† The other flags are cast in plaster (two), and in bronze (an edition of 3; one was presented to President Kennedy on Flag Day!), resin, and silver.† A doubt is left in the mind of the curious visitor: from which "original" were the later casts cast?† The more illegible of the two plasters looks as if it might have been taken from the (earlier?) plaster, not from the (so to speak) original original - the image created ex nihilo, that is.† This is the sort of question you start asking yourself with these works, just to keep busy, if you haven't walked away already.†
But the connoisseur will look in vain to Fred Orton's ponderous catalogue for an answer to so mundane a question.†† A heavy-going deconstructionist, Orton dances on a different plane, or plods around on one at least.† He recently published "Figuring Jasper Johns", 214 pages and 481 footnotes of turgid beffudlement which maps back onto Johns all the tedium and pseudery one associates with Orton's cohorts - and Johns's progeny - the Art and Language collective.† Orton should have heeded Johns's "The Critic Sees" (1961), a brick containing a pair of spectacles with a pair of lips behind each lense.† Actually, Orton treats this work exhaustive(ing)ly; what would really have been better would have been to note Johns's confession to Peter Fuller that this sculpture was really just a cartoon.† After Orton's prose, Johns's sculptures offer light relief.
Jasper Johns: The Sculptures, Leeds City Art Gallery, 18 April-29 June 1996
Jasper Johns Flags, Anthony d'Offay Gallery (check venue for title and dates)
Fred Orton Figuring Jasper Johns Reaktion Books, 1994, £12.95