Jasper Johns and “Things the Mind Already Knows”

JASPER JOHNS (1930 –)

When Jasper Johns left his native South Carolina for the mean streets of New York, he claimed to have arrived at his Pearl Street Studio knowing nothing about art history.  In fact, he later destroyed some of his early work when he realized that it resembled too closely, in his eyes, the work of the Hanover Dada artist, Kurt Schwitters.  Nevertheless, despite knowing little of his antecedents, Johns, along with his artistic partner, Robert Rauschenberg, was part of the two-person movement, Neo-Dada, which carried on Dada of the 1920s.  Both artists were part of the New York “underground” of artists who were swerving away from Modernism and grappling with the ideas of Marcel Duchamp.  In their very important book, Difference/Indifference: Musings on Postmodernism, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, authors Moira Roth and Jonathan Katz wrote of the Aesthetic of Indifference that prevailed in this group of art makers.

Indifference, also defined as Cool Intelligence, was a reaction against the overheated politics of the period—the rhetoric of the Cold War and the Red Scare—and the overvaluation of the artist as creative genius.  Using Duchamp’s concept of Chance, Rauschenberg and Johns worked with randomly (non) selected examples of visual culture, both high and low, both loaded with meaning or devoid of significance.  They were indifferent as to the materials they appropriated and to the content they drifted into.  But it would be a mistake to conflate indifference or coolness with disengagement.  Jasper Johns was a very thoughtful and deliberate artist and the key to his art, as with that of Duchamp, lies more with choice than with chance.

When art goes blank, so to speak, and the artist withdraws into silence, a space is opened for the spectator, who now becomes a reader and a participant.  Indeed, many of Johns’ early hybrid objects demanded physical participation form the viewer.  Tango was a blue painted collaged painting with a key at the bottom.  The spectator was invited to turn the key, which was attached to a music box on the back of the painting.  The painting would then play a familiar song, Blue Tango. Target with Four Faces was a verbal-visual (Duchampian) pun with the lower part of four faces that would not “see” being covered by a lid, which had to be opened (like an eye) by the viewer.

The technique and materials of Jasper Johns also refused the assertion of the artist’s personality. As an artist, Johns shunned the dominant art world, which was still under the spell of Abstract Expressionism, the “touch” of the artist, the “gesture” of the brush, and the “spiritual” and redemptive potential for art. The surfaces of Johns’ early paintings were first covered with squares of torn newspapers which provided a textured surface for the over coating of encaustic paint, or pigment suspended in wax. His painting technique was slow and careful and absent of signature marks. After decades of abstraction, this return to figuration and to the object was a shock and other artists and critics hardly knew how to read Johns’ laconic workman-like brush work and his deadpan imagery.   His painting (non) techniques did not look like painting and his paintings did not look like paintings.

The artist had developed a third way, slipping his work in the in-between rule-bound space of painting and sculpture, a territory for poetic or semiotic objects. Johns claimed that he did not know of Duchamp during the 50′s but the two met later.  Despite the superficial resemblance of methods—the use of mundane objects from “life,” the objects presented by Johns are in a very different category from Duchamp’s Readymades.  Rather than simply chose an object from a store, Johns re-created the Targets and the Flags as hybrid objects, neither painting nor sculpture but both/and, inhabiting a zone of categorical indifference. In comparison to Pollock, who grandiosely and sincerely stated, “I am Nature, ” Johns was “culture.”  Instead of aspiring to the heights of human nobility, this artist’s aims were at once more humble and more complex.  Johns deliberately chose “Things the mind already knows” in an attempt to force the viewer’s attention away from painting as an act, a process and an art and redirected the spectator’s thought towards the conceptual nature of vision.

We know the target or the flag in a Gestalt moment of instant recognition in which we grasp the image and its meaning whole, but these images are in fact quite fragmented internally.  So ingrained is the idea of “flag” upon our minds, that it is difficult to “see” the “flag”—any flag—as an arrangement of colors.  With his indifference to aesthetic balancing,  Johns inspired a new generation of Minimalist artists, such as Frank Stella, with his indifference to composition, structure, or design. In choosing the American flag, a thing already ready, already seen and known, he also jettisoned the problem of color relations.  The flag is red, white, and blue and the design is pre-given, courtesy of Betsy Ross.  However, in the 1950s when Johns was painting his series of flags, the American flag was a politically potent image.  For those who were concerned with the threat of Communism, the flag took on an almost sacred meaning and the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.  For others, forced to sign loyalty oaths, black listed, and accused of being “un-American,” the flag became an ironic symbol of the loss of Liberty and Freedom of Speech and Assembly.

The targets are less obviously rooted in Cold War mythology and it is more profitable to examine these works as part of the artist’s larger semiotic project. Through the irresistible force of cultural habit, the target insists on pulling the human gaze to the bull’s eye, but in Target with Four Faces and Target with Plaster Casts, both of 1955, Johns fights the viewer’s natural tendency to look at the center.  Each of these encaustic targets has a row of plaster cast above the canvas. Visually speaking, Johns made two targets, one with the chin and mouth body parts in the compartments and the other, the target itself below.  One looks above the target to the body parts and faces, which hover uneasily above the target.  The body parts seem in danger but they are also safe because our aim is inexorably pulled to the bull’s eye.  Johns is playing with the viewer who expects a center and a composition and a decided viewpoint. Once again, the play is a between what is seen—the target—and what is not seen—the rest of the face or the rest of the body.

If Rauschenberg was inspired by Duchamp’s use of Chance, Johns was inspired by Duchamp’s word play (fountain-urinal) and understood, as did the famous Dada artist, that art was a language.  By remaking unremarkable objects—beer cans, flashlights, shoes, and so on, Johns came close to Duchamp in asking “questions” about what kind of subject, which objects are “appropriate” for High Art.  The mundanity of the objects he reproduced should not detract from what is a low-key virtuoso performance on the part of the artist as a master craftsperson, a remarkable sculptor, painter, drawer, renderer, as though he was reiterating academic skills and lavishing them upon an unworthy and indifferent light bulb or ale can.  In an age before the art of Andy Warhol gave rise to the questionable concept of “de-skilling,”  Johns quietly allowed the ordinary object’s identity to overlay his extraordinary dexterity.

If his works raise questions, Johns rarely gave answers to his questions, only more works of art; and if one asked what the subject of his art was, the artist would allow the viewer the freedom to speculate and contemplate.  In his False Start of 1959 shows Johns’ interest in the works of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although Johns did not start reading Wittgenstein until 1961, this and later works suggest his growing interest in meaning as a cultural construct.  “The meaning of a word,” Wittgenstein stated, “is its use in the language.”  Philosophical Investigations had been published in 1953 and the idea that language is a mere convention and that words have no absolute meaning was a new one.  Johns brushed on a grid of colors with ironic Abstract Expressionist verve and then proceeded to stencil on labels that “named” the colors with the “wrong” names. Thwarted by the authority of the stencils we have learned to trust, the viewer struggles to make sense of the “false” naming of “red” on an orange patch, of “white” on a blue section.  (For a more complete discussion of the unlikely pairing of Jasper Johns and Ludwig Wittgenstein, see Peter Higginson’s 1974 book on the subject.) The result of False Start is to remind the viewer that the relationship between word and object is arbitrary and exists only because of a cultural agreement.  This essential insight of arbitrariness from philosopher Fernand de Saussure suggests that “reality” is also an agreed upon construction and could be “renamed” at any moment.

What Jasper Johns contributed to the art world was an intellectual and conceptual, even philosophical, worldview.  However, it is important to not read too much into the manifold “influences” on Jasper Johns as he was, like all artists, consuming the available ideas moving through the culture and making them his own.  He shifted the “use” of art from something that was looked at, gazed upon, and contemplated to an object with which the viewer engaged.  Like Rauschenberg, Johns broke with the received wisdom that an artist was a creator.  For the Neo-Dada artists, the artist was a collector who borrowed and appropriated the pre-exisiting visual culture.  Whether Johns chose with Indifference or with a coded passion, the rupture with Abstract Expressionism and the meta-narrative of Clement Greenberg was decisive and complete.  From the very beginnings of Neo-Dada, Greenberg rejected these artists and complained into the 1960s of the “confusion” generated by the “obliteration” of boundaries, noting that “high art is on the way to becoming low art and vice versa.”

Neo-Dada opened the way for the return of representation and figuration, albeit from the strategy of quotation.  They avoided the apparent back-step of Willem de Kooning who smuggled Woman into Abstract Expressionism in the early fifties and Rauschenberg and Johns did not bother to “represent” in the expected fashion.  Jasper Johns took what he found and acted upon it: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”  It is this idea—to “take” instead of to “make” that was of such significance. The lasting importance of Neo-Dada and the art of Johns and Rauschenberg was the decisive break with confident creativity of Modernism and with the elitism of high art and the articulation of a new way of being an artist.  The art historian, Leo Steinberg, was one of the first to write of these two artists in his collection of essays, Other Criteria. Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art.  As a historian of Renaissance art, Steinberg was able to deal with the problem of the social or culture or semiotic meaning of art at at time when the modern art historians and art critics were able to write only of the formal elements of art.  In writing of the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Steinberg said that the idea of the “flatbed picture plane” was more than a “symptom.” “It is part of a shakeup which contaminates all purified categories.”

Steinberg pointed out that the objects appropriated by Johns were essentially “passive,” objects to which things were done—flags, targets, maps, alphabets and numbers: we salute the flag, we shoot the target, we unfold the map, we use the alphabet and we count with numbers.  With all these “objects” it is the viewer who brings the flag the target, the map, the number and so into being.  Without the user, these objects, like language, are inert.  Once installed, the hybrid objects of Jasper Johns defy traditional placement.  They do not rest easily on the wall, they must be put on a pedestal, they must be walked around like freestanding sculpture, and, contrary to the artist’s “instructions” they must not be touched. The Flag appears in several guises, in two and three dimensions, and always raising questions: “Is it a flag or a painting or a painted flag?”  “Do we salute this object? Do we pledge allegiance to it?”  “When is a flag not a flag?”

Not only did the two Neo-Dada artists bring back representation by borrowing images already ready in the vernacular culture but they also rejected the Modernist idea of a unified art meaning for a work of art.  Their art was full of meanings, plural; and these meanings came, not from an art tradition but from a low tradition of low culture or from the familiar world of popular culture.  In so doing, Jasper Johns made art familiar and understandable to the average museumgoer, but he also made the familiar unfamiliar and confounded the average museumgoer.  For both Johns and Rauschenberg, the glory days of their loose collaboration were the 1950s and with the new decade the two went their separate ways.  While Rauschenberg explored many areas of art and many techniques, Johns remained fairly consistent to his philosophy of dealing with “Things the mind already knows.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

 

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