EssaysWeekend

In Praise of Painting’s Ambiguity, Part 3

Jasper Johns breaks down the image of a broken man.

Jasper Johns, “Untitled” (2015), monotype on Rives BFK paper, 40 3/8 x 31 1/2 inches, © Jasper Johns / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I want to further explore the statement Jasper Johns made to Roberta Bernstein, which I mentioned in my related essay last week. First, let me cite it again:

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.

Johns’s statement runs counter to the commonly shared view that he is cool and aloof, and that, in his work from 1954-55 to the early 1980s, his primary concern was with formal issues.

Since the early 1980s, after he said he “dropped his reserve,” his subsequent refusal to say what his work is about has led to him being judged as hermetic, as someone given to hiding something from the viewer. Instead of regarding his silence as a gift, we want him to tell us what to see and think.

Here, we should consider some of the words that Johns used in his statement: touching, upsetting, and disturbed. Think of what he says about reacting viscerally to an image: “one’s image of one’s own body is disturbed […].” These words have more to do with the eruption of inchoate feelings rather than with formal issues. At the same time, the person who spoke these words – all of which convey vulnerability – also stated:

I’m interested in things which suggest the world rather than express the personality. I’m interested in things which are rather than in judgments.

While these two quotes might initially seem at odds with each other, I believe there is an underlying connection between them, which has to do with a point Johns makes to Bernstein, about how “upsetting” it is to see “broken representations of the human physique.” Isn’t a broken body part of the way things are? Don’t they suggest the cruelties of fate?

Jasper Johns, “Untitled” (2015),m onotype on Sommerset Velvet Cream paper, 37 3/8 x 29 7/8 inches, © Jasper Johns / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It would seem that some part of Johns’s work comes from the perspective of being a witness or observer – that he is touched or disturbed by something he experienced. His reaction – and what he does with it – has nothing to do, however, with expressing his personality. Rather, Johns is interested in the disturbing “thing” and what it might expose about everyday reality and the passing of time.

Whatever the source – a plaster cast of a woman’s face, Matthias Grünewald’s depiction of a fevered, boil-ridden creature, a crumpled photograph of Lucian Freud sitting on a bed, or a magazine photograph of an American helicopter crewman taken during the Vietnam War – Johns’s motifs refers to a preexisting, concrete thing that can be defined as a shared experience rather than a private one.

Because this thing already exists in reality, he sees it as “suggest[ing] the world rather than express[ing] the personality.” Johns’s statement, in which he repeatedly uses the pronoun “one” to denote an unspecified individual, implies that he means both himself and others, that what he believes he shares with others is the innate capacity to be “disturbed” by a “broken representation of a human physique.” A person who is detached or remote – who is all intellect – is unlikely to either make such a statement or express this viewpoint. Just because Johns doesn’t wear his sensitivity on his sleeve doesn’t mean he isn’t sensitive.

As I have stated previously, Johns’s “broken representation of the human physique” is a motif that recurs throughout his work, spanning both the early so-called formal period and the later, so-called personal period.

In the early years, the “broken representations” are the four eyeless faces in “Target with Four Faces” and the variously colored body parts in “Target with Plaster Casts” (both 1955), the grotesquely stretched-out faces of the Study for “Skin” drawings done in 1962, and the seven wax casts of body parts, reinforced with fabric and wire, that are attached to the rightmost section of the four-panel painting, “Untitled” (1972).

In the later period, after Johns has “dropped his reserve,” he cites the broken physique in such images as the diseased male body found in the “Temptation of St. Anthony” panel of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516); a Cubist portrait by Pablo Picasso portrait; and a featureless face holding a lemur in “After Holbein” (1993). In his most recent group of works, he has been working his way through a motif based on John Deakins’s photograph of Lucian Freud and a Larry Burrows photograph of an emotionally shattered American soldier that appeared in LIFE Magazine (April 16, 1965).

Jasper Johns, “After Holbein” (1993), encaustic on canvas, 32 ½ x 25 5/8 inches, Private Collection, Switzerland; photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Illinois, © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York, © Jasper Johns / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“Broken” is one of the key words and/or concepts to consider when looking at Johns’s work. I am taking the idea of “broken” in the largest sense: from broken representations to representations of brokenness. This is because, in the series Regrets, which was based on Deakins’s photograph of Freud, as well as the multiple works based on Burrows’s photograph of the soldier — Lance Corporal Jim Farley — Johns turned away from configuring broken representations to selecting depictions of men who have averted or buried their faces. The men in the images he chose strike us as broken, especially in the case of Farley.

Although Johns worked with the image of Farley before he embarked on the Regrets series, he considered the works he had derived from it to be failures. This is what he told Julie Belcove in an article, “Artist Jasper Johns on the Process Behind His Monotypes,” which appeared in The Wall Street Journal (February 9, 2016):

When I visited Johns before Regrets made its public debut at MoMA in 2014, he told me he’d made an earlier attempt at a similar subject. He was characteristically loath to reveal anything. “I don’t know if I want to tell you about this,” he began. “I have another photograph from a completely different source, which I have tried to use as the basis of drawings, none of which has come off to my satisfaction. A similar mood is conveyed, and it also has to do with the face being buried, I think in the arm, but nothing to do with the art world.” He broke into one of his rare but hearty laughs. “I had to put the other away as a failure.”

Although these men deliberately obscured their faces in their arms, their blindness shares something with the plaster casts in “Target with Four Faces,” the stretched-out faces in the Study for “Skin” drawings of 1962, the startled knight with his visor clamped down over his face, which Johns first adapted from Grünewald for “Perilous Night” (1982), and the featureless faces he included in the two untitled paintings from 1987. as well as “The Bath” (1988).

Eyelessness, or not seeing, is one of the artist’s recurrent preoccupations. What is it that we are blind to? What are the limits of seeing? Why does Johns keep referring to this condition? And does it change over time?

Twenty-five years after Johns finished the paintings in his “Bathtub” suite, his series Regrets was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (March 15–September 1, 2014); it contained paintings, drawings, and prints. All of the works were based on a crumpled photograph of Lucian Freud, taken by John Deakin — one of a series commissioned by Francis Bacon for his triptych, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969), which Johns first saw in the Christie’s catalogue announcing the auction of the triptych. We know from his conversation with Belcove that he was already open to an image of a man burying his head in his arm, given his exploration of the Burrows photograph, despite his dissatisfaction with his work.

Of the 10 Deakin photographs reproduced in the catalogue’s two-page spread, the only one that doesn’t show Freud’s face is the one that caught Johns’s eye. It depicts a man sitting on a bed; turned away from the camera, he has buried his face in the crook of his arm. The positioning of the head and arm might suggest someone who has laid his head down and fallen asleep, but that is not the case.

Jasper Johns, “Untitled” (2018), encaustic on canvas, 78 x 60 inches, © Jasper Johns / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As mentioned above, the artist began the Regrets series after he had abandoned the drawings based on photojournalist Larry Burrows’s image of the 21-year-old James Farley, deeming them failures. Farley, who was the crew chief/door gunner on a helicopter during the Vietnam War, had just returned from a mission, devastated by what he had experienced. Burrows’ photograph depicts Farley sprawled across an uneven surface — a stack of metal cases — in a position somewhere between lying down and sitting up. Like the artist Lucian Freud, Farley has buried his head in his arm.

What strikes me about Johns’s response is the way he further breaks down the image of a broken man. Although it is never explicitly stated in the works derived from the photograph of Farley – as that is not Johns’s way – this broken man registers Johns’s attentiveness to the defeated state of masculinity; they also seem to implicitly suggest that society is employing outmoded models and measures to define manliness.

The image that disturbed Johns is that of a weeping soldier who has turned away from the camera and whose face cannot be seen: on one level he is the opposite of a conventionally brave hero, a male version of a weeping woman.

In a number of works from this series Johns has stenciled the words, “FARLEY BREAKS DOWN/AFTER LARRY BURROWS,” altering the caption that appeared with the photograph in LIFE: “Farley Gives Way.” The change is significant because Johns is calling attention to the subject (a soldier breaking down), to his own response to the photograph (he is breaking the image down into different vacuoles of green), and to what the man himself cannot witness (how his body will break down after he dies).

In an untitled work from 2018, he repeats the phrase across the top and bottom edges of the painting. In the upper part, “DOWN” and “ROWS” are isolated from the words preceding them. Is Johns referring to the visitor in a cemetery looking down long rows of headstones? While you might not be able to say yes with any certainty, I don’t think you can say no with any more certainty. We are left with this reverberation.

In the two lines of stenciled letters along the bottom, the words “OWN” and “OWS” are isolated. How might we read this pairing, which conveys an inchoate pain that is never specifically expressed? Does the pain and suffering belong only to us (“OWN OWS”) or is it something we must acknowledge, or “own” (“OWN OWS”). It is an ambiguity worth contemplating.

In many of the works, Johns mirrors the weeping soldier with a Farley in reverse. A wide vertical band separates the figure and his mirror image. Extending from each side of the band is one half of a heart shape: this is where Farley and his mirror-opposite have placed their heads. The band and split heart both separate and join them.

In his drawings done in ink on plastic, the ink is not absorbed but pools on the surface, eventually drying. Relying on a process that transfers drops of ink onto the plastic, Johns breaks down the figure into vacuoles of different hues of green. What might this state of decomposition mean? Aren’t the dried stains of ink residues of colored dust?

Might not these stains evoke Farley’s hidden tears? Or a desiccated corpse? Johns’s objective detachment and use of preexisting images offsets the morbidity and sensationalism that  is often synonymous with the subject of what happens to our body after we shuck off our mortal coil.

Johns looks at death as a process and does not avert his eyes. He cannot witness his own death, but with each drop of ink he can place himself in proximity to the process.The multiple readings his detachment offers are what disturb and touch us.

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