We all recognize the flags, targets, numbers or colors, these motives Jasper Johns has used in his art since the mid 1950s. They are omnipresent signs in our everyday life. We are drawn to them instinctively as they are instantly recognizable and neatly sum up abstract concepts we may find hard to describe with words. We see the signs but are we fully awake to the concepts?
Try this with the American flag, for instance. If you think about it long enough, one ideal and many ideas are encapsulated in this flag…
Jasper Johns never meant for his Flags to be political representations. Instead he revisits the theme with different textures and values, often time in colors, sometimes in black and white.
What is puzzling though is his preferred medium being encaustic. As a mixture of pigments and hot beeswax, which he sometimes layers with paper and other materials, it is actually a very unforgiving technique because beeswax cools so quickly.
Yet what I find most striking is that it is also a very ancient technique, used in the Fayum mummy portraits dating from 1st-3rd century AD.
These were some of the earliest known portraits and what’s more, they were funerary portraits. So as I look at Jasper Johns choosing encaustic as a medium, how much of this choice is linked to what dies with an image? And how much veneration is he choosing to bring back to these concepts we take for granted ?
Perhaps, that is why Jasper Johns makes us conjure up the flag (the dead flag?) in one specific work. If you intensely look at a given green color field and then look at a grey panel, your eyes should make you see the opposite color on the color wheel, ie. a red afterimage.
My kids loved playing the game: looking at a green and orange version of the US flag, they conjured up the illusion of the “real” red and blue flag. This potentially opening the door to hours of conceptual discussions about “Something Resembling Truth”, the title of the retrospective.
With a simple graphic visual, maybe we too rarely question what it really means and in part, this is what Jasper Johns was interested in tackling with his art.
Take colors for instance: do you see blue because letters B L U E spell the word?
What if these letters are yellow but still spell blue? What color do you see then? Is the background color dictating what you think you see? And then what is color as a concept?
You can twist this one many ways and that is where you start to understand why Jasper Johns is an artist of such importance and how immensely clever his art can be.
As such, his retrospective at the Broad Museum is an unprecedented opportunity to see the breadth of his career, one theme per room at a time.
But first, maybe you are wondering where his questioning interest came from, so let’s rewind to the 1950’s to add a bit of art historical context.
Back then the horrors of WWII made figurative art almost preposterous: providing a graphic illusion of reality was just not appealing anymore for artists.
Abstract Expressionist artists imposed themselves because they found different ways to express both the current mood and their very personal emotions. Through action painting and abstraction, an almost nihilist approach was found: no figuration, just pure painterly emotions.
Their monumental canvases were literally in your face, for all to see, hear and project their own turmoil and reflect on the new state of the world. The quietly loud of Mark Rothko’s color fields, the rhythmic organized chaos of Jackson Pollock’s drips or the gestural compositions of De Kooning were all radically new immersive experiences which still resonate to this day.
Yet for young artist Jasper Johns back then, these monumental Abstract Expressionists and their giant canvases were casting a very long shadow.
So Jasper Johns said no and let his inquisitive mind run free, questioning what art is, much like Duchamp did back in 1917 with his Fountain and self-declaration that readymade objects were art, if he decided so.
With no, what are you looking at: a shadow reflection? A painted shadow? Letters? Meaning what? The beauty is how such a non-descript grey artwork can get people to pause, to think, to question and overall to look harder.
Another story illustrating this beautifully is how Jasper Johns and his partner in crime Robert Rauschenberg took on abstraction head on.
In the name of art, Rauschenberg asked De Kooning for one of his drawings and proceeded to erase it. Remember that De Kooning was the celebrated leading artist of Abstract Expressionism back then while Johns and Rauschenberg were aspiring artists in their twenties. Rauschenberg erasing what was art as the ultimate art of abstraction! Genius, provocative, and actually very difficult to execute as it turned out: De Kooning was not the kind of artist to have a light touch!
Jasper Johns likes playing with opposites so his approach was to negate the abstraction of Abstract Expressionism to bring back figuration of abstract concepts…I know, it is a mouth full so let’s look at some pictures.
Flags, numbers, letters, targets, all are signs so well known we’ve lost the ability to see them for truly what we should know they represent.
Yet now that you’ve read this, can you see how Jasper Johns superimposing all the numbers from 0 to 9 make them dissolve exactly as 1 is an essential part of 3, 4 is contained into 9 etc…? This is conceptual art in full swing so let there be questioning.
And keep going: you see a target but is it an objective to reach, an aim for a dart, a store logo, an eye looking back at you?
As a great admirer of Duchamp’s conceptual art and use of readymades, Johns uses well known symbols as his own “readymades” that he then texturizes with layers of the understanding and focus he hopes the viewers can re-discover through the process of looking at his art.
His art is an opportunity to look deeply at what we take for granted, to rediscover intellectual concepts and abstractions and re-appreciate them as visual expressions, “interplays between illusion and reality” (p.51, Naumann, F.M., According to What).
“ My work is in part concerned …with thought rather than with secure things”.
“His work always seems to oscillate between the thing and the representation of the thing. By doing this, he engages the most significant questions about art as a human activity”. Michael Crishton
© 2018 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.