I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The scandal of it all was that Jasper Johns seemed to be doing pictures when everyone else was making paintings, and 50 years after the advent of Abstract Expressionism, his challenge to himself and us remains to treat subject matter as only the start of an adventure in viewing art.
Johns exploits the obvious. He represents images in such a way as to feign likeness even as aspects of the images are available for more significant consideration. A picture of his provokes the question: But what is it about? His work tends to draw out the process of viewing until the answer to the question is forthcoming: It is about thought.
Although a chronology of Johns’ preoccupations cannot be easily detailed, certain patterns emerge. In the 1950s and 1960s, making a work of art by building it assumed literal form. In the 1970s, abstract “Cross-hatch” paintings embedded selective orders into their all-over field. In the 1980s, a renewed concern with the fragment came in the form of worried surfaces that discoursed on faces’ relations to bodies. Now, as Johns’ retrospective opens at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, his figurative paintings remain most unlike the commercial pictures readily pitched to the market.
Marjorie Welish Let’s begin with where we left off in a conversation a few years ago on constructed painting…. I noticed that you had virtually stopped the practice of building canvases and affixing objects to them, so I asked, “Why?” Then you said, “Because it was harder to do.” That’s where I’d like to begin. What was harder to do? Conceiving a notation for the language of art, or, putting it another way, what is left when one disallows the use of three-dimensionality?
Jasper Johns Well, actually I don’t think I’ve stopped. Something I’m working on now in Saint Martin has objects attached. So I guess three-dimensionality is an available means.
MW It is an available means. And dropping the practice of attachments forces you to create a notation for painting about objectivity that is calibrated through the brushmark alone.
JJ Whatever form the work takes—objects or non-objects or one type of mark or division or others—on some level it all ends up as thought. There are weird shifts among object, subject, perceiver, and what’s perceived. And thought can seem of greater concern than the presence of the object. Artists play with what comes into their minds and with the materials at hand, and there is naturally feedback into their minds and into the painting process. So at any moment something may be dropped or brought in.
MW The objects themselves, in a certain phase of painting, may be less important than what is done to them, or how their meaning is manipulated. If that’s the case, then what they’re made of might be, if not expendable, then unimportant. And then you might simply drop a practice of built canvases because you’ve become so accustomed to…
JJ …To relying on the effect that you get from the practice. It’s not necessarily a danger, but there’s the question of doing something knowing what the result will be, or doing something that involves a degree of uncertainty. There can be freedom of that sort. Tending in one direction, you may become aware of where you’re heading and may realize that there are other possibilities. You may want to introduce those possibilities to see what the meaning can be.
MW In that way then, changing from built canvases to painted canvases or from painted canvases to built canvases again has the same effect. Namely, it’s change and it’s disruptive.
JJ Yes, and it may be a kind of exercise for me. Of course, you look at your own work differently than at another artist’s work. I think I do. An artist working is concerned with his own energies and skills and weaknesses, is dependent on those, together with intuition and chance, I suppose. When you look at other artists’ work, in a sense you may be less, or more, tolerant because you may not be particularly interested in their problems.
MW Getting back to the phrase, “Because it was harder to do…” is the appeal for you to make painting difficult to accomplish?
JJ I don’t know how to answer that. It makes me want to overcome obstacles, possibly…
MW Many in the art world choose facility and the triangulation of ready-made solutions. By choosing difficulty you’re in terrific company. Viktor Shklovsky: “The technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”
JJ That’s brilliant. Who is he?
MW He’s a Russian Formalist of the teens and twenties writing on literature, but his aesthetics excited both visual and verbal artists. The notion of difficulty is an ethos pursued by the avant-garde in modernity. But it’s a value not shared by everyone. And so when you said, “Because it was harder to do,” it struck a chord, as though to say, a commitment to a complexity, rather than to being ingenious or some other simulacrum of complexity. Difficulty could mean that the subject matter is only the starting place for thought. In fact, difficulty is a pretext to compel the “reader”—it could be the artist himself, it could be a viewer—to find a coherence on levels other than the subject matter, toward which end perception must be prolonged. Also, cognition must be prolonged, in dealing with a commonplace: a cup, a target, a map. For us then to fail initially to understand the coherence is, I infer, an important step for the prolongation of perception.
JJ I don’t think it’s a deliberate manipulation, I think it’s something else: it’s a form that things take in some cases. It could have a psychological base of discomfort or…
MW The aversion to pleasure perhaps? Or can pleasure be construed as the love of complexity? If pleasure is ease, then it would be an aversion to recreation.
JJ I don’t know, it may be the opposite of what Mae West said: She said that she learned very early on what made her unhappy, and she avoided it. (laughter)
MW As simple as that is, I’ve yet to master it.
JJ Me too, I’m very envious.
MW Another beautiful aspect of that statement which seems to be relevant—I don’t mean to indulge in connoisseurship of phrases, but it really does seem to be relevant—is, “Artfulness is a way of experiencing an object, the object is not important.”
JJ I think that’s a bit like what I said earlier. Whether one uses objects or doesn’t use objects, or whatever form painting takes, you end up with your thought. “Experience” might be a better word, since all experience isn’t thought.
MW I’m not going to review all of your work, you’ll be relieved to know. But for the sake of communication, I’ll touch on certain works. Recalling the paintings that were referred to as the “Crosshatch” paintings of the 1970s, how is the process of perception prolonged in Scent or in Dancers on a Plane, where the vocabulary is the mere hatch mark?
JJ Through the traditional means of color, texture, direction, etc. Also I think some of those paintings suggest a kind of structure that isn’t at first evident. And in looking at such an object you may have a sense that there’s something at work that you don’t see. Many things are like that, aren’t they? That’s one of the ways that science and art develop. One feels that there is something that isn’t evident and one tries to find what it is.
MW From painting to painting in the “Cross-hatch” group, there are indeed different orders. Did you begin with the syntax?
JJ Yes, I think that in most cases it was predetermined. There may be a painting or two of which that isn’t true.
MW Did you set about to implicate an “all-over” field within another order, so that there would be simultaneous orders within the field?
JJ I don’t know that I set out to do that, but it’s what I ended up doing. The initial impulse was just to use that kind of marking, to have something that looked like that. Then I thought, there has to be something else. What can support something that looks like this, or what can something that looks like this encompass on a different level?
MW Okay, because what I’m leading to is that some of the paintings, like Scent (1973-74), I believe, and one of Dancers on a Plane (1979), have very rational implications, even as others—another of Dancers on a Plane (1980)—seem to pose intuitive orders. Did you elect to polarize the difference between rational orders in some of these “Cross-hatch” paintings with irrational ones?
JJ Well that’s an interesting way of putting it. One of the two Dancers on a Plane paintings is mainly red, yellow, blue and white. It uses a symmetrical structure without any great variation of inflection. I had in mind that this might suggest the heroic mood that I was trying to indicate. Heroic or stoic, not involved in impulse. And while working, I began to think of a dancer on a stage. I thought of Merce Cunningham and how so often his work seems colored by a kind of unbalanced energy. In the second painting, with complementary colors, I tried to show that thought.
MW And you used a full palette, indiscriminately. That is to say, through the gamut of coloristic possibilities.
JJ There’s nothing indiscriminate because it still follows a pattern. But the symmetry is less rigid, somewhat blurred and there are lopsided areas of light and dark. One has the sense, I think, of a force moving through the form, an inequality of stress.
MW The difference between the two paintings fascinates me, because in the second one there’s not only the analogue to kinetic energy, but there is—for me, at any rate—a very eloquent statement of what it would mean to realize the potential of a field. The painting reads, “This is only one of many possibilities.” The paintings are so different from one another, not just because there are more colors, but because the meaning shifts enormously.
JJ The idea of a kinetic energy in the second painting is, of course, exactly right. I hadn’t thought of that word.
MW It doesn’t matter, you did the painting…. In those paintings and elsewhere, especially work from the 1980s, you began rethinking the validity of a vocabulary of subjectivity. One question I have tried to express to you is: How did you approach the problem without falling back on the subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism? How did you think your way through the problem of incorporating a language of subjectivity into those paintings?
JJ The language simply follows the impulse to introduce an aspect. I suppose there is an intuition, a subjective desire to do it. You find a way, rather than not doing it.
MW Through a gamut of color that does not harmonize? Or a certain looser brushwork with constraints? In other words, I want to know what rules you set for yourself to order that language of subjectivity, the language of the emotions.
JJ Much of my work develops from rules of some sort. The rules are usually broken as the work progresses. To begin, colors are relatively schematic. I work to have them look less schematic, to have the rules not jump out at you.
MW The role of verbal language in your work is extensive and varied, and I thought we might mention the ways in which it functions. For example, early on, the colors red, yellow and blue as concrete sensory perceptions are often played off against their conceptions in the words themselves. And later on—and maybe coincident with this—color appears as a sample of itself, a real sample together with labels that may or may not refer to those colors. But there are other roles that words play in your work. Have you ever started a painting with a word?
MW At what point did the words “racing thoughts” enter the process of making that painting?
JJ I was in Saint Martin at the time, and when I would go to sleep fragments of thought would run through my head at 90 miles an hour. One thought wouldn’t connect to the next thought, it was almost like images flashing. I was describing this to someone—a child psychiatrist I’d met in a hotel near my house—and he said, “Oh, we have a name for that. It’s called racing thoughts.” Having a name for it threw it into a different perspective for me. And when I made the painting, that title seemed just right.
MW But did Dancers on a Plane originate from the phrase?
JJ I don’t think I had the title when I started the painting. It was related in my mind to a Tantric image that made me think of the dance of Shiva. I like my paintings to have titles, but many don’t because none ever seemed right to me.
MW The word “object” and “objectivity” have provoked the concept of your work. The word “news” has in another case. Especially in the painting Racing Thoughts, I wonder whether the different techniques and procedures very much evident there came about as a result of your having thought of the meaning of “tracing”?
JJ I don’t think so.
MW Okay. The painting Racing Thoughts (1983) is indeed one of those very difficult paintings, in part because the subject matter is apparently a miscellany, a kind of curio-cabinet of stuff which frustrates an easy coherence. So my question to you is how did you cope with the possibility of that painting being merely idiosyncratic, how did you protect yourself against that possibility?
JJ I’m not sure that it isn’t. What does that mean? What do you mean by idiosyncratic?
MW Personal or private language…
JJ I don’t know. In a sense, everybody has a private language. So on some level, even that idea is a shared thought, a shared experience.
MW I have told myself that one way you protected yourself against that possibility is by giving us access to the meaning of the painting through formal relations that are more evident: In one of the two versions, for instance, there are hatch-marks on the left and then color on the right, which allows the reader of the painting to know that relations from left to right will be profitable if pursued. Then thematically, there is a gamut of faces, faces in relation to different notions of embodiment. In other words, there are means compensating for the private language.
JJ You’re reading backwards, reading after the fact. The painting was triggered when I was looking at a television program—a soap opera or something. An abstract painting had been made to decorate the wall of the set by slightly blending three or four arbitrary areas of color and drawing a black scribble over that. I thought it was an incredible way to make a complicated picture with rather simple means. So I set out to try to do the same thing, but it became a little more complicated as I worked on it.
MW Your answers compensate for my over-reading and reading into…
JJ Well, things become “other” when you look at them backwards. Dissecting a painting is different from constructing a painting. When you look at a painting, you can’t easily go back to the point at which it was begun.
MW Does that speak for the artist too, in the process of revision?
JJ It speaks of that and it probably also speaks of the nature of time and space.
MW The American ethos is pragmatic, not visionary, despite its claim to individualism. I wonder what your thoughts are on this, especially when you are doing paintings more and more in which laminations of technical, formal, and conceptual meaning appear. You have an evident interest and fascination with different levels of language and different levels of meaning. That in itself seems, by and large, remote from American practice.
JJ I don’t mind that idea, but it seems—and I suppose most painting that I have any interest in is European or American—that all American painting is heavily influenced by Europe. And particularly, abstract painting. So it’s hard not to think of it.
MW And what would an American painting be anyway?
JJ It’s hard to think of what an American painting is without Europe. I mean, I haven’t seen the Homer show…
MW Have you seen the Cézanne?
JJ Oh yes. Twice. Have you seen it?
MW Yes. I was going to ask you in fact, since it has been 50 years since a full retrospective evidently came about…
JJ I saw the other one. In the 1950s at The Met…
MW What struck you this time, when you went to Philadelphia to see the Cézanne show?
JJ The thing that struck me most was a sort of squiggle in Philadelphia’s Large Bathers. It’s dead-center in the middle of the water and I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it before, even though I’ve seen the painting many times. I was looking at it with some other people and I said, “What it that?” They said, “It’s somebody swimming.” I said, “That’s not possible!” I asked a number of people who all agreed it was somebody swimming. Then somebody said, “It’s some debris in the water, fallen from the street…” It is a swimmer, of course—in a Cézanne.
MW I’m looking here at an untitled work from 1984, and at another work from a recent series which I will describe as about the topic of the face…
JJ I’m still working on it. This is what I’m working on right now.
MW I’m enjoying comparing these. Because as different as they appear, in certain respects they seem, functionally, very similar. In one untitled painting, the optical illusion of the girl crone also functions thematically as watcher. That face is, in effect, watching an image of a body elsewhere.
JJ I think of the other figure as a demon.
MW There’s an image of the body surrounded by the face, and here in this other work is a face on the margin of an area of the body. So that’s kind of an inversion.
JJ Yes, I agree.
MW Time seems to be a theme you’re cultivating more and more in related painting. The first of the sketches, published in 1991 for a calendar, shows the child-like image of the schematic sailboat on, perhaps, a diaper (or a shirt) in relation to the face. Above this is stenciled “Montez,” the name of your grandmother. So I was thinking since we last spoke, about youth, maturity and old age as a kind of logical set that you’re playing off of in some images…
JJ I don’t know to what degree that is available to anyone looking at the work, but obviously I’m concerned with certain aspects of memory. Is it aging or an attempt to clarify memory, or to establish a memory? I don’t know what it is. It’s to make a picture.
MW Indeed. This variant of the image seems very much about time, not only because there’s a watch here, but through a pun, “watch-face.” It’s a surrogate for a face. It intrigues me to think that you might be doing a vera-icon of a scheme, rather than a vera-icon of a resemblance in these images. Does that make sense?
JJ You’re treating it very seriously. The project was for a calendar, so I had to come up with 12 images, one for each month. I decided to unify the group by repeating the facial features around the margins of the rectangles. The rest of the work was an attempt to make each one different from the others. I suppose I would have used almost anything that occurred to me. Don’t you think that at any time the possibilities of your thought are somewhat limited? You may not know how to proceed. Or if you do one thing and want to do another, there is apt to be a relationship, isn’t there?
MW Through concentration there is, curiously. Because subconscious processes make links.
JJ Yes, through concentrating on one thing you tend to direct your thought to the next thing, don’t you?
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee