Feature Archive

What Jasper Johns "Can't Avoid Saying"

At the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
"Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting 1955-1965", through April 29, 2007
     "States and Variations: Prints by Jasper Johns" through October 28, 2007     
By K. Kimberly King
"I don't think," noted Jasper Johns, "that you can talk about art and get anywhere. I think you can only look at it."

And look - once, thrice, numberless times - to tease out his numerous variations on objects as familiar as targets, ale cans, and stencilled spellings of colors is how the artist wishes to engage viewers. Some reworkings - a hall of light bulbs intersecting with another filled with paintbrushes in the 63 prints in "States and Variations" - are so slight that only the wall text can guide the viewer to spot the differences.

"Allegory", 84 selective works from John's first decade (after he'd destroyed all previous efforts) concentrating on four motifs: target, device, stencilled names of colors, and body imprints, also challenges the gallery-goer.

First comes the raw, unglassed Target with Four Faces (1955), whose four sightless heads stared out from the Jan. '58 cover of Art News, after gallery owner Leo Castelli gave Johns his first solo exhibition. Legendary MoMA director Alfred Barr's unprecedented purchase of three of those works and the magazine cover guaranteed overnight success for the Georgia-born 27-year-old, who recalled decades later: "Leo and I were very lucky to encounter one another when we did...I had lost most of my interest in showing when he appeared." Castelli averred: "My gallery really began with the Johns show in '58. That show is the basic fact of my career."

Johns, born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930, and raised in South Carolina, "started drawing when I was three, and I've never stopped. This is all I've ever wanted to do." His career "began... with my painting... an American flag. Using this design took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets---things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels."

Why such fuss over rigid concentric circles blared in primary colors, or collaged in white, or elm-leaf green, the 1958 square which first caught Castelli's eye?

Famed art historian Kirk Varnedoe, in an introduction to a '96 Johns retrospective at MoMA, observed that, with the 1958 "show and its attendant critical attention, Johns was immediately pegged as one of the most important figures in a new wave of American art that was to eclipse the dominance of Abstract Expressionist painting. His appropriation of bold flat imagery such as the American flag, and his strategies of working by systematic repetition, catalyzed whole schools of new painting, sculpture, and conceptual art."

Not all approved. Mark Rothko, after seeing Johns's targets and flags harrumphed: "We worked for years to get rid of all that." Critic Hilton Kramer, writing in the New York Times in 1977, declared that "Johns's work doesn't match his fame. Imagine painting the American flag! Wow! Dada." Johns replied: "Well, thank God, art tends to be less what critics write than what artists make."

And make targets he did: 25 in all, with 23 hung in "Allegory", the largest group of his bull's-eyes ever assembled. The most playful, one that also underlines Johns's desire for intense viewer involvement, is Do It Yourself (Target) (1960) with hinged top, three primary color watercolor discs, a dime store brush, pencilled blank square and, to the right of his strong backhand signature a line for you, the viewer to (figuratively) sign after you've "painted" the square.

When Johns blasts past the rigidity of so many targets into greater spontaneity with Device Circle (1959), then numerous variations of stencilled names of primary colors, such as False Start (1959), one wonders if the artist is somehow nudging the viewer: 'Did you get that? See that "red" painted in that hue, but also in yellow and blue, then in the nearby Jubilee, (1959) wholly in monochromes?'

Such experimentation comes as no surprise from one said to have kept philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's Remarks on Color - "What is there in favor of saying that green is a primary color, not a blend of blue and yellow?" - as bedside reading. Johns elaborated in a 1964 interview: "There is the word 'red'. But what is 'red' out of many shades of red, or which 'red' is the real red? When we gradually add yellow, exactly how much yellow will turn 'red' into 'orange'? I find this way of seeing things very interesting."

That way of seeing makes Johns "a quintessential painter's painter because he asks 'What is art?," observes NGA senior lecturer David Gariff. "Allegory" curator Jeffrey Weiss emphasizes that, for Jasper Johns, "painting is both art AND philosophy. A target is both image and sign. Painting is at once an image and a manifestation of technique."

Second floor galleries reward the museum-goer with more complex, varied, even huge canvases. The first, four horizonal strips of By the Sea, (1961), with a soft purple entering Johns's palette, announce new, less predictable constructions.

Complexity grows with the penetrating Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), an arm stretching perhaps overboard, evoking the poet's 1932 suicide in the Gulf of Mexico. (Periscope, we learn, appears in Crane's poem, The Bridge.)

Appealing tonalities emerge in Land's End (1963) - so titled "because I had the sense of arriving at a point where there was no place to stand" - and Field Painting (1963-64). The last, bifurcated work is thought to depict the six-year professional and amatory bond Johns shared with artist Robert Rauschenberg. A neon "R" at the top switches on to illuminate a many-hued left panel of lively brush strokes said to represent the exuberant, older Texas-born artist. In contrast, the right panel of near-solid grey calls to mind the introversion of the South Carolinian.

"Allegory" ends with the unusually wide pair: According to What? (1964) and Diver (1962), the latter prized because it showcases all four featured motifs: a half-target with device scraper, hands reaching both up and down, and stencilled "red" painted green, "yellow" rendered in red, with a "blue" in actual robin's egg hue thrown in to again test the viewer's visual acuity and willingness to accompany the artist through his many experiments.

Designed to complement "Allegory" and to highlight the Gallery's recently announced acquisition of 1700 Johns lithographs, etchings, relief prints and screenprints, "States and Variations" consists of 63 prints from 1960-1982. When the acquisition is complete, by the end of 2008, the Gallery will boast the largest institutional repository of works by Johns, announced Director Earl A. Powell III.

NGA curator of special projects in modern art, Ruth Fine, calls Johns "a master of understatement." She adds that "States and Variations" shows "his thought processes at work, his experimentation, and alternative ways of thinking." Johns's directives to himself from his meticulous notebooks state simply: "Take an object, do something with it, and then do something else with it."

Thus the viewer's eye for such constant experimentation is tested: light bulb prints show first grey over black, then the reverse. Repeated number blockings, such as "0 through 9" (1960 no. 13) are eye-catching, elegantly Byzantine.

Asked about the worth of his art, Johns once stated: "To be plain, the best critic of a picture is another picture. I think that one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion... has to be, not a deliberate statement, but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can't avoid saying."

© by K. Kimberly King 2007 all rights reserved


For more views of Jasper Johns's work and information about the artist, the National Gallery offers a panoply of high-calibre web features, many of which will remain online long after these shows end.

"Allegory" exhibition

     web feature

     exhibition brochure (PDF)

"States and Variations" exhibition

     web feature

     exhibition brochure (PDF)

On April 28, the Gallery will host, in the East Building Auditorium, a full-day symposium: "Jasper Johns: The First Decade," from 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. The event is free with seats available on a first come, first served basis.

Highlights will include "Jasper Johns: Ancient Aspects," by Faya Causey, NGA head of academic programs; "This is Device: The Artless Rhetoric of Jasper Johns," by Harry Cooper, curator of modern art at Harvard; and "Johns's World," by Joachim Pissarro, curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA.

Exhibition curator Jeffrey Weiss, head of the department of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art, produced the handsomely, amply illustrated Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965. Published by the National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, the volume includes essays by John Elderfield, of MoMA; Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Robert Morris, American artist, critic, and Johns contemporary; and Kathryn A. Tuma, of Johns Hopkins University. The publication ($60.00 hardcover, $40.00 softcover, 296 pages, 170 color and 80 black-and-white illustrations) may be ordered on the website or by phone at (202) 842-6002 or (800) 697-9350.


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