Jasper Johns, “Flag” (1954-55), encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on wood (3 panels), 41 ¼ x 60 ¾ inches (108.8 x 153.3 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Philip Johnson in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr (1973), photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Illinois, © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York, © Jasper Johns / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York,

Jasper Johns’s “Flag” (1954-55) is both whole and broken. It is whole because we see an entire American flag with 13 alternating red and white stripes (seven red and six white). A blue canton with 48 white stars is nestled in the upper left-hand corner. Nothing about the flag has been altered but everything has been changed into pigment, wax, and paper. At the same time, the flag is made up of three physical sections fitted tightly together. If we look closely, we can see the seams separating the parts.

Jasper Johns began breaking things at the beginning of his career. One motivation seems to be a need to discover how things work. Another seems to be a need to understand how things are broken. I don’t think these interests are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think in Johns’s work, the way a thing works and the way it is broken are often entangled, because that is how the artist has come to view it.

If we assume that the American flag — a flat piece of colored cloth — is the sole subject of Johns’s painting, “Flag,” does that mean that it is merely about painting’s two-dimensionality? Or might it also be about the ideal of an indivisible nation that the flag symbolizes? What are we to make of the fact that the white stars against the blue canton are individually made of cut paper that is partially covered by encaustic? Do they evoke unity, or isolation?

Constructed by the artist’s hand rather than by a machine, Johns’s stars are separate entities with common properties (all are white and have five points, for example), yet each is unique. If we think of the stars in the American flag as representing us, which in some sense they do, might they not also underscore our isolation from each other, our fundamental loneliness?

At night, when we go to sleep, aren’t we passing through the night alone, essentially cut off from others? Isn’t having a dream – which is the source of “Flag,” as the artist has told us many times – proof of our solitude? Doesn’t each of us dream alone?

Looked at another way, do the red and white encaustic stripes covering a field of collaged newspaper clippings imply that patriotism obfuscates the news or, at the very least, colors how we read it?

Jasper Johns, “Target with Plaster Casts” (1955), encaustic and collage on canvas and wood with objects, 52 x 44 ¼ inches (132.1 x 112.4 cm), Collection David Geffen, Los Angeles (May 1993), photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Illinois, © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York, © Jasper Johns / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In a conversation between Jasper Johns and Roberta Bernstein that touched on his use of plaster fragments in early works, such as “Target with Plaster Casts” and “Target with Four Faces” (both 1955)”, the artist stated:

Any broken representation of the human physique is touching in someway; 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.

If we take Johns’s statement as a guideline for his aesthetic choices, we are compelled to consider that he (as a witness) is more interested in experiences that disturb or, perhaps a better way to put it, interfere with his response; his art then becomes the mind’s attempt to make sense of the body’s reaction, a reconstruction of a perception.

We see the flag, but have we looked at it as closely as Johns has? Have we considered the possibility that the American flag, with its field of stars, can suggest how irrevocably isolated we are from one another and that, inevitably, any and every national flag is, in fact, a lie?

By preserving and replicating the American flag in collage and encaustic, was Johns primarily concerned with painting’s flatness or with rejecting the subjectivity of the Abstract Expressionists, as so many have claimed? Do these formal motivations also extend to “Target with Four Faces” or “Target with Plaster Casts?” Or was something else on his mind when he made plaster casts of faces and body parts and placed them above a “target?”

Isn’t he rather making – as he points out – a “broken physique?” Isn’t that a very different proposition from the works by other artists derived from the American flag? Might not, in the “Target” paintings, his joining of four partially hidden faces to a target (an absent or surrogate body) be a key to all of his work — a broken physique that anticipates all the others that follow, right up to the present? Is there anything constant or recurring about such representations? How might we read the changes that occur in them over the years?

Jasper Johns, “Target with Four Faces” (1955), encaustic and collage on canvas with objects, 29 ¾ x 26 inches (75.6 x 66 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull (1958), photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Illinois, © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York, © Jasper Johns / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“Target with Four Faces” exists in the same physical space that we do: it is a mute, damaged thing made of two distinct parts, head and body, a figural presence infused with a nameless quandary. It is a sculptural portrait, or figural representation, in which four imprisoned faces are joined to, but distinct from, a body (the target) that in some sense is both seen and not seen. The four faces are doubly blind — their eyeless faces can be covered over and shut in further darkness — while the target is a stand-in for the body that also marks its absence.

In other words, “Target with Four Faces” is a passive object whose fate is controlled by others, which it cannot see. At the same time – and this is what I think is remarkable and disturbing about the work — it joins two things, which are both anonymous and familiar, to create a specific human physique. In such a light, Johns’s broken figure exists outside of any predetermined context: we literally cannot place it in a narrative. It exists blindly and helplessly on the brink of further darkness.

In “Target with Plaster Casts,” Johns once again joins sculptural objects to an encaustic painting of blue and yellow concentric rings – a target – juxtaposed against a warm, red ground. He has attached to the top of the target a wooden, shelf-like structure containing nine niches, each with its own hinged lid. The second niche is empty, and an unidentifiable animal bone has been placed in the ninth, while the other seven contain a plaster cast of a body part (a foot’s instep and toes, a hand, an eyeless face, plus a penis, an ear, a male nipple, and an undifferentiated lump of flesh). Each body part is painted a distinct color.

We have one body but – like “Flag” – we are neither unified nor whole, ever. The empty compartment signifies incompleteness, while the unidentifiable lump of flesh conveys incomprehension. We can never truly know who we are because something is always missing from our understanding and something else is beyond our grasp. We are haunted by our incompleteness.

The eyeless face, flanked by the empty niche and the hand, means that this shattered figure cannot see, that it is at the mercy of whomever can open or close the lid. As with “Target with Four Faces,” “Target with Plaster Casts” resists being located in a narrative, which ultimately would be reductive. This, I think, is Johns’s real genius: he engages our attention in multiple, complex ways that cannot be summed up in a tidy account. He gives us something that we cannot fully account for, and which initially disturbed him: a broken representation of the human physique.

Jasper Johns, “Untitled” (1988), encaustic on canvas, 48 3/8 x 60 3/8 inches (122.9 x 153.4 cm), Collection of Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz, New York (December 1988), photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Illinois, © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York, © Jasper Johns / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Despite all the changes that Johns’s work has undergone since the mid-1950s, he repeatedly returns to the theme of brokenness. Between 1983 and ’88, he derived many of the motifs from the bathroom of his house in Stony Point, New York, where he lived for many years. In the last ones in the group, “The Bath” and “Untitled“ (both 1988), the artist places the tub, faucet, and flanking handles in the middle of the composition, rising up from bottom edge. The wall above the bathtub then becomes a kind of mirror for the tub’s occupant. We are therefore looking at a quasi-portrait, but whose? Is it of the artist sitting naked in the tub? Or is there more to it than that?

The central section of “The Bath” incorporates a rendering in outline of the wretched, boil-covered figure slumping in the lower left-hand corner of the “Temptation of Saint Anthony” panels of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516), a multi-part painting the artist first saw when he traveled to Switzerland for an exhibition of his work.

Johns has rotated Grünewald’s afflicted figure so that the faucet and handles of the bathtub are directly beneath its head, an alignment that persuades us to read the fixtures as his genitalia.

Made during the AIDs crisis, which dominated the decade, many writers have associated the white dots on the upper half of the figure, meant to evoke the boils in Grünewald’s original, with the physical effects of the incurable disease, often in the form of Kaposi’s sarcoma — and by extension, the sexual orientation of the artist. I do not believe, however, that this association is the only one that should be made.

To the left and right of the submerged figure (and “taped” to the blue wall above the tub) are two sections of Pablo Picasso’s painting “Straw Hat with Blue Leaf” (1936), which is inexplicably split into two vertical slices, with the left half on the right side of the wall and the right half to the left.

Jasper Johns, “The Bath” (1988), encaustic on canvas, 48 ¼ x 60 ¼ inches (122. 6 x 153 cm), Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland, acquired with a contribution from the friends of the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Museum of Contemporary Art (1988), photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Illinois, © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York, © Jasper Johns / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In his painting, Picasso has collapsed a woman’s head and torso into a rather grotesque shape: the left eye caps a breast-like protuberance; the right eye juts in the opposite direction, becoming the “nipple” of another breast-like shape; the toothless mouth can be read as the woman’s vagina.

There is something both monstrous and comic about Picasso’s extreme distortions. The woman’s misshapen head/body is connected to a vase-like shape, which rests on a platform, suggesting that Picasso’s woman is actually a sculpture on a pedestal — a vessel as well as a head or bust. She can also be seen as a figure in which the artist has collapsed animal body and thinking mind (or head) into one bulging form. In his treatment of Picasso’s imagery, Johns innovates with the medium of encaustic by softening the wax surface with a heating element until the woman’s profile melts and drips.

“The Bath” is set in a suspended, fragmented world in which everything is submerged, dissolving, or about to overflow. The faucet is on, and water (wax) is emptying into the unseen tub. On a fundamental level, the painting is of person sitting in a tub and sweating, but is it also a self-portrait? If so, then a woman’s head has been attached to a male body (echoing the use of the female head in the presumptive self-portrait, “Target with Four Faces”) just as it has been attached, uncomfortably, to the sides of the Grünewald figure. It is, to use Johns’s words, a broken representation of a human physique. What does the joining of a woman’s head to a man’s body suggest about identity — his or ours?

By selecting preexisting “things,” or what could be called factual certainties, for his motifs, Johns is able to attain the opposite, a domain of uncertainties, which is why many regard him as hermetic. He gives us things that exist, but he does not tell us what we are supposed to see in them. He makes us responsible for our looking, which is not necessarily something we wholeheartedly embrace. Here, we might remember what the poet John Keats wrote in a letter sent to his brothers, dated December 21, 1817:

I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

For Johns, factual certainties, such as the American flag or a plaster cast of a body part, enable him to dwell in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,” and not reach after “fact,” which would be redundant. Even when there is a biographical trace in Johns’s work — for example, that the site of “The Bath” is the room where the artist actually takes a bath — we must resist the obvious conclusion, which is that the painting is about him.

Contrary to what we might think, the painting does not point back at the artist. Rather, it simultaneously implicates and does not implicate him. It is as much about us as it is about him, which is why we are invited to complete it without his guidance. This is the pleasure that Johns gives us. He does not tell us what to see or think. He shows what seeing and thinking can be.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...