On ViewCraig F. Starr Gallery
April 9 – May 28, 2010
In 1961, while living on Edisto Beach, off the coast of South Carolina, Jasper Johns bought sheets of plastic from an art and drafting supply store in Charleston. A little while later, he began drawing in ink on the plastic’s smooth, non-absorbent surface, and found that he liked the results because, as he would later say in a 1989 interview, “it is difficult to tell from the finished drawing what gestures were used to produce it.” He also stated in this interview that “it removes itself from my touch.” Remarks such as this one have understandably led many formally-inclined observers to focus on Johns’s choice of subject matter, such as the American flags and targets, because, as the gallery release states, these images “remove certain choices from the artist’s control.” A corresponding lack of control, it then follows, is manifested in Johns’s use of ink on plastic.
The problem I have with these observations is that they elide meaning. While they serve to situate Johns’s work within the art practices that eclipsed Abstract Expressionism, as well as implicitly acknowledge the widespread influence of his ready-made subjects, I believe that his achievement extends well beyond this limiting historical viewpoint in which meaning is suppressed in favor of formal innovation. Johns’s greatness is due in large part to his seamless synthesis of both innovation and meaning, or what used to be called form and content. Johns has never favored form over content, which isn’t the same as subject matter. Rather than being a formalist, he has been a materialist whose work admits time’s constant pressure on the world of things, of which he is a part. His recognition of time, and living in it, adamantly rejects all of the models of progress under which modern societies and their thinkers operate. He wasn’t trying to advance art with his “flags” and “targets”; he was (and, thankfully, still is) trying to detail the inescapable journey to termination that he and all the rest of us are on.
By repeatedly returning to motifs such as flagstones, crosshatches, a coffee can crammed with paintbrushes, and an arm extending from the work’s bottom edge, Johns slows time down, patiently examining how it shapes and is shaped, but is never avoided. At the outset of his career, in monochromatic paintings such as “Green Target” (1955) and “White Flag” (1955), he repurposed the formal problem of the figure-ground relationship until it brimmed with metaphysical implications regarding the unbreakable bond between the individual and reality, form and formlessness. In “Gray Alphabets” (1956) one gleans the seeds of his interest in the connection between linear structures and dissolution.
Johns thinks and sees in a multitude of ways, including in and through materials. In 1954, he began working in encaustic, and, later, in bronze and lead, all of which exist in one of two states—solid or liquid. His ink on plastic drawings expand this aspect of his thinking and seeing, adding a distinct body of work to his already diverse oeuvre. Typically, the ink on plastic drawings combine sharp, clear lines (made with a pen) with areas of wash (made with a brush), so that linear structures and washy fields become inseparable and interdependent. Often this resonant combination echoes the subject, as in “Untitled” (1977), in which the image of a Savarin coffee can that is crammed with brushes (solid structures immersed in turpentine, a dissolving agent) is placed against a ground of handprints. A solid form partially immersed in liquid has been a recurrent theme in Johns’s work, and has manifested itself in subjects as different from each other as a map of a landmass surrounded by water and a figure seated in a bathtub.
In “Tracing” (1989) Johns incorporates the linear structure of Hans Holbein’s faded and torn “Portrait of a Young Nobleman Holding a Lemur” (1541-1542). Is it useful to know that the artist once had pet lemurs? Well, yes and no. Using Holbein’s deteriorated ink and watercolor drawing as his starting point, the artist faithfully traced the outline of the portrait’s contours, which, in his work, are slightly cropped by the plastic sheet’s edges. Was this deliberate or a miscalculation on Johns’s part? I suspect it was the latter, and that he was happy with it for various reasons, including the implicit suggestion that the form dissolved while simultaneously turning to dust beyond the drawing’s physical edges.
“Tracing” invites as well as sustains a range of interpretations. First, it envisions a later stage of the original drawing’s existence—its further unavoidable devolvement. Second, it advances that we are structures embraced and inhabited by formless forces. And if you remain unconvinced of these possible readings, and believe that Johns is solely concerned with formal issues, consider the following questions. Can you see the drawing’s subject without concurrently seeing dried puddles and different dispersions of black dust? Aren’t you looking at drawn lines as well as residue? Don’t water and dust bracket our journey from life to death?
Humor, a sense of the absurd, and a conscious acknowledgment of time’s dominion over us all are to be found everywhere in “Tracing.”
“Tracing” is dated 1989, meaning it was done two years after Andy Warhol died, at a time when the art world had become more deeply enthralled with glamour and consumption, a course it has remained on, and escalated to an alarming degree, ever since. Instead of ignoring these issues, Johns did an oppositional work that critiqued society’s valorization of beauty. The once glamorous young man is now a featureless figure wearing the skeletal structure of a fashionable, plumed hat and cradling an equally featureless animal. The viewer can only discern this by zeroing in on the outlines embedded in, and separating, the fields of dried black washes. And in this refocusing, might we not find ourselves honing in on dried puddles marked by flecks of black pigment or a layer of fine dust?
Reality isn’t the least bit glamorous, however much one wishes to proclaim otherwise. Live Forever was the title Elizabeth Peyton chose for her retrospective at the New Museum, which contained portraits of indolent young men doing as little as possible. “Tracing” recognizes that we live in infinity (or the expanding universe), and that it will one day embrace us all. How each of us makes (or marks) his or her way to that moment is our legacy, because infinity renders us all the same. Johns has a name and is famous, but he recognizes that we are all anonymous and particular before infinity’s mirror, which is what he has in common with “the boy in the box” found in a field on the edge of Philadelphia in 1957, who has never been named. “Tracing” doesn’t offer us solace from our shared destiny; instead, it makes explicit that appearances are an illusion. This is the power and—can I say it?—the precise humanity of Johns’s work.