EssaysWeekend

Twenty-Nine Thoughts on Jasper Johns

He pushes back against the widely accepted view that the artist’s primary goal is formal innovation.

Jasper Johns, “Target with Four Faces” (1955), encaustic and collage on canvas with objects 29 3/4 x 26 x 3 3/4 inches (© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

1.
Regarding two of his early works, “Target with Plaster Casts” and “Target with Four Faces” (both 1955), Jasper Johns made the following statement to Roberta Bernstein, author and organizer of his Catalogue Raisonné:

Any broken representation of the human physique is touching in some way; it’s upsetting or provokes reactions that one can’t quite account for. Maybe because one’s image of one’s own body is disturbed by it.

2.
The man who made the above the statement also said this: “I’m interested in things which suggest the world rather than express the personality.”

3.
A “broken representation of the human physique” would not be something he imagined or made up, but rather something he saw or assembled out of things that already existed — a photograph taken during the Vietnam War of an American soldier slumped over, burying his face in the crook of his arm, or four plaster casts of a woman’s face, with her eyes occluded, joined to a target.

4.
The photograph is of James Farley, who was 21 years old at the time, and the crew chief/door gunner on a helicopter. It was taken by Larry Burrows and first appeared in the April 16, 1965, issue of LIFE. The photograph shows an inconsolable young soldier, broken by circumstances. This image becomes the source of a group of monotypes, along with other works on paper and at least one painting. Some of the monotypes from this group were dated 2015, sixty years after he completed “Target with Four Faces.”

5.
The artist is interested in our visceral reaction to something that we cannot quite explain: “it’s upsetting or provokes reactions that one can’t quite account for. Maybe because one’s image of one’s own body is disturbed by it.”

6.
Based on his objective transformation of such ordinary items as a target and the American flag, his exploration of “reactions one cannot quite account for” conveys his interest in a subjectivity rooted in a bodily response. This instinctual subjectivity is a far cry from maintaining a detached, ironic view of life.  

7.
In his statement, he appears to be underscoring the importance of a physical reaction, rather than a reasoned one. He pushes back against the widely accepted view that the artist’s primary goal is formal innovation. His observation has nothing to do with “making it new” or any of the other tropes associated with the term “avant-garde” and “cutting-edge art.” Rather, it has to do with something more visceral: images of damaged bodies that have touched him in ways that he cannot account for. He wants to be true to an upsetting experience that he cannot explain away.

8.
When he makes a “broken representation of the human physique,” he is not attempting to shock or awaken us to the social injustices of the world, nor is he seeking sympathy for something that might have happened to him when he was a child. He is making neither a grandly public nor excessively personal statement. At no point does he suggest that the causes of the damage are what unsettle us. Rather, he speaks of the broken representation as an isolated thing, where the source of the damage remains unknown.

Jasper Johns, “Farley Breaks Down- after Larry Burrows” (2014), ink on plastic, 31 7/8 x 24 inches (© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

9.
These unexpected responses have led him into areas of anguish that have seldom been touched in contemporary art. What is particularly unsettling about this is that his explorations strike us as objective and factual: this misery is not just mine.

10.
In the upper right-hand corner of the target in “Target with Four Faces,” the artist has collaged a newspaper headline and part of the accompanying article. The headline and article are aligned with the target’s top and right edge. He has painted over the collage with red encaustic, but the pigment embedded in the translucent wax does not obscure the headline’s large type: “History and Biography,” which is easily read. Whose history and biography?

11.
At the bottom of the painting, to the left of the target’s blue outer ring, another collage fragment is visible beneath the layer of red encaustic. It is the silhouette of a man in a three-quarter-length coat; we cannot tell whether he is facing us or into the painting, his back turned. Is the anonymous figure a surrogate for the viewer, or for the artist, or for both? Is he the subject that is looking or the subject that is being looked at?

12.
Structurally speaking, in both “Target with Four Faces’ and “Target with Plaster Casts,” the artist joins two disparate things together, body parts and a target.

13.
In “Target with Four Faces,” the four plaster casts, all derived from the same face but completed over a period of months, are mounted above the target. Each face is contained within a wooden niche with an attached lid, which allows the four faces to be shut away.  The niche cuts off the faces below the eyes, making them eyeless and tightly held in the cramped space.

14.
The source for the androgynous face in the “Target with Four Faces” was female, a friend of the artist.

15.
Below the row of semi-closed faces is a painting of a target. The bullseye is blue, surrounded by concentric rings of yellow and blue, which are juxtaposed against a warm red ground. The medium used for the painting is encaustic — or pigment dissolved in warm, molten bees wax — over collage. Both the plaster casts and the encaustic surface are tactile. The painting is an object, a three-dimensional thing, but what in the real world does it reflect or signify?

16.
“Target with Four Faces” is a sculptural portrait, or figural relief, in which four imprisoned female faces are joined to, but distinct from, an anonymous, sexless body (the target) that in some sense is both seen and not seen. It is a broken figure that exists outside of any predetermined context: we literally cannot place it in a narrative.

17.
“Target with Four Faces” exists in the same physical space that we do: it is a mute, damaged thing made of two distinct parts (four faces in niches set above a target), a figural presence infused into a nameless quandary. The four faces are doubly blind — their eyeless faces can be covered over by the moveable lid and shut in further darkness — while the target is a stand-in for the body that also marks its absence.

“Target with Four Faces” is a passive object whose fate is controlled by others, which it cannot see. Its two joined parts are both anonymous and familiar. It exists blindly and helplessly on the brink of further darkness.

18.
“Target with Four Faces” was made while the artist was living in a loft on Front Street in Downtown New York. It was completed during the time that another artist, living in the same building, made “Bed” (1955), in which a pillow, sheet, and quilt are mounted onto a wood support.

The plaster cast of the face in “Target with Four Faces” mirrors and preserves the features of the subject’s face as a facsimile of the actual thing. In “Bed,” the artist used real things, smearing paint, red fingernail polish, and toothpaste onto a pillow, sheet, and quilt. The upper part of the painting (pillow and sheet) is in disarray and soiled with paint, some of which drips onto the quilt below.

19.
In both “Target with Four Faces” and “Bed,” the artists have introduced a female presence (plaster casts and red fingernail polish) into their work.

20.
The quilt in “Bed” is a grid of patterned sections of cloth.  The artist liked to organize his diverse images and materials into grids by placing one image or thing next to another. He never diverged from this way of arranging his images. In his silkscreen paintings, which he started in 1962, the images are oriented correctly. John F. Kennedy and Janis Joplin are never shown upside-down.

21.
In “Target with Four Faces,” along with the newspaper headline and the silhouette of the man, another collage fragment is visible, this time in the yellow ring sandwiched between the outer and inner blue rings, which features the words “Hotel” and “TETUAN.” He would have been given this collage fragment by the artist who made “Bed.”

22.
Between the fall of 1952 and the spring of 1953, the artist who made “Bed” stayed in Rome and traveled through North Africa with another artist. During this period, he completed three self-contained bodies of work: collages; small boxed assemblages and hanging “fetishistic” assemblages; and numerous photographs, including his well-known sequence, “Cy and Roman Steps (I, II, III, IV, V)” (1952). One of the collages he made contains ten identical labels reading “Hotel Bilbao; Generalismo, 7; Telefono 2106; TETUAN (Marruecos).”  The labels are neatly arranged, along with a strip of magenta fabric, and brightly colored orange panels.

In “Target with Four Faces,” the label advertising the Hotel Bilbao is collaged upside-down in the yellow ring, just above the circle’s diameter. If we are to go by where the artist placed the headline, “History and Biography,” and the silhouette of the man, we can assume that the positioning and the visibility of the hotel label is hardly arbitrary. By turning the printed slip upside down, he does something the other, older artist would never do.

“Target with Four Faces” is the first time the artist presented a broken representation of the human physique, as well as the first time he introduced the motif of sightlessness (a face with covered eyes) into his work. The monotypes of the American soldier are the most recent representations of someone who is covering his eyes and cannot see.

25.
The figure in “Target with Four Faces” and the American soldier in the monotypes are both devastated. It is this state — not the cause of it — that the artist is focused on. Both are embodiments of extreme vulnerability.

26.
The artist who made “Bed” used real things in his work; the condition of  those things is of secondary importance to him. The artist who made “Target with Plaster Casts” has made the condition of his sources a starting point, often using things that are recycled or damaged. These things may be the image of man inflicted with a disease, a faded watercolor of a young man holding an animal, a crumpled photograph of a man sitting on a bed, his head turned away, or fragments of a shattered  human body.

27.
In the monotypes of the American soldier, we see a broken form in which the interiors of the separate sections are dissolving

Jasper Johns, “Untitled (Leo Castelli)” (1984), encaustic on canvas, 13 1/4 x 10 1/2 inches (© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

28.
In “Target with Plaster Casts” and “Target with Four Faces” he laid the groundwork for what would follow. His broken representations of a human physique included a jigsaw puzzle of a man’s face, bodies in which a female head has been joined to a male body, a highway sign with the image of a skull on it above a faucet and two handles (a man’s genitals).

29.
In a letter dated October 27, 1818, John Keats told his friend Richard Woodhouse:

What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet [. ..]A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity — he is continually in and filling some other Body […] I have no nature.

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