EssaysWeekend

Have We Been Misreading Jasper Johns All Along? Part Two

Jasper Johns, “Untitled” (2015), monotype on Sommerset Velvet Cream paper, 37 3/8 x 29 7/8 inches (© Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

Editor’s Note: This is the second section of a two-part essay on the work of Jasper Johns.

I want to focus on Jasper Johns’s three recent monotypes based on a Vietnam-era photograph of an emotionally shattered soldier, which are included in Jasper Johns: Monotypes at Matthew Marks. According to the partial mock-up of the catalogue raisonné of Jasper Johns’ monotypes, with essays by Susan Dackerman and Jennifer L. Roberts, which I was able to leaf through at the gallery, the artist made at least four monotypes based on the photograph, originally published in the April 16, 1965 issue of LIFE, depicting the 21-year old James Farley, who was crew chief/door gunner on a helicopter during the Vietnam War.

In a conversation with Julie L. Belcove, referenced in an article she wrote for The Wall Street Journal (February 9, 2016), Johns said he first made drawings based on the image of Farley, which was shot by photojournalist Larry Burrows, but deemed them a failure. These works preceded his use of a photograph of Lucian Freud, taken by John Deakin and commissioned by Francis Bacon, for the series Regrets, which was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (March 15–September 1, 2014).

After he completed the works for Regrets, Johns looked for the Burrows’ photograph and eventually found it, hence the monotypes. We don’t know whether Johns has used the photograph for works in other mediums, or if he is even considering this possibility. All we have are the four monotypes, only three of which are on display at Matthew Marks. While they constitute a small body of work within Johns’s diverse oeuvre, they possess a topology that shares something with other bodies of work across a variety of mediums.

On the most basic level, the Burrows image is of a man sprawled across an uneven surface — a stack of metal cases — somewhere between lying down and sitting up. He shares something with the figure seated uncomfortably on a bed in Regrets, the wretched, disease-afflicted naked body in the lower left corner of the right interior wing of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, as well as the two knights roused awake from the same altarpiece’s Resurrection panel. Johns has transferred these latter figures into a number of paintings, including “Perilous Night” (1982), “The Bath” (1988), “Mirror’s Edge” (1992), and “Mirror’s Edge 2” (1993).

If we include the image used in “Regrets,” which is to say a man on a bed, and reduce it to its constituent parts, a man and a bed, it shares something with “Flag” (1954-55), which was inspired by a dream (dreamt by a man, the artist, lying in a bed), as well as with the paintings collectively titled Between the Clock and the Bed, which were partly inspired by a late self-portrait by Edvard Munch, who depicted himself standing between a grandfather clock and a bed. There is no irony in any of these paintings. Beginning with “Flag,” Johns has increasingly gained access to deeper, more resonant images of the damaged human physique and, more recently, the psyche. He has gone from using a figure out of a painting (the supine knight disturbed from sleep in the Isenheim Altarpiece) to a LIFE magazine photograph of a young soldier in the Vietnam War. In fact, one could say that Johns started his career by focusing on the broken body and, over the past sixty years, has moved toward the damaged inner self.

How many other postwar artists could you say that about? What other artist has made the grief-stricken male the subject of his or her art? And really, the figure isn’t just male — it is anonymous and could be anyone. In his reworkings of an image of a defenseless male, Johns has reinvented Pablo Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” (1937), which has been considered a singular, worldly image of suffering. He has also broken a taboo scrupulously observed by the non-emotional, macho male, which can be violated only if it is done ironically. Art history is full of images of women crying, but there are not a lot of powerless single male figures alone in a room, overcome by sorrow or “regrets” and cut off from the world. Johns, who has been widely recognized for his formal innovations, has not received much attention for his introduction of fresh and challenging subject matter into the current discourse.

Johns’ image is of a man who is speechless and devastated, helpless and hopeless. It is an image of extreme vulnerability. In the four monotypes in which the Burrows photograph is the source, and in the various works constituting the series, Regrets, Johns incorporates the motif of an unprotected, powerless man into his work. With these severe images in mind, which are rendered without irony, perhaps it is time to reconsider the widely accepted judgment that Johns’s work is obscure, icy, distant, and over-intellectualized.

When Johns returned to the Burrow’s photograph, he chose to work in monotype rather than drawing, as he had done earlier and considered the attempt a failure. It seems likely that while working his way through Regrets, Johns figured out another way to access the potentiality he saw within Burrows’ poignant photograph. The question he most likely knew he had to answer was this: how do you preserve as well as further reveal the subject’s innate vulnerability? How do you do this without resorting to all the well-known ways, without devolving into expressionism or sarcasm? How do you remain open to this image, become haunted by it, without finding a way to protect yourself from its presentation of utter helplessness?

Rather than simply deciding to work in monotype, Johns reinvented the process. He made the drawing in colored inks on a hard surface, and let them dry. He in effect slowed down the process, which gave him time to attend to small details within the drawing. He then wet a piece of paper, affixed it to the drawing, and ran them through a press. This caused the dried ink to transfer an impression to the wet paper. In each image, the soldier is found on the right side, partially mirrored in a smaller area on the left.

It takes a while to discern the semi-prone figure dressed in camouflage amid the green, brown, black, and gray tones of ink. He seems caught between emerging from the pattern and becoming indistinguishable from it. The camouflage pattern dissolves the body, makes it blend in, which is what its real-life counterpart does. Literally speaking, he is stuck in the world of matter and light. At the same time, the world he is embedded in is disintegrating.

Jasper Johns, “Untitled” (2015), monotype on Sommerset Velvet Cream paper, 38 x 29 7/8 inches (© Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

The ambiguity of the figure/ground relationship is simultaneously formal and meaningful. For various reasons, Johns’s early work was read in purely formal terms; it was straitjacketed into what the age demanded. It was also apparent that the work didn’t fit comfortably into a purely formal reading. Perhaps it is time to rethink our approach to Johns, in part to discover how his work is part of the present and not something stuck in history. In his monotypes of the collapsed soldier, he depicts a scene that comes across as flat or spatial, depending on our focus. The spatiality is something new in Johns’s work.

Johns’s breakthrough painting was “Flag” (1954-55). Sixty years later, he depicted a soldier – someone whose job it is to defend the American flag – in a state of helplessness. Is his sadness due to the fact that war is a constant feature of daily life? Johns never tells us how to read his work, but – through applying inventive techniques – he has made multiple narratives synonymous with the image.

The round spots of faded color are like dried tears. Who has cried? Is it the figure we can barely see? Is it us? Is it the artist? Or is it the world that has splashed down on the paper? On another level, the monotype is made of dried puddles of colored dust. The vacuoles of faded tints become stains, underscoring the paper’s susceptible surface and the drawing’s unavoidable disintegration. Everything is defenseless before time’s indifference.

Are we stuck inside our own inchoate thoughts and feelings, unable to express them? In one of the monotypes – they are all “Untitled” – the mirrored figure on the left is made of patches of faint gray and barely-there-green, dark and light, while the patches of green, yellow, and gray defining the figure on the right give him more solidity. It is as if the figure on the right is dreaming his passage from matter to weightlessness, his own dissolution. The figure on his left is his destiny, a body disappearing into light. It seems on the brink of vanishing right before our eyes.

Isn’t that what the future holds for us? Should we try and contemplate it – as Johns seems to be doing – or should we find ways to distract ourselves from the inevitable? There is something joyous about the light-filled figure on the left, a sense of ease and acceptance in this figure melding into his surroundings. Perhaps the slumped soldier signals another acceptance: you must admit your limitations.

The sense of isolation we encounter in Johns’s work – from his sculpture of two ale cans, one of which is open, to the mirrored monotypes of the collapsed soldier – feels fundamental. Like the separate stars in the blue canton of “Flag,” each of us dreams alone. Johns refuses to turn away from that fact, no matter where it has led him. In a world that demands to be entertained, Johns refuses to make diversions. He doesn’t offer us distractions, which might be why the art world doesn’t want to consider his recent work relevant. Better to leave him stuck in history. We find it difficult to embrace the work of an old man reflecting upon what it means to be alive, especially if he offers little reassurance.

Many writers have divided Johns’ career into two distinct parts, with the first part seen as a formally innovative period that culminated in the series collectively titled Between the Clock and the Bed. The last painting by that title is dated 1982-83. The second period begins with “In the Studio” (1982), when Johns seemed to let more personal things into his work. Some feel that Johns began losing his way during the second phase, and that it had little to do with his formally innovative work. Obviously, this is where I part company with other critics.

There are threads running throughout his work that connect both periods. One is Johns’s preoccupation with the broken human physique and, later, the defenseless human psyche. After he turned 80, Johns completed two bodies of work, Regrets and the recent monotypes, based on images embodying a vulnerable male who has hidden his face. It is an image of deep suffering that cannot be shared or even understood by another person. This is the painful paradox at the center of Johns’s work: he consoles the inconsolable in all of us.

Jasper Johns: Monotypes continues at Matthew Marks (522 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 25.

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