The only one seeing these things
Jasper Johns sprang fully armed, in January 1958, with his first showing by Leo Castelli in New York. The declaration of independence was so assured, its ramifications staked out so rapidly, in painting after painting, that by 1962 Leo Steinberg could devote an ambitious essay to Johns subtitled “the first seven years of his art”. Dostoevsky said of Russian literature that “we all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat”; Pop art and minimalism and conceptualism have all been said to come out of Johns’s flag.
His own art starts from “Flag” (1954–55) (in three panels, and absent from the Royal Academy walls – perhaps because, as he has said, “it tends to fall to pieces”). He destroyed what preceded it. But if his flags and targets were brash with self-evidence they were also inexplicable. As with Agnes Martin’s grid, a few years later (“My god am I supposed to paint that?”), the flag came to Johns in a vision: “One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and went out and bought the materials to begin it”.
These early works looked at things seen but not looked at – “things the mind already knows”, his much-quoted excuse for what he was up to. The art world’s immediate and excessive scrutiny of these works, and the unease they induced in viewers, is now part of their meaning. Johns knew all about being a viewer: he had started out by watching Robert Rauschenberg at work – his accomplished elder (by five years), fellow Southerner, business partner (window dressings for Tiffany) and lover. They had studios in the same building, apprenticeship moved sideways into give and take, and each became a solitary audience for the other during the downtown early 1950s. As Rauschenberg later remarked to the curator Walter Hopps, “we gave each other permission to do what we were doing”.
Subscribe to the weekly TLS newsletter
In the flags or targets there was evidence of process, but no equivocation – nothing in the American grain of heroic self-making. Johns had little need to disown the Abstract Expressionists: he comes out of their moment, and his brushstroke acknowledges an unworried allegiance. But there is no revision, no trial and error, no self-exposure, no uncertainty about edges or endings. Then and now Johns insists (he is a master of the reluctant interview) that his marks are automatic – how else are they made? he would ask, when questioned – and that he works with what is given.
More intriguing, over the long stretch – he is now eighty-seven and still at work – than questions about the status of these canvases as at once objects and representations, is their peculiar blend of agency and impassivity. The paint is closely worked, lovingly and even claustrophobically attentive. When we look back at these works in the first rooms of the Royal Academy, the method now seems more assured, the subject less so. Their presence is sober, reticent, unsmiling; it is our response that is unstable and expressive: staring into the flags and targets, we activate their activity – you know what this thing is, they seem to say, how closely do you need to look?
The late John Ashbery in 1966 recalled with admiration that the early work gave the feeling of watching a battery being charged (Johns once said that “a picture ought to be looked at the same way you look at a radiator”). But Ashbery’s sequitur, that this was a process from which “the viewer was firmly excluded”, does not follow. On the contrary, we are intricately solicited, and implicated. To look on these images is to be asked: must we mean what we see?
Although Johns was always interested in things that “suggest the world” rather than the personality, his collage does not reintroduce the world into the picture by a back door, as it did for Robert Motherwell, or in a different way for Rauschenberg, nor hint at an art story going back to the cubist collage of Braque and Picasso. You cannot read the newsprint in Johns, though you are aware of its everydayness; it is there for instrumental purposes, caught up in a dream-like process. What is figured steps right up to the picture plane, behaving like a classic abstraction. The image is simultaneous with the surface – or not quite, the latter constructed incrementally from collage, as something present but painted out.
The process was encaustic, Johns’s use of which was originally the solution to a difficulty, in the first flag painting. The enamel paint he was using dried too slowly, and he read about a forgotten technique in which pigment was mixed with hot beeswax. As the wax cooled and set it preserved each moment or mark, allowing him to work more rapidly but also more deliberately. He fitted the technique to purpose, steeping strips of torn newspaper and fabric in pigmented wax. Differences remained, but a uniform surface was created. Your eye could continue on its travels.
Encaustic registered the viscosity of matter, the body’s truths, but without panic. It is an embalmer’s medium – continuous with Johns’s casts of body parts in plastic or plaster and his imprints of hands or feet, his tracings of his own body, his preoccupation with skin. This medium was his own discovery, independent of Rauschenberg, whose energy was devouring whatever it encountered, joining together things and their semblances in shotgun weddings, as one vast and ramifying assemblage. Johns’s paintings also started to include objects, and perhaps he felt freer to explore this after the relationship cooled, in 1961, and Rauschenberg moved in other directions. But Johns stopped short of assemblage. New props entered sparingly – cutlery, rulers, balls, torches, light bulbs, cans of ale, brooms, rulers – but once there they stayed, and their meanings slowly marinated.
This Royal Academy retrospective (the first big showing in Britain since the Hayward Gallery in 1977) is loosely thematic and loosely chronological, which makes sense, since there is no other way of presenting a progress. Johns has always worked on different fronts simultaneously, as if works of the same moment could belong to different stages of a career. The effect of the exhibition as a whole is to make this thought seem plausible. The real questions have to do with why the same procedures have become more mysterious over the course of time. The exhibition is remarkable for its tact in choosing how to keep the story moving, divided at either end into sections and half-rooms inside larger rooms, like nested boxes of preoccupation, but open-ended. The more recent works are anthologies of earlier concerns, in more permanent materials. Each room is an updated inventory. Not unlike Warhol, Johns is his own recording angel, and as with Warhol there is a compulsion to repeat. And in both cases printmaking is at the heart of the project.
Put differently, the later works are part of his earliest conversations – with himself. Johns has always seemed to stand alone, and in interview he has stressed the absence of peers, the lack of influences, the isolation of his formative years in the uninhabited after-hours silence of the financial district. His art often seems to ask, am I the only one seeing these things, these fissures between seeing and language, between what we see and what we know, through which intention slips and disappears? Johns is happy to see it slip, for like his master Marcel Duchamp he thinks of intention as a cumbersome fiction.
The early embrace of what Warhol called “all the great modern things” (the things that Abstract Expressionism tried not to notice) might be celebration, or might be a caustic response to the orbiting endlessness of Americana. The sculptural bronzes imply another system of thought – not an anthropological elsewhere, but here and now, inside what Robert Lowell called “the tranquilized Fifties”. Rather than seeming clever, it was important for Johns that his work should deal in “simple-minded paradoxes” – like his search for examples which might plausibly stand for the class to which they belong. Finding a “universal” flashlight as a life model turned into a fraught business, each iteration of an object being merely a nod to an absent original. “It made me suspect my idea, because it was so difficult to find this thing I had thought was so common”, as he admitted to David Sylvester – not unlike the instructive difficulty Duchamp had experienced in finding objects for ready-mades which were devoid of visual or formal allure.
What increasingly interested Johns was the chorus of simulacra. Leo Steinberg suggested that the subject in Johns is “constantly found and lost”, which catches his chameleon relation to what he makes, always articulated through the materials, as if the subject of these works, for all their lumpenness, is absence and unsettledness, things leaving sick notes for themselves. The life-size sculptures of Savarin coffee tins or ale cans are not what they seem, but bronzes painted to look like their originals. So he titles them “Painted Bronze” and says “I wanted to call them what they were”, similitude being the uncanny valley in which meanings sleep. Calling a spade a spade was far from simple. He explores it by indirection, allying bronze to impermanence while evoking its associations as a heroic material. One of his characteristic discoveries was sculp-metal, an ersatz new material – combined of vinyl resin and aluminium powder – which modelled like clay but hardened shoddily into what looked like metal. The leaden corpse-light given off by his lightbulb sculptures of the early 1960s speaks of their stolid faithfulness to their idea of themselves.
Stencils were another “device” which became a fixed resource: pre-formed, machined, mass-produced – but inexact, because the numbers or letters stray. Their anonymity has a handmade aspect, a facture by default. A broadly dismissive stamp of officialese, signifying goods in transit, the stencil could also imprint or impress, change what it touches, creating a subtle second surface. “0 through 9” (1958) was the first of the stencil numerals, arranged in two rows of five, one of his earliest white monochrome works, in which each number both cuts a figure and is a figure, rather as a clock has a face. His “Figure 0” (1959) has a potent presence (like Warhol, again, who described his soup cans as “portraits”). Moreover, Johns would often paint letters to imitate stencil, introducing a double wobble, or sign his name in stencil as an impersonal but wayward hic fecit. In some of the later reprises of the stencil, like his panels of numbers in aluminium or bronze (numbers occupy an entire room of the exhibition) the play of reliefs is reluctantly or reproachfully exquisite, the materials glow and breathe glamorously. As he remarked of Cézanne’s brushstroke, “it makes looking equivalent to touching”.
The paradoxes have an inspired literal-mindedness, as with the grisaille canvas of 1961 in which the sculp-metal word “NO” hangs uncertainly from a wire, and with the hinged word LIAR in another painting of the same year. Are these performative utterances, ostensive acts of pointing? Who speaks a title is often in play, and Johns remembered Duchamp’s remark that a title is like an extra colour. If there has to be a story in all of this, “False Start” of 1959 was one new beginning: stencilled colour names mismatched to their colours (as if letters or numbers have colours), after which the canvases start to enter choppier waters – gestural and interlocking splashes of primary colour, gauged to look like quotations from middle-period De Kooning.
Johns was a diffident colourist before he became a printmaker. The most significant intervening factor in his career is printmaking. Printmaking, and above all lithography, informs the techniques and becomes the subject of his paint. Printmaking also involved the issuing of instructions, some of which are incorporated into the works themselves (“Enlarge”), as another kind of pointing. Throughout the 1960s he worked in Tatyana Grosman’s ULAE studios on Long Island, and thereafter in other illustrious workshops, Gemini in Los Angeles, Crommelynck in Paris. Printmaking was continuous with his lessons in repetition learnt from dance and music – the long engagement with Merce Cunningham and John Cage – though the Royal Academy does not attempt to stage these aspects. Johns’s art is incomprehensible other than as a meditation on the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction; and yet his prints are often neglected.
Printmaking in all its forms also gave him the confidence of his later reliances on pattern, particularly the motifs of flagstone and of cross-hatching, both given to him by accident: respectively a wall in Harlem glimpsed from a taxi and a car coming towards him on the Long Island Expressway, decorated with a zigzag design (these were the 1970s, after all). Both images were irrecoverably of the moment, seen and then seen again only in memory. And both were ideally unconnected to his earlier purposes. He often calls things “dumb” or “stupid” – whether silkscreen printing or the zigzag – as a form of shrewd appraisal and an index of possibility. Of cross-hatching (fields of short diagonal lines, in adjacent formations) he listed its virtues as: “literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of complete lack of meaning – with the possibilities of gesture and the nuance that characterize the material – colour, thickness, thinning – a range of shadings that become emotionally interesting”.
Grey in all its gradings remains his most expressive colour, however, in every room of the exhibition, both surface and ground, whether as a term for infinity – Johns is as devoted to grey as a Byzantine icon painter to gold leaf – or for mortality. Many of his most obscurely compelling images are of something falling, against a grey ground. The fenced-off privacy of Johns’s references in the 1980s and 90s is marked above all by this linkage between gravity and grace. He has spoken of an energy in a painting “that you wouldn’t just put there, that comes about through grace of some sort”. It is an arrestingly numinous term, but characteristically is also device-driven. His later series of “catenary” works make the most explicit connection – something frozen between chance and measurement – registering the curve assumed by the weight of a string, held at either end, which hangs freely at the centre, and all of these works have ominous conviction.
The doominess of Johns’s catenary narratives was present or latent from the outset: targets, numbers and circles contain the arc of a fall, as a hidden or delayed gesture. As in the use of rulers and the arm-and-palm semicircular smearing of paint in his first puppet-like “Device Circle” (a pivoted ruler affixed to the canvas as a tool for describing circles, independent of the brush), or his dangling forks or spoons. The bottoms of the paintings are where things and words and meanings often end up (and are then usually stopped or delayed by a narrow strip of bare canvas). The iconographic energy is downwards-pointing, and the only significant omission from the Royal Academy exhibition is “Diver”, his extraordinary painting on paper of 1962, whose vestigial human presence – the impress of two feet at the top of the canvas, and two hands at the centre and again at bottom, at the downward point of two swept semicircles – imply that this diver has both fallen and is yet to fall, the arms lifted or lowered in the arc of a swan dive.
Johns’s preoccupation with all that falls (snow, rain, tears, cutlery) is distinctly Beckettian, and he collaborated with Beckett in 1977 on a work of text and image – aquatints, etchings, lithographs which keep company with Beckett’s five brief prose “Fizzles”. This work is properly given its space in the Royal Academy rooms – the painter’s confident correlatives (of cross-hatchings, and interlocking flagstone forms) facing Beckett’s words, in which “the only sounds, apart from those of the body, on its way, are of fall, a great drop dropping at last from a great height and bursting”.
One of the mysteries of the exhibition – and the scale of the retospective is needed to make this apparent – is not the eclecticism of Johns’s later imagery but rather its hidden enlargement of reference, the incorporation from the mid-60s of what Ashbery, quoting Wallace Stevens, called “a completely new set of objects”. Where the earlier imagery was reticent but public, the later references are extrovert but immutably private, despite their talkative reference to the evidences of a life (personal possessions), or to other artists (Grünewald, Picasso, Munch) and despite the fitful enlargement of palette.
In the later work things are accorded a passionate silence, like Dürer’s figure of melancholy surrounded by mute and discarded emblems. Indeed the gesture of head in hands becomes meaningful for Johns, in the last sequence of the exhibition, entitled Regrets, which plays variations on a battered photograph by Roger Deakin of Lucian Freud, found in Francis Bacon’s studio after his death in 1992, in which Freud sits on the edge of a quilted bed, face averted, newspapers on the floor at his feet. What Johns does with this found object, in the one painting and fifteen acquatints on show (there are dozens of other states, not displayed, in different media: pencil, watercolour, ink on plastic, monotypes), is so intricate that it is difficult to grasp what we are looking at: the image is doubled, Rorschach-like, each side separated by a blank central area registering the damage to the lower left side of the photograph, now central to Johns’s image. Each rendition in the sequence is different from the others, but again in ways that are hard to ascertain, the visual information is so delicately wrought and so charged. Shapes and tones and tracings trade places, and the overall effect of a black-and-white photographic negative returns the image bleakly and without comment to Deakin’s original medium.
The Royal Academy offers room after room of rapt decorum, works seemingly uninterested by their own virtuosity, their avoidances precisely realized, and everywhere the evidences of a task accomplished. The puzzle is that a body of work so hermetic and austere should be so communicative and beguiling. It has become usual, of course, to say that the later imagery has lost the earlier sense of striding purpose, but who is to say, when its aims are to play havoc with sameness and difference? Through all of his changes and refusals to change, Johns spares us the embarrassment of knowing more than he does, while steadfastly refusing to present himself as owning the meanings he has created.
To read the full article, please login
Get the world's leading literary journal from only £1.50 or $2.40 per week Subscribe