The cover story of A.i.A.’s October 1987 issue is an expansive essay by critic Jill Johnston (1929–2010) on Jasper Johns’s art in the 1980s. Intrigued by his increasing use of enigmatic personal references, she set out to decode recent paintings like Racing Thoughts (1984) and “The Seasons” (1986) and arrive at a definitive interpretation. She writes about critical investigation as a gripping detective story, describing how she studied reproductions and other critics’ reviews for hints, traveled to France to examine Johns’s favorite altarpiece, and interviewed the wily artist, who entertains her questions but stonewalls her on the details. Johnston compares Johns to jewel thief who evades capture, and a magician smugly pleased that no one can figure out his tricks. While she uncovers no definitive answers to her questions, Johnston nevertheless arrives at a satisfying interpretation of Johns’s use of concealment as an artistic device. On the occasion of “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” a retrospective open concurrently at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Philadelphia Art Museum through February 13, 2022, we’re publishing Johnston’ s essay online. —Eds.
In the recent show at Castelli of Jasper Johns’s latest work—four largish paintings titled “The Seasons,” with a number of drawings and prints related to them—one detail eventually caught my attention, occluding all others. The most obvious feature in these four paintings is Johns himself, represented by his shadow, cast life-size onto the canvases, worked from a tracing drawn by a friend. The same silhouette, painted in rich grays, appears in each Season—Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter—tilting left to the same degree.
This four-part work is as literal as anything Johns has done. Spring, for instance, is marked by diagonal streaks of white paint crossing the whole canvas and indicating rain; Winter is dotted all over with white snowflakes and even has a stick-figure snowman in it. In Spring, birth is clearly signified by the centered shadow-form of a child (inside a rectangle) directly underneath the looming, tilting shadow figure of Johns. The child’s head, cut off just above the ears, slashes across Johns’s body right below the crotch, sepa· rated only by its variant gray color and the top horizontal of the rectangle containing and cropping the child’s head.
Fall literally depicts a fall. Here Johns has cut his shadow lengthwise in two; a portion of him disappears off the left edge of the canvas and reappears, as it were, on the right, both halves separated by a central vertical “panel” portraying a number of tumbling objects, including the ladder that elsewhere has held them all up and together by means of a rope and that has now broken in two.
The detail that eventually commanded my attention is one of these objects—the section of a painting appearing in each Season and referring to a series of paintings from Johns’s 1984 show at Castelli Greene Street. This section, consisting of jigsaw puzzle–like shapes fitted together and made discrete by directionally opposed stripes, is contained by a rectangular frame; it is a section of one of Johns’s own paintings, which appears partially obscured by other objects in every Season. The catalogue essay to the recent show, by Judith Goldman, and reviews I read identified it as a fragment from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. What fragment? I became curious to know. Barbara Rose, surely an authority on Johns, was more specific than most: she said it was a detail from the Resurrection panel of the Altarpiece.1 At first, however, I was preoccupied by the two things that most clearly presented themselves in these new paintings: the shadow itself, said to be Johns’s first use of the whole figure, and his various quotations, of himself and others.
Quotes of his own work constitute nearly all the objects in “The Seasons,” and these include not only his own past paintings or parts from them but other objects he possesses and has collected, such as his George Ohr pots, which have also been represented in past work. The two most readily recognizable images from his own oeuvre are the Mona Lisa and the American flag. These would go back the farthest, except for the arm/hand imprint that inscribes a half-circle in each Season, which dates back to ’63 and is usually associated with Periscope (Hart Crane) of that year. In “The Seasons,” this image functions like the hands of a clock. The hand points upward in Spring, horizontally to the left in Summer, three-quarters down in Fall, straight down in Winter. Inside its circle, it weights each work like a big dark pendulum, partially visible as it “swings” from painting to painting.
The four “Seasons” represent Johns in his studio (or studios: he has four of them), a developing theme of his in the ‘80s (e.g., In the Studio, 1982), and here done up in spades, though not in a narrative context the way Picasso showed himself walking into his bedroom in The Shadow, 1953. While the viewer can imagine a degree of environmental depth in the four “Seasons” paintings, Johns has really assembled himself and his belongings in collage style on a flat plane.
If the paintings are literal in many ways, they’re still not naturalistic. As Barbara Rose has pointed out, Picasso’s 1953 painting of himself as a shadow entering his bedroom was a totemic source for Johns’s new work. Another source for Johns was Picasso’s 1936 Minotaur Moving His House. Both Picassos represent the artist’s possessions, outstandingly his woman of the moment-recumbent on her bed before him as he enters his door in the Shadow picture; and as a horse giving birth (said to represent his then mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter), head lolling out of the cart he drags (himself as Minotaur) in the Minotaur Moving His House. From this picture Johns appropriated a number of elements, most conspicuously the ladder with a rope around it holding up a painting; and the yellow stars, more like flowers or starfish, actually, in Picasso’s sky. Also, the wheel of the cart appears in a number of drawings and prints from the “Seasons” show, and at one remove as the “pendulum” in the paintings. A branch, also from the Minotaur . . . , overhangs each of Johns’s scenes: budding in Spring, bearing leaves in Summer, withering and broken in Fall, dead in Winter.
Prominently absent of course from the Johns paintings are the parturient horse and recumbent nude, though in Summer Johns painted a whimsical reminder of the former in a little sea horse, a rare species in which the male bears offspring. This information2 points to the Johns shadow-form in Spring clearly parting from the child’s shadow directly beneath him. But there are several images of women in the Johns pictures: the Mona Lisa (Summer), Queen Elizabeth (her silhouetted profile facing Prince Philip in profile and forming the image of a vase between them in Spring), and the trick double image of a lovely girl/ugly crone (also in Spring), which could seem to invoke Picasso’s general exploitative use of women but was doubtless not intended by Johns to do so.
I saw Johns near the end of February 1987, while his show was still on; then I went to Europe. I asked him some questions and he told me nothing, really. I’ve known him since 1960, and this is the first true interest I’ve taken in his work. Which is not to say I haven’t liked and admired it, even wished to own it, or have it on loan. Anyway, I’ve known him much better than his work, and I hardly know him at all. There are people who know him a lot better than I do who might say the same. A typical critic’s or interviewer’s remark is, “Johns doesn’t wish to confide . . . still less to confess.” In my new role as “interviewer” I found him more guarded than ever, yet, as always, fun to be with. He was fun even though his back hurt and his right (painting) arm was in a cast. We laughed about silly things. Having just realized how involved his work has been through the years with various poets and literary figures—O’Hara, Crane, Stevens, Beckett and Celine—I told him I don’t like poetry. He smiled, knowing I was putting him on while perhaps also telling the truth. He said I suppose you don’t like singing either and I replied of course not, except for Frank Sinatra. Then we laughed.
I asked him why he kept for himself his Fall painting from the group of four (I had read in several accounts that he did), and he said because there were two left and that was the one he was working on. I remarked on the, to me, amazing coincidence between the accident in which he broke his arm and the main detail in his Fall painting. In the central vertical shaft of the painting all his possessions are tumbling to the bottom, the rope that bound them to the ladder and the ladder itself having broken. And this is the painting in which his shadow is split lengthwise. Johns broke his arm in Saint Martin, where he has a studio, not long before his show opened; he was standing on a tall ladder pruning a tree, and a rope that had bound a branch to another tree loosened somehow, causing the branch to boomerang and throw him to the ground. He said he didn’t make the association himself between falling and the Fall painting, but that others had.
In her catalogue essay to “The Seasons,” Judith Goldman asks: “Johns as Picasso’s stand-in?”—referring to Johns’s self-portrait as a shadow—“This seems inappropriate for an artist who throughout his career has kept art and life separate.” What must really be meant by such remarks is not that the artist has kept his art and life separate—how is that possible?—but that the artist has disclosed little or nothing to connect the two, either in the work itself or in commentaries about it. Johns is famously associated with the phrase, “Not mine but taken.” To avoid the personal (“I didn’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings”3), he painted public icons or found objects—targets, flags, numbers, etc.—with which the spectator has so many associations that the object becomes, in an important sense, meaningless. Conversely, and to the same end, he built up a self-referential body of work, subjecting the spectrum of public icons that he’d made his own to a variety of treatments, to interact with themselves in different mediums and to evolve in relation to each other over time.
Johns’s strengths have been in his ever-rich and subtle handling of paint, the sensuality of his surfaces and the intellectual plays he has conjured between what is seen and what is known. He asks, in his way, if you know what you see, or whether you have ever really seen it, or, perhaps, whether once seen you can ever forget it. Johns’s flag, after all, is now almost as assimilated as the flag he copied. Here it is again, he seems to keep saying, in another context—new colors, sizes, settings, bedfellows—and though you might not see it anymore, you surely can’t forget it. It belongs to Johns now. It’s both America’s and his—quite a coup. “Not mine but taken.” The theme of his recent show appears to be a symphonic meditation on his possessions, which include of course his many complex references to those artists whose work he has admired and in certain cases—chiefly Duchamp and Picasso—would aspire to enter artists’ heaven with. All “taken,” even his shadow (in two senses: from Picasso, and from a tracing), all very easy to know (the ambition at least is wonderfully clear).
Except for that damned fragment from the Isenheim Altarpiece. Grünewald? Where does he fit in? There are associations in Johns’s work with Leonardo da Vinci and Dürer, and the nineteenth-century American Peto, and with Redon and more recently Munch, but otherwise Johns has made his claim to the modernist tradition through the mixed and “proper” genealogy of Cezanne, Picasso, Duchamp, Magritte and Pollock. The Christian reference (altarpieces?) struck me as practically Neolithic; and while, once known, the reference was dutifully repeated, no critic had really touched it.
I flew to Europe armed with glossy black-and-white reproductions of paintings from Johns’s ‘84 show, along with Xeroxes of all the reviews. I had not asked him about the Grünewald detail because it still seemed unimportant. Of the dozen or so reviews I had with me I found exactly five specific descriptions of the detail in question. These were very brief, and in her ‘84 Vogue piece, not even Barbara Rose mentioned it. Then I decided it was important. John Ashbery in Newsweek made the safest, and in the end most accurate (as far as it went) description. He said, “In Perilous Night … there are . . . almost illegible outlines copied from the drunken soldiers in Grünewald’s Resurrection.” John Russell in the New York Times blended his data, imagining understandably but mistakenly that what was in one painting was probably in others that were similarly patterned. He said, “We could scan the painting called Perilous Night quite closely and not guess that both there and in Ventriloquist and Racing Thoughts there is an echo, faint but distinct, of a figure of a sleeping Roman soldier from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France.” Similarly, Roberta Smith in the Village Voice said that “details abstracted from the Resurrection panel of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece dominate the left side of Perilous Night, Racing Thoughts, and an Untitled painting.”
Jeanne Silverthorne, the reviewer in Artforum (Summer ‘84), was fanciful in another way: “In Perilous Night … while one of Johns’s two reworkings of Grünewald in this painting keeps the sword of the stricken soldier in the resurrection scene in its original position, the other [there are indeed two entire figures of the soldier in Perilous Night, unnoticed by anyone else] moves it so that it would, if extended, intersect with the risen Christ precisely at the wound in his side.”
Richard Francis, in an article in these pages [see A.i.A., Sept. ‘84], noted that “Perilous Night . . . carries a detail of an image taken from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.” In his book about Johns of the same year,4 he assumed, like Russell and Smith, that this detail—the soldier—appeared in other works, however obscured by cross-hatching.
In London I had no time to pursue the question, but in Copenhagen at the end of March I went looking for reproductions of the Altarpiece to locate this soldier. Certainly without the original I was unable to find him in the black-and-white photos I had with me of paintings by Johns from the ‘84 show, and I was missing a reproduction of Perilous Night. The Academy of Fine Arts Library in Copenhagen had no coherent rendering of the Altarpiece. I ended up seeing a clear reproduction of the Resurrection panel at the home of an art historian, in a small book dealing with Christian symbolism. I was lucky. One of my black-and-whites, called Untitled, one of at least four Untitled pictures Johns made in ‘84, had mysterious figuration in it that could be compared to the fallen foreground soldier in Grünewald’s Resurrection panel. There it was, very precisely delineated once you’ve located it. The soldier has just fallen, his right leg is still off the ground, his left arm is raised overhead, head turned toward the viewer, as he shields himself from the brilliant light of the rising Christ. Another helmeted soldier leans over him, about to fall across his body it seems, but he doesn’t appear in the Johns tracing in Untitled. He does, however, appear in the two renderings of the Resurrection detail in Perilous Night, as Ashbery indicated; I didn’t see Perilous Night till I returned to New York at the end of April. Now, in Copenhagen, I imagined my small search to be over. Like Russell and others, I believe I assumed that the soldier was depicted in these other works but in some fragmented, further removed way, making him quite illegible.
I was driving with a friend, south then west through Germany toward Paris, and I decided to make a detour and visit the Altarpiece in Colmar, a city in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. The Altarpiece resides there in the famed Unterlinden Museum. Colmar is very pretty, and the Altarpiece is definitely worth a detour, but I found nothing further that would illuminate Johns’s use of it. I. took pictures and bought postcards and drove on to a town south of Paris to visit Teeny Duchamp.
I asked Mme Duchamp almost immediately if she had been to Colmar. She said she and her daughter Jackie had gone there to see the Altarpiece with Jasper in ‘84—she thought it was ‘84. Back home I discovered that Perilous Night was painted in ‘82. I knew I had to see him again. Besides, I returned to Castelli’s and obtained more reproductions along with all the reviews I hadn’t seen of the recent “Seasons” show. The lsenheim detail, so-called, in the four “Seasons” paintings, does not resemble in its handling either the tracing of the soldier in Perilous Night, where it floats as a purple outline on or within a sea of black and white paint, nor does it look like the patterning of the soldier tracing in Untitled, ‘84, which is embedded in freely painted stripes that run through the figure all one way; broken into darker and lighter areas. The “Seasons” detail most closely resembles the jigsaw-puzzle patterning, areas with directionally opposed stripes (not technically, as was commonly noted, in · Johns’s earlier crosshatch style), that occupied the left-hand side of Racing Thoughts, ‘84. This was the side that also contained the photo of Johns’s dealer, Leo Castelli, as a young man (itself in puzzle pieces), and a rendering of Johns’s pants (some saw a towel) hanging next to it. On the right side of Racing Thoughts appears the Mona Lisa, and a kind of logo from the ‘84 show: the skull and crossbones with its warning, “Chute de Glace”—beware of falling ice, which was painted in variations into many of the pictures. Certainly the overwhelming impression from that show was of death and disaster. Anyway, the Isenheim update, if such it was, in “The Seasons” looked taxonomically related only to this expanse of jigsaw motif in Racing Thoughts.
Now I examined the jigsawlike motif in two of the Untitled ’84 paintings and found some shapes that had to be the same, and in identical relationship to each other in the three works, however much they differed in size or design. And in two of them you can see the same “eyes.” In one, these eye forms surround the skull and crossbones and can be read as ghosts or scary night creatures. By now I had reproductions before me of two more of these Untitled works, one ‘83, the other ‘84, both included in Richard Francis’s book. That made five altogether, and I was certain there was no soldier there. I got excited. I suspected I was on to something. This time when I saw Johns, I brought all these glossies, books, notes, reviews, and pictures and postcards from Colmar.
I met him at Da Silvano on lower Sixth Avenue. There’s a dividing brick wall in that restaurant, and I arrived first and was seated on the far side as you enter the door. I waited and drank coffee. After a while the waiter came over and told me he thought perhaps the person I was waiting for was already there. He was. He was sitting on the other side near the door, in the same corner position against the wall, drinking a beer. That got us off to a good start laughing. Still laughing, he said, “I’m not going to tell you anything.” But he did tell me he had been in Colmar before ‘84, when he went with Teeny Duchamp and her daughter. And that a friend had sent him a big book with reproductions of the Altarpiece which he loved. He sent a tracing of a detail to the friend and that evidently got him going. At length I threw my cards on the table—the glossies, pictures, postcards, etc.—and more or less demanded to know if these patterns in the Untitled works and in Racing Thoughts were variations on the soldier. He said no, they were not. I said well, what are they then? He didn’t answer. I ran down the panels. I didn’t think it would be from the Crucifixion or the Annunciation or Nativity or Lamentation. Could it be from the Temptation of Saint Anthony? He thought it was. He wasn’t sure. I had those two postcards at home: one shows Saint Anthony (Abbot, 4th century) in long white beard talking to another old man, Paul, in the desert; in the other, Saint Anthony is being dragged by his scalp into the scene of his temptations—a Boschian phantasmagoria of monsters and devils.
At home I spent more than an hour trying to locate a detail in the two Saint Anthony pictures that might match the pattern in Racing Thoughts and the five Untitled works—the fragment in the four “Season” paintings still itself of course unidentified. I found nothing. These Grünewald pictures are teeming with details. As are the Johnses. I called Johns and tried to pin him down. He was irritated now. He was busy, he couldn’t remember, and the information was in the country. I went for it anyway; I said, “Look, there’s Anthony in the long white beard being hauled off … “ There was a brief diversion. He remembered a Gertrude Stein line: “Stop stop I did not drag my father beyond that tree.” I remembered the Stein title, The Blood on the Dining Room Floor, and he said he had that book and he never read it, and I replied likewise. Then I said, is that it, is it in that particular panel—Saint Anthony sprawled in purgatory? And he said yes, but it’s skin. I thanked him and we hung up.
Skin! I spent more time looking, turning the glossies this way and that. I laid out the color reproduction of Untitled, ’83–‘84, in the Richard Francis book. The left side of it is consumed by the design, in purples, grays, and whites. I turned it upside down. I put the postcard right next to it. Johns is a very literal guy. The whole figure in the bottom left corner of the Saint Anthony Temptation panel took form in front of me like a picture in a darkroom being birthed out of emulsion, in the bottom left corner of the Johns jigsaw motif—as viewed upside down. I’d located it by concentrating on the outstanding feature in the corner of a three-pronged “claw.” The figure is the only human in the panel besides Anthony, though he has an animal characteristic of webbed feet. He’s a devastating creature. He has a long sort of fool’s cap, his stomach is bloated and ballooned, all his skin (the skin!) is marked with pocks, an appendage or arm raised over his upturned head ends in a stump, he’s clearly diseased and dying (according to legend, by the way, Grünewald died of the plague in 1528; the Altarpiece is dated between 1512 and 1516). I quickly found the creature in Racing Thoughts, then in the other Untitled works (except that one with the soldier), and then as a fragment even in the four “Seasons.” The bent leg with pocks on it (the “eyes” I saw were the pocks on his stomach) is clearly visible in Fall.
I felt very sad finding this figure in the Johns painting. There’s great pathos somehow in the carefully hidden and precisely copied forms of this dying creature-person, who appears as overcome by the scene before him—Saint Anthony and the monsters—as does the fallen soldier in the Resurrection panel, stricken by the “blinding” light of the ascending Christ. Then, if you turn the Untitled ’83–‘84 right side up again, you see, in the far right side of the painting, that double image of the lovely girl/ ugly crone, the crone suddenly becoming the conspicuous one, assuming a compassionate role of guardian/seer/witness over the “tragedy” in jigsaw. And there she is again in two other Untitled works, also overlooking the scene, this time a mirror image of it, though still upside down. In Untitled ‘83, the skull and crossbones in black on white is the opposing image on the right. That leaves Racing Thoughts, with the puzzle pieces forming a ground to Johns’s pants and the photo of Leo Castelli as a young man. The Grünewald figure is in the same position, upside down, his distended stomach obscured by the pants, his female “guardian” to the right here the Mona Lisa, half of the skull and crossbones visible off to the far right of the picture.
“Not mine but taken” acquires new meaning. What’s been taken here is either meant not to be seen or meant to be extremely difficult to see. There’s a striking sort of inversion here: in early Johns, the public icon (flag), known by all, is apparently divested of personal meaning and rendered highly visible; in recent Johns, another public icon (the Isenheim Altarpiece), unknown to the viewer off the street but charged with personal significance, is rendered invisible to an ignorant public. It’s hard to equate “America’s and his” flag with “Grünewald’s and his” soldier and victim. Gone really is the play of confronting people with images so familiar that they’ve become invisible, then turning them into something invisible (familiarly his) again.
Yet Johns’s subject remains concealment. The nature of the concealment has changed a great deal. What was once a kind of game—an intellectual expose-and-seek with objects captured from the public domain—has become more seriously personal. Johns’s use of the Grünewald masterpiece and the much more symbolic (however nearly obsessive) deployment of double or trick images in his work of the ‘80s show an artist tantalizing both himself and his public with vivid subject matter. He might be nearly there (i.e., ready to expose himself), but his cover is still very important.
The shadow itself is a cover. Though all reviewers of “The Seasons” felt constrained to use the word “autobiography” to describe paintings featuring the full-figured tracing of the artist’s own shape, which hovers over an obvious collection of the artist’s possessions, and is hence additionally autobiographical, the surfaces of the works are no less compelling than before. That which meets the eye is a dazzling symphonic variation in four movements on the theme of time and property. The symbols are all in place-we recognize the appropriate signs of the “Seasons” as well as the tokens of Johns’s past work and the new form of self that endures this passage of time. But the mere projection of the artist’s shadow along with his possessions, enduring a condition as general as the passage of the Seasons, is not autobiographical per se; rather, it’s the hint or the intimation of the kind of disclosures we associate with autobiography. A shadow is a figure still in darkness, sheltered and protected. It represents the absence of illumination. Johns has painted it beautifully—another beguiling concealment of self.5
Vying with concealment as a leading motif in Johns’s work must be an increasing drive to express himself more openly. His recent association with Munch seems to signify this desire. His references to the human figure, foreshadowed in his Weeping Women (‘75), after Picasso, and his Between the Clock and the Bed (two versions, ‘81 and ’82–‘83), after Munch, indicate some conflict and pressure. Revealingly, Johns said to me, “I resent my continuing dependence on preexistent forms.” He said this after I inquired about the “freely drawn” images in his new work. Obviously the “starfish,” the branches, the tiny hummingbird are freely drawn. But only the hummingbird is “invented,” the others having been “taken.” Johns is a master of the secondhand. Entering art history through a milieu that encouraged this theft of the already used, and as an artist who was virtually self-taught, he finds himself now perhaps in a position in which he has made his mark and his fortune doing work that may no longer be adequate to fulfill his expressive needs. Directly after he said he resented his dependency on preexistent forms, I remarked, “Isn’t it fortuitous that . . . “ and he finished my sentence, laughing uproariously, painfully I thought, “ … that I would pick up tracing?”
His tracing in Perilous Night of the soldier from Grünewald’s Resurrection panel was vitally new secondhand material. He tagged the work for meaning, opaque as it was to the general viewer in its submerged tracing, with his title, after a John Cage composition of 1945. In case the title wasn’t enough to make the Cage reference clear, Johns incorporated into his painting a page, partially obscured by the hanging cast of a forearm/hand, from Cage’s score, including a bit of the title itself: “The Perilou . . . “ as well as the composer’s name: “J. Cage.” Cage has been quoted as saying that his Perilous Night was concerned with “the loneliness and terror that comes to one when love becomes unhappy.” It was written the same year he separated from his wife of over a decade (Xenia Kashevaroff), and it represented a turning point in his career. He was dismayed by its critical reception. One critic, for example, writing that the last movement of the work sounded like “a woodpecker in a church belfry,” prompted Cage to say, “I had poured a great deal of emotion into the piece, and obviously I wasn’t communicating this at all. Or else, I thought, if I were communicating, then all artists must be speaking a different language, thus speaking only for themselves.”6 Within the next five years Cage would clear himself of such emotional dilemmas by placing his music insofar as possible outside himself. He became the original secondhand sound man, with influence far beyond the confines of music.
Johns met Cage in ‘54, the year he met Rauschenberg, and for several years, Cage and Merce Cunningham, Johns and Rauschenberg were close friends and supporters of one another’s work. Eighteen years older than Johns, Cage was a man whose authority, coupled with the earlier example of Duchamp, would be decisive for the modifications Johns and Rauschenberg would be able to make on the then-prevailing and highly personal Abstract Expressionist aesthetic. Between ‘66 and ‘60, Johns applied the gestural, painterly stroke of that school to subjects that were otherwise alien to it: the flag, targets, numbers, the alphabet, etc. It would be hard not to see Johns making a strong statement when he reached back, in ‘82, for the older man’s discarded expressive work in the instance of Cage’s Perilous Night.
But as literal as he may be in his references, Johns keeps an ironic distance from his audience. There is a presumed irony in Cage’s title reference to the Star Spangled Banner, but Johns is clearly ironic himself in his submergence of a loaded subject, the smitten soldier at Christ’s tomb, who was indeed a witness to the outcome of a certain (other) “perilous night.”
Johns scoffed at me when we were having lunch at Da Silvano, and I made, I suppose, the mistake of telling him what I saw in two other paintings of his that he tagged by the use of another man’s title: Munch’s Between the Clock and the Bed. He had already told me the Munch work moved him. He once told someone that he sees a thing and then paints it, and other times he paints a thing and then sees it. He saw the crosshatch motif that he had used throughout the ‘70s in the patterning of Munch’s bedspread. Johns transposed the motif to his own works after the Munch, placing it in the same lower right-hand corner as Munch did. In the Johns it seems like a signature, in diminutive strokes, conspicuous on a highlighted ground yet overpowered by the broad striation of hatching that covers the whole canvas, and that is very similar to his ‘75 Weeping Women ( after Picasso), also done in three flush vertical panels.
It was his division of the work into three distinct vertical forms, light areas alternating with dark, that made me say I saw the three distinct shapes in the Munch work abstractly in his own (Munch’s full-length self-portrait with his paintings behind him on the wall, flanked by a grandfather clock on the left and the bed and its spread on the right). “Well, Jill,” he said, laughing hard again, “if that’s what you see . . . “ So much for his audience. He isn’t inclined to help by either denying or affirming, and he enjoys teasing. But more interesting here no doubt was what originally moved him. He did say he was struck by the coincidence of finding his own motif in the bedspread. Perhaps that inducted him into the Munch painting’s subject: the very affecting self-portrait of the artist as an aging man, tired and resigned yet erect and heroic, standing before representations of his work.
Johns’s first painting after Munch was done one year before Perilous Night. Once the soldier in the latter is “read,” what might have seemed the arbitrary element of three forearm/hand casts, dangling across the top right of the picture, might now also be “read” in relation to the smaller tracing of the soldier, appearing in this case right side up, and being nearly touched by the fingertips of two of the cast forearm/hand parts. The same is true, for me at least, of the relationship of crone to victim, once the victim has been “read”—in the Untitled works. And in Perilous Night, since Johns has taken his soldier out of context, retaining the other falling soldier, who leans over his recumbent one, the falling one who leans over could be imagined as attendant and concerned, and not falling at all. So there are two hovering, caressing elements over the smitten soldier: the one who “falls” on him and the fingertips just above the latter. And one set of fingertips, with its hand and arm, is tellingly laid down across a representation of a Johns (crosshatch) painting, the other across the silkscreen of the Cage score, flush to the Johns. Then—how could you miss the symbolism of the handkerchief nailed to a stretch of paling or wood graining below? Johns’s source in the Cage score becomes more cogent: a death (of some sort) or a separation was perhaps involved too.
A similar connection between art and biography has been made concerning Johns’s ‘61 painting, In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara. In a provocative 1984 essay about Johns, two Englishmen, Charles Harrison and Fred Orton, drew what might still be considered unseemly personal inferences.7 They noted that Johns and O’Hara were friends until 1966, when the latter tragically died, that the O’Hara poem, In Memory of My Feelings, written in 1956 and not published till 1967, was dedicated to the painter Grace Hartigan (one of two women, they said, that O’Hara, a homosexual, loved), with whom O’Hara fought in 1960, and from whom he became irrevocably estranged. Harrison and Orton speculate that Johns used the O’Hara title to express feelings of his own over his estrangement from Bob Rauschenberg during ’60–‘61. They quote Calvin Tomkins8 on the breakup. They describe the O’Hara poem—an “inventory of feelings, and an assertion of the need to express them,” and “images of death” recurring “throughout the poem.” Then they ask, “So can we connote death from Johns’ painting?” and conclude, “It seems so. The words ‘DEAD MAN’ appear in the lower right of the canvas.” But these words are impossible to see. With magnifying glass I can just barely find a trace of them in reproductions myself. However, they are there. I asked Johns about the words, mentioning the essay by the Englishmen, and he cast me one of his long, suspicious glances, saying, “How did they know the words are there?” They did of course note that the words are “veiled, camouflaged by busy grey brushstrokes.” To me the words are spooky, given that the painting was done in ‘61, five years before O’Hara died. Anyway, it was not the objective of Harrison and Orton to expose lives, but rather to bring forward expressive aspects of Johns’s work that have been overlooked. “To discuss the vivid surfaces of Johns’ work, we suggest, is in itself a relatively uninteresting pursuit. What is significant is that they seem to show how a vivid surface—as the apparent technical ‘arena’ of the Modernist dynamic—can carry vivid subject matter while, as it were, pretending not to do so.” And in sympathy for Johns: “. . . we might say that the ambitious artist of Johns’ generation (and since perhaps), who knows his or her Modernism and understands what ‘American-Type’ painting has to be in order to succeed as Modernism, has a real problem if he or she wants to express and to deal with subject matter and to express feelings as subject matter.”
It’s a long jump from In Memory of My Feelings of ‘61 to Perilous Night of ‘82. Harrison and Orton rather quixotically say that Johns returned, “after years with numbers and letters,” to “human figuration” when he painted In Memory of My Feelings. But of course the figuration there is wholly allusive and symbolic. The weight of feeling implied by the title was carried by the loose gray / dark (i.e., stormy-cloudy-overcast-murky) paint surface.
If his surfaces earlier carried the burden of expression, Johns’s emerging figuration, now literal and embodied (however unavailable), could place him in a tradition linking him legitimately or convincingly with Picasso, Munch, et al. Yet it’s easy to see that he might abandon these tracings as experimental. He has perhaps the sense that what he “takes” could be difficult or impossible to convert into expressive available currency. He might then have to “give” something he won’t, or can’t. More daunting, no doubt, is any prospect of drawing the figure freely. As things are, the use of puzzle pieces is itself revealing. The direction he might take next could be a puzzle to him. Yet we may also imagine that Johns has obtained a private pleasure here, turning public and critics into fools. He’s like a jewel thief who makes a spectacular heist and who then reads the papers day after day, basking in the public’s tremendous interest and ignorance, and the police’s unsuccessful pursuit of clues. It’s a type of onanism—a public exhibition of a masterful facade, concealing some intimate design or activity. It’s also the act of a great magician. Altogether, nine of Johns’s pictures have featured this incredible little person (victim) in the Grünewald Saint Anthony panel, five of them prominently, and he has made at least three explicit renderings of the soldier from the Resurrection panel—and perhaps more that we don’t know about.
In his recent show, he has given us his shadow to contemplate, his toward the viewer (cf. also In the Studio, 1982, p. 129). possessions and his tricks (double images) and surfaces to admire. And while the “Isenheim fragment”—the Saint Anthony creature—is in there, it or he has now been rendered quite unreadable as well as contextless, except in structural or formal relation to the other elements in the work. The emotional connection or moment is over, for Johns and for us, though differently for each. It must have been meaningful for Johns; and we never got it. Yet his (private) moment, surely something far richer for him than the mere pleasure suggested above of relishing the public’s ignorance, must be somehow seriously qualified by his refusal or inability to be more direct. Johns has a relationship with his work that is exclusive, or that leaves out a great deal in its final embrace with his public. I remonstrated with him when I saw him, identifying myself as just a spectator off the street (i.e., how am I going to get it?). He protested in turn that I was not just a spectator off the street. I said but I was, and I had to go to a lot of trouble to decode this mystery, and I still had not done it (we were talking in the restaurant). And then after a while, he registered his final complaint—in a tone of triumph, I thought. He smiled and said, “But you aspire to privilege.” There was a slight pause. Then I replied, “Well, yes, I do” (which he laughed over deliciously)—and I can’t remember what I said after that. But later I thought he’d made a gilt-edged remark. Privilege, certainly, means everything in relation to his work. He isn’t giving himself away to just anybody, and the privileged information that some critic or other obtained in 1984 (perhaps Rose, for a start) about the Isenheim Altarpiece easily turned into a Rashomon botch of things. This may be interesting in itself; it may also serve to divert attention away from the artist’s own feelings, toward which any substantially accurate information will, in a case like this anyway, lead us. There was no way to appreciate all that “religious” (or personal) subject matter when it was not clearly identified.9
While Johns keeps his public at bay, he toys with it as well. He offers suggestive subject matter, which he short-circuits with tricks and deceptions. His ambivalence seems extreme, though concealment still reigns over its opposite. If this is a problem, it inheres in the tradition of detachment that surrounded his formative years as an artist. The masking of feelings, especially uncomfortable ones, was a goal at the core of the Neo-Dada aesthetic led by Cage and inspired by Duchamp. Nor did the modernist esthetic offer a vehicle for the personal. Yet in Johns’s use of the Grünewald figures, we can perhaps guess that he found some grief difficult to share. If this is true, it represents the autobiographical content that we were unable to see in his ‘84 show, and that has gone underground in “The Seasons.” I read Perilous Night as a scene in which one man gently attends the plight of another. I read the Saint Anthony creature as a projection of both victim and witness (e.g., the artist), overcome by death, or by dark forces. This figure elicits a sense of horror and compassion. It’s too distinctive, too particularized, too human not to imagine that the artist made some strong emotional identification with it. But equally evident, in retrospect, at least, is Johns’s interest in concealing, or not sharing, his involvement with his subject matter. What we can share, perhaps, is a special moment in an artist’s career, as we watch him poised between his use of “preexistent forms” and some aspiration to break away from them, or to risk their deployment in more available modes, if that seems possible.
1.Barbara Rose wrote a detailed and very informative article “previewing” the Castelli show, “Jasper Johns: The Seasons,” that was published in the Jan. 1987 issue of Vogue.
2.Barbara Rose, ibid.
3.Riva Castleman, Jasper Johns: A Print Retrospective, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1986, p. 18.
4.Richard Francis, Jasper Johns, New York, Abbeville, 1984.
5.Johns’s images, cast with attributes of the four Seasons, are uncannily like some images or scenes in the four suits of the Tarot deck. The number four itself represents the points of the quaternity: an ancient symbol of the self, or of wholeness. Many symbols in Johns’s paintings can be found strewn through any Tarot deck: the cups, pentacles (as stars), the child, hands, animals of course, the death’s head, snowdrops, and other seasonal signs, the “Wheel of Fortune,” the plummeting objects, and so forth. The Tarot, like other fortune-telling vehicles, symbolizes the changes we go through in the course of a day, a year, a life; and Johns similarly indicates the cycle of things, while camouflaging autobiographical particulars.
6.Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, New York, Viking, 1962.
7.Charles Harrison and Fred Orton, “Jasper Johns: ‘Meaning What You See’,” Art History, Mar. 1984. See also Marjorie Perloff, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, Austin and London, University of Texas Press, 1977, which is referred to by Harrison and Orton as well.
8.Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall, New York, Penguin, 1980.
9.The “Seasons” paintings show a kind of fallout of this subject matter from the earlier work. The Isenheim fragment from the Saint Anthony panel is further detailed, and cast as a souvenir. The death’s head, appearing only in Fall, is partially obscured and likewise remaindered. The soldiers are gone, but the figure of Christ, so dominant in the Grünewald Resurrection panel and so spectacularly absent from Johns’s traced details from same, is now in some poetic sense rigged up in the form of the artist—a “floating,” featureless shadow figure, a clear representation of the totality of self. The hands of the “clock” pointing upward, downward and to the side may indicate the points of the Cross. Within the hand imprints are marks (perhaps left by the hollow of the palm, but Rose calls them “pinioned palms”) now inescapably resembling stigmata. The ladder itself recalls the ladder depicted in many Crucifixion scenes.
There is another curious parallel between the Grünewald Resurrection panel and a prominent feature that occurs in all the “Seasons” paintings. Johns’s very large black half-circles, bearing a striking central highlight from which the arm/hand seems to emanate, could be read almost as a displaced negative image of the great aureole around the risen Christ with arms and hands uplifted. Coincidentally, Barbara Rose’s 1984 Vogue article noted that Perilous Night “contains . . . a passage of a burst of light taken from the central panel of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece of Christ rising in glory and radiance at the moment of the Resurrection.” Johns himself disclaimed this connection when I raised the question with him.