In Praise of Painting’s Ambiguity, Part 4

Jasper Johns’s art has been accused of being cool, detached, aloof, and remote; nothing could be farther from the truth.

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

I want to start with one of the most obvious facts about Jasper Johns’s painting, “Untitled” (2018), which is that the source is a photograph by the wartime correspondent Larry Burrows that originally appeared in an issue of the widely circulated periodical, LIFE Magazine (April 16, 1965).

In the Burrows photograph, Lance Corporal James Farley, overcome by grief at the combat death of his fellow soldier and friend, Lt. James Magel, hides his face as he cries uncontrollably. The photograph on the cover of the magazine, WITH A BRAVE CREW IN A DEADLY FIGHT, shows what led to Farley’s grief. He is in the open door of a helicopter with a jammed machine gun, yelling to his crew while Magel lies dying beside him.

This image is one of the few that Johns derived from the mass media. Unlike Andy Warhol, who famously depicted Hollywood stars as icons or brands, Johns chose a deflated male who, in his sorrow, has hidden his face from us. He is neither a hero nor an anti-hero. He is a faceless worker – in this case a soldier — whose name we know, but who has not become a celebrity, someone known by his face.

I want to ask the following questions before I proceed, as they have very much been on my mind these past few years. Can an artist of Johns’s stature be open to the world, or is his art so private that we can get almost nothing from it, as has been said of his work countless times? Or – perhaps on a gloomier note – is the only remaining task, for an artist working in the second decade of the 21st Century, to find a way to entertain viewers? Is this what it means to be a servant of the 1%?

On the painting’s lower right hand side, Johns has stenciled the date 2018, which is more than 40 years after the original photograph was first published. He has also stenciled the title, “Farley Breaks Down/After Larry Burrows” twice, once along the top of the painting and once along the bottom.

The title, which is broken into two horizontal rows, stacked one above the other, is divided by a vertical brown band — an extension of an empty shell casing — running from the painting’s top edge to its bottom, almost completely covering part of the title, so that we read: FARLEYB REAKSDOWN/AFTERLA RYBURROWS. One could say that the title itself is being broken down.

This is not the only place where letters are covered over. In the painting’s bottom right hand corner, the S in BURROWS partially covers the first two letters of the artist’s stenciled signature, J. JOHNS 18. We read, OHNS 18, which echoes the OWN/OW and OWN/ROWS of the bottom title. None of these overlaps or isolations seem arbitrary, but appear to refer to rows of tombstones, as I suggested in my previous article on this subject.

If we circle back to the figure of Farley, face down against a stack of footlockers, we might surmise that the artist is imagining his own death, but recognizes that he cannot actually see his transition from being to non-being.

If we consult the article in which Burrows’s photograph first appeared, we learn that he captioned it, “Farley Gives Way.” One reason that Johns might have titled his painting “Farley Breaks Down” is because it emphasizes what the artist is up to: he is anatomizing his source into a pattern of interlocking parts, where figure and ground begin to merge.

This is what he is doing formally, but is his intention purely formal? Is there something else driving him to break down the image? Focusing on the interlocking shapes suggested by the black-and-white photograph, he uses a palette dominated by greens, browns, and yellows — colors associated with the camouflage uniform worn by Farley, as well as with plants and earth.

While Johns uses the same source in a number of works done in different mediums, it is important to emphasize that each should be seen individually and that they are not variations on a theme. In the untitled monotype from 2015 using the same imagery, Johns does not stencil the title seen in the painting. One could deduce that the medium of monotype is not as conducive to stenciling, but that hardly seems to be the sole reason that the title is not present.

Johns’s use of what he has called “things – which are seen and not looked at – examined,” such as a flag, a bathtub, or flagstones, has led him to be characterized by M. H. Miller in The New York Times Style Magazine (February 18, 2019) as follows:

Since the mid-60s, Johns has been working with the same strange codex of symbols that seem to comprise a language that only Johns himself is fully fluent in.

The fact that Johns’s art is not swiftly reducible to easily consumable bits of meaning seems to irk people as well as lead to accusations of being cool, detached, aloof, and remote. The dilemma, of course, is that the “things” in Johns’s lexicon already exist; they are not private symbols.

And yet, he does not provide a conventional framework in which to read his “things.” The relationship between the “thing,” the material from which it is made, and the process used to make it present, as well as other “things” in the work, are all in play.

We must learn to read Johns’s works on our own, which runs counter to the behavior that our consumer culture expects of artists. It wants explanations, sound bites it can pocket. For the same reason, poets whose poems are not transparent and who refuse to explain the work are distrusted. Society wants poems full of well-said, commonplace truths, not works to puzzle over.

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

Another reason why critics and viewers resist Johns’s work is because it takes time to look at and consider: it isn’t fast. I suspect that many people resent this slowness because it implicitly criticizes a fast-paced lifestyle predicated on the consumption of the new.

At the same time, despite his use of a slowly growing codex of symbols, Johns does not make variations on a theme. His application of stain-like marks in the untitled 2015 monotype echoes the pattern found on Farley’s camouflage uniform, but again I don’t think the reason for doing this is purely formal.

For one thing, the stains and vacuoles of color are scattered across the work’s entire surface in no obvious order. They evoke natural forces, the effects of time and changing atmospheric conditions. Johns has linked the vulnerability of a work of art to that of the human body: neither is impervious to time.

One argument that has been repeatedly mounted against Johns is that he uses formal devices to obscure his intentions. As I see it, this by now familiar response suggests reluctance on the viewer’s part to fully engage with the possible meanings synonymous with the work.

We don’t want to “own” it — to cite the partial words stenciled onto the surface — or the inseparable “ows” (pain) it contains. We want the work to be about him, not us. We are not in pain, we tell ourselves, and we are wrong.

The other problem we seem to have with Johns’s work is that it does not accept that the social world and its mores are the dominant structure to accede to. Warhol did, as did many other artists associated with Pop Art. By rejecting the social world’s mores, with its emphasis on celebrity and material status, Johns turns his back on society’s value system, its denial of those existing on the margins. This also means that no matter what we know about his biography, he never identifies himself as a victim in his work.

It is no secret that in our postmodern information age, society wants art that is shiny and distracting and/or entertaining, rather than encounters that invite introspection. If, as some theorists have claimed, all experience is mediated and second-hand, then looking inward does not even exist as a possibly, which implies that one’s awareness as an isolated individual is no longer regarded as important.

In a society devoted to progress, the last thing we want is to feel helpless or hopeless about effecting meaningful change. It is better to practice yoga and eat healthy foods than recognize that vulnerability is our inheritance and our legacy. We want to believe that anything in the capitalist system, including everlasting life, can be fabricated.

While many observers have characterized Johns’s work as a puzzle all but impossible to solve, I regard this as a positive thing, not a negative one.

When all the parts fit together, there is no ambiguity, nothing for us to reflect upon in that place between contemplation and bewilderment. The works are seen as products without impediments, commodities to be consumed by the viewer, another designated tourist site in the flowing circuitry of art.

From the beginning of his career, Johns has made compositions that are layered and made of discrete parts. This is the case with “Flag” (1954-55), with its strata of semi-transparent encaustic, newspaper collage, and photographs. How the parts and layers fit together, but don’t immediately add up into something consumable, is deliberate. It interrupts the capitalist credo of production, consumption, and the quick dispensing of waste.

Another of Johns’s seemingly self-evident preoccupations is this: what are the limits of seeing? I don’t think this is purely an optical concern. Has Farley buried his face because he has seen death? Has the death of a fellow soldier made him more aware of his own inescapable future? More to the point, what does it mean to be a hero in an unwinnable war? What does it mean to die violently to safeguard industry’s access to material resources?

Is Johns aloof to all this, or is he a witness? Does his success protect him from becoming a servant to more powerful forces? Does it save him from chaos? Or has he found ways to remain open and continue bearing witness to whatever is headed his way, even if it means making art that is considered obscurantist, secretive, not easily absorbed into the circulation of agreeable images?

Might not Johns’s move from quickly recognizable images, such as the American flag, toward a segmented interpretation of a photo from LIFE Magazine, be evidence of this awareness?

Might his breaking down and layering of information, as he first did in “Flag,” be about what it takes to be a witness? Life is not smooth. Unexpected disruption is synonymous with society and progress, and disharmony is inextricable from everyday life. Johns knows that life doesn’t add up, and to propose that it does is to contribute to society’s delusional sense of reality.

We look but we do not examine. When will we be able to see what is right in front of us? Or are we burying our faces, like Farley, overwhelmed in a world that is too much with us? To continue to regard Johns’s art as hermetic and aloof is to refuse his invitation to begin scrutinizing what is before our eyes.

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