PRINT March 1970

The Graphic Work of Jasper Johns

IF ONE OF THE VICES of current criticism is the exhaustion of superlatives, then it is not as crucial to dwell on the quality of Jasper Johns’s graphics now as it is to investigate other ways in which they are remarkable and unique. When quality is so apparent, to speak of fineness of impression, blackness of black and subtlety of values seems more the province of connoisseurship than of criticism. Yet the work does pose essential critical problems. Among these is the relationship of Johns’s graphic oeuvre to his work in other media. In his graphic work, Johns explores the same set of themes and motifs as in his painting and sculpture. This we might expect of him because of his characteristically methodical approach. But it might also be argued, as I intend to argue here, that the intimate relationship of Johns’s works on paper with his paintings and sculpture have permitted him to survive a stylistic crisis in his career.

To understand the nature of this crisis, we need briefly to recapitulate his career (documented by Leo Steinberg and Max Kozloff in their monographs on the artist). From 1955 to 1958, in three brief and extraordinary years, Johns painted a series of flags, targets and numbers in which, to my view, every major development of the art of the sixties—with the important exception of innovations in color painting—was predicated. The firm conceptual structuring, the precarious balance between painting and object, the squeezing out of illusionistic space, the elimination of figure-ground relationships, familiar in the shaped paintings and object sculpture of the sixties, were all present in Johns’s works of the late fifties. In retrospect, Johns’s introduction of the iconography of Pop art seems an extremely minor aspect of his significance. Rather, Johns’s importance lay in his successful, and, with the exception of Dubuffet, singular effort to rescue representational art from the dustbin of art history to which the diminished illusionism of Cubism had relegated it. His great achievement, and one which we must study more closely because it was so great, was to reconcile representation with the limited space of abstract painting as well as with the all-over structure characteristic of advanced art.

When they appeared, it was immediately apparent that Johns’s iconic paintings represented an alternative to the improvisations of action painting. Where action painting ruptured the surface with discontinuous gestures and unstructured spontaneous markings, Johns’s images had a deliberate a priori structuring all the more startling because it was imposed not by the artist but by the nature of the emblem chosen. These single images did not depend on Cubist “rhyming” for their structure, nor could they be read as having discrete parts, because they were understood first as holistic gestalts, recognizable by identification. Nor did they have any fixed visual focuses, for this same reason. Moreover, the rich brushstrokes making up their surfaces were not the broad uneven arm swings of action painting, but identical units, methodically applied with equal pressure over the entire canvas surface. Thus, not only the facture but the physical character of the surface, with its sensuous impasto, was reminiscent of mature Impressionism—the original source for the all-over style in painting.

By reaching straight back behind the modern styles of the 20th century to redeem what was still viable in late Impressionism, Johns gained access to an all-over style that was one of Pollock’s sources without necessarily having to deal with Pollock’s art directly. If one takes the time to inspect the work closely instead of trying to assimilate it to a Procrustean theoretical framework, one realizes that the notion that Johns’s work of the late fifties is related to Cubism is as false as it is superficial. It is of course true that when these works were painted, the choices appeared to be either to follow Pollock in his marriage of a centered image based on the analytic Cubist grid with the all-overness of the late Monet, or to take de Kooning’s example of modernizing Old Master space and technique by loosening the edges while preserving the figure-ground reversals of synthetic Cubism. But Johns did neither. He adopted an attitude of reculer pour mieux sauter, forgetting Cubism for the moment entirely, and concentrating on what was still fresh in Impressionism.

More precisely, Johns’s early works are more than merely not Cubist. They can in fact be seen as anti-Cubist because of the nature of the images represented. As has been pointed out repeatedly in discussions of Johns’s work, flags, targets, numbers, letters, maps are all flat by identification. Although the Cubists incorporated such flat signs into their works, such signs could never have been the exclusive subject for a Cubist painting because they are images with only a single surface. Cubism, on the other hand, demands a three-dimensional subject—even if only to flatten it—for its investigation of complex spatial relationships, and in order to present superimposed “simultaneous” images. This becomes quite clear if one compares a Braque painting of a sign, for example the celebrated Affiche de Kubelick with a Johns flag or target. The Braque, despite its flattening and use of lettering, is involved with an adumbration of the third dimension. But Johns’s early work is not at all a spatial art; it is an art of surface and surface alone. Indeed, the great crisis that breaks Johns’s career as a painter in two hinges on Johns’s desire to become more than a painter of surfaces, to become, in other words, a spatial painter. That Johns’s early paintings are remote from Cubism becomes even more obvious if we realize that it is impossible to set up the sculptural or relief space of Cubism if one is consistently reminded, in identifying a subject such as a flag, a target, or a numeral, that such images have no volume or mass. One cannot conceivably or even imaginatively reach around or embrace an object without a back. Nor can such an object be detached from its background, because it is as flat as the plane on which it lies.

The choice of this limited repertoire of motifs allowed Johns to circumvent for a time the entire problem of Cubist space and structure. Both conspicuously flat and holistic in gestalt, his paintings of flags, targets and numbers were capable of reconciling representation with the diminished illusionism as well as the all-over design of abstract painting. The choice of this unique group of motifs had another advantage. It allowed Johns to consider each of the traditional specializations within an abstract context—an aspect of the work that became clearer once these motifs were re-examined in his graphic work. Thus the relationship of the flags with their “fields” of blue studded with “stars” and layered with parallel bands of red and white recall the horizontal striations and horizon lines of traditional landscape paintings. Similarly the targets serve as surrogates for conventional still life; they are in a sense Cézanne’s apples flat to begin with, without any mass or volume to be flattened by the artist. The number paintings, beginning with the prototype Figure 1 in 1955, are, of course, a surrogate for figure painting, as their titles indicate. They are “figures” which, unlike the human figure, with its roundness and three-dimensionality, have two-dimensionality as part of their definition.

When Johns reconsiders these motifs in his drawings and prints, their relationship to the traditional genres of painting becomes more explicit. The graphic scribbles in drawings of the flag simulate a grassy field, as do the minute Impressionist, brush strokes in the 1957 painting, Flag on Orange Field. The drawings, lithographs and recent etchings of the target employ chiaroscuro ironically as a surface embellishment, a decorative patterning which destroys rather than reinforces roundness because the object is darkened at precisely the points at which it would be lightest if it were three-dimensional. In some of the “figure” (i.e. number) drawings and lithographs, contours are opened, and background is allowed to encroach upon figure, reasserting the contiguity of figure with ground as a kind of pictorial tautology.

To remark that the subjects in Johns’s graphics are identical with those in his paintings is not to assume that he has done nothing more than make drawings and prints from his paintings and sculptures. On the contrary, the graphic equivalents of his paintings and sculptures bear about as much relationship to their “originals” as the paintings and drawings do to the images they represent. In both cases, many alterations occur. The nature of representation is dissected, analyzed, investigated in all of its possible alternatives. In the paintings an image may be depicted, presented as impression or cast shadow, cast, modeled, silhouetted, presented in its entirety or fragmented, or incorporated whole from the real world and affixed to the surface of a painting. (In Johns’s most complex work, According to What?, all of these types of representation are simultaneously present.) Similarly, in the sculptures, objects are cast, altered or modeled from scratch.

Sidney Tillim has pointed out that it was the exhaustion of a select category of images—emblems or signs whose definition contained the property of two-dimensionality—that provoked the initial crisis in Johns’s career. At the moment he attempted to expand his repertoire of subjects beyond this special category he was forced to become a painter of space as well as surface. Abandoning explicitly two-dimensional images, he abandoned at the same time Impressionist surface and facture as well. Indeed, Johns changed both his medium as well as his technique at the same moment that he chose to expand his repertoire of images, that is, around 1960. At this time, he loosened and enlarged his brush stroke, exchanging the all-overness of Impressionism for the less controlled painterliness and bravura of the de Kooning style. Apparently because this more quickly executed and spontaneous style was not compatible with the laborious process of painting in encaustic, he switched to an oil medium in 1959 in paintings like Jubilee and False Start.

These changes in style, subject, medium and technique, which occur simultaneously in Johns’s art, created a number of new problems. Some of these problems, particularly those involving color, spatial discontinuity, overpainting and surface could hardly be resolved in painting. The exceptional coherence of image and integrity of surface of the early works, for example, with their translucent film of encaustic overlays, is replaced around 1960 by a surface ruptured by broad gestural strokes and sometimes deadened by successive layers of opaque revisions.

The exhaustion of his original limited repertoire of flat images in 1958 brings to a close the initial phase of Johns’s career. It is an achievement so great and so unique that any lesser painter could have made a lifetime career of it. But Johns is an artist of exceptional integrity and courage who felt obliged to seek new problems. Having explored the relationship of the real object in the world to the artist’s imitation of it in the paintings, he began to analyze the nature of representation in sculpture and in graphic art with equal thoroughness and tenacity. For this reason the painted bronze and sculptmetal sculptures as well as the drawings of the late fifties must be seen very much as a coda to the early encaustic paintings.

In the early paintings, Johns had brought the image to the verge of objectness by bringing it up flush with the picture plane, identifying a subject like a flag with the entire field. In a painting like the prototype Flag of 1954, illusion and reality tally more closely than in any earlier “realistic” style, or even for that matter than in the photographic realism of trompe l’oeil. By denying the spatial illusionism by means of which painting differentiates itself from the world of real objects, Johns revised the mimetic function of representational art along the lines of bringing the represented object closer to its prototype than ever before in the history of realism.

Johns’s flags thus represent the coalescing of two forms of realism: the literalist “realism” of abstract art as well as that of representational art. To understand exactly what Johns did, one need only interpose Mondrian’s work between Johns’s flag paintings and conventional Old Master realism, for Johns’s flags would have been impossible without the example of Mondrian’s philosophical realism. From Mondrian, Johns appropriated the emphasis on the concrete, physical properties of the painting as an object in the world (i.e. that it was explicitly flat). The attack on the fictive nature of illusionism is continued by Johns in his double emphasis—that is, both the formal and the semantic identification of the literal flatness of the flag.

Whereas in the fictive space of Old Master painting the image is depicted in an illusionistic cavity behind the surface plane, in Mondrian’s mature work, background and foreground are locked together on a single continuous plane surface. Pursuing this course of developments with the severe logic characteristic of his thought, Johns rips away the background entirely so that no space whatsoever can be imagined behind the plane. If Flag was an image literally flat and all foreground, Johns had merely to take the next step toward a literal realism and pull the object into fully three-dimensional space. This he did in his sculpture, thereby pushing representation in the direction of replication.

Having initially rejected, in the Flag, depiction for direct presentation, in his sculptures of common objects, he rejected representation for replication, or at least what appeared to be simple replication. (In fact, The Critic Sees was an ironic comment on the inability of local critics to realize that his sculptures did not merely duplicate real objects, but altered them in a variety of ways.) Like the sensuous Impressionist surfaces of the encaustic paintings which preceded them and to which they are intimately related, Johns’s sculptures were often identifiable as art and not as object by virtue of their surfaces, which were marked with Impressionist paint strokes or, in some cases, with the finger marks of the artist. These painted bronze sculptures represent the source for the entire panoply of anti-illusionistic object sculpture of the sixties, including those of Warhol, Oldenburg, Morris, Segal, Judd, Kauffman, Flavin, Bell, et al.—i.e. that entire range of literalist art only nominally sculpture, but more precisely, like Johns’s beer cans, a form of three-dimensional painting.

For others these sculptures were a beginning, but for Johns they marked an end which carried his investigation of realism and representation to the extremes of replication. This was a point of literalism beyond which it could not be carried by an artist as involved with the processes of art-making as Johns. Johns found his new beginning first in graphic art, by reinvestigating, in a fresh context, some of the motifs he had studied in painting. His new area of investigation became the manner in which the illusionism of the page differed from that of the canvas.

Always an admirer of Cézanne’s drawings, Johns used Cézanne’s parallel stroking to create a rich surface, embellishing the technique of Impressionist graphics with an elegant semi-automatic scribble. This scribbling, and its result in a graphic style that was paradoxically “painterly,” also reminds one of the broken contours of Degas’ late pastels, another of the high points of Impressionist graphics. Often Johns, employing the same sense of irony familiar in his paintings in which chiaroscuro is frustrated from fulfilling its conventional task of modeling by the explicit flatness of the image, hatched and shaded areas that were either obviously flat or should have been convex normally as opposed to concave, as darkening might make them appear.

Because his vocabulary of motifs is limited, naive viewers have had the false Impression that Johns repeats himself. Actually he is perhaps the least repetitious contemporary artist. Indeed, his infatuation with Duchamp was probably as much an involvement with the notion of non-repetition as it was with the idea of the peintre philosophe, the artist who considers his activity a form of philosophizing. However, Duchamp’s multiplication of found objects was a form of repetition and self-indulgence Johns never allowed himself. Thus each time Johns seemingly repeats a motif, he does so in a different context. And it is precisely in his involvement with the change in meaning created through context that Johns’s art distinguishes itself. For example, the red, white and blue Flag has a different relationship to its prototype than the initial White Flag; and the Three Flags, superimposed on one another, of 1958, has yet another meaning: it makes the illusionistic recessional planes of Cubism actual, piling them on top of the surface as opposed to depicting them on the surface as if receding from vision. In this sense it provides the logical connective between the flat Flag and the fully three-dimensional bronze sculptures.

No two treatments of similar motifs in Johns’s work investigate the same problem; each new context reveals a different aspect or facet of Johns’s dominant themes: mimesis, space, time and memory, and their complex interrelationships. In the early works, the dominant theme was the nature of representation and its relationship to pictorial illusionism. In the work of the sixties, it would be a more complex sense of shifting space, the passage of time, and the effects of memory, which would replace the obdurate presentness of the early images.

We have seen how the crisis in Johns’s works, precipitated by the exhaustion of the privileged category of explicitly two-dimensional signs serving as surrogates for landscape, still-life and figure painting respectively, was staved off by his fresh investigations of the themes of mimesis and illusionism in sculpture and graphics. Prepared for a drawing exhibition in 1960, the 1958–60 series of drawings of flags, targets, and numbers are obviously works of a master draftsman. They differ, however, from the 1969–70 suite of drawings just shown at the Castelli Gallery in that they treat the single images of the encaustic paintings in a relatively direct manner as opposed to the complex interrelationships of various types of representation explored in the paintings of the sixties. Closing out a series of problems by changing their context from the canvas to the page, the drawings of the late fifties bear the same relationship to the early paintings that the new drawings bear to Johns’s recent work.

In this sense, Johns has concluded the two decades of his activity in the same manner, with the meticulous although perhaps unconscious thoroughness and consistency of a logician. Separated by the sculptures and drawings, the two decades of his career break neatly in half around 1960, the year he made his first lithograph.

Encouraged by Tanya Grosman, who admired his drawings, Johns made the Superimposed 0 Through 9, which she published in 1960. In it, he appeared to solve certain of the problems created by paintings like Jubilee and False Start, executed in the new style, technique and medium. In the 1960 0 Through 9, line bounds transparent shapes (“figures”); overlapping planes are suggested and denied by the transparency of each successive overlap, which is merely contour as the encaustic paintings were merely surface. In the encaustic paintings, the transparency of the medium had permitted Johns to revise on the canvas while preserving both surface tension, and pigment brilliance. Successive revisions in oil, however, resulted in a muddying and a sullying of color. On the other hand, the exclusive use of line in certain drawings and lithographs eliminated such problems of revision.

The problem of color, too, was resolved in the graphic work. Traditionally defined in terms of value, the essence of graphic art was not at odds with chiaroscuro in the same sense that advanced painting was. Moreover, the peculiar characteristics of color lithography allowed Johns to use color as he could not use it, because of his improvisational technique, in oil painting. The clarity, brilliance and translucency of the color of Johns’s lithographs is partially a result of the transparency of lithographic inks, and partially a result of the separation of colors that is peculiar to the lithographic process. In the immensely complex False Start #1, 1962, which required 11 separate stones, for example, Johns was able to achieve effects as a colorist of distinction absolutely unavailable to him in related paintings such as False Start. In the recent brilliant series of Colored Figures published by Gemini, G.E.L. in 1969, Johns overprints white on rainbow colors to achieve a color experience of great subtlety. If one compares the color in the obvious homage to his heroes, Leonardo and Duchamp, in the Gemini Number 7, with the spectrum in According to What?, the superiority of the color experience in the former becomes explicitly clear.

Because paper absorbs ink, whereas the heavy impasto that is Johns’s signature in painting creates an irregular topology, surface tension and surface integrity are more easily gained and held by Johns in his graphic work. This is especially so once he abandons the regular stroking of late Impressionism that assured surface integrity in the encaustic paintings. That is to say, an image on paper cannot be layered as an impastoed image on canvas can literally be layered. Thus the illusionism of graphic work (especially if only value and no color is used) is necessarily more partial—less easily confused with our vision of real objects in space—than that of painting. To an artist as involved with precision of definition as Johns, the dimension of depth of the stretcher could not be overlooked, either. In several works, including Fool’s House, Slow Field, etc., Johns calls our attention to this property of actual depth in painting by affixing stretched canvases to the surface of the painted canvas. In a drawing of Two Flags done in 1969, he calls our attention to the fact that works on paper do not have this property of actual depth and consequently cannot create an illusion of the third dimension as complete as that of painting. Turning back the corner of the flag to show us the reverse of the paper as he has shown us the back side of the canvas, Johns brings home the point that works on paper deal only with two dimensions, i.e. they are literally flat—like flags, targets, numbers, etc., whereas a stretched canvas literally has three dimensions.

By working on paper, Johns regains the properties of continuous surface, explicit flatness, and brilliant color of the encaustic paintings. Moreover, he regains these without renouncing the complexity of the themes investigated in the paintings of the sixties. On paper, the process of revisions, overlays of images and brush strokes—translated into graphic hatching, shading, and scribbling—does not contradict flatness nor rupture surface because paper is surface and surface alone. Thus the exquisite Cézannesque modulations of the 1969 drawing Voice recaptures the all-overness and rhythmic stroking of a masterpiece like the White Flag. The control, the enormous discipline, both of hand and mind, that set Johns’s encaustic paintings apart from any works contemporary with them is present again in the new drawings. Brush drawings on plastic film create transparent clouds that spread across the surface with an Impressionist lightness and airiness. In other brush drawings ink is diluted and forced into the weave of rough-textured paper so that surface becomes soft and cloth-like, but equally sensual. A target is drawn in graphite over a silk-screen (originally used in Johns’s poster for Merce Cunningham) so that underprinting shows through the layers of graphic elaboration. Every variety of graphic technique, of combinations of hard and soft, absorbent and repellent paper with chalk, graphite and ink are used to create an experience of maximum richness and complexity.

In a future essay, I wish to study the specific thematic and iconographical relationship of Johns’s graphic works of the sixties to his later paintings. At present I wish only to illustrate the manner in. which many of the formal problems created by his changes in style, technique and medium, as well as motifs and themes around 1960, have been resolved in the lithographs, etchings and drawings.

Because of their intimacy and reduced scale, as well as because they are nominally “minor” art, it may be that these works may not be seen as I see them: that is, as the fullest, most intricately complex, disciplined, moving, masterful works created at a point in the history of art when the so-called “major” forms are engaged in a crisis so convulsive they may have lost that authenticity necessary to compel conviction. That is to say, I am convinced of the genuineness and authority of Johns’s graphics as I am convinced of little that purports to be a major statement at this moment.

Barbara Rose