Jasper Johns: Reorienting the Self

“Painting can be a conversation with oneself and, at the same time, it can be a conversation with other paintings." (Jasper Johns, 1989)

For artists who come after abstract expressionism, artists who seem to find their art in the external environment, this environment may include artistic styles.  The style of abstract expressionism, in particular, becomes a given quality, a pre-existing "object."  Making style into a subject leads to the theme of representation as a subject.  Consequently, for Johns, not only does representation become a driving theme, but he subverts almost all traditional ideas about representation and abstraction in painting.  He uses the means normally associated with achieving abstraction to serve representation but without creating a representational (illusionist) painting.

Johns: Painted Bronze, 1960 Johns: Painted Bronze, 1960

Johns' early works focus on how we see, how we perceive things, and on how perception relates to the language of painting. Although questions about the language of painting had already been asked by artists--most notably, by the cubists--Johns takes the cubist interest in language to another level.  Some of the strategies we see him use to do this include pretend "ready-mades"; the use of naming things in a painting, but naming them inconsistently or incorrectly; the transformation of an object's function; the use of abstraction to create illusionism or to defy illusionism; the painting which becomes an object; literally representing the meaning of a process; and questioning the idea of uniqueness and the reproducibility of objects.  In fact, because the emphasis on strategies of representation seems to override other meanings in the art, the work may strike us as excessively self-referential and devoid of emotion, especially in contrast to abstract expressionism.  But this may have been a necessary "corrective"--a direction which opens up new possibilities for painting, rather than condemning artists to make pale imitations of abstract expressionist paintings.

Johns: Flag, 1954-5 (oil, encaustic, and newspaper on fabric, mounted on plywood; 42" x 60") Frank Stella: Jasper's Dilemma, 1962-3 (alkyd on canvas; 6'5 x 12'10)

Johns developed a non-introspective style which stressed semiotics, or the question of how does something come to have a meaning, rather than what does it mean. He closes the gap between the thing and its representation and seems to make art into the intention to make an object, any object, into art. This is two-directional, then--any object can be art, while the art work becomes the object, the thing in itself. The painted flag is art and object at once. The flag demonstrates something else about Johns' strategy: he eliminates the role of composition through his choice of subject--by doing that, he forces you to focus on the means of representation. Stella eliminated the role of subjectivity in composition by choosing arbitrary mathematical measures, but the result in his case was different: it does not necessarily force you to think about representation as a strategy or device so much as it forces you to think about the relationships between colors and forms.

In Johns' choice of the flag, he accomplishes something even more dramatic or significant than eliminating the role of composition. If much of modernism had to do with the destruction of differences between the figure and the ground in a painting, then Johns has taken that one step further: he has made the surface of the painting into the content and the content into the surface. Yet, due to the representational nature of this content, we actually have both content and surface existing in a continual interractive dynamic, or oscillation between surface and content, which can never be resolved.

Johns: False Start, 1959 (oil/canvas, 67 x 54") Johns: Canvas, 1956

False Start literalizes the conflict between words and images by writing the names of colors in the wrong color and associating the names with other wrong colors.  But perhaps another sign of the "false start" is that this painting, unlike the earlier work in the 1950s, is not encaustic.  Whereas the encaustic paintings froze the brushwork into icons of style, this painting gives us a more fluid image which almost suggests a poetic and romantic landscape painting, albeit considerably abstracted.

In Canvas, we have two monochrome canvases (real ones) attached to one another.  There is no color and no image; so instead of using illusionism or trompe l’oeil to make something seem real when it isn’t, he uses something real to question the possibility of reality in painting.  This is complicated by the fact that the smaller canvas, located in the place where we might expect to see a portrait, is turned away from us, a strategy which Johns will use again in other paintings.  In this case, it seems to raise the question not only of reality versus illusion but a question of representing the artist who refuses to be seen.  In other words, a painting such as Canvas, and more definitively, the later paintings of the 60s, are increasingly about the source of the personal–not the source of the painting, but the source of a person’s thoughts and feelings: where do these come from, and once you know what they are, how and where do you find the words or pictures to express them.

Johns: Device Circle, 1959 Johns: Painting with Two Balls, 1960
Johns: Target with Plaster Casts, 1955 Johns: Target with Four Faces, 1955 

The Target paintings create a parallel between the meaning of severed body parts and targets.  Body parts, represented in art and detached from a body, lose their meaning as body parts.  They become something else, something unfamiliar and alien, in much the same way that a flag which has become a painting has become alien.  But just as the flag/painting contains the potential to be seen as either a flag or as a painting, the severed body parts suggest the possibility of reconstruction--being put together again and becoming a whole body.  Recent interpretations of these paintings see the targets as a commentary on the lack of social meaning held by the body of a gay man.  The target itself then becomes a metaphor of the way in which bodies are targets for society's responses to alienated groups.  If this interpretation is true, then the target paintings are very introspective and point to the presence of autobiographical subject matter in Johns' art works from the beginning of his career and almost always tied inextricably into the semiotic nature of the work.

A Summary of Johns's Strategies and Tactics in Work of the 1950s
  • "illusionism" and the trompe l'oeil as a strategy: faking reality in all its forms
  • illusionism versus abstraction in the painting
  • painting = object
  • pretend "ready-mades"
  • "Style" as subject

Increasing Introspection and Questioning the Source of Art

Johns: Field Painting, 1963-4 Johns: Fool's House, 1962
Johns: According to What? (1964)

Field Painting, Fool’s House, and According to What? relate to an increasing interest in narrative, in thinking beyond the picture plane, and in the performative nature of art.  Not unique to Johns, most artists of the 1960s were beginning to look for ways to engage the spectator in a more active relationship with the art work, but generally, this interest in performance took the form of happenings and literal performance.  The attempt to do it in the realm of the two-dimensional art work, or the two-dimensional art work which becomes three-dimensional, is a challenge to the modernist belief in the increasing purity of the medium.  It is also a direct response to the influence of Duchamp and works such as the Large Glass.  As other writers have noted, one of the probable factors in Johns' attempt to establish his lineage through Duchamp may have had to do with the fact that Duchamp was homosexual.  He is also the artist who mounted the first serious challenge to the nature of the art work as something which can exist only in two or even three dimensions, challenges which Johns continued in these works with their attacks on the meaning of representation and illusion, their references to other art works that engage in trompe l’oeil, the use of lettering which must continue around the painting in order to be complete, and the implications of action suggested by the objects in both a literal and metaphorical sense.  According to What? adds a more introspective element to the this mixture; the introspection will be taken further in Johns' work of the 1970s and 80s.

Munch: Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940-2 Johns: Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981 (encaustic on canvas; 6'6" x 10'6")

The tri-partite composition in Munch's painting is literally replicated in Johns' painting, both in the color changes and in the use of three panels.  The orange mid-section of Munch's painting, where Munch himself stands, has become the suggestion of an orange figure emerging from the cross-hatching in Johns' painting.  The painting on the wall on the right side of Munch's painting becomes the lavender "figure" in the third panel in Johns' painting.  We can match the two paintings this way, but at the same time, it's quite apparent that they don't look alike.  Johns has taken the cross-hatching of Munch's bedspread, a textural pattern which Johns had already used in his own work before seeing Munch's painting, and covered the entire canvas with it.  In the end, the inscrutability of Munch's face has become an entire canvas which veils the presence of a figure.

Johns: Perilous Night, 1982 Matthias Grunewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece, 1515-18 (detail)

Still, if autobiographical motives might be the reason for some visual references, others may have opticality as their sole impetus.  Johns spoke of his interest in the way things change their meaning as you look at them, particularly when they are drained of the context of meaning and illusionism.  This interest drew his attention to the Isenheim altarpiece and he began sketching portions of it and then reversing and transposing these sketches in order to examine the underlying pattern.  Perilous Night is one of the first paintings in which Johns makes reference to the Grunewald patterns, something he will come back to many times.  In Perilous Night, the figural presence taken from the Isenheim altarpiece is manipulated so that it appears as an abstract design, although when one looks closely, it can be recognized.  The detail chosen by Johns is from the Resurrection scene, and the painting is titled with a reference to a piece of music by John Cage, held on the canvas by his hand.  The music is about terror and loneliness.  In this case, the connection between the two external sources may be a connection of offering hope.  In other paintings where Johns uses this imagery, the connection may have more to do with the original context of the altarpiece–healing a disease (St. Anthony’s fire).

"Taking Stock and Moving House": The Four Seasons

Picasso: Minotaur Moving His House, 1936 Picasso: The Shadow, 1953

The Four Seasons series of paintings began with Summer, before the idea of a series had actually taken shape.  In a sense the paintings can be seen as a collaged form of "taking stock" when one is moving, as he was at the time, and a taking stock that occurs at a certain point in life. This analogy begins very easily with the reference to his Flag painting in Summer and also with references to a 1936 painting by Picasso: Minotaur Moving His House.  In addition to this painting by Picasso, Johns also makes a reference to a 1953 painting, The Shadow, in which Picasso's shadow falls across the floor of his studio.

Summer, 1985 Fall, 1986 Winter, 1986 Spring, 1986

Jill Johnston, in a book called Jasper Johns: Privileged Information, develops the theme of autobiography in Johns' work, especially as it appears in the Four Seasons. Key to her analysis is her identification of the motif from the Isenheim Altarpiece. It is even more difficult to see here since Johns deliberately obscures its presence by covering it with the cross-hatching that evokes the earlier painting Between Clock and Bed as well as the Corpse and Mirror paintings and others in that patterned, cross-hatched mode. The Isenheim altarpiece, an extremely large work with several "openings" (every time you "open" an altarpiece, you reveal another set of images - most open once; this one opened three times),  was created for a monastic order which treated the victims of St. Anthony's fire. In the Renaissance, patients were supposed to look at the repulsive figure in the painting, see in him the identification which he makes with St. Anthony, and through St. Anthony, an identification with the sufferings of Christ.  Ultimately, this suffering would lead to salvation if the patient had faith.  In Johns' painting, the redemption which would come through religious belief is replaced by a redemption which comes through art.  Johns does something unusual with this because he places himself in the position of victim and the position of savior. At the same time, his literal presence in the painting takes the form of a shadow, an insubstantial form with no body. The Four Seasons would therefore seem to unite two themes of Johns' work: the theme of denial of self (in earlier works, denial of objecthood and denial of meaning, as when he uses paints the letters "red" in blue paint) and the identity of self (object, word, meaning). Whereas the early paintings express these themes in linguistic or semiotic terms, the later paintings express them in a more personal and autobiographical mode, making the fundamental issue throughout Johns' work the question of where does identity come from.

Johns: Mirror's Edge, 1992 Johns: The Seasons (aquatint and etching, 1990) Johns: Nothing at All Richard Dadd, 1992

New voices enter Johns’ conversations in the 1990s and old voices are transfigured to read in new ways. Nothing at All Richard Dadd builds on a floor plan from Johns’ childhood home, an image which he had previously used in 1992 in Mirror’s Edge and paintings related to that one.  It also uses a cross/wheel sequence of the 4 seasons paintings, again previously used in Mirror’s Edge.  Richard Dadd was a 19th century English painter who murdered his father on command by spirits’ voices.  He spent the rest of his life in a hospital for the criminally insane where he wrote a long poem about his masterpiece painting of fairies: “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke.”  The last line of the poem says that “nothing can be made of nothing.”  Dadd seemed to keep making art out of some inner necessity; this may have been the connecting link for Johns, an artist whose commitment to found images ranges from flagstones to children’s art to Picasso and to nameless other sources, ingesting them and reconfiguring them as part of his vocabulary.

(But why not: Nothing at all, Dada?)