PRINT March 1965

An Interview with Jasper Johns

Q. JASPER, FROM WHAT POINT IN YOUR LIFE would you date the beginnings of your career, your sense that you were an artist, or going to be an artist?

A. Going to be an artist since childhood. Until about 1953 when it occurred to me that there was a difference between going to be and being, and I decided I shouldn’t always be “going to be” an artist.

Q. And in 1953 were you then working in New York or were you still in the South?

A. I was in New York.

Q. Some of the earlier works such as the small green piece that’s in the showing at the museum, did you do that when you were in New York or outside of New York?

A. New York.

Q. Were you at Black Mountain? This has never been clear to me.

A. No.

Q. Do you recall the year you did the first flag?

A. ’54, but I’m not certain.

Q. Does it exist? It hasn’t been in any of the shows.

A. It was in the show at the Jewish Museum. It’s a large painting; it belongs to Philip Johnson. It’s in sort of bad shape; it tends to fall to pieces.

Q. Does it have bits of the collage paper or little photographs . . . does it have other materials coming through, such as the small one of 1955 that’s in the present show?

A. Nothing so obvious as that series of photographs. I suppose some of the type is visible. In a few places there are a few embossed papers which probably come through.

Q. Was there any iconographic significance in the material that showed through or were your thoughts essentially formal?

A. I think only in the instance say, where there are those photographs—that’s a very deliberate kind of thing clearly left to be shown, not automatically used, but used quite consciously. But generally, whatever printing shows has no significance to me. Sometimes I looked at the paper for different kinds of color, different sizes of type, of course, and perhaps some of the words went into my mind; I was not conscious of it.

Q. This is certainly the case with the book, the little painted book construction which you said was merely a book you weren’t about to read, but was exactly the shape you wanted, and had nothing to do with it being a specific book.

A. Right.

Q. But then we get to a little target such as Michael Blankfort’s small one of 1958 and it has always struck me as a marvelous bit of gratuitousness that the one looming bit of newspaper type that comes through near the center of it says “A very farsighted man.”

A. . . . I was not aware of that. (Laughing) That’s the first I heard of it.

Q. Were there historical artists whose ideas or work were involved in your thinking?

A. I think not. I think I had never organized any thinking, any of my own thinking, so that I don’t think other people’s thought was very interesting to me.

Q. What about the case with your own peers and contemporaries? The working relationship that you had with Bob Rauschenberg is spoken of quite a bit, and I assume there was a mutual working regard for one another’s activities at the time. Who beyond Rauschenberg, if anyone?

A. Personally, no one, I think, because I didn’t meet any people at that time, any artists, and so my contact was only public contact with work. I saw Rauschenberg’s work, and I saw Twombley’s work, perhaps a bit of Jack Tworkov’s work at that time in a studio situation, but most of the painting I saw was in galleries.

Q. You mentioned once that you admired Tworkov’s painting; was there some particular aspect of it?

A. I have admired his painting. I saw a good deal of his work and it was meaningful for me to see it and this work, of course, changes a great deal from piece to piece even within a very short time. One painting may be quite different from another.

Q. I would say this is true in your own work. It was very fascinating to me to see the three different paintings you had in progress in your studio in South Carolina. There they all were, being worked on close to the same moment, and yet some years from now, superficially we could place them at different moments of your career.

A. Yes.

Q. When did this sort of thing begin to happen, and do you feel that it’s an important part of your working way to go back and pick up images that began perhaps five, six or more years before? Is this something you would expect to be the case?

A. Well, sometimes it happens unconsciously that we return to something, some aspect of something which is done returns in another painting unconsciously. There’s another thing. In working, if you attempt to work in a way that changes, which I try to do, it can be exhausting at times and you may go back to something more familiar just as a rest. And then sometimes there is some deliberate reason for perhaps doing something that you had always meant to do and had never done.

Q. Your first show in New York was in 1958. I’ve often wondered if you chose the occasion for that to be your first show there or did circumstances choose it.

A. Circumstances. I guess around 1957, I had a good deal of work and I decided that I would like to show it; and there was no place that I wanted to show it because most of the galleries were involved in particular kinds of painting that I didn’t think I’d be happy to enter. I didn’t think I’d be happy to enter this kind of situation, the gallery situation. Then the only place I wanted to show was Betty Parsons who seemed to have no kind of . . . nothing that they were promoting, so I felt kind of free in that situation. Then I contacted Betty and she said she was on her way to Mexico and wouldn’t be back for six months. She said she had more artists in the gallery than she could take care of . . . she did this all very nicely, but . . .

Q. Had she not gone to Mexico, things might have been different for all of us.

A. Maybe, I don’t know. At any rate, she didn’t come down to see the paintings. There was no one else I wanted to see them. Then a painting of mine in some way got into a show at the Jewish Museum. Leo Castelli saw it and Leo, I guess, had just opened a gallery, and I had never been there, and he came to see the paintings and wanted to show them.

Q. Yes, that was the large green target that the Museum of Modern Art has. What sort of ideas led you from the flag to the target and some of the other images you then began working on? Did you see a kind of strain of a single idea?

A. Yes, I think so. The target seemed to me to occupy a certain kind of relationship to seeing the way we see and to things in the world which we see, and this is the same kind of relationship that the flag had. We say it comes automatically. Automatically you tend to do this, but you see that there are relationships which can be made and those seem to me the relationships that could be made between two images. They’re both things which are seen and not looked at, not examined, and they both have clearly defined areas which could be measured and transferred to canvas.

Q. They both exist on a flat surface.

A. Yes.

Q. Was this also the case when you began with a number painting as well?

A. I believe so, if I’m right, that the first number paintings were just single figures. And that seemed to me very much the same. Then I saw a chart. You know the grey alphabet painting? I saw a chart in a book that had that arrangement of the alphabet. Then I of course realized I could do the numbers that way too. But earlier than that, with the first numbers, I didn’t do every number and I didn’t work on them in any order and I deliberately didn’t do them all, so that there wouldn’t be implied that relationship of moving through things.

Q. Duchamp emphasizes the idea that his art works are idea-carrying. He’s often very unconcerned with how they look. To what extent has your painting at some particular point assumed idea-carrying qualities that weigh to a significant factor, along with making visual or formal choices?

A. My idea has always been that in painting the way ideas are conveyed is through the way it looks and I see no way to avoid that, and I don’t think Duchamp can either. To say that you don’t care how it looks suggests something that I think is not quite possible, if what you’re doing is making something to be looked at. Then, if it looks one way, it’s one thing, and if it looks another way, it’s another thing. But one thing is not another thing. I understand that if you have an idea for a picture and if you make a picture, and if you take certain characteristics of a picture or whatever and make another picture, that they will share something, there will be some information, perhaps, which is conveyed by either of them. But I think what is more interesting to me is the particular object encountered at any moment. Oh, that’s questionable, but I tend to think that the one object which is being examined is what’s important.

Q. One might paint a number—the number “2” for example—because one merely likes the way it looks in some way, or one might decide to paint the number “2” because in the abstract sense the idea of painting a number was interesting. At some point did you find yourself interested in the idea of the number as an abstract idea or did it remain the case as you described with the alphabet chart? You saw it and you liked the way it looked.

A. Well, I don’t understand what abstract sense can be implied. I don’t know what would be meant there; I’m certainly not putting the numbers to any use, numbers are used all the time, and what’s being done is making something to be looked at. I don’t know how to answer. I don’t want to insist upon making a beautiful object, which is not what I mean, but in making a painting, you work with what you see and what you do and the painting seems to me to be primarily concerned with those two things. The physical actions you take to make the painting, and the responses to looking at it.

Q. The work up through ’58 or so had a far more static quality. There was less movement in the imagery and so on, until suddenly you did devise “Circle” and “Shade.” Something different happened there, and I wondered what you might tell us about your thoughts, what went on in your work, or what led to this change? How would you characterize the change?

A. There was a change. I don’t think of it as drastic.

Q. Somehow looking at all the work together, I don’t either, which interested me very much. If I looked one day at the “Flag on Orange” and another day at “False Start,” they seemed to be two drastically different things, and yet seeing it all together was less of a change.

A. Well, of course, the “Flag on Orange” was involved with how to have more than one element in the painting and how to be able to extend the space beyond the limits of the image, the predetermined image. And then the problem, I think, was how to make a painting without having that kind of object at all.

Q. So this was the decision: to introduce from your point of view a more complex range of elements that would work together within the painting.

A. Right. It got rather monotonous, making flags on a piece of canvas, and I wanted to add something—go beyond the limits of the flag, and to have different canvas space. I did it early with the little flags with the white below, making the flag hit three edges of the canvas and then just adding something else. And then in the “Orange,” I carried it all the way around.

The early things to me were very strongly objects. Then it occurs that, well, any painting is an object, but there was I don’t know how to describe the sense alterations that I went through in doing this in thinking and in seeing. But I thought how then to make an object which is not so easily defined as an object, and how to add space and still keep it an object painting. And then I think in, say “False Start” and those paintings, the object is put in even greater doubt and I think you question whether it’s an object or whether it’s not.

Q. Then it would seem that a third stage was introducing actual objects into it in a very overt way. I was very struck by this in your recent work. What might have been the first work where this began? Of course, it’s implied a bit in “Shade.”

A. Well it’s in the targets with plaster casts and in the “Grey Canvas” it’s quite clear I think. I think if there was any thinking at all, or if I have any now, it would be that if the painting is an object, then the object can be a painting . . . and I think that’s what happened. That if on this area you can make something, then on this area you can make something.

Q. I wondered how you might characterize the greater art situation in New York, your relationship to it.

A. It is very busy . . . I think it’s difficult to make any kind of judgment there because it’s very complicated. Many levels are not publicly acknowledged. The best thing about it is that there are many people working and a great deal of work is being done. I think that’s what’s lively about it.

Q. Have you felt merely an increased liveliness or any kind of change in the character of the situation? I mean in the working art scene. Have you felt any change in that during the time you’ve been in New York?

A. I’ve never been very close to very many artists; I was very close to Bob Rauschenberg and during a certain period was very familiar with Jim Dine’s work and saw it being made. That’s always lively, being close at hand when things are being done rather than simply seeing things presented. But I’ve seen very little in that way; I’ve seen a good deal publicly but not really been involved with people who were working because I haven’t been there very much. I’ve been either in the South or out of the country. Sometimes one would like a reinforcement that comes from closely contacting someone else who is working, seeing what his responses to his own things are. But I haven’t been doing that in the last year very much.

Q. Are there any works that you’ve done that seem particularly germinal to you, or that seem to particularly achieve what you may have wanted of them?

A. I think the problem is more what to want rather than whether you get what you want. I mean, I think it’s easy to get what you want in painting. If you want something, you just make it. But I’m avoiding your question . . . Certain paintings are meaningful because they allow you to shift weight in a different way.

Q. In other words, you might have what could be considered a specific image, an image that’s open and could be shifted in format, handling, and so on?

A. No. I mean that some paintings involve elements which are not involved in other paintings and when those elements become involved then one is free from the boundaries of what one had been doing and can move. That kind of thing can happen either by dropping something, letting go of it, or by attaching something else, bringing something else in. For me, say a painting like “False Start,” offered certain possibilities that I had not had.

Q. Why did you call it “False Start?”

A. Because I was working on the painting and I didn’t know what to call it and it wasn’t like my other paintings, and one day I was sitting in the Cedar Bar and looked up at a print of a horse race which was called “The False Start,” and I said that was going to be the title of my painting.

Q. Some of your drawings . . . is this correct? . . . are sketches before the fact of something that will be achieved in painting. Is it true that there are those that are drawings after the fact?

A. Most are after. Only a couple, three or four, have been sketches or ideas which then were made into paintings, and were done with that intention. Generally the drawings have been made just to make the drawing, and the simplest way for me to do it was to base it on a painting which existed, although they generally don’t follow the painting very closely.

Q. One drawing that I had never seen before was called “Memory Piece.” It looks as though it’s diagrammed for a piece of sculpture—an object to be made.

A. Yes, it is; it’s never been made. I keep a sketch book and sometimes I do little sketches in that for ideas. I believe, I’m not certain, that I had sketches in the notebook trying to figure out how to do that piece. I may have done that drawing as a diagram for a carpenter who was going to make the cabinet, build a cabinet with drawers. But it never got made.

Q. The sculpture seemed to come at a time when a good deal of your art was based closely on some of your own personal, immediately accessible objects. Has there been a feed-back in some of the things you began to do in the sculptures into the sense of your painting? I felt that some of the things that you did, the painted bronzes and so on, began to, in one sense, influence some of the painting that you have done.

A. In what way do you sense that? In the use of objects in the paintings?

Q. I began to feel it a little bit in the case of the flashlight. It is not entirely a general thing. Flashlights look very different, one from the other, so that having done the flashlight, it would seem to be yours. The beer cans, something that you would have had around in the course of your own life, and the brushes and the Savarin can, and so on, seem very much yours, very closely identified.

A. Right out of the studio. They’d been sitting there a couple of years before I noticed.

Q. Exactly. Out of the studio. Particularly in a painting like “Studio,” where it is literally the imprint of your own studio door, certain qualities seem more closely identified with your own life, working from some general area to more personal things.

A. My only idea is that one ought to be able to use anything that one can see and any quality one can perceive. It’s difficult for me to just do that because, I don’t know, because I formed habits which only let in certain things or sometimes because the qualities simply are not visible, until a certain time. Suddenly you see something you have not seen. I don’t know for what reason, it’s clearly not something you’ve invented.

Q. The problem is then not really finding things that are hard to find, but suddenly recognizing what’s just there.

A. Yes, I think that, and also being able to use them, and just because they’re there doesn’t necessarily mean you’re about to put them in the painting. Also what happens is you form habits, ways of doing things, and you’re so used to moving your body in a certain way, and your mind as well, that you never think to do another kind of action which would give you a different result.

Q. I was thinking that one of the curious things about “Paint Brushes” is that they were in fact probably very much as we see them in the sculpture in bronze. In no other works, not even the beer cans, have you gone through all of the rather arduous process of creating them as a work of sculpture and bringing them right back to what is extraordinarily close to the way they actually were.

A. Well, I think this is part of it. You have a model, and you paint a thing to be very close to the model. Then you have the possibility of completely fooling the situation, making one exactly like the other, which doesn’t particularly interest me. (In that case, you lose the fact of what you actually have done.) I think what I hoped for was to get very close to that but to still have a sense of what the thing was, what it is. I like that there is the possibility that one might take the one for the other, but I also like that, with just a little examination, it’s very clear that one is not the other.

Walter Hopps