1. Jasper Johns, American born 1930

Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

from The Mind and the Mirror: exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of (North) American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2021/22

 

 

Jasper Johns is widely considered the foremost living North American artist. 

 

Born and raised in the deep South, he served two years in the army in the US and Japan during the Korean war.

 

 

 

Untitled, 2011, acrylic, crayon, graphite pencil, and coloured pencil on fabric mounted on paper. 

Collection of Jasper Johns

 

 

 

 

Untitled, 1995, lithograph.

  Whitney Museum loan to the retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns in 2021/22

 

Discharged, he made his way to New York in 1953 determined to be an artist.

He was 23.

 

His first exhibition was at the Jewish Museum, NY when he was 26.  He turned 90 in 2020 and is still at work.  

 

A retrospective planned for his 90th year by the Whitney Museum of (North) American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, delayed by Covid-19, closed early this year.

 

The works below were on display in 2021 and 2022 at one museum or the other.

 

 

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In 1954, Jasper Johns fell in with a group of young artists beginning to make their way in New York.

 

Johns met Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) in that year.  With him he had an intimate and creative relationship for seven years.

 

 

 

Untitled (Jasper, Pearl Street Studio), 1955. 

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008, American.  From the web site of his foundation

 

 

 

He also met and co-operated with John Cage (1912-1992), the composer, and his lover, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), the choreographer. Cy Twombly (1928-2011) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987) were also beginning to make their artistic way in New York.

 

 

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Minutiae, 1954, oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, paint sample colour chart, graphite, metal, plastic, with hanging mirror and wooden supports.  

Jasper Johns, American born 1930 with Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008).  Private collection in Switzerland on loan to MOMA, NY in 2017.

 

This was built by the two artists at the request of Merce Cunningham who wanted something that his dancers could use in a dance.  When the curtain went up, the mirror would be spinning and flashing.   

 

 

 

 

Perilous Night, 1982, black ink and coloured ink on plastic.  

Art Institute, Chicago loan in 2021/22 to the retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

The Perilous Night is a 12-minute piano piece composed by John Cage in the  mid-1940’s.

 

 

In 1960, the prominent gallerist, Leo Castelli, mounted the first solo show of Johns’ work which he had seen on a visit to Robert Rauschenberg’s studio.

  

He has benefitted since that time from the evaluation and criticism of his peers in the art establishment and the encouragement of collectors.

 

The relationship of Johns and Rauschenberg has had great significance for the evolution of North American art.

 

“We gave each other permission,” Rauschenberg said.

 

That permission was to expand the impetus Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968, American born France) had given art more than a generation before.

  

Duchamp moved the creation and consumption of art away from the domain of the senses to an exercise of the artist’s mind, translated into artistic media.   

 

 

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Johns’ first experiments were to create paintings or sculptures of common and garden objects.

 

 

 

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The Critic Sees II, Sculp metal over plaster, glass, 1964. 

Jasper Johns, American born 1930.  The windows of the Philadelphia Art Museum are reflected in the image

 

 

 

 

The Critic Smiles, embossed lead relief, with gold and tin foil additions. ?Date

 Jasper Johns, American born 1930.  On view at the Philadelphia Art Museum in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Flashlight, 1960, plaster, glass, wire, nails.  Collection of  Jasper Johns

 

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Iron, 1962, encaustic on wood. 

Jasper Johns, American born 1930.  Philadelphia Art Museum

 

 

 

Johns also turned paintings into surrogates for objects. 

 

Visually, the painting could be the object it represents.

 

 

 

Flag, 1954-55, encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on wood.  

MOMA, NY loan to the retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Target, 1958, oil and collage on canvas.  Collection of Jasper Johns

 

 

 

 

 

Painted bronze, 1960, bronze and oilpaint. 

  Museum Ludwig, Cologne loan to a retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930, in 2021/22

 

 

 

Savarin 

 

 

Savarin, 1977, ink and graphite on plastic.  

Loaned by MOMA, NY. to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

These  monotypes were made in 1982 and are a representation of a 1960 sculpture of painted bronze of a Savarin coffee can filled with brushes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johns moved on to incorporate actual objects in paintings.

 

 

 

 

Fountain Pen, 1961, encaustic on wood with object.

Private collection loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Water Freezes, 1961, encaustic and collage on canvas and wood, with objects, two panels.

   Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

The Whitney suggests that the thermometer and dark mood of this image is connected with the anguish Jasper Johns felt at the end of his relationship with Robert Rauschenberg

 

 

 

Fool’s House, 1961-62, oil, sculpt metal and charcoal on canvas, with objects.  

Private collection loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

The objects have been used to make this painting: the brush is the paintbrush; the cup is the container for mixing paints; the towel for cleaning up.

 

 

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In 1961,the relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg ended.   Its ending was memorialized by Jasper Johns.

 

 

 

 

Liar, 1961, encaustic, sculpt metal and graphite on paper. 

Private collection loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Painting Bitten by a Man, 1961, encaustic on canvas. 

MOMA, NY loan to the retrospective of the work of Jasper John, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Study for In Memory of My Feelings, 1967, ink and graphite pencil  on paper.

Collection of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara, 1961, oil on canvas with objects, two panels, 1961. 

Loan by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago to a retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

The title is from an elegaic poem by Frank O’Hara, a friend of the artist.

 

 

 

 

The richness of the creative friendship of this group remained with Johns.  40 years later, he recast Merce Cunningham’s right foot between the ‘8’ and ‘9’ in this sculptural painting.

 

 

 

 

 Numbers, 2007, (cast 2008), aluminum. 

Jasper Johns, American born 1930.  Loaned by Glenstone to the Whitney Museum of Art in 2021/22

 

 

 

Johns’ importance, as also Robert Rauschenberg’s, is for the evolution of North American art.

 

Their work gave a large push to Conceptualism, Minimalism, Process art and the merging of sculpture and painting.

 

 

 

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After his break with Jasper Johns in 1961, Rauschenberg expanded his focus to political commentary and an attempt to use art internationally to create peace.  He also created large works of a sumptuous sensuality.

 

Jasper Johns seems to have retreated inwards. 

 

There he continued his experimentation. 

 

In this process, he became a master of the techniques he chose:  particularly printmaking; the use of encaustic; and ink on plastic.

 

 

The artist has avoided talking about the meaning of his work. He has given very few interviews.  He has also said that he does not want his feelings visible in his work.

 

 

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In 1972, the artist began painting a pattern of crosshatches. 

 

 

 

Between the Clock and the Bed, pastel on paper, 1980.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

Johns claimed that this cross-hatching offered “the possibility of a complete lack of meaning.” 

 

Johns’ pattern and title are taken from Edvard Munch in one of his self-portraits.

 

 

 

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Self-Portrait:  Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940–43.

Edvard Munch, 1863-1944, Norwegian  from an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Winter 2017/18

 

This work between a clock and an empty bed against a background of his paintings is taken to be a contemplation of his life’s work and a forward look to his death. 

 

 

 

What can be made of all this?

 

Of an offer of works  of ‘no meaning’? 

 

Of painting which seem to be objects;

 

and of paintings of objects or which include objects?

 

Museum guidance is that, not unlike one of his great influencers, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns is always “testing the relationship between image, language and object.”

 

 

This seems to boil down to this:

Jasper Johns plays with the meaning of what we think we see and what we think we know about what we see.

 

Our mind translates what we see into objects and patterns that we already know.  To these, following the history and usage of our species, we apply meaning. 

 

Separating the meaning from the object before our eyes and in our head may, according to the artist, bring us to a different place.

 

 

 

 

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Between the Wall and the Bed, 1981, encaustic on canvas on three panels. 

Jasper Johns, American born 1930.  MOMA, NY

 

 

 

Two questions arise at once. 

 

Why do we want to tamper with meaning? 

Once we have gone this route, where have we reached? 

 

I don’t know the answer to the first question.

 

But  I could say that we tamper with meaning at the peril of our psychological and community coherence because the meaning of anything is not derived by our individual decisions.

 

Meaning binds us to the history of our species, to our own culture, to our own families.

 

And lack of meaning – as with the artist’s crosshatching proposal – as a way of art or of life is one of the definitions of nihilism.

 

 

 

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As to the second question: 

Once we have eviscerated the meaning of an object, once we have decided that it has a different meaning, where are we?

 

 

Here are two test examples:

 

The first starts with a photograph of the celebrated British figurative artist, Lucien FreudHe is sitting on a bed and is distressed.

 

 

 

Image of a photo, c. 1964, of Lucien Freud (1922-2011) taken by John Deakin (1912-1972).  In the estate of Francis Bacon

 

 

As can be seen below, – the image has been partly mirrored on either side of the canvas as though we were looking at a brain – the human being and his agony are submerged beneath Johns’ extracted or superimposed patterns.

 

The meaning of the original photo is lost to us.

 

As a process, this is interesting.  

 

But where are we at the end?

 

 

 

Regrets, 2013, oil on canvas.

Private collection loan to a 2021/2022 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Regrets, 2013, oil on canvas.

Private collection loan to a 2021/2022 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

Untitled, 2013, watercolour and ink on paper.

Private collection loan to a 2021/2022 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

Untitled, 2014, acrylic on canvas. 

Private collection loan to a 2021/2022 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

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A second example is based on a 1965 photo by Larry Burrows in Life Magazine:

 

Marine Lance Corporal James Farley Breaks Down in Office over the Deaths of Fellow Soldiers during the Vietnam War.

 

 

Image of a Larry Burrows photo, 1965, of Marine Lance Corporal James Farley

 

 

 

After Larry Burrows, 2014, water-soluble encaustic and graphite pencil on paper. 

Collection of Jasper Johns

 

 

 

Farley Breaks Down – After Larry Burrows, 2014, ink on plastsic. 

Private collection loan to a 2021/2022 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Farley Breaks Down, 2014, ink and water-soluble encaustic on plastic. 

Jasper Johns, American born 1930. Whitney Museum of American Art, NY

 

 

 

Untitled, 2017, ink on plastic.

Private collection loan to a 2021/2022 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

Three versions on a wall of this retrospective of the image of Marine Lance Corporal James Farley

 

 

 

 

Untitled, 2017, monotype.

Private collection loan to a 2021/2022 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Untitled, 2018, encaustic on canvas.

  Jasper Johns, American born 1930. Loaned by Glenstone to the Whitney Museum of Art in 2021/22

 

 

 

Untitled, 2018, oil on canvas.

Private collection loan to a 2021/2022 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

Where are we now? 

 

Certainly in deep admiration for the processes the artist has used to achieve these images.

 

The artist’s masterly processes, though, have resulted in every case in a scrambled mess, a visual incoherence.

 

Even if momentarily titillating to the mind’s eye.

 

 

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It is interesting to see that the representation of the artist himself whether whole or in body piece parts  (hands, fingers, legs, feet) remains fully recognizable, unfragmented throughout his work.

 

The artist represents himself as a youth, not yet at the age of reason.  Alone. Often with a ladder. 

Out exploring.

 

 

 

 

Winter,  (from The Seasons), 1986, encaustic on canvas.

 

 

 

Untitled, ink on paper mounted on paper, 1998.  Collection of the artist.

 

 

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 2013-14 

Private collection loan to a 2021/2022 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

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Johns’ exercise is an intellectual exercise in full Descartian mode.  There is no spiritual heft here.

 

 

Canvas, 1956, encaustic and collage on canvas.  Collection of Jasper Johns

 

Museum guidance is that the artist wants to frustate our view of a painting of which this is the back. 

The first name of this image was ‘Window’.  This refers to the Renaissance notion that a painting is a window onto a representation of a reality.  Jasper Johns wants to frustrate this notion.

 

 

 

Jasper Johns may well be an artist’s artist; a critic’s artist; an artist for the collecting collectivity.

 

But I find unenlightening

 

the idea that the foremost North American artist of our time forsakes our sensual, emotional, spiritual and ethical lives,

 

only to play with our intellect; and that on the iffiest of bases.

 

A low road. The easier path.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “1. Jasper Johns, American born 1930

  1. Pourtant, si abstrait qu’il soit le peintre utilise des images de détresse, souvenirs de sa rupture amoureuse.
    Si j’ai bien compris.

    1. You are right, Louis, for the work of 1961 and 1962 which the Whitney identifies specifically as markers for Jasper Johns’ of his grief at his separation from Rauschenberg. His overriding ambition, however, was for the viewer not to see his feelings in any image; and to separate the objects in the image from the meaning of those images.

      So there cannot be, supposedly, after 1961/2, any identifiable ‘images de détresse’ because distress, being an emotion, is not the artist’s subject. Semiotics is.

      A few weeks ago, I was advised that Johns was not particularly upset with the break with Rauschenberg. This I find strange because Robert Rauschenberg, widely regarded as a charismatic, was a man of volcanic activity and ideas and many, many friends. He was not a man who could be constrained. He and Jasper Johns had been their own closest critics and inspirers and promoters. A disruption of this kind affects all of our lives if we are fortunate to have such relationships.

      Sarah

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