Jasper Johns by Catherine Craft - Read Online
Jasper Johns
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At a time when the dominant mode of painting, Abstract Expressionism, emphasised expressive drama through bold brushwork and largely abstract compositions, Johns’ paintings of the American flag, targets, numbers and the alphabet demonstrated a decided departure from convention. Despite being painted with
obvious care, they seemed emotionally reticent, cool and quiet, far from the emotional fireworks then fashionable. “It all began… with my painting a picture of an American flag. Using this design took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets - things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels. For instance, I’ve always thought of painting as a surface; painting it in one color made this very clear. Then I decided that looking at a painting should not require a special kind of focus like going to church. A picture ought to be looked at the same way you look at a radiator.” Unlike most artists’ statements in New York during the 1950s, Johns’ remarks contained none of the familiar talk of doubt and angst, and his selection of subject matter appeared deliberate, thoughtful, and far removed from emotional attachments and desires. To younger artists, his art seemed not so much cold and unfeeling as clear-eyed and honest after the excesses of Abstract Expressionism. Furthermore, in selecting recognisable subjects, Johns seemed to reject prevailing abstract modes of painting, yet his subjects themselves - flags, targets, numbers - each possessed a vital characteristic of classic abstraction, namely, a flatness rendering them all but indistinguishable from the picture plane itself. This book underlines how Johns’s work made the polarity between abstraction and representation that had dominated debates about modern art for decades seem suddenly obsolete, opening up other ways of thinking about art’s relation to the world. It also tries to understand why, since his first exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery at the age of twenty-seven, he has remained one of the major artists of the contemporary artistic scene.
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ISBN: 9781783107728
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NY

Acknowledgments

Writing this book has been both a challenge and a pleasure, and a number of individuals provided information, support and encouragement to me along the way. In particular, I must thank Richard Shiff, who initially contacted me about this monograph and whose example as a scholar of Jasper Johns’s work has been invaluable. I would also like to thank Nan Rosenthal, who kindly invited me to speak on Johns’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Richard Shone, who as editor for The Burlington Magazine has also given me the opportunity to write about Johns’s work on several occasions. Richard Field, Harry Cooper, Joachim Pissarro, Paul Cornwall-Jones and Tamie Swett have also generously shared their thoughts on Johns’s work with me over the years, and Johns’s curator, Sarah Taggart, has been unfailingly helpful and very attentive to my questions. Nancy Carr was the ideal reader, taking the time not only to read my manuscript but to offer many constructive comments, and Alfred Kren and the rest of my family have shown great love and patience during this project. Lastly and most importantly, I wish to thank Jasper Johns for his support of this monograph and for making a body of work with an undeniable sense of life.

White Flag (detail, actual size), 1955. Encaustic, oil,

newsprint, and charcoal on canvas, 198.9 x 306.7 cm.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Being an Artist

I wondered when I was going to stop going to be an artist and start being one.[1]

Painters are not public but rather are born in private. The public has made it their business; however, for the painter, art will never be public.[2]

One evening in January 1958, Catharine Rembert, an art instructor from the University of South Carolina, was on a visit to New York, waiting for a former student to join her for dinner. Jasper Johns came late, but he made up for it by jubilantly picking her up and dancing her about the room. He was celebrating an astounding success: at twenty-seven years of age, his first solo exhibition had just opened at the Leo Castelli Gallery, landing him on the cover of Art News magazine and prompting the Museum of Modern Art to purchase three of his works – a development that had occurred just that day.

The critical and commercial success of Johns’s first show is something of a legend in the history of American art, and deservedly so. At a time when the dominant mode of painting, Abstract Expressionism, emphasised expressive drama through boldly gestural brushwork and largely abstract compositions, Johns’s paintings of the American flag, targets, numbers and the alphabet marked a decided departure from convention. Despite being painted with obvious care, they seemed emotionally reticent, cool and quiet, far from the emotional fireworks then fashionable.

Abstract Expressionism’s first generation of artists, which included such legendary figures as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, had begun making art during the difficult years of the Depression and World War II. In response to these circumstances, they stressed the centrality of the artist’s self in the creation of art, and the production of a painting as an act of absolute personal authenticity. As a younger generation came on the scene in the 1950s, many of them adopted these attitudes, and soon what had been a position of existential significance began, through repetition, to seem mannered and overwrought. In this climate, Johns’s debut was both a shock and a breath of fresh air.

Whereas Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman had explained that instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ he and his peers were making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings,[3] and Rothko declared that he wanted viewers to weep before his canvases, Johns in contrast remarked in one of his first interviews:

It all began... with my painting a picture of an American flag. Using this design took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets – things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels. For instance, I’ve always thought of painting as a surface; painting it in one colour made this very clear. Then I decided that looking at a painting should not require a special kind of focus like going to church. A picture ought to be looked at the same way you look at a radiator.[4]

Untitled, 1954. Oil on paper mounted on fabric,

22.9 x 22.9 cm. The Menil Collection, Houston.

Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Unlike most artists’ statements in New York during the 1950s, Johns’s remarks contained none of the familiar talk of doubt and angst, and his selection of subject matter appeared deliberate, thoughtful, and far removed from emotional attachments and desires. To younger artists his art seemed not so much cold and unfeeling as clear-eyed and honest after the excesses of Abstract Expressionism; after all, as artist Mel Bochner later put it, Where is your true self at age 23?[5] Furthermore, in selecting recognisable subjects, Johns seemed to reject prevailing abstract modes of painting, yet his subjects themselves – flags, targets, numbers – each possessed a vital characteristic of classic abstraction, namely, a flatness rendering them all but indistinguishable from the picture plane itself. His work made the polarity between abstraction and representation that had dominated debates about modern art for decades seem suddenly obsolete, opening up other ways of thinking about art’s relation to the world.

Artists began to respond to Johns’s example almost immediately. One measure of his art’s considerable impact is the fact that it affected so many different types of artists. The restrained and intellectual qualities of his paintings and his insistence on their identities as physical objects made a strong impression on such artists as Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and John Baldessari, and would contribute to the development of Minimal and Conceptual Art. At the same time, Johns’s careful attention to everyday images and objects – things the mind already knows – would also inspire Pop Art and the work of other artists, such as Chuck Close, who felt restricted by abstraction. In the years that followed, new generations of artists as diverse as Brice Marden, David Salle, Robert Gober, Kiki Smith and Terry Winters would each find something of their own in Johns’s work.

Despite the rush of attention that followed his debut at the Leo Castelli Gallery, Johns refused to relax into a comfortable signature style that might have satisfied the expectations of others. Instead, whenever something seemed settled and familiar in his practice, he questioned it, even at the risk of failure. In the five decades that have followed, Johns has remained remarkably focused considering the intense scrutiny to which he and his work have been subjected by scholars, critics, curators, dealers, collectors and other artists. A strong sense of identity has been instrumental to Johns’s ability to continue challenging himself as an artist despite what could have become overwhelming distractions. In fact, it might be said that this identity was one of Johns’s first creations as an artist.

Star, 1954. Oil, beeswax, and house paint on newspaper,

canvas, and wood with tinted glass, nails, and fabric tape,

57.2 x 49.5 x 4.8 cm. The Menil Collection, Houston.

Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Untitled, 1954. Construction of painted wood,

painted plaster cast, photomechanical reproductions on canvas,

glass, and nails, 66.6 x 22.5 x 11.1 cm. Hirshhorn Museum and

Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The Birth of an Artist

When he was forty years old, Johns attempted to explain why he had become an artist:

It had been my intention to be an artist since I was a child. But in South Carolina, where I was a child, there were no artists and there was no art, so I didn’t really know what that meant. I thought it meant that I would be able to be in a situation other than the one I was in. I think that was the primary fantasy. The society there seemed to accommodate every other thing I knew about, but not that. In part I think the idea of being an artist was, not a fantasy, but being out of this: since there is none of this here, if you’re going to be it, you’ll have to be somewhere else. I liked that, plus I liked to do things with my hands.[6]

Johns’s childhood desire to be somewhere else is not surprising given his upbringing, which, in his own words, wasn’t specially cheerful.[7] Shortly after his birth in May 1930, Johns’s mother divorced his alcoholic father, and Johns was left to be raised by a shifting cast of relatives in and around Allendale, South Carolina. The successive displacements were surely not helped by the fact that although Johns liked to do things with his hands, they were not often the things associated at that time and place with the exploits of boys. He loved to draw, but he was also apparently interested in cooking, and he had little interest in hunting, fishing or other outdoor activities.

In wanting to be an artist, Johns ended up focused on a conjunction of activity and identity. Being an artist was what one did, but the first artistic act was to make oneself an artist. The dual processes of creation – artwork and self – were no simple matter. Johns had very little contact with art in his childhood, and as much as this inaccessibility probably contributed to its appeal, it also presented a number of obstacles: Johns’s early encounters with art were less revelations than near-misses. In his paternal grandfather’s house, where he lived until the age of seven, there were a handful of paintings by his grandmother that aroused his curiosity; but she had died before his birth, and he knew very little about her. When an itinerant painter passed through town, Johns took some of his materials and attempted to paint with them, not knowing that the oil-based pigments would not mix with water. Johns’s grandfather arranged to have them returned to the painter, with whom the boy had no further contact.

Untitled, 1954. Graphite pencil on oil-stained (?) paper,

21 x 16.7 cm. Collection of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Johns’s world slowly began to expand as he reached adulthood. After three semesters of studying art with Rembert and others at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, he went at their urging to New York in 1948 and studied for a few months at the Parsons School of Design. When he ran short of money, the school’s director offered him a scholarship based on a recommendation from one of his teachers at the University of South Carolina, but added that he didn’t really deserve it. Johns thereupon refused her offer, left school, and worked at various odd jobs, from messenger boy to shipping clerk, in order to stay in New York. It was an exciting time to be there. The Abstract Expressionists were just beginning to show the ambitious and monumental paintings for which they would become best known, and Johns saw numerous works at this time, including Pollock’s dripped and poured paintings and Newman’s expansive fields of saturated colour.

Although such experiences were stimulating, Johns’s early existence in New York was nonetheless quite isolated, and he struggled with poverty. His situation changed somewhat when he was drafted into the army in 1951. While stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Johns developed an art exhibition program for soldiers before he was sent to Japan for six months. Although the Korean War was underway, Johns saw no combat; instead, he worked in Special Services, designing posters for military films and educational campaigns and working on decorations for a chapel.

Construction with Toy Piano, 1954. Graphite and collage with

toy piano, 29.4 x 23.2 x 5.6 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel.

Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Monogram, 1955-59.

Combine painting, 106.7 x 160.7 x 163.8 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Art © Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Discharged in 1953, Johns returned to New York, briefly attending Hunter College. He continued looking at art and telling the few people he knew that he was going to be an artist, yet it was difficult for him to assimilate his impressions of the art he was seeing. At times the idea of making something of his own out of these impressions was so overwhelming as to seem almost impossible. Art seemed... to exist on a different plane from the one that Johns occupied.[8] His disorientation was profound and was in part rooted in the physical identity of art objects themselves:

I remember the first Picasso I ever saw, the first real Picasso... I could not believe it was a Picasso, I thought it was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. I’d been used to the light coming through color slides; I didn’t realise I would have to revise my notions of what painting was.[9]

Against this decisive experience of painting’s materiality was Johns’s less than certain sense of himself. I had no focus, he later recalled, I was vague and rootless.[10] Exacerbating this impression was the Abstract Expressionist emphasis on the role of the self in the creation of art and a corresponding insistence upon the work of art as a direct expression of that self. As Johns later put it, Abstract Expressionism was so lively – personal identity and painting were more or less the same, and I tried to operate the same way. But I found I couldn’t do anything that would be identical with my feelings.[11]

Instead, Johns was caught up in a desire as intense as it was bewildering: "This image of wanting to be an artist – that I would in some way become an artist – was very strong... But nothing I ever did seemed to bring me any nearer to the condition of being an artist. And I didn’t know how to do it."[12] In South Carolina, becoming an artist meant being in another place. In New York, Johns was in the right place to make art, but now he found himself deferring this change in his life to an indefinite time in the future, just beyond his reach.

Sometime during the first winter after he got out of the army, Johns met someone who would give him a crucial jolt out of this frustrating situation: Robert Rauschenberg, who would become the most important person in his life for the next seven years. Also a Southerner, the Texas-born Rauschenberg was almost five years older than Johns and had already had one-man exhibitions in two of New York’s most important galleries. At the time they met, Rauschenberg was regarded by many in the art world as a sort of enfant terrible for the experimental and provocative works he was making.

Rauschenberg had first gained notoriety with a series of all-white paintings that registered passing shadows and changes in light. He had also made all-black paintings of collaged newspaper covered with dark pigment that many viewers associated with nihilism and destructiveness, although Rauschenberg insisted he had intended no such thing. He had made paintings out of dirt in which grass sprouted and grew (he regularly visited the gallery where one was displayed to water it), but most infamously, he had obtained a drawing from de Kooning – perhaps the most important painter at that moment among younger artists – with the sole purpose of erasing it, simply because he wanted to know whether a drawing can be made out of erasing.[13] At the time he and Johns met, Rauschenberg had just begun making a series of all-red paintings that incorporated an array of collage materials, including pieces of fabric and newspaper clippings – objects from everyday life that were in his view just as important in the creation of art as the intensely private feelings favoured by the Abstract Expressionists.

Flag above White with Collage, 1955. Encaustic and

collage on canvas, 57 x 49 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel.

Gift of the artist in memory of Christian Geelhaar.

Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Despite his reputation for controversy, Rauschenberg was, as far as Johns was concerned, a seasoned professional. He knew where to get inexpensive studio space, and he was adept at finding ways to work only when he needed money so that he could give more time to his art. Most importantly, Rauschenberg had somehow managed to effect the transformation for which Johns yearned: he was the first real artist Johns had ever known, and everything was arranged to accommodate that fact.[14] Soon after they met, Rauschenberg talked Johns into leaving his job at a bookstore to join him in freelance work designing window displays for such upscale shops as Bonwit Teller and Tiffany’s. With the help of a mutual friend, Johns soon found a loft around the corner from Rauschenberg’s studio on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, which at that time was home to a number of rundown buildings that had formerly housed manufacturing firms and warehouses.

Living in such spaces was technically illegal – Johns’s building had actually been condemned by the city – but it was cheap and provided ample space for living and working, far more than had been possible in the tiny apartment in the East Village that Johns had previously occupied. Moreover, at this time few artists were living as far downtown as Rauschenberg and Johns, and the distance provided a sense of privacy from