Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror at the Whitey Museum of American Art

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Jasper Johns, now 91 years old, remains in place as one of America’s very best artists. Since the middle 1950s, when he became famous for his stunningly original paintings of numbers, maps, flags, and targets, he has kept his keen and inquiring intelligence alive, even at present. The show “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror” at the Whitney (there is a concomitant show of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) covers the entire length of his career, from his beginnings, which tended to emphasize a proto-conceptual bias describing what he called “things the mind already knows” as well as technical skill that is exceptional–Johns is one of the best encaustic painters we have today. But as marvelous as his technique may be, now that we have a good distance between the early efforts and our current perception of them, we can start to see how startlingly original the artist is in his conception. His move away from the exuberant abstraction of the famous painters just before him, toward a bias in art that was both conceptual and given more to representation of things found in everyday life, makes him, along with the late Robert Rauschenberg, Johns’ former companion, proto-Pop artists of the highest order. The Pop orientation of his work is based on demotic culture and the inclusion of actual, common objects–Johns made, early on, an informal copy of an “Alley Oop” segment (an American cartoon), or a real chair attached to a painting, or a sculpture of brushes whose handles rise up out of a coffee can–paved the way for Andy Warhol, whose commitment to popular culture was complete.

But it looks like the true break between Johns and his immediate visual past was based on an intellectual recognition that abstract expressionism’s moment was done with. In the early works of Johns, the numbers paintings and the target paintings especially, we experience a new way of seeing. These pieces, along with the flags and often expressionistically painted maps (the latter a homage to the work that proceded his), are so transparently self-evident in their presentation as to defy the precedent just before him, in which the enthusiastic lyricism of abstraction, as wonderful as it was, had peaked. By emphasizing the object as object in his paintings, without any rhetorical emphasis, Johns asked his audience to revise their expectations in favor of the painting as an embodiment of an idea–even if they were exquisitely rendered. Thus, the paintings resist any easy understanding of their purpose or intention. Instead, they face the viewer blankly, and demand that they be viewed as guileless statements of the real. So they are no more, nor no less, than what they are. It takes a neutral, but not uninvolved, intelligence to accept the works the way we find them. If the images he produced in the first part of his career record nothing but themselves, they create an actuality that leaves us in a magnificent quandary: Do we simply read the surface of the painting, noting the slightly eccentric subject matter? Or do we attempt to bridge the gap between easily identifiable objects and their message, which remains oblique despite the fact that is simple and unadorned, beyond categorization?

How does one effectively look at things whose aura is utterly commonplace? Can our familiarity with the object be replaced by an appreciation of that object as if it had never been seen before? Even if we were able to do so consistently, why would Johns want us to consider the work in this way? There is a Zen-like intensity of purpose in the flags and targets, whose meaning takes place beyond any conventional expansion of content. So we must learn to see these works for what they are: the products of an artist who is willing to divorce all conventional meaning in favor of a flat statement resistant to interpretation. Thus, the effort invested in reading them–of forcing them to make thematic sense–falls by the wayside. This is much more true of Johns’s early art; in his later work, he tends to favor references that would invest the painting with a sense of allegory, allowing us to contemplate and expand its meaning, which tends to connect with traditional art history. In that sense, the later work, with its references to visual legacies and, in the most recent paintings, his presentations of skeletons with tophats, takes us to a place where we can talk usefully about his motivation. Instead of resisting meaning, the work that follows his first efforts embraces it. The pieces that first made Johns famous is the consequence of a young artist’s decision to move away from lyric abstraction (even if some of the early art does demonstrate, with remarkable virtuosity, expressionist brushwork) to a site in which perception is guided by high intelligence, close to the later movement of conceptual art.

This happened, perhaps, because Johns became a painter at a time when the glories of Pollock, de Kooning, and Gorky had already reached their highest point. Something new was needed. So Johns edged away from the messy inspiration of his immediate forebears, directing his energies toward a sensibility in which things as they are would remain as they are. His emphasis on the artifact alone, without any purpose or evident meaning issuing from the image, may have bewildered audiences, but this was recognized as a great innovation from the start. A radical break occurs in his young work, incorporating the essence of things without any attempt to transform them. Usually, art is about transformation–the work presents the image with a suggested theme that is larger than what we see. But Johns initially rejected this approach. Instead, he lifted the ordinary into a place of high regard by letting it exist as it was, without embellishment. We must imagine an art that broke with art history in favor of nothing more than simple existence. This is nothing short of liberating after two decades of lyric expressionism’s high, but also profoundly egotistical, rhetoric. It looks like Johns, with an insight no one possessed at the time, intuited that something new, something as conceptually determined as it was well painted, was necessary in the face of an increasingly moribund milieu. It can be said, then, that he approached the surface of the object in good faith, believing that it would suffice as art. This had the added effect of avoiding the pretensions of criticism, its wish to control how we react to a work of art.

After all the trumpeting of artistic freedom in the art of the abstract expressionists, the work of Johns, its measure and restraint, appears not only wonderfully innovatory but also inspired in its wish to avoid excess. In the still compellingly enigmatic work from 1955, Target with Four Faces, Johns has used encaustic to paint a target of concentric blue and yellow circles, on top of which we find sculptures of four men’s faces, cut off at the eyes. They are exactly similar, being anonymous and entirely conventional. We may well ask, What is the relationship between the heads and the target? There is nothing that ties them together thematically. Yet the work is one of the most famous, striking works we know from the second half of the 20th century. Johns’s preoccupation with resisting meaning could not be more clear in this work of art. The juxtaposition of the work’s two major elements might be interpreted as an esoteric comment on anonymity and purpose: the faces are not meant to be identified, while the target might suggest, abstractly, a deliberate goal. But we cannot be sure of our reading; Johns gives us no clues. Because there is no thematic guidance we can elicit from the artwork, we must accept it as it actually is. Thus, the implications of what we take away from Target with Four Faces are neither transparent nor oblique. They seem to exist in the same way time exists–being invisible yet importantly present. John’s’s cleverness must not be underestimated here; he has structured a conundrum whose use of generic imagery is intended to keep his audience guessing.

Three Flags (1958), another one of Johns’s iconic paintings, consists of three panels, which depict in encaustic the American flag in decreasing size, so that the first two are mostly covered until we reach the third, the flag farthest from the wall. Once again, as with Target with Four Faces, we are faced with the puzzle of its meaning. The work was painted before America’s involvement in Vietnam, so it is hard to ascribe a political meaning to the artwork. At the same time, by the late 1950s, many artists and writers were speaking critically of American culture. Yet Johns does not take a social stance. He merely repeats the image of the flag, leaving it up to the viewer to make sense of the image. Reduced to mere iteration, Three Flags is not so much obscure with hidden intention as it is unfathomable. Yet it remains in the viewer’s thought permanently once it has been seen. Is the picture a statement of patriotism, or is it an implied critique of empire? We simply do not know, and our unknowing adds to the power of the painting. If, in this painting, we dwell on what we know so well as to forget its purpose, then perhaps Johns is reintroducing a cliché for purely visual reasons. But it is impossible to divorce the flags from their symbolic content: they are the first symbol of America. Johns’s art is almost never openly political, so pushing the painting toward a social statement seems unnecessary, even futile. Instead, as happens so often in the early work, Johns returns the responsibility of interpretation to the viewer, making his audience the arbiter of his point of view. This is unusual, in the sense that usually we speculate on the artist’s outlook instead of imposing our own analysis. But it seems the riddle cannot be solved. Johns is resolutely ambiguous, concealing his motivation.

Johns’s Map (1963), a heavily brushworked, encaustic painting of America and a bit beyond, is freer in its execution than the works spoken of. A blue passage with streaks of white dominates the left side of the composition, while the states, identified by stenciled letters, are often in gray. There are three blocks of primary color (red, yellow, blue) that extend a bit to the left from the right edge of the painting. Just below is a stencil of the word “Atlantic.” It is a messy painting with overlays that obscure the outline of America. Why did Johns paint maps of the United States? As subject matter, it feels utterly transparent. Description is much more effective than speculation here, in the sense that the forms carry no import. But what if description alone, devoid of meaning, were the goal of the artist? By placing his remarkable skills in the service of a map’s rendering, the map becomes a singular item even though it communicates very little beyond some dissolute brushwork and the fact of the map. The same is true of Johns’ beautiful paintings of the number zero through nine, sometimes painted in rows, sometimes drawn directly on top of each other. Numbers are facts; they evade interpretation entirely, unless they are attached to a topic. Yet Johns made exquisite paintings out of them. His vision of the familiar made transcendent by turning the known into articles of exceptional visual interest looks ahead to a time when thematic meaning was submerged within other interests: formal, political, commercial. One can only imagine Johns looking for content that would not immediately announce itself or be easily categorized. Targets, flags, maps, and numbers served his purpose well.

According to What (1964) is a breakthrough painting. Large, incorporating found objects such as a white chair turned upside down, and letters spelling out the words Red, Yellow, and Blue, the six-panel picture, painted the year following President John F. Kennedy’s death, is filled with disparate effects: expressionistically painted passages on the left and right, the words spelling out different colors presented as much as objects as they embody legible information, a vertical stripe of differently hued circles running down the painting’s middle, and a gray column, lighter above and darker below, divided by a whte horizontal stripes that moves into the panel of the farthest right, where we find squares of red yellow, and blue on the upper edges. As a work of art, it represents a major advance, incorporating physical things onto a painted surface (one might think of Rauschenberg’s combines). The title, enigmatic like the work, suggests an outlook–if only we could determine it! The rough patches of the painting look back to an earlier generation, but the discrepancies between the objects and the mostly imageries point to an organization that is all over the place, perhaps reflecting random concomitant events that make up modern life. As we can see, According to What incorporates just about everything into its collective purpose: actual objects, nonobjective passages of color, words that have become objects. It makes sense to see Johns as someone who reworked things so that they lost their purpose and meaning; philosophically, he might be termed a nihilist if it were not for the extraordinary beautiy of his art. Instead. It is best to see him as an explorer without a stated purpose. His early work, as enigmatic as ever, makes it clear that what we know of something can be divested of our usual expectations, leaving us in the precarious but hugely exciting position of ignorance.

Johns’s cast of two bronze cans, Painted Bronze (1960; cast and painted in 1964), originated with de Kooning’s disparaging comment that the famous dealer Leo Castelli could sell anything, even a couple of beer cans. Taken with the statement, Johns cast two cans of Ballantine ale and then hand painted them so that they looked exactly like the real thing. As critics have pointed out, this is the reverse of the readymade, in which a found object is exhibited as is, without change by the artist. In Painted Bronze, we see a readymade transformed into an art object via Johns’ painterly hand. While he followed the can’s design as closely as possible, the sculpture, with one beer can’s top open and the other closed, is clearly a cultural product, being the result of human intervention, rather than an actual industrial object. This work, a piece considered to have been one of the founding works of Pop art, communicates, like Andy Warhol’s soup cans, an interest in commercial production as a process originating creativity. But the beer cans remain outstandingly artistic in their presentation. Johns knew that his hand would translate the impersonal nature of his subject into something human, given to the uncertainties of personal interpretation. Thus, the beer can, something sold, something that would not change from one example to the next, suddenly conveys the informally, slightly disarrayed quality of art. At the same time, as the Whitney Museum’s commentary points out, the nearly twin images of the cans reflects Johns’s interest in the double, mirrored image, in which an object or a picture is portrayed twice, but not exactly the same. This calls attention to the imperfection inherent in art, in which creativity cannot repeat itself exactly. It can be seen in the striking lithograph Hand (1963), an image in black of two hands set against a light-colored paper. The hands do not parallel each other exactly, but they are close enough that Johns’s notion that a copy slightly changes the other image it so closely records is a comment on the nature of creativity.

Screen Piece (1967) and Screen Piece 2 (1968), both gray oils on canvas, were made during the beginnings of Johns’s association with the dealer Leo Castelli; in 1968, Johns had a gallery show in Castelli’s New York City townhouse, including these two works of art. They are mostly monochromatic, but slightly different shades of gray can be noted. Both have a note seemingly dictating a technical component of the composition. Gray appears prominently in the art of Johns, lending an elegiac air to his meditations on life as we know it. Poetry meant a lot to the artist: gray also serves as the major color of Diver (1962-63), a memorial to the tragic death of the major poet Hart Crane, who jumped into the sea from a ship in 1932. Johns also painted, slightly earlier in 1959, Tennyson, a dark gray work rendered expressionistically without recognizable form. The poet’s name is stenciled at the base of the composition. Early on, Johns took death as a theme; now that he is a nonagenarian, the skeletons of the last three years, most often of a white set of bones placed against dark gray background, must reference Johns’s awareness of the closeness of death.  Wearing hats, which give the situation a grim humor, the skeletons portray in no uncertain terms the mortality facing everyone. One does sense, in the work generally, a longing that can be easily attributed to the recognition that every passing moment brings us a step closer to our burial. I am not sure that this late work is entirely successful; Johns has always turned the literal into a metaphor, so that poetry takes over. But here the literal is so strong as to remain undeviating from from its origins; the skeletons do not project meaning beyond their usual reading. Yet how otherwise is it possible to clearly represent impending death, which destroys all metaphor in its finality? Johns’s skeletons are a warning, and most warnings have to reject figurative meaning in favor of the literal.

In Painted Bronze, a wonderful sculpture from 1960, a can of Savarin coffee holding a bunch of brushes is turned upside down, so that we see their handles but not the brush itself. The object has been suggested as a stand-in for Johns himself. In 1982, he returned to this theme, creating the seventeen monoprints–unique prints made with ink– exhibited at the Whitney in a single gallery. In these efforts, the artist reworks a composition using different materials as a way of experimenting with difference within unity. They all follow the general gestalt of the bronze sculpture, but are very different in color and background from one work to the next. The can of Savarin coffee holding the brushes both dates the sculpture–the coffee was popular decades ago–and serves as an autobiographical artifact. In this group of monoprints, again and again we are greatly taken by Johns’s virtuosity; his remarkable skill in creating different versions born of the same basic image is inspiring. Moreover, unlike the skeletons, the coffee can and brush handles pretty clearly function as a stand-in the artist, thus successfully using metaphor This is a sly trick on John’s part, which conveys the personal by means of impartial imagery. But we get the point: the painter is defined by his vocation, and what better symbol for the artist could there be besides brushes soaking in a can. It is a mistake to see all art as autobiographical; regularly, there are themes that remain entirely beyond the personal life of the artist. But here the allusion to Johns himself works very well. Not only are the sculpture and monoprints art about art, they are also emblems of a life devoted to art.

One of the nicest spaces in the show is a smallish room that offers examples of the small works Johns has made over the years. Museum notes make the correct point that few artists today works in small dimensions–Americans like everything to be large. But these works, not studies but fully finished images, are remarkable examples of Johns’s control. They include a flag, a target, a numbers painting, as well as an untitled work from 2020, in which a purple figure, whose interior is filled with white splotches and another figure outlines in black, is framed on the sides by the heads if a man and a woman rendered in black lines. As time has gone on, the later work of Johns has tended to become more actively filled with imagery; more happens in the paintings. But general themes, such as a solitary figure, colorful crosshatching, a preoccupation with doubles and mirroring, continue to be taken up by the veteran artist. If there is not the singular subject matter we tend to encounter in the great early work, we do find, beginning in the Seventies, an real attempt to merge ideas, emotions, and forms in ways that speak to our unusually varied experiences today. Dreams and elegy also figure in the very late work.

Some of the later work is highly original. In 1998, Johns made a piece called Caternary (A Call to the Grave), in which a gray plane stands as a backdrop to a hanging curve of string. Part of The Caternary Series, the work functions in between two and three dimensions. It is a purely formal exercise, different from the content-oriented, sometimes melancholic atmosphere of much of Johns’s work. Maybe this is what distinguishes Johns, who easily jumps over the gap between figurative assertion and abstract suggestion. In the last twenty years of his career, there has been a tendency toward self-rerferential imagery, as if Johns were painting his life for the benefit of his audience. Because of his interest in poetry, Johns is himself a poet of magnitude, concentrating on the idea that things can remain what they seem to be, without elaboration: a kind of concrete poetry, along with the more traditional notion that melancholy cannot be escaped, given the limits of our life. At the same time, one hesitates to be too philosophical; Johns’s elegies include sadness to the point of grief, but they are constructed with such technical skill, along with being merged with content both traditional and original, that they evade pessimism as well. Outstanding art is inherently joyous, even if its subject matter addresses very sad things.The recognition of death in his work is undermined considerably by the quality with which the statement is made.

To be sure, there has been an ongoing strain of criticism of Johns’s later work. The early paintings are nearly sculptures in the sense they function as much as objects as they do as flat planes, In the later art, Johns seems to be more traditional, concentrating on the content, often allegorical, of his imagery. Sometimes, one feels, looking at the many elements Johns has put to use in his paintings since the 1970s, that too much is going on. The diversity of possible readings suggests a lack of focus for some people. Because Johns started out at a point of hgh vision, with an extraordinary originality, both in his thinking and in his technique, it has proven hard for him to remain so incisive, and profoundly conceptual, as time has gone on. It is clear that his work creates bridges with both Pop art and conceptual art–movements that immediately followed the innovations of his early career. In this sense, he is an extraordinary explorer. But the criticism that he has been reusing ideas and images he developed a long time ago seems valid; his recent sculpture, flat metal planes of numbers is a return to a very early theme. His referrals to early work does make him vulnerable to the critique of repetition, while his later themes, for example, the colorful cross-hatching, the anonymous man in The Seasons, the skeletons he has most recently painted, appear rather limited when compared to originality with which he began. The art can feel too close to the surface, lacking the mysterious depth of the numbers, the targets, the maps. At the same time, many viewers feel he is still working on a very accomplished level. It is really a matter of one’s owns choice.

American art since the 1940s has regularly been considered the cutting edge of culture worldwide. Maybe we should be more specific and say it is New York that is the center. But New York has alway been an international site–de Kooning and Gorky, major figures in abstract expressionism, came to the city as foreign artists. While there is nothing particularly American in Johns’s methods, his imagery of the Americn flag, the maps of the United States, and his homage to the major American poet Hart Crane remind us that most of Johns’s content has to do with his own culture. By investing an American-oriented imagery with astonishlngly new techniques, Johns internationalized the avant-garde in ways that stayed close to home. Now that New York has been the center of the Western art world for decades, it is clear that part of its allure stems from the exploratory efforts of a major figure such as Johns. We may worry about a loss of originality after the years of his youth, but that has little to do with his innovations. Very few artists, American or otherwise, possess his adroit creativity. It is looking like his avant-garde stance was understood as classic from the start. In this sense, Johns is not only an American artist but a gifted purveyor of world culture.

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