Jasper Johns’ Preoccupation

Yau, John

This is the first part of an essay on Jasper Johns. The second pan will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Poetry Review. In the first part, I focus on work that the artist made between 1960 and 1963, as well as make connections between what he did before and after these three years. In the second part of this essay, I will largely focus on works he did between 3982 and 1988, as well as on the “catenary” paintings (1997-2003), which are his most recently exhibited body of work. In connecting a sculpture Johns made in 1960 to a painting he completed in 2002, I am proposing that there is an underlying preoccupation with a visual perception in his work. It is a view that he is aware of, and has returned to frequently, each time with new information. Contrary to what has been repeatedly said about him, he is not nor has ever been a hermetic artist.

Whenever they mention culture, I reach for my Brownie.1

-JasperJohns (ca. 1967)

There is no death

There is only dissolutions

-Ted Berrigan2


Critics responded harshly and negatively to Jasper Johns’ Catenary, an exhibition of related paintings, drawings, and prints at the Matthew Marks Gallery, New York (May y-June 25, 2005). It mattered little that it was the artist’s first solo exhibition of paintings in New York since his 1996 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, nearly a decade earlier. Many felt that the last works in the retrospective were impenetrable, and took that as further proof that they were right in their judgment that Johns is a hermetic artist. Catenary did not occasion any of the critics to reevaluate their earlier judgments. If anything, the unanimity among their views conveyed just how increasingly entrenched negative judgments about Johns’ project had become since his 1996 retrospective.

As nearly everyone knows, Johns’ early work changed history, as well as paved the way for both Pop art and Minimalism to dominate the art world’s attention. In his use of preexisting things such as flags and targets, he almost single-handedly launched the art world’s preference for emptiness and ready-mades, which by now are ubiquitous. One consequence of this early groundbreaking work is that many writers choose to pit the older artist against his younger self, and always declare the winner to be the Johns that made history with his first exhibition at Leo Castelli in 1958. This is akin to asking someone who has changed history to do so again, and then expressing disappointment when they don’t. For once Johns stepped into history, which he did in his first solo exhibition, many critics began to resent the difficulty of his work, particularly after Andy Warhol appeared on the scene in the early sixties. Thus, Johns has come to be regarded as the increasingly obscure poet and Warhol is accepted as the populist who had his finger on America’s collective pulse.

In their criticism of Johns’ Catenary, Michael Kimmelman (New York Times), Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker), and David Cohen (New York Sun) sounded like members of an army marching band, with each of them taking their cues from an invisible bandleader. Kimmelman typified Johns as a “virtuoso control freak” whose “sheer fluency and imaginative energy of multifarious techniques, while nothing new, inevitably elevate his closeted and obfuscating enterprise to a level that commands admiration, if purely on formal terms.” He concluded that Johns’ work, with its “remote symbols,” is formally accomplished, but not in the least meaningful (May 27, 2005). David Cohen characterized the artist as follows: “Mr. Johns lives up to a caricature of the reproductive media: his turgid, pretentious work in all mediums is about remoteness” (May 19, 2005). Peter Schjeldahl went further than either Kimmelman and Cohen, and characterized Johns as “a shy, self-absorbed collagist and a poetry-reading, intellectual gamesman influenced by the koanlike musical conundrums of John Cage.” Clearly, Johns never had a chance. About the “catenary” paintings, Schjeldahl wrote: “he has attempted to retreat behind a curtain of hermetic, teasingly simple formats. The result is undernourished and overthought” (The New Yorker, May 30, 2005).

The view that Johns is a remote and hermetic artist began to coagulate at least thirty years ago, nearly a decade after he began an intense dialogue with the work of Marcel Duchamp, a figure who still provokes controversy. Stephen Koch developed a model3 of Johns’ project that many still subscribe to:

These young Americans followed Duchamp’s chilly lead down two parallel paths. The first begins in Duchamp’s arch obscurantism, part of his work that culminated in the Large Glass in the Philadelphia Museum. That obscurantism led to the hermetic style, to abstracted and cryptic surface in which the visual struggle, the “push-pull,” was an unresolved struggle over the disclosure of meaning itself. The result at its best produced a sumptuous surface on which meaning was significantly refused. Duchamp Path Number One led to Jasper Johns.4

Koch described the other possibility as follows:

The Second Path-a parallel one-moves from Duchamp’s wise-guy wit, from the mustached Mona Lisa and from his bottle rack and urinal as sculpture, through the opposite of hermeticism. It passes through absolute legibility. Here the picture surface discloses its meaning instantly. But it is the afterglow of the instant that matters here. For Path Number Two leads to a special region where cynicism and naivety cannot be distinguished, where populism and romantic decadence merge. That is, it leads to Warhol. Depending on which path you prefer, Warhol is possibly Duchamp’s greatest pupil. He is surely Duchamp’s most influential pupil.5

Koch’s view underscores an attitude about Johns and Warhol that dominates nearly all discussions of their work. It is not hard to see why. In 1964, for example, Johns completed what Kirk Varnedoe characterized as disjunctive assemblages,6 According to What (1964) and Watchman (1964). In that same year, Warhol finished the silkscreen paintings, Sixteen Jackies (1964) and Shot Orange Marilyn (1964). In the configuration which Koch sets up, and which many continue to follow, one recognizes an old argument, which can be described as opacity and difficulty versus legibility and transparency. Is it too obvious to state that the latter almost always wins out?

As Koch puts it, and Kimelmann, Schjeldahl, and Cohen are content to reprise, Johns creates “sumptuous surfaces on which meaning [is] significantly refused.” Many see Johns’ difficulty (or his meaninglessness) as an affront to the antielitist, democratic understanding of what constitutes American culture. Once the viewer learns that Johns has transposed into his own work Woman in A Straw Hat, a 1936 painting by Pablo Picasso, and a fevered figure found in Mathias Grunewald’s Isenhdm Altarpiece circa 1512-1516, that individual knows to stop looking for meaning. We see the things, but we do not need to know why they are there because either there is no why or because the why is so obscure as to not be useful in any meaningful way. We can learn nothing about ourselves from looking at Johns’ paintings.

If one accepts this understanding of Johns’ work, one is apt to reach one of two conclusions: the game is fun and stimulating or Johns is full of malarkey, an intellectual elitist whose work has no relevance in the democratic art world. In the middle of this debate that circles itself, like a ghost chasing its shadow, one cannot help but wonder if there might not be another way to understand Johns’ work, which leads me to the point I will make in this essay. Before doing so, I want to raise some questions, whose answers help form the basis of my argument. The first and central question is this: what if it is possible to recognize a visual perception that Johns returns to at different points throughout his career? Thus, despite the very different sets of motifs, techniques, materials, and subject matter that he has utilized during any particular period, what would it mean if one could isolate and name a view that keeps manifesting itself in his work? Furthermore, what if each of his investigations of that view is embodied in an irrefutable fact (a coffee can crammed with brushes or a wall above a bathtub to which a “painting” by Picasso has been “taped”) that one comes face to face with in his art? Might it not be then possible to conclude that, while the visual facts keep changing in no predictable or seemingly logical way, the basic core of the perception that preoccupies him remains consistent and nameable? Wouldn’t this conflation between radically different work and recurring view suggest that Johns’ work might be difficult, but that it isn’t deliberately hermetic? Might the conflations not also evoke the possibility that the artist must make the work he does in the way that he does in order to gain more insight into the perception that preoccupies him?

By now it is evident that I am suggesting that a significant number of Johns’ works are directly connected to, as well as revealing of, a perception that has engrossed him throughout his career. I believe that I will be able to demonstrate that this perception enables him to take a preformed thing (a visual ready-made), be it a map or a motif from Picasso, and “make it new.” I intend to establish that Johns’ subsequent use of motifs he has already used (a semi-circle) isn’t, as many have argued, a self-absorbed form of quotation, but a deepening of the “thing’s” meaning. I will further suggest that, starting in the early sixties, when he moved away from “flags” and “maps,” Johns repeatedly locates “things” and actions within a specific, highly defined context in order to inflect them with meaning, and that their placement is determined by the original perception. Thus, it could also be said that in order for Johns’ work to be successful, he must seamlessly and efficiently integrate existing facts and a specific view of them in a way that is determined by what he calls “necessity.” As I see it, Johns’ project is rooted in his obsession with a perception, whose implications go far beyond the perception itself. I believe that this is not only true for his earliest paintings (“flags,” “targets,” numerals, alphabets, and “maps”), but that it is also true of his work from 1960 to the present. As I see it, the increasing visual complexity of Johns’ work is the result of his gaining a further, more powerful understanding of the perception with which he is fixated.

Here I think it is useful to consider what the artist himself has to say about his choice of subject matter and motif. In a conversation with Richard S. Field, curator of prints and drawings at the Yale University Art Gallery, that took place in 1998-99, Johns said:

I think that most art which begins to make a statement fails to make a statement because the methods used are too schematic or artificial. I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement, but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say.7

Johns’ remark amplifies a statement he made to Michael Crichton in the mid 1970s: “I wanted to know what was helpless in my behavior-how I would behave out of necessity.”8 Both “necessity” and “helpless statement” suggest that Johns isn’t interested in social behavior, but that he is interested in what is fundamental to all human beings; sleeping and dreaming, consumption and the discharge of waste, involuntary memories and the effects of aging. Indicators of our mortality and deep-seated isolation from each other, all are forms of helpless behavior, necessary actions over which we have little or no control. For all of Johns’ dazzling intellect and technical virtuosity, it is the bodily part of his existence, particularly as it manifests itself in helplessness, that he is determined to keep in his art. It is a necessary (to use Johns’ word) part of the equation, and, ironically enough, it is the reason why he is misread as hermetic artist.

Johns’ remarks to Field hardly sound like the words of someone who is deliberately remote, obfuscating, or retreating. A hermetic artist is unlikely to propose that what “one wants from painting [is] a sense of life.” As I see it, the real question is: can we reconcile Johns’ lifelong commitment to the “helpless statement” with his belief that a painting has to convey “a sense of life”? Is the integration of the two apparent in the work? And beyond this, does his work convey what Johns’ “sense of life” is?


In 1960, Johns completed two sculptures with the same, technically descriptive title, Painted Bronze. The first sculpture is of two cans of Ballantine Ale, one of which is open and the other not, mounted on a base. Made of bronze, both “cans” have been painted to echo their real-life counterparts. When one examines the work closely, one discovers that the cans are neither exactly the same nor are the differences between them the result of the artist’s expressive decisions. The open can is slightly smaller than the closed one, whose top bears a three-ring sign (the company’s logo) and the word Florida. The other Painted Bronze is of a Savarin coffee can crammed full of paintbrushes. As with the ale cans, Johns has painted the sculpture to correspond to its counterpart, which is a familiar sight in a painter’s studio-used paintbrushes sticking in a coffee can full of turpentine. Many saw these sculptures as artifacts from the artist’s life, which on a simple level they are. But they are also much more than that.

Both sculptures exist in the meanwhile-the timeless aesthetic realm that parallels ours, where a sculpture or a painting is a moment forever frozen. We must ask ourselves, what exactly is the moment that Johns has frozen, and what can we learn from it? Through his merging of bronze and ale cans, Johns is able to inflect and investigate the meanwhile in order to gain insights into one’s relationship to time. By pairing an open can with a closed one, he suggests that we make the now (the present) into separate blocks of experience, into that which we have done and that which we have yet to do. In addition, the two cans of beer mounted on a base divide space into a sequence (an indication of time passing) that can be identified as after and before, with the former preceding the latter. One can of beer has been finished, but the other hasn’t been touched.

Johns’ understanding of time reverses the usual presentation of narrative, as well as subverts the assumption that transcendence is possible. And yet, as the pairing of the open and unopened can make evident, at some point in time, reality (or the present) will consist of only those things that we have not done and will never do. The unopened “can” remains unopened. The other fact that Johns recognizes is that, despite being an artist and therefore one who is creative, he is fundamentally the same as everyone else; he consumes and produces waste. It is worth noting that Johns, following the logic implied in his work, preserved the act of eating in Painting Bitten by a Man (1961), an encaustic painting that the artist has literally bitten into. Almost in direct opposition to the view of the artist as alchemist, the one who can turn lead into gold, Painting Bitten by a Man suggests the possibility that we eat art and turn it to shit.

Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) also defines a space that exists between the after and before, the brushes have been used and are waiting to be picked up again. As I see it, Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) defines the after and before very differently than Painted Bronze (ale cans). Whereas the unopened ale can evokes a potentiality that will never be realized, the paintbrushes poignantly signify that moment of stillness when they will no longer be used again. At some point in time-and I am convinced that Johns realized this by the time he finished the work, if not long before-the sculpture will become a perfect, cold mirror of its real-life complement, which is an object in a deceased artist’s studio. Thus, in real time, Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) will one day shift from the category of metaphorical embodiment to that of literal fact. Instead of continuing to make work, the artist, his body you could say, will have become the work. Both time and his art will have swallowed him up.

Neither of the Painted Bronze makes the meanwhile into an elsewhere. For Johns, art offers no refuge from life and time passing, which he defines by an asyndetic joining of form and dissolution (or infinity). There is no conjunction between the two because we live in time; it contains us. It is Johns’ belief that both form and dissolution must be present in his work that underlies all his choices. This joining of form and dissolution is present in his earliest works, such as Figure 5 (1955), which is done in white encaustic and collage. In that work, the numeral five is both distinguished by being cut-out of printed matter and placed within a ground of printed matter. Despite the physical seam between them, both the numeral and the ground exist on the same material plane. The white encaustic covers but does not cover the printed matter. We keep distinguishing the numeral, even as the materials and techniques the artist uses bring them into closer, Zeno-like proximity. The numeral seems to be making itself visible even as it seems to be on the verge of being consumed and becoming invisible.

In both of the Painted Bronze, Johns goes one step further than he did in White Flag (1955) and Figure 5 (1955), and focuses on things that by their very existence flawlessly join form and dissolution. In using bronze to make the two sculptures, Johns chose a substance that mirrors the material existence of their actual counterparts. Bronze comes in either a solid or liquid state, with neither state being permanent. Presumably, the opened ale can has been “poured,” while the unopened can is waiting to be “poured.” Thus, the open and closed cans of “ale” echo the two states bronze comes in, the heated liquid that has been “poured” (dissolution) and the solid cylinder (or form) that has yet to be used. Johns’ conflation and mirroring are seamless; the unopened can of “beer” is a cylinder containing something (bronze) waiting to be poured. Dissolution is an unavoidable fact of life; it eventually consumes us all. In Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes), the brushes are stuck in “liquid,” which suggests that they will one day lose their solidity and dissolve.

It is in Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) that Johns first gives form to a perception that he has returned to repeatedly over the past forty-five years. For what he has preserved in the sculpture is his perception of a solid body that is partially submerged in liquid. The fact that bronze exists in either a solid or liquid state, and that Johns uses it to both mirror and preserve something whose existence is both solid and liquid is what distinguishes Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) from Figure 5. And this mirroring, which includes his use of bronze, occurs on many levels. Johns’ preoccupation doesn’t end with this perception, but begins there; it is the springboard for many of the investigations he has made in his work during the course of his career. It is why he chose to lavish his attention on a coffee can crammed with brushes and why he will do so with a map of a body of land bordered by the ocean.

In both Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) (1960) and the “map” paintings, a number of which he did between 1961 and 1963, Johns chose things whose pairing of solid and liquid has no transition or conjunction between them. The map one could say is a clearer example of what he perceived about the Savarin can crammed with brushes; it is more obvious that it is a solid body submerged in, and partially surrounded by, liquid. By focusing his attention on this view, Johns is able to look at time in the largest sense. We live inside time and change and, despite what we do during our lifetime, we will eventually be consumed by it. This understanding of reality is what distinguishes Johns from Warhol, who was concerned with the social realm or what we have come to call pop culture. Johns doesn’t have a hand on America’s pulse, but on our deep-seated fear of time passing.


In 1961, Johns painted the first of three large paintings based on a map of the continental United States. Bordered on three sides by the ocean, the map of America is an asyndetic joining of form and dissolution that offered Johns the possibility of further exploring his preoccupation with a solid body partially surrounded by liquid, as well as discerning how much he could inflect the “map” with meaning. In Map (1963), which is done in encaustic and collage, and is the last and most inflected of the three paintings, Johns stenciled ATLANT in black letters over a grayish-violet Atlantic, with the last two letters of the word cut off by the painting’s edge. In the area designated ATLANT, and just above the cropped word, Johns has aligned three irregularly edged rectangles in primary colors (red, yellow, blue),9 their right sides flush with the painting’s edge. The rectangles are a key to themselves; they do not help us read the map, which, in both its color and brushwork, is the most cacophonous of the “map” paintings. Above the primary rectangles, its top edge flush with the painting’s right edge (causing one to rotate one’s attention in order to read it) is the collaged fragment: “New York Post, Friday, October.” Thus, on the right hand side of the map, Johns has presented what might be considered the key to reading its contents.

Just above the painting’s lower right hand corner, and aligned with the primary-colored rectangles, and ATLANT above them, Johns has stenciled JOHNS, 1963 (the year the painting was completed), and the word HELL in a horizontal line. Echoing the primary-colored rectangles that are located above the word ATLANT, and also aligned with them, Johns drew a three sided rectangle (the left side is open, literally to the Atlantic Ocean’s diagonally slanting vertical gray strokes) around the horizontal row formed by the stenciled signature, date, and HELL. Some of the slanting vertical gray strokes (signifying the ocean) go over the top horizontal line of the drawn rectangle, while others cover the J of Johns, leaving the viewer to read: OHNS 63 HELL.

The viewer hears two puns, “one’s” and “owns,” which leads to hearing and reading “one’s hell” and/or “owns” or “own hell.” And in turn, these multiple readings lead one to hear “one’s own hell.” By connecting the Atlantic Ocean and HELL, Johns names the condition of dissolution and liquidity, the loss of form and solidity and thus definition, as hell. At the same time, in counterpoint to the “Atlantic” side of the painting, Johns layered grayish-blue encaustic strokes over the areas designated as California and Arizona. It’s as if a tsunami has occurred, and the Pacific has washed over and covered the western states. In Map (1962), the stenciled word CALIFORNIA is partially covered by a layer of encaustic. The “map” paintings make apparent that nature and/or reality cannot be contained by the names or boundaries we apply to it. The three-side rectangle around JOHNS 63 HELL echoes this understanding of reality or what the artist calls “a sense of life.” No matter how much control one exerts in art, one cannot control reality. The ocean floods over both his name and the western coastline. You cannot stop time.

I want to return to a point that Koch made in Stargazer. Contrary to his assertion that Johns produced a “sumptuous surface on which meaning was significantly refused,” I would argue that his integration of subject (map of a body of land surrounded by water), materials (encaustic, collage), and technique (stenciling, discrete layers of encaustic and collage) is predicated on his belief that meaning would become evident. One reason many critics look at (and to a large degree still look at) Johns’ work literally is because they continue to work within, or haven’t completely separated themselves from, some of the basic beliefs underlying the formalist discourse that Clement Greenberg established. For one thing, Greenberg believed a painting’s essential identity is its flatness. For those who are consciously or unconsciously in agreement with this view, the map is a flat thing that Johns has presented on a two-dimensional surface because he is concerned only with the formal issues of flatness. Once critics have determined this, there is no reason for them to look for meaning in the work because they already know there won’t be any. In addition, by implying through their criticism that Johns is making work that is meant to exist solely within their discursive terrain, these observers never attempt to step outside of their own assumptions. They have not recognized that in making a large work titled, According to What (1964), he questioned the authority of a preexisting discourse regarding the goals an artist should keep in mind. As with poets, in order to understand an artist’s work, one has to learn that individual’s language, its syntax and vocabulary, how it was constructed.

One senses, however, that looking at, and understanding, art-the act of reading and explicating it -largely happens in few, proscribed ways, a number of which have to do with the aesthetics of emptiness that Johns helped establish, particularly as it was adapted by younger artists, as well as appropriated by a generation of art historians and critics influenced by Clement Greenberg. And yet, in contrast to the Frank Stella, who said “what you see is what you see,” and to Warhol, who claimed all one needed to know was on “the surface of [his] paintings,” Johns said, speaking about his “flags” and “targets,” “they’re both things which are seen and not looked at, not examined, and they both have clearly defined areas which could be measured and transferred to canvas.”10 A map, we might remember, is also a thing, which, in Johns’ restating of it in Map (1963), becomes a layered thing that mirrors his understanding of nature as a constantly changing place where form and dissolution are inseparable. In contrast to Stella and Warhol, who define painting as a surface you look at, Johns recognized it as a thing, a material presence. In that regard, it echoes both a human being and reality.

For Johns, seeing is primarily an act of close examination, both an interrogation and a quest. As the Painted Bronze and “map” paintings make evident, he doesn’t want the viewer to stop at either the surface or the image, but at a place where one is seeing, reading, and is acutely aware of the painting’s tactility and physical presence as a thing. Johns may have paved the way for the aesthetics of emptiness to establish itself, but he has never adhered to what many have defined as its underlying principles and assumptions. The real irony is that Johns does not seem to be recognized for both stepping into history, in his case by making it, and just as quickly stepping out of it by remaining true to a vision of living in real time that formalism, among other critical discourses, ignored. Certainly, those critics who believe in historical time, and in some way have allegiance to Marxist theory, are unable to read Johns’ work. Thus, his iconoclasm has been downgraded to hermeticism, and the subject he has explored with an unparalleled ferocity has been ignored.

Cannot the Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) and the “map” paintings, drawings, and lithographs be described in terms of their view? Is not the bronze sculpture of the Savarin can and the layered encaustic and collage “map” connected by this very perception? Doesn’t Figure 5 anticipate this observation? In fact, could it not also be said that Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) and Map (1963) manifest this sensitivity differently? In Map (1963), Johns goes so far as to frame this awareness when he names the liquid state (Atlantic Ocean) “HELL.” Central to this view is a state of dissolution, the moment when a solid form begins dissolving (the letter J in JOHNS is obliterated by encaustic, a waxy substance that, like bronze and water, exists in either a solid or liquid state). Johns might be, as Kimmelman states, a “virtuoso control freak,” but one of his recurring subjects is the unavoidable loss of control. He has never denied that he, like the rest of us, is helpless before time.

Both Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) and Map (1963) share something else. They are made of materials, bronze and encaustic respectively, that exist in one of two states, solid or liquid. Thus, one could say that Johns’ choice of subject matter (brushes stuck in liquid and a map of America bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific) mirrors the two states (solid and liquid) his materials (bronze and encaustic) come in. Echoing Johns’ own words, one has the sense that he chose these materials out of “necessity,” rather than desire. His mastery isn’t ego-driven, but subject-driven. It is both why there are awkward passages in his work, and why he has never developed a style, which is a machine that all too often reduces everything to the same consistency.


During the three-year span (1961-63) that Johns worked on the three large “map” paintings of the continental United States, he also began working on a number of paintings that mark a radical departure from the “flags”, “targets,” and “maps” that had been the subject of much of his attention since 1954. In contrast to the work by which he first gained and secured his reputation, he did not begin these paintings with a pre-existing thing or ready-made as his subject, and, in many of them, he used oil paint rather than encaustic.

Included in this group are By The Sea (1961), Diver (1962), Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), Land’s End (1963), and Watchman (1964). Periscope (Hart Crane) and perhaps Land’s End were inspired by Hart Crane’s poem “Cape Hatteras” which is a crucial “bridge” in his epic The Bridge, as well as the longest lyric poem he ever wrote.

I suspect that one reason Johns made these changes is because he felt constricted by his reliance on preformed subjects and his use of encaustic, and wanted to expand both his subject matter and approach. For one thing, his earlier work was based on preserving his view of an existing thing, which places him in the position of being an observer, a situation he most likely found too limiting. Having used bronze and encaustic to maintain his view of things that were by necessity the inseparable union of form (coffee can crammed with brushes and land) and chaos (turpentine and ocean), Johns wanted to go beyond things and preserve actions that would by their definition reveal an awareness of the body’s existence in time. As he already knew, solidity and dissolution would have to be joined together. In making this change, Johns can be said to have inverted his approach, and moved from preserving a perception to defining and maintaining an action. The viscous surface of oil paint enabled him to save a physical action, a palm print, for example, or a semi-circle made by attaching one end of a ruler or stretcher strip to the painting’s surface, and dragging it through wet paint, causing the paint to smear in a uniform manner that evokes a spectrum, and thus light.

The other reason Johns might have changed was because the “map” paintings pushed him to. They are more explicitly about a solid body surrounded by liquid. What else could he do to suggest the all-encompassing presence of time without relying on a pre-existing object. Without restating either wellworn conventions such as illusionism or relying on preexisting things, such as a map, how would you go about registering the individual’s physical relationship to both time passing and space? How would you acknowledge the individual’s actions and physical presence in ways that are self-reflective? For these actions are not in and of themselves the point, but Johns’ perception of them, what they in their reconstituted form show him about one’s relationship to both time passing and to the physical world.

These questions are not without consequence both for Johns and within the context of modern and contemporary art. For one thing, the issue of time and space goes against formalist aesthetics, which Clement Greenberg advanced, when he insisted on the flatness of a painting. As Greenberg argued, after Jackson Pollock made his drip paintings, as well as achieved a non-referential or pure abstraction (1947-1951), painters no longer had to concern themselves with subject matter, composition, drawing, form, space, and time, all of which were deemed extraneous to a painting’s essence. In contrast to the artists whom Johns influenced, among them Frank Stella and Andy Warhol, he never accommodated himself to Greenberg’s discourse. Rather than making icon-like paintings that reify flatness and timelessness, as many of his contemporaries were satisfied to do, and many now are still doing, Johns’ paintings embody an incredibly compressed, layered space. They are tac tile things that provoke us to examine them, rather than surfaces meant to be seen all at once. They are “things,” not images.

Here I want to suggest that much of the criticism against Johns’ work should be understood within the traces of Greenberg’s discourse regarding painting’s goals that continue to persist, albeit in a very altered form. Rather than being a considered evaluation, the continuing preference for paintings in which composition plays no role, and in which the relationship of time and space is excluded, reveals more about American culture and its taste in art than it does about Johns’ art. On a fundamental level, we are uncomfortable acknowledging that time passes and that each us is an aging body that exists in a space over which we have no final control. We prefer an art that does not deal with something as essential as the nature of reality, which is time pulling us forward toward dissolution and chaos. While the issue of flatness and immediacy versus space and time is one of the ways that Johns has distinguished himself from his contemporaries, we shouldn’t see it as simply a formal difference that sets him apart, but recognize it as a profoundly philosophical one.

Crane’s poem “Cape Hatteras” provided Johns with an image that enabled him to recontextualize a “device” he used to make a semi-circle in Device (1961-1962), Device (1962), and Diver (1962). Addressed to Walt Whitman, “Cape Hatteras” meditates on humankind’s ability to recognize infinity while living in a modern world that has dislocated us from nature, and thus reality. In Land’s End (1963) and Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), Johns’ semi-circle seems to be directly inspired by these lines in “Cape Hatteras”:

But that star-glistered salver of infinity,

The circle, blind crucible of endless space,

Is sluiced by motion-subjugated never.11

Made by affixing one end of a ruler or stretcher strip to the painting’s surface, and dragging its straight edge through the paint in a circular motion, the semi-circle, which is always vertically bisected by the painting’s edge, is Johns’ understanding of infinity; it can be glimpsed, but it can never be seen in its entirety. One can make a model of infinity, but it in effect encloses us. At the same time, the uniform smear, which, in Land’s End doesn’t completely cover the reversed stenciling of the word RED, evokes a spectrum, the passage of light through a prism. This is further echoed by the stenciled words, RED, YELLOW, and BLUE, as well as by the reddish orange that seems to be mixed in, and coming through the darker color semi-circle.

Johns’ bisected semi-circle records an action, as well as defines a perpetual motion that cannot be conquered. Both the affixed wooden device in Land’s End, and the hand and arm in Periscope (Hart Crane), suggest that we may sluice it, but we can never subjugate it. In Land’s End, the device made the semi-circle, but the semi-circle contains the object within its physical borders. We might have invented a symbol for infinity or nothing, which the Hindus did when their astronomers began using a zero around 500 A.D., but that doesn’t mean that we can overcome it. Thus, just as infinity contains each of us, the semi-circle in Periscope (Hart Crane) surrounds the hand and arm. Echoing continental America in Map (1963), which is bordered by the ocean, the hand and arm are both pressed into the paint and enclosed by the semicircle (“blind crucible of endless space”). Dissolution is time itself, which we inhabit.

According to Johns, he gave the title Land’s End to one painting “because [he] had the sense of arriving at a point where there is no place to stand,”12 which in fact he had done when he decided to forgo using preexisting things. He left the map, a place to stand, behind. As a number of writers have pointed out, the title Periscope (Hart Crane) is derived from this passage in Crane’s poem “Cape Hatteras”:

While many observers have connected these paintings to personal events that were taking place in the artist’s life at the time, I think such a reading is too reductive and is based on a Newtonian universe of cause-and-effect. For one thing, Crane is dealing with the disastrous effects of modern progress (“derricks, chimneys, runnels”). Instead of creating a bridge to a noble, uplifting future, mankind has created a “labyrinth submersed.” How are we to understand infinity if we have no contact with its very real existence?

I would further argue that the autobiographical elements in Johns’ work are not derived from what he does within either the social or personal realms, because neither generally recognizes the real nature of time passing. Certainly, his understanding of the self in a work of art is not derived from received notions of the “I,” particularly as they were formulated during the Romantic and Modernist eras, because this would make what he does a “deliberate statement,” a goal the artist has never been interested in pursuing. Rather, the autobiographical element in Johns’ work is rooted in his body, and what is “helpless in [his] behavior.” The self is an object whose existence is at the mercy of time. It is a thing in a world of things.

As I stated earlier, Crane addresses Walt Whitman in “Cape Hatteras”:

On one level, the question the poet asks is this: Is it possible to envision the integration of man and nature amidst the chaos of reality, which in Whitman’s case was the Civil War and in Crane’s case was World War I. But the poet also asks: Is it possible to live in this world and recognize both infinity and the “wraith,” the endlessness of time and your own brief moment in it? After all, if our moment here is brief, why must we endure all that we do, particularly when we have so little control over what happens to us? The angled hand and arm in Land’s End could be Job’s.

In order to evoke a place without using preexisting things such as a map, Johns had to successfully recontextualize a formal issue, which had been broken down and codified by Erwin Panofsky in 1925, and had been deemed obsolete by Greenberg in 1950s. In his groundbreaking essay, “On the Relationship between Art History and Art Theory” (1925),15 Panofsky proposed that the dualism that all painters must successfully resolve is the relationship between “time” and “space.” As he saw it, one must integrate “time” and “space” into an independently obvious configuration. According to Panofsky, the artist had to recognize that time was unified, while space was divisible. What, of course, Panofsky did not address is precisely the subject of Johns’ paintings, the inextricable relationship between form and chaos. In Periscope (Hart Crane) and Land’s End, Johns exploits oil paint’s basic properties and various devices (stenciling and a ruler) to preserve different actions, one of which is oil paint’s ability to maintain a thing, in this case a hand print and a uniform smear.

On a formal level, Periscope (Hart Crane) and Land’s End should be considered within the context of Johns’ need to deal with how he will register the individual’s helpless relationship to time and space without working within Panofsky’s parameters. Rather than restating a unified threedimensional space on a two-dimensional picture plane, as generations of artists before him did, Johns found a way to develop a layered space in which he could also establish a wide range of appositions, something Crane did in “Cape Hatteras,” where asyndetic expressions such as “star-glistered” and “larval-silver” abound. I see these joinings without conjunctions as paralleling Johns’ compression of encaustic and newspaper collage, something he must have picked up on when he read the poem. In Land’s End and Periscope (Hart Crane), the asyndetic expressions consist of actions (handprint, stenciling, uniform smearing) and the way they are registered by the oil paint, as well as the joining of palm print and semi-circle, name and color, and correct and reversed placement of names.

Johns purposefully doesn’t attempt to resolve the dualism that Panofsky felt that all artists had to take into account in their work because it implies a stable world that keeps chaos at bay. In fact, what he is interested in registering is the degree to which the individual is both connected and disconnected to time and space, which are the essential features of reality, as well as recognizes the existence of infinity. Thus, the stenciled words (red, yellow, and blue) may or may not be in the same color that they name. The act of naming may have once connected Adam to nature, and even suggested his dominion over them, but it no longer does for us. In Land’s End, the arm and palm print are sliding down the painting’s surface as well as rising up, as if protesting the nature of existence. It is this sense of both inescapable submission and necessary protest that makes Land’s End so poignant. I see the angle and placement of the elongated arm and hand as conveying helplessness and resistance, acceptance and rejection. It is both, rather than one action or the other.

Both Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) and Map provided Johns with a thing which enabled him to address dissolution, but in Land’s End, Periscope (Hart Crane), and a number of other works done between 1961 and 1963, he found a way to tackle termination without relying on a preexisting object. The coffee can and map embody reality as a changing state that is both solid and liquid, as well as registers the border along where the two elements meet. In his use of the semi-circle of uniformly smeared paint and the bisecting hand print, Johns was able to chronicle form and dissolution without resorting to a ready-made. At the same time, isn’t what connects Land’s End and Periscope (Hart Crane) to Painted Bronze (Savarin can with brushes) and the “map” paintings the fact that all of them evoke either a body largely submerged in liquid or contained by a changing material substance? However, because Land’s End and Periscope (Hart Crane) do not rely on familiar, preexisting things, they and others done around the same time mark a major shift in Johns’ approach to subject matter and technique.

While words are abstractions used to signify reality, Johns’ stenciled words are physical, sign-like things pressed up against a physical surface that evokes spatiality. Given this joining, one is led to ask what is real and what is abstraction. Do name and thing always exist in separate but joined worlds? And if so, do we exist only in the world of language? Johns understands that reality seems to be made of language, that it is a constantly morphing description of itself.16 Thus, the stacking of red, yellow, and blue suggests that we are beyond land’s end, and that the ocean (or dissolution) is not only before us, but also includes where we are standing. They also suggest the spectrum, but, in contrast to Goethe who believed that prismatic light was spiritual presence separated into color/ light, Johns’ stenciling and reversals reminds us that it is we who name, however inadequately.

In By The Sea (1961), Johns divided the painting into four separate horizontal canvases, which he joined together. They top three are stenciled RED, YELLOW, BLUE, and the bottom is stenciled with the three words placed on top of each other, which makes it nearly impossible to distinguish one word from the other. Read from top to bottom, one sees that order leads to dissolution.

In both Land’s End and Periscope (Hart Crane) Johns has superimposed and interpenetrated different visual states. None of them dominates the painting. The stenciling and superimposing of the words evokes a changing focus, as well as spatiality and distance. It’s as if we are trying to locate something, perhaps ourselves, in relationship to our surroundings. In the bottom rectangle of Penscope (Hart Crane), for example, are the inverted letters of BLUE sliding down the canvas, detaching from it, or naming the section that contains them. Instead of emphasizing that the picture plane is flat and two-dimensional, Johns interrogates it. As he wrote in his sketchbook, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” In this case, the object is a painting. Johns’ note is certainly against reaffirming the picture plane’s two dimensionality.

The vertical stacking of the names of the color, each located within its own demarcated section, suggests both the spectrum and a landscape, with the BLUE at the bottom, implying the ocean (or hell?), the place from which, in Land’s End, the arm and hand arise. Presumably, the rising arm and hand are connected to a body that exists outside the area registered by the painting. The only outcome of time that we can be sure of is that we all become part of the formless (or liquid) world.

In Map (1963) both given order (the delineated states) and dissolution (ocean) coexist. It is not the case of one or the other, but of both conditions being present all the time, and for these conditions to exist in the same time and place as the viewer. Johns’ need to include both form and dissolution in a work is central feature of his art. Instead of making work which is remote, Johns constitutes the relationship between the viewer and the artwork as here and there. In Land’s End, one sees an upthrust arm and hand; the figure literally has no place or plane to stand on, which implies that the ground that we are standing on is hardly secure. In, the “catenary” paintings, with their string wavering between the painting’s surface and us, Johns further explores the implications of the relationship between here and there, with particular regard to time passing. The catenary separates the viewer (here) from the painting (there), which can also be understood as Johns’ take on the after and before.

In Land’s End and Periscope (Hart Crane), as well as Flag (1954-1955) and White Flag (1955), Johns arrives at what Willem de Kooning called a “slipping glimpse.” It is a very different view than what many of his contemporaries offered. By the early 1960s, Stella had defined painting as an insistently flat, self-contained and autonomous surface, while Warhol, particularly in his grids of soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles, implied that what was within the painting endlessly replicated itself beyond the painting’s edges. Even when they consisted of a grid of numbers or letters of the alphabet, Johns never conveyed the possibility that what was within the painting was replicated beyond its edges. This is because one of the other currents running through Johns’ work is his emphasis on thingness and matter. Flag is a layered thing that is both tactile and visual. It is not an example of something (the availability of Coca-Cola) but a specific thing.

In their heartrending crystallization of acceptance and resistance, suspension and immersion, I see Land’s End (1963) and Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963) as integral to a perception that runs through Johns’ work from Green Target (1955) and Painted Bronze (1960) to Racing Thoughts (1983), The Bath (1988) and the “catenary” paintings, including Bridge (1997) and Near The Lagoon (2002). The changes that have taken place in Johns’ work during this time are ones of precision and focus, a desire to make the view more explicit. He is determined to register his own passage through time without ever asking for our sympathy, without ever evoking an “I.” The reason Johns stands apart from his peers is because he repeatedly and relentlessly explores a basic perception, which recognizes mortality and the body. I don’t see Johns’ art as hermetic and remote, but as human and crucial, full of the pain that all of us endure, but which very few of us are able to articulate in anything more than an inchoate cry.


1. Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, edited by Kirk Varnedoe, compiled by Christel Hollevoet (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 63.

2. The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, Edited by Alice Notley with Anselm Berrigan and Edmund Berrigan (Berkeley: University of California Presss, 2005), from “Erasable Picabia,” p. 228.

3. Stephen Koch, Stargazer: The Life, World, and Films of Andy Warhol (New York and London: Marion Boyars, 1973, reissued 1985 and 1991).

4. Ibid. p. v.

5. Ibid. p. v.

6. Kirk Varnedoe, with an essay by Roberta Bernstein, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 223.

7. www.yale.edu.opa28.n17/story4.html

8. Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, 1977), p. 27.

9. In paintings such as Land’s End (1963) and Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), the stacked rectangles in Map (1963) are restated with the words RED, YELLOW, and BLUE superimposed on three stacked rectangular areas whose colors are often at odds with the designating word. Johns’ superimposition of word on color suggests that our actual experience of reality is at once connected and disconnected.

10. Johns, quoted in Walter Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,” Artforum, 3 (March 1965), p. 34 (quoted in Crichton, p. 28).

11. The Poems of Hart Crane, edited by Marc Simon, with an Introduction by John Unterecker (New York: Liveright, 1986), pp. 77-78.

12. See Crichton, p. 50.

13. The Poems of Hart Crane, p. 78.

14. See Crane, p. 78.

15. Anita Albus, translated by Michael Albus, The Art of Arts: Rediscovering Painting (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). See Chapter XII, “From the Rainbow to the Earth,” for Albus’ insightful discussion of Panofsky. I would like to thank Squeak Carnwath for alerting me to this book.

16. Johns and John Ashbery have a similar understanding of language’s relationship to reality.

JOHN YAU’S most recent book is Borrowed Love Poems (Norton, 2002).

Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated Jan/Feb 2006

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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