Gray Areas: Artists on Jasper Johns
“It may be a great work of his to have brought doubt into the air that surrounds art.” Jasper Johns wrote these words in A.i.A.’s July/August 1969 issue, for a remembrance of Marcel Duchamp, who had died the previous year. Perhaps the most significant heir to Duchamp’s legacy, Johns took up the doubt in the air around art in his early works of the 1950s and set about working through it. Since then he has continued to devise ways of approaching meanings, materials, and artistic processes to amplify questions about what art is and how it works. On the occasion of “Mind/Mirror,” the Johns retrospective opening simultaneously at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in late September, we have invited eight artists to comment on the possibilities that Johns’s work has opened and the problems it poses, and how their own work has been shaped through encounters with his.
I knew Target with Plaster Casts (1955) from art history lectures long before I encountered it in person. I found it transfixing. I still do. It hasn’t lost the power it had over me when I was a teenager. I saw a body trapped in a painting, like Han Solo encased in carbonite. A body chopped up and divided into boxes. But somehow it’s not so macabre as that. The target is telling you where to look—at the painting!—but the casts are lined up along the edge, like pieces in a board game. And you don’t know who is trapped in there. Is it me? Is it the artist? What’s the aim of this game? Am I shooting or being shot at?
So much art that is about the body is about movement, evoking an active gesture. But the body in Johns’s work feels frozen, like time has been sucked out of the room. There’s a stillness and a concentration that’s so simple and literal. The stillness makes the work feel creepy and deathlike, but also alive, like a very challenging puzzle. Johns’s foot was in the world and now it’s part of the painting. He has remade his body as a found object.
Johns is the great granddaddy of the readymade mark. When he works with encaustic it’s like he’s making casts of marks. Like Johns, I’m really interested in potato-stamp, snow-angel types of printing processes, the simplest forms of printmaking. They force you to accept marks in all their particularities.
In Study for Skin I (1962), you can see a choreographed roll of his face from side to side, captured in charcoal on paper. He made other body prints like these, and they’re very similar to the casts. By rolling his head across the paper he rendered a face from multiple angles, a person doubling inward. The plaster casts are also spiraling inward. They’re trapped in claustrophobic boxes.
The prints and the casts seem to come out of Johns’s longtime interest in himself as something to be seen but not seen. As if he needs to be seen but only partially, or only from certain vantage points. The parts of his body in Target with Plaster Casts aren’t just his—they’re the highlights of a male body. The work has this everyman quality. He reveals himself, but only in an anonymous way. I’ve wanted to do that too, and after I saw Johns’s body prints in “Gray” at the Met in 2008, I tried some of my own. A body print is a very truthful and unforgiving process of revealing oneself. It truthfully records the body’s shapes and forms. But it’s not a picture. It’s showing everything and nothing. It’s me, but it’s not me at all. That’s a feeling I get from much of Johns’s work: he’s revealing the factual truth of something but not showing a picture of it.
Jasper Johns remains enigmatic even to experts. The more I learn about him, the more this seems to be his desired effect. His 1985–86 painting suite “The Seasons” has particularly interested me, as it’s a rare instance of Johns depicting a full self-portrait, possibly nude—a favored subject of mine. He appears as a shadow that falls across each painting, a figure traced from his own body. The shape of the top of the gap between the legs very gently suggests genitalia, which makes me interpret the image as a self-portrait of a person who wants to be simultaneously revealed and disguised.
Johns’s self-portraits in “The Seasons” appear to reference Picasso’s The Shadow (1953). In that painting, the artist casts a shadow across a painting of a nude woman. Picasso and the object of his desire are plainly described. But in each painting of his suite, Johns has collaged a web of objects, landscape elements, his own artworks, and obscure art historical references. In Spring, the well-known silhouette that could either be a rabbit or a duck is tucked behind a handprint— another sign of someone who wishes to be two things at once, or never fully resolved.
Spending some time with “The Seasons” has reinforced my thoughts on how “out” painters are compared to our predecessors. Most of my work depicts my own naked body—not merely the shape cast by it—as I understand how it could be represented with the language of Picasso. Johns treats Picasso like a cutout piece of newspaper, a found thing he can remake and repurpose. He wants to be Picasso by cracking his methodology. I and many other artists working today know that we will never be Picasso. All the better to use his actual language for our own ends.
I don’t want to say that Johns represents himself in a way that is closeted, or that he references Picasso from the closet. However, I do think the privileges of my generation have brought a new comfort with visibility and use of allusion. There is a danger to this kind of legibility, as an artist who takes it up can too easily be labeled a “gay Picasso,” or seen as reducing queer experience to a performative identity. I think contemplating Johns at this moment is a reminder that not trying to show your whole self can result in a more accurate picture, which is to say, one still unknown.
No one in American art will have Jasper Johns’s career ever again. This is an incredibly obvious thing to say to Art in America, a magazine named what it is, but since we are talking about Johns, let’s roll with it. I guess you had to be there. Three Flags is a very famous painting held in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, founded in 1930. This magazine was founded prior to that, in 1913. For some reason, nobody got around to making Three Flags until Johns did in 1958. A big encaustic painting of America plays host and gives platform to two smaller identical ones, concentrically diminishing within its borders. “Encaustic,” hot wax, is not far, etymologically, from “caustic”—as in corrosive, sarcastic, of a substance that burns or destroys.
Johns copied that flag image and made it repeat itself out of pigment and heat. What made him want to do this, no one will ever know, but this is what America was going to do regardless, with or without him. So why not appropriate or reinvent or co-opt a loaded image such as this one? The flag is as good a foundation as any other from which to launch a career. As an American, not much else is required in the way of explaining oneself. We hold these truths to be self-evident. It’s all stolen labor and land, anyway; try and enjoy yourself. Pop art. It’s a violent country.
Besides being a breakthrough year for Johns, 1958 also saw Phil Spector produce his first record, a B-side called “Don’t You Worry My Little Pet.” Spector died from Covid-19 earlier this year while serving time for second-degree murder, but it’s fun to think about Johns in New York and Spector in Hollywood, two geniuses doing their thing back in the day on either end of the country. Johns’s 1961 painting Map is a multicolored, aggressively enthusiastic Ab Ex painting laid out all over a map of the USA, ludicrous as it is. To me, that is Spector’s Wall of Sound as a painting. A cacophonous, synesthetic wall of Pop, dispensing with all prior philosophizing related to high-minded Abstract Expressionism in favor of life on the ground in lowly material culture. Clyfford Still, Johns’s senior by just twenty-six years, once pontificated about his own art, “I am not interested in illustrating my time. . . . I see no point in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of graphic homage.” Adding graphic homage is precisely what Johns’s cartography goes about doing, arrogance and all.
One thing I love is Painted Bronze (1960). Two cans of Ballantine Ale standing same, side by side. That’s a valentine to wasting time on a good or a bad time and forgetting about it later, if only Jasper hadn’t cast it as sculpture, for all time. Is that love? Well, no; that’s art, babe, updated by Felix Gonzalez- Torres’s Perfect Lovers (1991), which I always think about next. Identical clocks likewise side by side, battery operated, and thus, highly corrosive, and so, subject to their own self-destruction if neglected. Like I said, it’s a violent country.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith
Did Jasper Johns have an impact on my painting?
When I was six years old, we moved off reservation because my dad thought I would get a beter education at a white people’s school. My greatest memory from the first grade is meeting Crayola crayons, library paste, and tempera paint. I smelled them and tasted them, as Indian kids do. Tempera paint was gritty and not tasty. The crayons smelled heavenly but left crumbles in my mouth. But library paste was edible and tasty. Being able to draw or paint became my sweet spot, my place of solace. It was heaven.
When I was sixteen, I found an ad for a correspondence course from the Famous Artists School on a matchbook cover, and I begged my father to let me use some of my bean-picking money. I had been saving since I became a field hand at eight years old, tending the crops with the migrant workers. He gave in and let me send away for that correspondence course. I recall that in the first or second lesson, I was supposed to draw a chicken. I failed over and over.
So in 1956, I decided to go to art school at the Olympic Junior College in Bremerton, Washington. My class was all vets from the Korean War on the GI Bill. Was that my first exposure to Jasper Johns? I’ve always thought so. Did my teacher hail from New York, had he studied there, did he know artists there? I don’t recall. All I remember for sure is that he told me at the end of the year I could draw better than the men but that a woman could not be an artist. He suggested I go into teaching.
It seems that Johns was embedded in my brain. In the 1960s, after moving to Seattle, then to Houston, then to Marlborough, Massachusetts, I went to school at Framingham State College, determined to become a teacher. Johns was, for sure, presented in the curriculum. In the mid-’70s, when I lived in New Mexico, I made trips to New York and studied his work in person.
Being in love with paint, paint texture, paint surface, I knew no one at that time who created a surface on a painting like Johns. I decided if I were to teach myself to paint, I could do no better than to practice, mimic, and study his texture, his strokes. I stood for hours in front of a canvas laying paint on an outline of a map while holding a book with a Johns reproduction. I saw a map of stolen land, a map of genocide, a map of untold US history that I am guessing he did not see. My need to create a story with a political statement set me apart from his unemotional layering of paint, often in primary colors. But I didn’t want to make a political poster, I wanted to make a painting. Who better to mentor me than Johns, the most elegant painter I knew.
In 1964 Jasper Johns wrote himself a note: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]”
In 2008 I wrote in a journal: “Take a word / Do something to it / Do something else to it [Repeat.]”
Display has always captured my imagination more than the actual objects available for arrangement. That being said, all my years obsessively honing down objects to their simplest and slipperiest readings brought me back to the texture of things. It brought me back to looking at Flag (1954–55). I had clearly taken this artwork for granted, assuming an understanding of what it represents. It was impossible to disconnect my memory of the work from my complicated diasporic feelings around nationalism. But I’ll confess to seeking it out before embarking on my move toward painting last year. My IRL viewing made me aware that I’d overlooked its material construction and the strips of newspaper still visible through the encaustic that coats the surface. I found myself looking at the edges and the in-betweens, looking through the work without holding onto any claims of knowing it.
There is an undeniable practicality in using a readily available material like newspaper when taking an object, doing something to it, and doing something else to it, to paraphrase Johns’s famous quote. The printed news of the day provides detail and distraction. Reading the paper, in Johns’s time, was a quotidian act. In our time, it’s an anachronistic act of defiance or stubbornness. However one arrives at having old newspapers stacked in the studio, it’s not hard to see their potential for use. The application of this material to canvas provides a new surface away from the weave allowing for paint to move and sit differently. The act of reading alongside cutting and pasting changes one’s view of things. Choosing what stays visible in the transformational step-work within the layering of material provides opportunities to hide in plain sight. What is then provided is space to hover between, complicating representation beyond this not that. The something and the something else are a means, perhaps, to neutralize the constraints of display. These operations serve as a reminder that artistic autonomy goes beyond controlling the conditions of how one’s work is displayed. The residuals provide notes for reading beyond the surface of representation.
Rebecca Watson Horn
In 0 Through 9 (1961) we see numbers stacked and layered. Without sequence, meaning becomes meaninglessness, sign becomes image. We don’t know what we are looking at. This is the intimacy of Jasper Johns. When we trust language and uncritically grant it the power to describe and analyze, we are already far away from the thing itself. But when we approach the world, ideas, and language without making assumptions, with the questions: “What is it? Who am I?”—this is intimacy, this is love.
Johns applies various tactics to create these “leaps,” these moments of not-knowing. In Racing Thoughts (1983) he uses familiar, basic things, so that we settle in, thinking we know what we’re looking at. He paints with wax instead of oil. Who hasn’t played with a lit candle? Primary colors, grays made with black (an art school no-no), a poster of the Mona Lisa, a nail and its shadow, stenciled lettering—these are things we know. His rough use of trompe l’oeil never really attempts to convince the viewer of an illusion. Rather, it’s a tactic of screwing with cognition. Near the center of Racing Thoughts a stroke of paint forms a shadow of a loosely drawn nail, as if this sketch is really hammered into the surface. It’s not a physical thing, though, just a bare suggestion of it. The consonant T appears a few times in this work, rendered in different sets of stencils. The letter T is not the experience of that sound, the touching of tongue to teeth. T is an abstraction, an idea, and remains so unless activated by our bodies and minds to give it meaning. With messy artifice Johns interrupts the immediacy of recognition, so that we can observe how the T and the nail and its shadow are language sliding into image, image slipping into language.
I think that the process I’m describing here is something that all great artworks do. It’s an embodied transmission of knowledge through an experience. It is a gnostic form of learning. Johns takes us along on his material investigation of the automatic cognitive process of naming: “This is that.” It’s political, but not in an obvious way—that’s why his flags are so clever and befuddling. I make works from my observations of language and the formation of thought. They are not based on visual sense. Nor are they legible, though letter forms are apparent. I’m pursuing what I felt Johns’s work do when I first encountered it as a student. His mark-making resists meaning-making. His work won’t do the naming. It places us in front of the thing itself and tasks us with questioning our relationship to it. He creates a rupture in language, a space of not knowing, of questioning and curiosity, of humble observation—an experience of intimacy.
Johns’s whole trajectory is illuminating. I do not know everything he has done with printmaking, but I feel I have a holistic understanding. Painting all the time can be a little much. It is good to take some time to explore other creative situations. A print studio is a place to take big or small risks and perhaps make small or big discoveries. Two or three days of working with a real printmaker is a break and a chance to be with distinctly talented people.
The smell of a print studio is sweet. The inks and chemicals are refreshing after being around oil paint and turpentine too long. There are the colors of the ink too. They’re different and can’t be replicated with oil colors. Paper is another big part of the craft. Such delicate and special papers can be deployed to carry an image. Once you start noticing the subtle aspects of everything, you can begin to build a world.
I have seen some videos of Jasper Johns working on prints. He brings himself and integrates whatever knowledge, techniques, and equipment a situation offers. His appreciation of the possibilities is clear. For him, printmaking is experimentation and collaboration. He is confident and competent, but always open to new possibilities. I do not see him taking anything for granted. There are aspects of printmaking that cannot be controlled or predicted. The press makes pressure. Pressure makes accidents happen. I love that.
People often talk about the intellectual qualities of Johns’s work. Within the prints, all that remains, but the weight is reduced. His prints are more to the point. A painting can take forever, whereas a print you have to set free or kill relatively quickly. Creating and producing a print cannot take too long because then you want to start trying something else. Printmakers need to print, so the artist has to go. They are waiting for you to leave. This somewhat forces his hand. Johns’s paintings sort of sew themselves up (in such a sweet way), while the prints are lying right there on a sheet of paper.
All this has evolved. From the early ULAE lithographs to the monotypes he is currently making, countless deceptive nuances have been poked at and rocked into place. In the end, each print projects a moment. Maybe how he is feeling that day, I don’t know. These are only my thoughts, I have no idea what he’s thinking. I am sweating writing this. . . .
The first art book I ever bought—with my Barnes & Noble 20 percent employee discount—was Jasper Johns: Drawings. In college, I learned of his ULAE lithographs and ended up immersing myself in lithography. I could use the tools he did. Printmaking was a portal I could use to get nearer to what I admired. The idea of a multiple and the fact that a print emerges from the press reversed were compelling enough that the “meaning” quota was inherently fulfilled. Going forward as an artist, I have never worried much about ideas because I know what I am standing on.
This article appears in the September/October 2021 issue, pp. 76–85.