PRINT April 1976

Jasper John’s New Paintings

The aim of every authentic artist is not to conform to the history of art but to release himself from it, in order to replace it with his own history.
––Harold Rosenberg, in Art on the Edge

LEO STEINBERG WAS HIS MOST ELOQUENT spokesman, but he wrote nothing else after that watershed monograph of 1962. Articles about his new art tend to be generous sighs about the iconic images of the ’50s, which have been reworked in the graphic—mostly lithographic—works of the past few years. The only continuous work we see is of uncertain interest: it can be boringly repetitious (Ale Cans, 1975), messy, complex and repetitious (the Decoys, 1971–73), brilliant even if repetitious (the “Body Part” series, 1974), or brilliantly repetitious (Double Flag, 1970–72).1 His singular reputation has released him from the pressure of the annual one-person show that almost every other artist finds necessary in the rapid turnover of the New York “fast food” art world. So it is surprising to have the opportunity to see this large group of paintings, drawings, and prints (Castelli Uptown, February, 1976), since they really are new. They suggest that of the artists to come into prominence in the early ’60s, Jasper Johns has outstandingly reinvented his past. What has been written of the work after the famous flags, targets, numbers, maps, etc., has been inadequate. This new work gives us a fresh opportunity to analyze an oeuvre that had become increasingly problematic and hermetic.

Yet on one level, Johns has always been quite easy for the art historian to deal with. He not only created works which were very similar in certain iconic qualities, but also “plugged in” to a great deal of past art. Johns had mined the techniques of Impressionism in his early works, the discreet brushstroke, the “all-over” effect. He used the uncontrolled Action Painter’s stroke, beginning with False Start. Johns had also referred to the Cubist grid in the numbers and alphabets, and took the layered space of Cézanne and the Cubists literally in such works as Three Flags, to a most humorous effect. There is, of course, the influence of Dada and Duchamp.

After his inventory of signs and techniques had been entrenched in his audience’s mind as being Johnsian signs, he systematically recycled those motifs for a decade in varied works which led up to the immensely complex and encyclopedic According to What? (1964). Using the techniques of the past with his own well-known images to create a world of endless interconnections, he could have recombined the results indefinitely. His always was an art of playing with the audience, with its expectations. The new work appears, superficially, at least, as a completely new departure, for the image unit is unfamiliar.

But the image is not so new. What it is is a striking abstraction of previous images, with implications that reach right back to the Flags. Earlier, the images derived their meaning from their origin in our everyday life and/or from Johns’s own array of signs. Everything he used could be related as symbol, everything could be interconnected, just as each pun that Duchamp made might penetrate throughout his other work. Johns’s new paintings achieve a startling freshness, a freshness which can only be made possible when something appears to be totally new. Without knowing the complex history of his past, we might sense in Johns’s new clarity and openness a decorative affinity with some cutouts of Matisse. That is, the unaware viewer would see in these paintings more of those late cutouts with their bright colors and white spaces, their rhythmicalness, than anything resembling According to What?

This rhythmicalness, probably the most appealing and salient feature of these works, is achieved in a variety of ways. In his number paintings, Johns used the Cubist grid literally, but also reinstituted pattern as a means of achieving a situation of completely given structure. What Amy Goldin has shown of pattern—“its affinities with number, rationality, mechanical production, the depersonalized imagery”—reads like Steinberg’s list of the qualities of Johns’s images. Furthermore, Goldin says of pattern that it “denies the importance of singularity, purity, and absolute precision.”2

Nothing could be closer to Johns’s own description of the painting situation itself as being an “impure” one. Johns uses the most rational, conscious methods of achieving pattern. Each unit in the new work is doubled, repeated again, inverted, mirrored. Whole canvases are doubled, partially repeated, mirrored—certainly common enough devices in any number of his past works. The small motif that makes up the entire surface of every painting is treated both mechanically and imperfectly, for Johns paints by hand, not machine, and there are imperfections in detail, sometimes in overall pattern.

His cross, or “X,” a marking-out device, is summoned when the intricacies of pattern apparently get out of hand. When he can no longer control the “machine” he has created to transform his motif, he negates it. An iron imprint also appears in the encaustic paintings; Johns never tries to do again what has failed; he accepts. Most of the patterns have been thought over meticulously. Accompanying drawings function as close counterparts of the paintings. But these drawings are one situation and the paintings are another. For all the elaborate technical effort on paper, Johns’s work on canvas repeats the “errors” first made. There is no going back to a pure situation. Pattern can be made perfect, but Johns subverts it. What this inevitably brings to mind is Islamic asymmetrical pattern, modules and their accumulated effect. Johns’s simple motif, and mind-boggling permutations of it, certainly create a situation as awesome as the great mystical tile patterns found in Moslem architecture.

The basic unit that Johns has employed is fraught with so many overtones of his past that one hardly knows where to begin. Directly, it relates to the lines that filled the flagstones in the large lithographs executed in 1974. These originated in the personal-inventory paintings of 1968, such as the Studios, and Harlem Light. The lines conjure up the stripes of the Flags, the hatchings of the drawings, but most of all remind one of the fingers and hands in such paintings as Hart Crane, Diver and Hatteras.

There are five lines in the new motif, and they are abstractions of the fingers of these paintings. The middle lines are always longest, and the “little” finger and “thumb” are sometimes missing, evoking that sense of dismemberment found, for example, in the body parts and faces of the Target paintings. This abstracted hand motif is dehumanized further by being subjected to mechanical, rational, transformative techniques. The places where the fingers meet in their mirrored images remind one of Rorschach prints, or bats; in another setting they would be butterflies. Uneasiness and alienation are compounded by the sinister. The contradiction between the lively play of color, the joyousness of pattern and the manipulation of that pattern; between the naturalistic reference of the motif and its abstraction; between the ideal perfection of mechanical repetition and the human error—these things yank at our responses, tug them in different directions.

The sinister bat, the happy butterfly. Which is the correct response? Only one painting seems to be definite about the matter. Its two-way mirrored fingers compose themselves into the form of a Devil’s Eye, a kind of shamanistic fetish from Mexico. The painting is called Corpse and Mirror. The Devil’s Eye is formed like a spider’s web by wrapping yarn around a cross made of two twigs. Like a spider’s web, a Johns painting catches its bait by trapping it first on the surface. The critic is caught up in the web. The Critic not only “Sees,” but The Critic Eats.

Johns has returned to easel-size canvases. Even when combined in his usual two and three sequences, they are still not large. The juxtapositions occur at the mirrored or repeated points of the pattern. Sometimes, in a delightful fabriclike play, the pattern repeats its last small portion at the beginning of the next panel. Sometimes, the mirror is four-way, suggesting a Cartesian coordinate system. More often, the divided canvas will function as a method of elucidating process and material. Each half will be in a different medium. Johns plays with the difference between oil and encaustic. Oil is easy to apply; encaustic is solid, slow, difficult. The difference between the processes is like the difference between having an idea and executing it. Encaustic, as a medium, seems a good way of indicating objectness. As he uses it, the encaustic brushstroke, in its thick embodiment, delivers an objectlike presence to the whole painting. Oil gives Johns the opportunity to do something other than insist on the objectlike qualities of painting. It is no coincidence that the freshness that I have described owes itself to the oil medium.

Johns uses the oil right out of the tube, and I don’t mean that he doesn’t mix the colors. He squeezes onto the canvas right from the tube. The look is spontaneous. His method with encaustic is the “classic” one he made famous—dipping in newspaper, or using a newprint undercoat. The dull, matte opaqueness of encaustic is consistently played off against the ease of oil. But in one painting, The Barber’s Tree, Johns invokes an incredible color experience by using a color with which he’s never been associated—emphatic pink. It is as if pink is unnatural simply because Johns has never employed it. In his typically logical way, he might answer that what could be more “natural” than to use pink, if the subject is the human hand, the color of human flesh? The range of pinks and the visual sensations they invoke are one thing, and his sheer technical facility is another. In light of the contradiction I have drawn between the visual effect of encaustic and oil, this painting makes a mockery of everything Johns had trained us to discriminate. Encaustic can look as fresh and bright as oil. Another impure situation, another change of focus.

Working with color before, Johns had stressed the difference between the physical and linguistic conventions that surrounded the experiencing of color. He used color as a thing, as an attribute of paint, and as a name alienated from its physical correlate. False Start subjected color to an irrational play of these conventions within a non-structured field. Johns has never been able to present color (until now), in any but the most conventionalized way. His color charts and spectrums were the only way he could get a rational hold on the slippery problem of color. In the new work, he no longer interests himself in conventional methods of perceiving. As a consequence, his color is as it has never been before. Highly structured but immensely expressive, the color is used in purely visual ways without the impediment of names. Scent uses secondary colors, but underneath is a complete layer of primary colors. (They are analogous to the secondary colors submerged under the grays in Jubilee.) Another painting, The Dutch Wives, is a grisaille partner to Scent, further differentiated by its use of encaustic alone, while Scent is completely in oil. The colors of the all-primary and all-secondary paintings remind one of the problems cartographers have in plotting color schemes on maps to prevent contiguous states from sharing the same color. Johns’s new parallel-line unit in these paintings does not have the added identity of discrete shape, as a state in one of his Maps would, but is differentiated by direction. One orange looks different when embodied in a unit consisting of vertical (north–south) rather than horizontal (east–west) stripes. The “device” which used to confine the circles now revolves the finger-image and in its rotation we see in a different “light,” in a different color.

The very title of the work, which uses submerged primary colors (and not at their most primary either, but in a sweet, pastel condition) and bright secondaries not quite covering them, suggests a game in which all the rules are not apparent, and many of the clues have been hidden. The game is a hunt, a hunt to figure out what the paintings can tell us. Some older Johnsian clues, like the fork and knife, were given to us by the Johnsian Watchman (alluded to in a cryptic note), but here we have no verbal stimulus other than his titles. Scent. On the trail of the scent, we may discover more clues. For all the lightheartedness of the painting, there is again something mysterious, something not quite known. Johns has used the metaphor of seeing and eating before. Now he adds the sense of smell, something even more mysterious than either what you can see (and by extension touch) or eat (and thus possess for one’s self in the body). Smell is not something which can be consumed like a work of art. Smell is invisible, yet exists in space; it is as real as the object it emanates from, but hardly verifiable from person to person. Smell is slightly suspect from a rational point of view, and it is yet another clue in ferreting out the meaning of Johns’s visual-metaphysical game—a game which leads to more clues but never to the source. The disembodied “scent” lingering in the air is the painting Johns has left as a by-product of the real hunt which took place, a hunt whose trail we are left to reconstruct.

“I think that what is of interest is in the ‘air’ of which all art comes from.”
—Jasper Johns.3

Jeff Perrone reviews for Artforum from San Francisco.



1. All these prints could he seen at an exhibition of works from Universal Limited Art Editions at Knoedler in January, 1976, except the “Body Parts” series.

2. Amy Goldin, “Patterns Grids and Painting,” Artforum, Sept. 1975. As a note, might add that there was one lithograph/linocut/block print that was a double for a full-size painting; what was interesting is that the print was a “perfect” version of the painting. The painting had many layers of different colors and strokes, the print had one, very clean surface. It was the lack of layered image, and layered meaning that made the print the most lightweight work displayed, and also the most Matisse-like. The associations and meanings increased upon reflection of the paintings; the graphic work, mainly because it cannot support constant reworking necessary to accrete meaning, seemed to be exercises in placement and design, and thus not as interesting.

3. Quoted in Joseph E. Young, “Jasper Johns: An Appraisal,” Art International, Sept. 1969, pg. 54.