PRINT November 1967

Jasper Johns: “The Colors”; “The Maps”; “The Devices”.

THE STRANDS OF JASPER JOHN’S activity as they interlaced in 1959 are extremely complex. Belonging to this year, for example, are Shade, False Start, Jubilee, Two Flags, Black Target, Highway, Thermometer, and Device Circle. If we look ahead, he was not to finish Figure 5 until 1960, and Good Time Charley until 1961. Clearly, then, the standards of continuity which would judge some works of art to be stragglers at a given moment, and others premature arrivals, do not apply in this instance. For the processes of hybridization and deliberate mismating are the control factors in an outlook which simply does not organize itself by any modulating line or overt transition. Rather, Johns is so little given to sentimentalizing his motifs, or bothered by repetition, that he can push them through the maze of his various strategies like so many esthetic pawns. Permutation is the only guidepost in that merry-go-round which is his stylistic evolution. Just as any single image might be reformulated endlessly within one picture (Gray Numbers,1958), so, too, whole thematic entities are constantly reincarnated in alien—or seemingly alien—packaging. As a result, form and content have none of the usual organic, causative relationship, or even appropriateness of style (what was once called “decorum” in neoclassic theory). The components of a Johns picture may appear just as arbitrary as they may look justified. For the artist’s involvement is not with the intensity with which any presence can be maintained, but with his resourcefulness in altering contexts so that familiar presences are undermined, along with any expectation that he be consistent. Because he withholds his engagement precisely where one anticipates it, he eludes the accusation of being either self-derivative or eclectic. (The only obvious criterion by which one can measure his success or failure in conventional terms is legibility, as, for example, where it is so sadly lacking in the “0 through 9” series of 1961.) In the end, Johns’s indifference to anything but intellectual dismantling and realignment affirms a new dimension in the way an artist can develop. He moves ahead by programmatically revolving.

In this respect, False Start is a remarkable introduction to a fresh set of problems, not at al belied by its self-deprecating title (which was coincidentally suggested by a horse-racing printing a bar). Paint strokes have been distributed in a sequence of “burst” forms, their energy tautly flung out, like blunted and broken spokes. These, in t urn, are given explicit chromatic identities, so that they become color patches—of red, yellow, blue—seeming to pop all over the surface in cool and warm interactions. But it is impossible to say that this is a distinctly warm or cool painting, a deep or shallow space, a controlled or abandoned composition—for the reason that all contrasts are allocated an equal play so as to neutralize one another. An agitated picture speaks only of a consciously fabricated impasse, while even the overall impression of combustion implies merely an imminent dissolution.

So far the situation is strange enough. Strong oppositions have not led to any pictorial decisiveness. Even more striking, the irritation of this dilemma has been stepped up by the mischievous mislabeling of the patches by stenciled color names. The word “red,” applied in yellow, identifies a blue patch. But these labels serve as the staccato integument for a “frustrated” underpainting. Not only do they affirm a surface to which no other element gives as much credibility, but they reject the idea that an abstract picture must be considered strictly from a visual point of view.

Johns might say, rationally but unrevealingly, that he could not label a color in its own hue, because then the label would be invisible. Of the alternatives that were presented, he availed himself of a great many. Blue and orange, to be sure, are designated, and are set off by their complements; but all other areas comprise a riot of illogical combinations. False Start, therefore, is a tissue of conflicts between what is read and what is seen, in which the mind is bid to fuse that which the eye has no difficulty in distinguishing.

Much here obviously concerns an underlining of the truth that signs are not the most accurate designations of received impressions. René Magritte had already shown, in his The Wind and the Song of 1929 (picturing a pipe labeled “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), that an object and its representation cannot, strictly speaking, be referred to by the same word. He emphasized the fiction of the art of painting by announcing the difference between two sets of facts. Johns heightens the same problem by doing away with representation, and yet equating the included verbal statement with an actual sensuous element: the word “red” may be looked upon as merely a new container of the color orange. False connections, therefore, are reversible in a triple play, but are no less false or true because of that. Such is the epistemological provocation of False Start.

Another is its perspective on chance. Acknowledging the range of terms of which this painting is an illustration—black and white, the primaries, and a few secondary colors (orange, violet, green)—an independent pattern of labeling them can be ramified to suggest the perfectly accidental or gratuitous. Like schematic after-images, the labels tumble disruptively yet consistently through one’s consciousness: their principle of operation known, their particular encounters with “reality” unpredictable. Occasionally, some of the lettering gets blotted by a color spasm, in literal yet random testimony of the pressure generated between two concepts. More rarely still, a spectral label almost “goes out” against its background, an apparent victim of their common hue and value (the word “green” applied in blue on a blue field). These are, after all, the fortunes of chromatic war.

If one hesitates to accept this interpretation in the end, it is because the pictorial forces at work are too purposeful and concerted. In regard to this picture, an ingenious proposal that its color treatment has a symbolic value has been made by Rosalind Krauss:

The brightest, purest red on the canvas is labeled “orange,” while colors from yellow to blue are designated as “red”. . . . The counterpoint between labels and colors spells out one’s experience of color in this or any similarly “painterly” work. That is, one is never made to feel the absolute redness or blueness of a color when it appears, but senses it instead through infinite shiftings and modulations as it descends the value scale to recede in shadow. . . . By means of the color-names and their shifting relationship to the pure colors they identify, Johns points up the ironic dissipation of color put to the service of modeling illusionistic space.1

Granted, she says, that we can’t take the labeling literally; but we can still view it as a disclaimer of the inevitable compromises of his own coloring. Colors are punctuated by differing hues which necessarily signal a decrease in saturation and a change in value. Theoretically, Johns would be quite capable of this plausible, even attractive, conceit.

But the circumstances, I think, do not confirm it. Aside from the fact that Johns would never confuse a symbol with a sign, he is neither interested nor uninterested in preserving color “purity,” which is a notion of current abstract painting quite removed from his own art. Instead, he predicates his art on the conviction that there is no “purity”—not the remotest chance of it on any level. It is a point of view which allows him to stereotype radically the components of his art. Because he is neither concerned with qualities nor sensuous interactions, except insofar as they body forth ideas, his is perhaps the most intellectualized formulation of color in this century. Warding off all constructive, decorative, emotive, or sensuous functions, his palette gains its potency by embodying his mental image of color. For once, an artist simply asserts what colors are, not what they can be or have been—or even how they work. His hues, therefore, do not come together to “make” a picture, nor do they quite lie around, unassimilated within it. They are stripped of most formal relations, if not of material circumstances. Yet even his denials affirm chromatic presence in a fresh way. You do not ask whether that yellow patch is red, as the label says, but if in the unlikely event you do, the yellow is affirmed and the red (of the lettering) acknowledged, but not the connection implied.

Jubilee (1959) lacks the cerebral sizzle of its predecessor, False Start, but since it takes all the preoccupations of that picture and subjects them to grisaille, it is a far more subtle creation. Drained of color, it whispers of the spectrum by those fill-ins or proxies of sensations—words. But surely two other conditions are referred to by this painting. One is that we see even black and white in color, our vision being color-sensitive. (Disturbingly enough, actual purple, green, blue, red, even the American flag, are surreptitiously camouflaged by the oily foliage.) The other is that certain greys are said to have a chromatic implication which, in point of fact, is very true of his earlier paintings, especially the “Disappearance” series. The emphasis has now shifted from verbal denial to evocation of what can be seen. A more consistent disjunction of associations from appearances produces only a greater pictorial harmony.2

During a period such as that of the creation of these two pictures, there were endless possibilities for interesting variations. Coinciding idiomatically with the False Start-Jubilee pairing are Numbers in Color, Thermometer, and Painting with Two Balls. These last two are combine paintings which juxtapose a bravura handling of Johns’s hypothetical coloring with objects that register, or at least make graphic, the ostensible “action” of the brushwork. As the labels were to the color patches a perverse reinforcement of chromatic essence, so the balls are to the surrounding facture wedged and immobilized artifacts that throw painterly turbulence into greater relief. Little difference does it make that this is an outright charade of invisible pressures. The suggestion has been put, and there it remains, with a straight-faced implausibility.

But, in a larger sense, to understand False Start and Jubilee is to have blocked in the necessary background for a comprehension of the succeeding “Map” paintings. The latter are like sibling offspring of the former, partaking of the familial paradox, but now pictorially more complex, directive, and representational. Specifically, the labels identify properly American states, and the brushwork takes on an explicitly landscape openness—something that was barely suggested earlier. It hardly needs to be added, however, that the juxtaposition of map and stroke contradicts cartographic standards at the same time that it contradicts the natural subject matter of outdoor painting. Brought together here, they irrevocably scramble the one association they might each have referred to separately: experience of the American place. Yet Johns is after bigger game. He slurs many of his previous conceptions, the equation of emblem and picture field, the mechanistic perpetration of chance devices, verbal and pictorial interplay, in order to arrive at imagery on the far side of the conventional. Due to their great scale and floridity, if nothing else, the map paintings are pictures in the grand heroic manner. More closely than ever before, Johns approaches overt cliché rather than the cipherlike commonplace. The key to the series—that is, to its individual failures and successes—seems to me to depend on the coherence of scale.

If one views the “maps” in the ironic contexts invited by Johns’s previous pictures, then scale becomes a very entertaining element. With one movement of the wrist he can slide from Oklahoma through Kansas into Missouri. And with merely a few strokes, he obliterates most of California, Arizona, Utah, and all of Nevada. Compared to the inflated rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, this is demoniacal power indeed. It would be more relevant, though, to imagine him playing with the notion of measurement, in which the locked-in diagrammatic “in scale” dimensions of map images are contrasted with the virtually gratuitous dimensions of painterly gestures, the two being mutually usurped. There is a standoff between microcosmic compression and macrocosmic expansion, in which pictorial space is uniquely redefined as a sort of exploded world—yet totally opposite in spirit to the romantic, limitless cosmos of Pollock.

But in formal rather than conceptual terms, scale is still another broker of the imagination. The three paintings in the series can be estimated, or better, gauged, by the proportion of their paint units to the map image on the one hand, and the picture area on the other. Here, the Map in the Museum of Modern Art (1961) betrays such an indifference to geography that the United States is swamped in shrill yellows and reds and light blues, without any compensating adjustment of stroke to image. It is an unraveled, acrimonious picture. Conversely, the wax and collage Map of 1962–63, in the Weisman collection is a rather tamed grisaille, in which boundary lines are overly respected, and tonality changes suggest only orthodox modeling. Too much of its rhythm has gone softly into picking out shapes of the states and not enough to co-ordinating the varying range of touches with the overall facade. Finally, the Heller collection Map (1963) establishes a dialogue between manual energy and passivity which becomes truly dramatic. “Events” taking place on the surface have been improvised, in vast yet integrated jumps of scale, to move the eye rapidly in and around picture and image. (Consider the activation of perimeters or the insight of juggling huge grey and blue swaths on the left with the red and yellow blocks on the right.) In its filtering and mottling of colors in layers, and in its diffident switchings of plane, the Heller Map is an inspired and eloquent stalemate.3

In contrast to the “Maps,” which go their separate way circumscribed by a specific iconography, the crop of work since 1959, bred once again from the germinal False Start, diffuses themes and motifs in ever greater complexity. Not only do the titles change in their descriptiveness (from expository label to cryptic caption), but each item—and there come to be many in the picture field—begins to have its individual future career. In the past, only an entire configuration would alter at a decipherable step; now, the staggered parts of the configuration rearrange themselves so radically that their only common bond is disjunction.

The prime example of this disaggregating forcing of one image into dialogue with a separately developed repertoire is the “device circle.” As late as 1965, Johns’s art was permeated by either the presence or the echo of this element. And yet it is not an emblem, like the flag, or a system, like the numbers and alphabets, or a “subject,” like the maps. That picture which gives the earliest presentation of the image, Device Circle (1959), can be thought of as a False Start ground upon which a circle was to be drawn. Rather than a string stretched across from the center in order to establish the figure, Johns employs a stick for his compass, and then, the job done, leaves it attached to the surface.4 The circle corrals the denser chromatic splutters—red, white, yellow, and blue—into the center, where they are physically constrained, if not formally harmonized, by the tondo shape. There is, then, an uneasy compromise between the interior and exterior of the circle, which is resolved neither by the admixtures of white nor by the legend struggling beneath. And almost painful is the contrast between the easily made and perfect arc and the labored, newspaper-clotted facade. Victim of an optical conflict, the work defies any comprehensible reading. “As well,” wrote Alan Watts in another context, “try to understand a book by dissolving it in solution and popping it into a centrifuge.”5

Of a quite different order, yet on the same theme, are Painting with Ruler and “Gray” (1960) and Device (1961–62). The one merely insinuates a circularity, the other effects it in the most literal terms. And such is the success of these polarities that the problem in retrospect appears not to have been soluble from an intermediate position (as opposed to the “Maps”). Introduced at this point is the condition of movement, viewed on the one hand as an actual, and on the other as a mimetic, activity. The ruler, suspended on its board before the surface and flippable to any angle desired, describing as it does an arc segment, will discover both new concordances echoing parallel strokes, and new oppositions of passages at sudden right angles. Moreover, these vectors are completely interchangeable, made and unmade by the chance stop of the wooden indicator (of a figurative wheel of fortune). An example of a “built-in” opposition, however, is the white and black paint gesturing at the right (no longer the older burst forms, but modified arrows), which looks like an image and its mirrored reflection. This notion of reversal, familiar from earlier works, is carried out even in the yardstick, which perversely reads from right to left, and in the resemblance of the wooden elements to the stretcher, which is now in front of, rather than merely behind, the canvas surface. Painting with Ruler and “Gray” compares with Device Circle as does Jubilee with False Start: they are black-and-white paintings which play charades with the chromatic and compositional assertions of their pilot pictures.

Device, for its part, moves the vortex motif up on an appreciably more vertical facade, and then splits and shunts it to the sides so that the halved and reversed circle can be “completed,” left and right, outside the canvas, only by the imagination. But, as if to make up.for this extra demand, the stick can be seen to have literally scraped and squeegeed paint passages which are easy to compare with the normative stroking surrounding them. As soon as this happens, however, several ambiguities snap into focus. One is that paint can transform itself more radically by a mechanistic process than by conscious brushing. By a kind of dismantled Futurism, the paint activity is compared in passages that take either a single or several motions to produce. (Or, rather, the scraped sections are composed of two separate actions: the laying down of the wet paint, and the movement of the stick which obliterates the brushstrokes—another reversal.) Also very important are certain conflicts of movement. Which passages “render” the greater velocity? It is perfectly conceivable that the stick was pushed slowly, yet the effect of its action is one of incredible, blurry speed. The viewer’s mind says one thing about immobile paint while his emotions say quite another. Furthermore, one area, the larger one, implies great unevenness and variation in depth, while the other affirms the surface—all on the same undifferentiated ground. Or possibly the ground was once homogeneous in its strokings and then, while still wet, was swept over at two places. It is a hypothesis which the visual evidence neither confirms nor denies.

At any rate, the point is that there are no objective correlations between gesture and effect. Movement is alluded to by static juxtaposition in Device Circle (1959), is activated by the airy revolution of a stick in Painting with Ruler and “Gray,” and is acted out by that same revolution encountering paint in Device. In a temporal context, these circumstances refer to present, future, and past movement. It is all a disquisition on the various states of motion as it rounds about on itself. To sort out the various dilemmas implied by this series—in the displacement and resistance of paint—is only to be hauntingly confused by them.

The essay above is an extract from Mr. Kozloff’s forthcoming book, Jasper Johns, to be published in the spring of 1968 by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.



1. Rosalind Krauss, “Jasper Johns,” The Lugano Review, Vol. 1/2 II, 1965, p. 88.

2. A general observation made by Alan R. Solomon tallies with this quality of Jubilee: “For Johns it is impossible to escape enrichment, even in terms of the negative or neutral.” “Jasper Johns,” Jewish Museum, N. Y., catalog, 1964, p. 15.

3. John Cage has described Johns’s procedure when painting the first Map: “He had found a printed map of the United States that represented only the boundaries between them. . . . Over this he had ruled a geometry which he copied enlarged on a canvas. This done, freehand he copied the printed map, carefully preserving its proportions. Then with a change of tempo he began painting quickly, all at once as it were, here and there with the same brush, changing brushes and colors, and working everywhere at the same time rather than starting at one point, finishing it and going on to another. It seemed that he was going over it again, and again incompletely. . . . Every now and then using stencils he put in the name of a state or the abbreviation for it, but having done this represented in no sense an achievement, for as he continued working he often had to do again what he had already done. . . . I asked how many processes he was involved in. He concentrated to reply and . . . said. ‘It is all one process.’” “Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas,” in Jasper Johns, catalog of the exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York, 1964, p. 22.

4. “The circle alone would have been an abstraction on canvas: with the compass stick in evidence, the picture became an object again: a device for making a circle.” Leo Steinberg, Jasper Johns, New York, 1963, p. 21.

5. Alan Watts, The Joyous Cosmology, New York, 1965, p. 23. It may be well here to point out the great attention paid to “free word” poetry among the Futurists, to which Johns’s picture unwittingly relates. In Carlo Carra’s Patriotic Celebration, 1914, a “total” collage of newspaper strips and printed material spirals in a sirenlike vortex which equates sounds and messages in a stuttering wheel of visual activity. The second Futurist Manifesto (May 11, 1913) contains the heading: “Destruction of Syntax, Imagination without Sequence, Words in Liberty,” and was a call to consider language as tactile and aural, sprung from its grammatical and linear regulations, and free to participate as a formal device within painting, or separately on a page. The interchanges between the painters and the poets, notably Cendrars, Apollinaire, and Reverdy (sparked initially by Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance,” republished in 1914), were to have repercussions of typographical playfulness and daring in Picabia, Arp, Ernst, and Schwitters. Johns is surely a subtle member of this tradition.