PRINT September 1970

The Graphic Art of Jasper Johns, Part II

As we look back from the middle of the twentieth century, what makes a medium artistically important is not any quality of the medium itself but the qualities of mind and hand that its users bring to it.
—William Ivins, Prints and Visual Communication

By innovation is meant simply an emphasis to which the contemporary public is not accustomed. Thus, to a people improvident through excessive hopefulness, the artist who disclosed the cultural value of fear, distrust, or hypochondria would be an innovator. Any “transvaluation of values” is an innovation, though it be a reversion to an earlier value.
—Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement

AROUND 1960 WE OBSERVED that fundamental changes regarding imagery, technique, medium and style occur in Johns’s paintings; and that many of the problems created by introducing new elements are resolved in his graphic work. Changes visible in oil paintings done in 1959 such as False Start and Jubilee are already hinted at in the lack of objects, painterly field and stenciled lettering of the 1957 painting ambiguously titled The, and in the freer, less systematic brushwork of the 1958 Painting with a Ball. Previously we investigated some formal consequences of these changes. Given the consistency with which virtually every aspect of the work is altered, however, we may presume that these alterations have meaning beyond their formal implications. Such meanings—largely iconographical and psychological—will concern us here.

In our search for meanings, we are fortunate to have the artist’s cooperation, for Johns has supplied a certain amount of information in interviews and published notes. In addition, many “clues” regarding his intention and sources are contained within the later paintings.1 Indeed the very abundance of such clues—literal or figurative keys to meaning—raises the suspicion that the artist is deliberately provoking the viewer into attempting to unlock his hermetic thoughts. In the later works, this diffused atmosphere of provocation has quite a different effect from the pointed irony of the early object paintings. Perhaps we might describe the difference this way: in the flags and especially in the targets, a sphinx-like riddle appears to be posed. Like the Japanese koan to which they have been compared, the early paintings illustrate a paradox. They require no answer because, to paraphrase Johns’s mentor, Marcel Duchamp, there is no solution if there is no problem. Such pronounced self-containment is not the case in the later works. On the contrary, they appear a chaotic clutter of meaningless or contradictory words, objects in peculiar or perverse relationships to each other and to their contexts, all manner of veiled illusions, pathetic fallacies, and references to memory traces and time past.

The presence of this puzzling material hints at hidden secrets to be uncovered. Johns’s provocative statements and enigmatic notes only add to the viewer’s feeling that perhaps the “mystery” might be unravelled if the “clues” could be followed back to their sources in the artist’s mind. At a certain point, Johns seems to be deliberately teasing the viewer into tracking him. Indeed Johns appears, like Duchamp, actually to solicit interpretation. In this connection, there exists a small drawing of a target done in 1960 titled J. Johns and ___. Below the outline of the target, there are a brush and watercolor discs, presumably for the use of whomever cooperates with Johns in completing the work.

It is essentially this relationship of critical completion, of mental or imaginative participation, that Johns begins to require of his viewers around 1960. The interest in Duchamp probably had something to do with the challenge to his critics to attach their own meanings to his work. As Duchamp accepted criticism as an additional meaning altering the content of the work over a period of time, so Johns, too, has remarked that a painting consists of, besides the artist’s physical actions in making it, “the responses to looking at it.”2

But Johns’s approach to the problem of hidden meanings in a work—the relationship between the mind that invents those meanings and the mind that decodes them—is rather different from that of Duchamp. The latter’s ideal decipherer would probably be his friend, the crackpot cryptographer, Walter Arensberg, who spent his days trying to prove, on the basis of obscure references in the texts, that Bacon was Shakespeare. One senses that Duchamp had something quite specific in mind; that, in other words, the code can be broken if the coordinates are isolated. Quite the contrary is true of Johns.

Not a literary reconstruction, but a way of understanding himself appears what Johns requires of his critics. Like the guilty party who wishes to be apprehended, Johns strews his trail with clues (footprints, fingerprints, dismembered parts of bodies, dangerous silverware). Collecting these clues, the viewer finds himself trapped in an uncomfortably voyeuristic role, forced to ask constantly, what is going on here? His participation secured through curiosity, the viewer assumes the role of a detective who reconstructs the context (scene) of the action (crime) and its consequences (punishment); he is the witness testifying to the motives (guilt) of the artist’s acts, proving the truth of the artist’s own string of self-accusations: Liar; Good Time Charley; Fool’s House.

If this analogy of the viewer as sleuth and Johns as fugitive, who invites the critic to play the inspector to his Raskolnikov, seems far-fetched, consider the following entry from Johns’s notebooks:

The watchman falls “into” the “trap” of looking. The “spy” is a different person “looking” is and is not “eating” and “being eaten” . . . . The spy must be ready to “move”, must be aware of his entrances and exits. The watchman leaves his job and takes away no information. The spy must remember and must remember himself and his remembering. The spy designs himself to be overlooked. The watchman “serves” as a warning. Will the spy and the watchman ever meet?

Taking this account as a literal description of behavior, we appear to have a scenario for some unspecified crime involving both “eating” and “looking,” two acts of incorporating what is in the outside world into the body—the former cannibalistic and physical, the latter harmless and mental—that are in some way equated in the artist’s mind, if not, as Norman O. Brown suggests, in everyone’s mind.

As he extends the range of his iconography, Johns has, it would appear, an increasing need to engage the critic in an elaborate game referred to in several of his titles (The Critic Sees, The Critic Smiles, Summer Critic). The Critic Sees represents, in fact, Johns’s initial equation of eating with looking.

The game into which Johns lures his critic is nothing so harmless as chess. Not for him the Duchampian politeness of “my move—your move.” Johns’s game is more physical and somehow grimmer; it is a diabolically adult version of hide-and-seek. That the game is hide and seek is established by the mysterious appearances and disappearances of forms or their ghostly imprints, the type of activity which defines a game of entrances and exits. The artist “hides” his meaning; the critic “seeks” to uncover it. The two-way game of concealment and disclosure becomes an exercise in provocation and detection. Deliberately ambiguous in his intent, and slippery in his refusal to be pinned down to a specific system of signification or literary text, Johns is the expert at hide-and-seek who taunts with “Here I am . . . no, not there, over here,” just as color splashes and objects appear unexpectedly in one place and then another in a painting.

Since both the game and the rules are Johns’s invention, anyone foolhardy enough to play is at a decided disadvantage. This may explain why not much criticism of the later works exists as compared with the spate of writing provoked by the flags and targets. With effort, the early works can be made to yield some verifiable information, even if all that is verified is the existence of a paradox. The later works, on the other hand, are stubbornly, one might even say petulantly, resistant to attempts to fix their definitions with any exactitude. Presenting densely compacted multivalent meanings, they discourage interpretation. Yet johns’s later works deal with such serious issues that some effort has to be made, if not precisely to play the artist’s game, then at least to find out its rules, and what the stakes might be.

Rule I. Use Everything in Opposition to Itself. Use Logic to Subvert Causality.

Eminently logical in certain respects, the rules of Johns’s game conform to conventional logic exclusively in terms of their internal consistency. Because the world within the canvas has no external referents, the premises that operate within it may be as madly solipsistic as the Queen of Hearts’ rules for croquet.

Describing his later works, Johns says they are “less arbitrary” than the flags and targets because “they have no references outside of actions.” That is, they do not present a priori structures referring to known signs. Their meanings, if decipherable, lie entirely within the world created on the canvas or paper. Within this world, not the identity of the objects, but the nature of their relationships counts. Tied, hooked, bound, and wired together, these objects exist in perpetually strained relationships. Moreover, these relationships are, presumably, functional. For example, the flashlight in Souvenir is aimed at a mirror that should reflect its light onto the souvenir plate decorated with a photograph of the artist. But it is obvious the flashlight doesn’t work, nor can the mirror reflect anything visible. Expectations of cause and effect are not fulfilled, any more than they are in a work like Slow Field, which depicts an impression of a brush and stretcher obviously not made by those objects. These are but two examples of the myriad of nonfunctional relationships suggested in Johns’s later works. The frustration of expectations created by the disruption of normal cause and effect relationships parallels a similar frustration produced by the knowledge that Johns’s apparently useful objects are functionless and inoperative. The newspapers and books can’t be read; the piano can’t be played; the misshapen cutlery and bent hangers can’t be used; the drawers don’t open; the traffic lights signal nothing; the canvases can’t be painted on. This collection of functional objects deprived of their normal functioning constitutes a depressing catalog of frustrations. In a Johns work, what one might logically expect to happen is never permitted to occur. Unlike Duchamp’s machines, Johns’s levers and pulleys don’t work. They exist as mechanistic parodies of human relationships rather than as comments on the machine age. As the flags, targets, and numbers may serve as surrogates for landscape, still life and figure painting, the pathetic fallacies which abound in the later works perversely mimic types of erotic and emotional encounters—if we understand as perverse the use of one thing as another which characterizes these works.

Rule 2. Translate Everything into an Abstraction of Itself.

Johns consistently rephrases pictorial elements as an abstraction, even if this requires a perversion of their normal function. Thus color, which normally has an emotive capacity, is assigned the abstract role of establishing location. Johns’s color, which is deliberately restricted in much of the work to the hues of the spectrum and the values of the grey scale, is denotative rather than connotative. It places rather than expresses. In this way, color is converted into a pure abstraction, and color relationships appear to function as mathematical intervals with regard to each other.

To insure their abstractness, objects are selected not for their interest or uniqueness, but for their commonness and anonymity. Affixed in the later works to painterly canvas surfaces, these objects all belong to the same class; they are commonly found in the home, often the kitchen, or around the studio. The prevalence of kitchen pieces and studio still lifes of articles intimately connected with the artist’s daily life is well known in post-Renaissance painting. Traditionally, however, such objects are depicted with special attention to particularizing detail. Johns, by contrast, goes out of his way to select those objects least likely to evoke any specific associations.

He uses these common objects in an odd manner also that is to evoke nostalgia. The empty coat hanger and table settings await an undesignated guest or guests, creating an aura of melancholy or nostalgia in the later works. Defining the relationship between realism and abstraction in Johns’s work as “homeless representation,” Clement Greenberg may inadvertently have hit on Johns’s central subject. For Johns’s objects exist either without a context, in the earlier works, or deliberately alienated from a context in the later paintings. The object without a context is like the man without a home. In the paintings of the sixties, the objects normally associated with the home are displaced to foreign contexts, where they exist in uncomfortable isolation from their surroundings. Rooted to nothing, they appear to float in an amorphous space with no ground lines or other referents to bind them to earth or create any sense of security or balance. Frequently set ’at an unstable angle, the objects in Johns’s late paintings are vulnerable to gravity and appear as if they could fall at any moment.

The abstractness of color and object extends to other aspects of Johns’s work as well. For example, when fragments of the human body are incorporated as casts or impressions within the work, it is rarely possible to know which sex is involved. The conversion of all elements into equivalent abstractions of themselves is in other words a curious constant in Johns’s art, which may be extended to the most intimate and personal elements in the work.

Rule 3: Divide the Inseparable; Unite the Mutually Exclusive.

In a work by Johns, the juxtaposition of two objects, for example, a broom and a cup, or a leg and a stretcher, does not create, as it might for a Surrealist, a fused image. Even in his most overtly Surrealist work, The Critic Sees, Johns’s equation of eating and looking strikes more primitive psychic and physical resonances than the purely mental literary conceit of a fused image. Although occupying the same space and time context defined by the field in which they exist, two objects in, a Johns work remain obdurately separate entities. Their isolation is absolute. Fixed in space, they are surrounded by a context that is a busy whirl of mot ion and activity. Indeed, this contrast between the constant, isolated object and the environmental flux is an important theme in Johns’s later work.

Since Johns’s objects are selected for their neutrality and banality, they strike no evocative chords of association beyond their immediate contexts. Nor do they touch or overlap within the work. In a Johns work, one and one always remain one and one; they never add up to two. Even when the same image is used twice (in the lithograph of the Double Map, for example), careful viewing discloses differences. Dipping his madeleine int o a cup of tea, Proust remembered a whole society and made it real through an exorbitant attention to particularizing detail. When Johns deals with the theme of memory, he does so as a pure abstraction. Memory itself, rather than the remembrance of a specific person, place or thing is the subject of a painting like Device, where the paths of the attached devices “remember” their past activity.

“Pure recollection,” according to Bergson, is “the presentation of an absent object.” The shift from presence to absence is another change we can discern in Johns’s subjects of the late fifties. As the flags and targets were emblems of presentness, the empty coat hangers and ale cans, one full, the other empty, continually refer to the absence of the person who used them. In a nostalgia- ridden painting like Fool’s House—apparently painted during the period when Johns was cleaning out his Front Street studio—the past is evoked in several ways: the worn broom, caught in motion, and the used towel, refer to a past context, in which, presumably, they still functioned. Whoever swept with the broom is absent, however.

In his notes Johns speaks cryptically of the Spy who “must remember and must remember himself and his remembering.” But the “memories” evoked are so unspecific that they are abstracted beyond any specific pain or pleasure. Like feelings, memories exist in an abstract continuum, consistently disconnected from their subjects.

As he divides memories and feelings from the agents and occasions that evoked them, Johns also separates object from image in the later works. So thoroughly fused in the flags and targets as to create a problem of identity, object and image begin to be surgically dissected from one another in works like Painting with a Ball. Now the plane itself, formerly the field of the picture-object fusion, is rent—literally in the related Painting With Two Balls and 4 the News, and illusionistically in Out The Window, False Start and subsequent paintings in the looser style.

It is characteristic of these works that what is normally thought of as indissoluble (the properties of an object, the relationship of an object to its context) is aggravatingly pried apart; whereas what is considered normally contradictory is forced together. The effect is like two magnets with oppositely charged poles being held together. Titles, too, convey strange disjunctions: of article from noun (The), adjective from noun (Painted Bronze; Painting with Ruler and Grey). The most radical of these grammatical disjunctions is According to What? in which the entire antecedent subject is detached. These partial titles withhold vital information concerning the subject. Withholding such information, Johns desires to separate the object from its properties of color and surface. In According to What?—an incredibly complex multi-focus collection of public and private references—the relationship between subject (the relativity of point of view) and object (the fixed characteristics of real or depicted objects) reverses their earlier relationship. That is, in the later works the unnatural fusion of subject and object in the flags and targets is turned inside out until they unnaturally repel one another.

In Johns’s later works all that would appear indissolubly united is decomposed, surgically dissected with the utmost severity and ruthlessness: color and line are separated from form; qualities and properties such as shape and color are separated from the objects they describe. Articles are separated from nouns—The lacks a noun; Voice, lacks an article.

As the dissection and analysis progress, reality is dissolved, decomposed and dissected into its constituent elements which are brut ally abandoned on the dissection table—an odd limb or object or piece of skin here or there, a letter hanging detached in space. The tensions set up are never resolved. The paradoxes are never clarified. The questions are never answered: According to What authority? What is the question to which “No” is the answer? Painting with Ruler and Grey what? Painted Bronze what?

Rule 4: If the Center Cannot Hold, Let Things Fall Apart.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the evolution of Johns’s imagery after 1960 is that he allows—even appears to desire—to present images of decomposition and disintegration. Once again, this is in direct contrast with the sure centering and rigorous symmetry of the early paintings. In opposition to the lax abandon of the later works, the flags and targets appear even more as images of an active self-control and self-restraint. The passivity and random focuses of the later works seem, when contrasted with the deliberate focusing and controlled execution of the early paintings, the expression of a new attitude of permissiveness on the part of the artist. Consistent with this attitude, in the later works he allows the context to emerge through the process of execution rather than imposing it as an a priori concept.

It is typical of Johns’s method throughout his career that he accepts as given as much as possible. In the beginning, this meant choosing as subjects pre-existing signs. Johns has said, for example, that he took the image of the serial alphabet from a chart. His lettering is not handwriting or printing, but commercial stencils of an anonymous standardized shape. In the later works, he creates a painterly field in which some kind of action or incident occurs. Establishing a situation, however, he does not reject it despite “errors,” but continues to revise and “correct.” Cultivating detachment from the situation he has created, he continues working with what has already transpired. In this way, a “False Start” does not occasion a fresh start, but an attempt to retrieve a situation heading out of control. Out the Window is not hurled into the street as suggested, but patiently reworked.

Context in Johns’s later works is not given in advance but arrived at through a visible process recording the entire history of the image. Eventually, this image resembles a palimpsest, with its superimposed records of previous transact ion s. This revisionary process is typical of Johns’s prints as well as his paintings. Johns will characteristically work on a stone or plate, pulling proofs, revising with brush or charcoal on the proofed page, transferring corrections and working on the stone or plate until the image satisfies his intention. On the surface, this procedure would seem like a normal test of the quality of an impression. It would be a mistake, however, to believe Johns is interested in achieving any greater degree of technical excellence. Better or worse impressions would probably seem to him simply different situation s. Indeed he may enjoy certain accidental imperfections, such as the uneven impressions of a complex print like Voice. To apply academic criteria regarding uniformity of impression to Johns’s prints disregards the artist’s intention. Johns’s lack of interest in these criteria is shared by many leading painter-printmakers who learned to work in graphic media as an extension of their painting styles. Free of academic limitations, painter-printmakers such as Johns have often devised unconventional means of creating images on stones or plates. For example, Johns may use his fingers rather than a brush or crayon to spread tusche on a stone. Finger painting the wash passages in a number of drawings and lithographs such as the Double Map intensifies the painterly possibilities of lithography.

A great deal of the quality of Johns’s prints depends on his critical attitude toward his own work. Dissatisfied with the original proof of the Double Map Johns abandoned the stone for a year. When he returned to work on it again, he decided to double the image—apparently an idea suggested to him by John Cage’s advice to do something twice if it was boring the first time. Because he was a painter first, Johns’s technique as a printmaker is understandably an extension of his technique as a painter. Cage has described watching Johns paint as he begins “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.”3 Watching Johns work on his lithographs I have observed the same tendency to cover the whole area, going back to strengthen certain passages as he feels it is needed, rather than concentrating on any specific passage to the neglect of the overall image.

Because of the relatively small size of prints in relationship to paintings, they allow Johns to concentrate on the more controlled movements of the hands and wrist, which seem more compatible with his way of covering a surface than the broader arm and body gestures of orthodox “action” painting. For although there is a great deal of body imagery and involvement with surface, Johns is not really a physical artist in the athletic sense of Pollock or Kline. His capacity to create an astonishing variety of marks on a very limited area is particularly well-suited to the intimacy of the print medium. Because of this ability, his etchings, for example, are the antithesis of the repetitious shading and hatching of conventional printmaking. For Johns, to darken an area is to bring it to life with animated marks varied in rhythm and intensity. His appreciation of the tonal relationships in the lithographs of Redon and Cézanne which he admires may have suggested to him the light-giving possibilities of reserved areas, which he uses to such advantage in lithographs like Passage I and the Nabi-esque 1966 Light Bulb.4

We have seen how Johns often displaces elements from one context to another. Depriving color of its conventionally expressive role as well as disregarding the associative possibilities of objects, he displaces a great deal of the expressive burden of his work to technique. This is especially true of his prints. Speaking of his interest in technique as an expressive element, Johns has remarked, “There are differences technically and there are differences in what a different technique can be used to mean so that if you do one thing and then you do another thing, you can’t attach the same meaning to them.” We can see this is true by comparing the technique employed in the two portfolios of etchings by Johns. Although printed from the same plates—the second portfolio represents the second states of the prints in the First Etchings portfolio—results are astonishingly different.

For example, an image (all the etchings are based on Johns’s sculptures) is seen twice in the original portfolio of First Etchings. It appears on a page both as a small photograph and then larger, as drawn by the artist. On the same page, the technique of mechanical photoengraving is contrasted with the hand-etched plate. Once again, two images of the same object are proved to be totally different. In the second portfolio of etchings just published by Universal Limited Art Editions, all of the original plates have been reworked. Technique itself becomes a subject, with the result that the reworked surfaces have an extraordinary richness.

Even as an etcher, however, Johns maintains his spirit of contradiction and contrives to use the medium against itself. By definition, etching is a flat line art; to turn it into an art of painterliness and volume is a technical tour de force. Particularly in the second series of etchings, Johns achieves this end. Painting over certain areas of the original plates with tar in order to etch them more deeply, he creates puddle-like areas that appear to emulate brush strokes.

Considering technique a vehicle for expression, Johns is especially concerned with technical variety. His live surfaces record the hand moving, now rapidly, now slowly, now energetically, now automatically, now with great deliberation. Sometimes there is a certain mystery regarding how a given mark is produced, as for example, the reversed blottings in the upper right of Passage I and Passage II. But the technical brilliance of Johns’s works on paper is surprisingly not the result of his facility as a draftsman. When he tries for likeness, as for example in the drawing of Souvenir, the results are often laborious. His expressiveness arises rather out of an ability to create analogs of emotional experience in the tempo, regularity and irregularity of stroke, firmness or openness of contour and sensitive bleeding or dripping wash passages.

Rule 5: Never Resolve a Situation; Allow No Synthesis. Define all Elements as Paradox.

Johns’s development, from an involvement with surface to an involvement with space, is particularly odd since it reverses the normal course of modernist painting which has been away from deep space toward the assertion of the surface plane. This nominally backwards development in itself has caused formal critics to reject Johns’s later work out of hand as simply retardataire Cubist formulations.

Within a strictly teleological succession of “advances” which may be graphed with mechanical exactitude, Johns certainly appears to be backing away into tradition rather than going ever onward and forward in the vanguard of the permanent revolution. Yet if we assume Johns knows what he is doing (I think this is an assumption we can make in the case of a painter of such demonstrable intellect as Johns), we must assume he has reversed his stylistic development for a reason. We can only speculate on what that reason or reasons might be, although we have some testimony from the artist to aid us in reconstructing his motivation.

As anyone gets older they notice that situations, relationships, experiences, perceptions, become more complex. For most people the “dual situation” or paradox represents the most complex situation imaginable. Johns, however, discarded the simple paradox of painting and/or object as too simple. His answer to achieving the degree of complexity he requires as a mature artist is to extend duality or paradox to every element in his art.

Such a development, from simplicity to complexity, from ambivalence (two meanings) to multivalence (many meanings), from single cause and effect to multiple cause, from one fixed focus to many shifting focuses, from immediate experience to memory, can be seen as analogous with the human maturation process. One of the tragedies of 20th-century art is that so few artists have been able to allow themselves to accept the organic life cycle involving maturity at its crest. Some painters grow and mature, some merely change, others pursue the phantom of a second childhood. Picasso, for example, would rather cultivate a spurious freshness than accept aging as a process that yields new themes. The presence of such characteristics indicative of development, growth and maturation that we observe in Johns’s work, however, are what separate the profound thinker—artist or other—from the ordinary mind.

Rule 6: Cast all Certitudes into Doubt.

If Johns’s early works represented a static, immobile present, without reference to past or future actions, the later works deal with the theme of flux and instability. After 1960, the mode of the work is not static but shifting. Point of view, context, boundaries, space and distance perceptions, are seen in a perpetual state of flux and, change. A constant irritating questioning amounting to a systematic undercutting of any certitudes one might arrive at regarding the nature of visual-verbal, subject-object or object-context relationships replaces the fixed definitions of the early works. A quicksand of doubt—the swampy ground of Hatteras or Pinion, replaces the wall of indifference of the Target with Four Faces.

Between the early and later works lie a number of transitional paintings, as well as Johns’s sculpture and first prints. Perhaps the most important of these transitional paintings is the Flag on Orange Field. A punning title, presumably a pun on “flag” as a synonym for iris, links the painting semantically with the later pun on “flags” in the flagstones of the red, white and black Screen Piece paintings of 1968. If we accept the flower image established through a pun, Monet’s Field of Red Poppies comes to mind as a possible source for the sunny Impressionist landscape Johns has created. In Flag on Orange Field, several new elements are introduced. Although the flag is still an a priori image, a context, of which the original flags were deprived, is introduced in the form of the Impressionist field which acts as a frame for the flag.

Despite the introduction of a secondary color and a framing context, however, the Flag on Orange Field is as flat as the earliest flags. With the oil paintings of 1959, however, this changes. Johns’s decision to become a painter of space as opposed to a painter of surfaces was, we saw, the most striking and significant development in his style, and coincided with his first efforts in printmaking. Searching for a psychological equivalent for formal change in Johns’s work, we assume that something that permits itself to be looked “into” as opposed to merely being looked “at” reveals more of itself. Yet this opening and deepening is curious because of the context in which it takes place. For the context of the later works is established almost invariably by references to activities that have taken place in the past.

If painting is, as Johns has said he considers it, a language, then most if not all of the work after 1960 must be considered as statements in the past tense. In these works, the record of an action is the trace of a past action. The paintings and prints related to the circular image of Device are particularly pessimistic in this respect because they picture the future as only the repetition of the past. As the stick has moved to the position we see it in, so it will retrace its fixed course. The image recalled is Duchamp’s “vicious circle,” one of the repetitious litanies of the bachelors.

It seems evident that the action painter’s record of movement is the source for Johns’s imagery, although the inflection created by establishing that movement as the record of an action in the past is typical of Johns. We should, however, see Johns as the first to state the relationship between process (the record of past activities) and product it creates (present result of those activities)—the major theme of so much currently fashionable process art. Already in Johns’s paintings of the late fifties like Painting with Ruler and Grey, one has present the tool or object by means of which a mark or track is created, together with its record of its past action.

The coincidence of Johns’s conversion to a spatial art with the appearance of many themes dealing with time and memory is worth remarking. We have said that the flags and targets are striking in their “presentness,” that is, in the immediacy of their instantaneous impact. Exactly the opposite is true of the later works which require an extended period of time to be experienced or read.

In a significant essay on the relationship of Bergson’s conception of time and the image of time in Cézanne’s work, George Heard Hamilton has described how Impressionist paintings can be read with a single glance, whereas Cézanne’s paintings convey an experience of successive moments in time. Impressionist painting, according to Professor Hamilton, records a single moment, whereas Cézanne’s layered images suggest successive moments in time superimposed upon one another as Cézanne refocuses his vision of a subject. This difference, Hamilton suggests, results from the fact that Impressionist paintings were done at a single sitting, usually, whereas Cézanne required many sittings, sometimes coming back to a subject again and again.5

This relationship, between a present, instantaneously and wholly perceived at a glance and Cézanne’s view of the present as subsuming various moments in the past, describes the relationship between Johns’s early and later paintings with regard to their imaging of time. It is obvious that an explicitly flat image—particularly when it is so familiar a gestalt as Johns’s flags and targets—is visually apprehended at once. Marks that are layered in space, however, indicate a sequence of actions because some obviously were recorded before others.

One may also see Johns’s introduction of stenciled lettering, which accompanies the new interest in spatial perception, as related to the desire to express duration. In Prints and Visual Communication, William Ivins observes that “words are linear; pictures are simultaneous.” The introduction of words into a pictorial context thus has the practical result of inserting a sequential image within a visual context. It is, moreover, in connection with his interest in the theme of time that Johns’s method of working makes sense. Like Cézanne, and unlike most other recent artists, Johns works slowly, abandoning a work, then returning to it some weeks, months, or even years later. He is in fact the only important contemporary painter whose works are regularly dated over a two or three year time span. This is true of his prints as well. Double Map is dated 1965–66; 0–9 Portfolio was executed from 1960 to 1963. In the past few years, he has completely repainted a number of works including No and Voice. Since the beginning of 1970, he has been laboriously repainting the world map originally executed for the World’s Fair in Montreal in 1967.

As it solved certain formal problems, the graphic medium gave Johns new options in treating the theme of time which painting did not offer. In the paintings, time could only be treated metaphorically, since merely a single surface was involved and subsequent, i.e. “later” actions were necessarily superimposed. In paintings like Ruler with Grey and Device, Johns arrived at images in which past and present could co-exist, but these were still essentially still illustrations of time passing. Because of a peculiarity of graphic art, however—that is, that a print can have states which record subsequent moments co-existing on different surfaces—Johns was able to treat the theme of time and memory most effectively in his graphic art.

In one of his subtlest and most complex works, the 0–9 Portfolio, Johns elaborates the theme of the passage of time with an unparalleled sophistication in the form of an abstract narrative. The result differs from both the serial imagery of Impressionism and its derivatives, the successive motion of Futurism, or the “simultaneity” of Cubist superimpositions. Because they exist in predetermined relationships, numbers are the ideal subject to explore the theme of time. Sequence in this context becomes a metaphor for passage. The 0–9 Portfolio is indeed the ideal Johns theme: form is already abstract, and both subject and content can be easily couched as abstractions.

Numbers had occupied Johns since the first Figure 5 painted in 1955. They are an anonymous subject, meaningless unless they measure something. And since Johns makes sure they measure nothing, he achieves the separation between elements he seeks. Treating numbers as a pathetic fallacy, Johns gives them a history and memory, leading us to another of his endless traps that cause us to ask: a memory of what? Johns has said that Duchamp’s Passage of the Virgin to Bride suggested to him “the notion that one can picture change, what happened between A and B in a situation.”

The 0–9 lithographs investigate the relationship between what is constant and what is mutable; they are Johns’s most successful exploration of the problem of time, a problem that came to occupy more and more of his thinking in the sixties. In a review he wrote of Duchamp’s Large Glass Johns hinted of his fascination with the relationship between the constant (the lead image on the glass) and the mutable (the changing reality seen through the glass). He wrote in admiration of the “precision” of the Large Glass, and praised “the beauty of indifference” of its author who allowed “the changing focus of the eye, of the mind” which placed “the viewer where he is, not elsewhere.” Johns must have been thinking of just these factors when he made Thermometer, a painting in which an actual thermometer insures presentness much as the Large Glass does, and as Man Ray did in the related Catherine Barometer in which actual humidity rather than actual temperature is measured.

The three 0–9 Portfolios—one printed in grey on unbleached paper, one in black on white, and one in color on white—together constitute a unique work, both in Johns’s oeuvre as well as in the history of printmaking. They were produced in the following manner: each page was printed from two stones, one the size of the full image, the smaller one with only the bottom rectangle. On the larger stone, both rectangles appear: the upper register contains the complete series of digits from zero to nine; on the smaller stone, only the inferior rectangle with a single digit appears. The larger stone is printed on each page of the series; the smaller stone only on a single lithograph of a given portfolio. The result is that each portfolio contains a unique print. Typical of his contradictory nature, Johns will make sure that if printmaking is defined as an art of multiples, he will make a unique print. Since each portfolio contains a unique print, and the effect of the numerical mutations is to create an abstract narrative, Johns creates a kind of Rashomon situation with the existence of three “versions” of the same “story.”

Prior to the 0–9 Portfolios, Johns had executed a print of superimposed numbers. For this print, it is obvious that the numbers 0–9 were rendered sequentially, although the order of the sequence could never be established. The time sequence pictured in the 0–9 Portfolio, however, involves the process of change as one number is transformed into the number that follows it. Thus, through modifications on the same stone, one becomes two, two becomes three, etc., numbers are born of other numbers, they grow (are elaborated), are lost in a morass of revision, and die as they merge into the next in the sequence. We have seen that nature images lie behind many of Johns’s seemingly inorganic themes: perhaps 0–9 is his most successful treatment of the organic process of growth, maturity, decay and rebirth. Such a record of process would not be possible in any medium other than prints, in which the layers of revisions can be separated out as different states of the same image.

In this connection, Mrs. Grosman’s extensive record-keeping is interesting. She keeps all of the progressive proofs and states of each print so that in effect Johns has a history of each of his prints, a record of its process of growth which amounts to a kind of biography of a print. In 0–9 these histories are more important than the identities of the subject. At least as much drama is extracted by Johns in the passage of one number into another as Duchamp extracts from the erotic passage of the virgin into bride.6

The passage from one to two, for example, involved sanding the stone. After two was printed, crayon and wash were added and a white line was added. When the three became four, the lower half of the register was erased; a new fingerprint was added in the same place a fingerprint had been effaced. In the upper registers traces, ghosts of past images, remain as memories. When four became five, the top register was etched away with acid because it had become too dark and reworked. From five to six a rubber eraser with grit was used to create a grainy surface. After the colored series (the first to be printed from each stone) was printed, the stone was changed and had to be reworked, so that the black and grey versions are different. In some of the transitions, for example from six to seven, in which a hard linear counter is overprinted on the wash areas to retrieve the image of the six, lost in reworking, an image which has disappeared reappears. As the numbers proceed, they tend to be literally “greater,” that is richer, more embellished than lower denominations.

The abstract narrative that unfolds in the progress from number to number is peculiarly undramatic. But this is not surprising, since of the major artists of the sixties, Johns is probably the least theatrical, preferring intimate formats and motifs distinguished mainly by their apparent banality. Indeed, so in opposition to theater is his personality that on the one occasion he was to have performed (with Rauschenberg, Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle in Paris in 1961), he sent a floral arrangement of a target to be placed on the stage as his “appearance.”

Johns’s involvement with the theme of time, as seen both in the layered surfaces and images of his paintings, and the consideration of process in the states of prints, reveals an inability to destroy or forget the past, which endures to haunt the present. Perhaps it is as a wish to escape the present in dreams, memories and fantasies relating to the past that the theme of time came to obsess Johns in the sixties. The thermometer recording actual temperature and the ruler measuring actual space work against references to the past and the illusive space of dreams; their presence creates a tension between the real and the imagined that is but another complication.

If he arrived at this degree of complexity, it is because Johns came to a point when he had to reject his early works as too simple. He has described his involvement in making them as an interest in “accuracy.” He saw the welter of uniform strokes creating the suave crust of flags and targets as a “sum of corrections.” Although the target is an image of the measure of accuracy, Johns’s critique of his own activity was that the “aimed for” (if we may use the Johnsian pun) precision of meaning was impossible, because no situation was as simple as it might appear on the surface.

Taking the clues Johns provides in his statements, notes and titles, we are led straight back into his personal philosophy, as it relates to art as well as to life. Tracking these meanings we find that Johns is no Dada “pataphysician” as he has been unsympathetically pictured, but perhaps the only artist operating today in the dimension of a mental physics, that is of a true metaphysic. We infer that Johns sees no separation between decisions made in art and those made in life. His decisions have unmistakable moral implications, for he is among those artists for whom the activity on the canvas is the exemplar of his understanding of right human conduct.

In Johns’s case, morality is, purely and simply, an effort at picturing the way things are. His method of working is consequently his morality. He is forced to make endless painful revisions and corrections, to smudge and correct, because this effort does not represent an esthetic, but a moral position. His stylistic change was not a matter of choice but of moral necessity. He can no longer, after a certain point, picture a stable world of fixed definitions, closed boundaries and a single point of view because it does not seem to him “accurate,” that is, true. And for Johns, it is more important to pursue the truth than to follow a spurious esthetic progress. There are no advances in a morality of questioning and opposition. To maintain that we exist on shifting ground with no fixed poles of orientation is more difficult than to provide assurances of stability and order. It may, in fact, make the viewer as anxious as the artist who perceives the world this way.

Barbara Rose



1. In several sculptmetal works, including the large sculptmetal Numbers in Lincoln Center, which also has an impression of Merce Cunningham’s footprint, actual keys are imbedded into the surface.

2. All Johns quotes from the following sources: Untranscribed recording accompanying The Popular Image catalog, Washington Gallery of Modern Art, 1963; Walter Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,” Artforum, March 1965; Jasper Johns, “Sketchbook Notes,” Art and Literature, Spring, 1965; Max Kozloff, Jasper Johns, New York, 1969.

3. John Cage, “Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas,” A Year from Monday, Middletown, 1969.

4. That Johns chose as subjects the light bulb and flashlight—two artificial, mechanical light sources—may refer to his difficulty in transmitting light through painting. The later paintings and prints are more involved with natural daylight—either in the diffused light of Johns’s Edisto, South Carolina studio or in Mrs. Grosman’s light-filled Long Island workshop. In these works, bare canvas or white page may reflect light in a way quite opposed to the early works with their emphasis on the denseness of matière.

5. George Heard Hamilton, “Cézanne, Bergson, and the Image of Time,” College Art Journal, vol. xvi, no. 1.

6. See Richard S. Field, Jasper Johns Prints 1960–70 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) for a record of the execution of the lithograph Souvenir, and for additional material regarding process imagery in the 0–9 Portfolio.