PRINT May 1976



Painted pattern made its first appearance in Jasper Johns’s work in his recent exhibition at Castelli. Its introduction coincided with a new look; the innovation required a distinct shift from the kind of response previously elicited by Johns’s painting. As your reviewer noted, the exhibition called for a new critical attitude toward Johns and his production. He began bravely by linking its novelty to Matisse and “unfamiliar image units,” but soon retreated to the usual themes of Johns criticism—the dynamic sensuousness of his surfaces and the import of his motifs.

The trouble is that people—including Mr. Perrone—will go on identifying pattern with repetition—a mistake that makes the real structural novelty of this work invisible and leaves its new “feel” ungrounded. The fact of the matter is that many of the paintings in this show involve forms of repetition that we have seen before in Johns’s work, and repetition does not identify the presence of pattern.

We have seen Johns repeat the total image before, as he does in Dutch Wives, or hinge a reversed image around a central axis (four-way mirroring never appears, incidentally). And we have certainly seen Johns repeating specific shapes. He has always leaned heavily on repetition because recurrence allowed him to pursue his favorite ambiguities, that obsession with presence which has always linked him to Duchamp. Johns had always insisted on establishing the authenticity of his forms—and equally on casting their authenticity into doubt. Such a complex aim led him to use, successively, juxtapositions of two- and three-dimensional elements, pairings of depicted things with their names (true and false) and innumerable traces, implications and allusions that marked, simultaneously, the presence and absence of forms, actions, things. Repeated images allowed him to sow doubt and disorientation, and to force the viewer to repeated revisions of the truth-status of what he saw.

Johns’s recent exhibition moves away from those concerns; it is unique in his career because he seems to be in the process of dispensing with specific forms entirely. We believe that Mr. Perrone (like other reviewers) is mistaken in identifying those five lines (the “abstract fingers”) as a motif like any other Johns motif. They are merely part of his module, for every work in this exhibition deals with sets of linear oppositions. These canvases do not merely repeat forms; each establishes a field of regularized relationships.

Patterned fields dominate the show, despite a few held-over images from Johns’s earlier work. The tangible quality of Johns’s fields, each with its specific quanta of tension, density and airiness, depends on the interplay of three factors. They are: the angle of implied encounter between linear sets, which inhibits or augments our awareness of thrust and directional energy; the distance between sets, which establishes the density of the field and creates an atmosphere of airiness (Scent) or closure (Weeping Women); and finally, the separation of the linear sets into color series. The color widens the gesture and opens the surface still further by creating a greater interval between repetitions. We think that the difference between the monochrome, star-tension dominated canvases and the more colorful and staccato pictures is the difference Mr. Perrone is talking about when he brings in the bats and butterflies. The trouble with his bats and butterflies is that they imply that these are normal paintings, with emotional distinctions created by a variety of forms and gestures. But that is not at all the case: Johns arrives at his various images without varying his visual unit. He is working, very intelligently, with pattern.

The perceptual weight of Johnsian motifs is quite swept away in the seas of pattern, and with the motif goes all that tiresome concern with metaphysical priority. Since Johns apparently finds puzzlement a creatively fertile state, the new paintings introduce a new “issue.” Now pictorial ambiguity focuses on part/ whole relationships or hidden discontinuities within an apparently sustained whole (it turns out to be the same thing). The imageless pattern areas tend to be compartmentalized, and the viewer is set the problem of deciding whether each new section is a variant, repetition or relocation of its neighbor; or whether, in fact, the “compartment” presents a false division of an essentially continuous field. Johns is challenging the Minimalist idea of the painting as a material object by dramatizing the similarity of physically and visually disjunctive surfaces.

One picture may consist of two paintings set in a single frame (Dutch Wives) or a purely visual stress on color divisions can be strong enough to suggest that the picture is a composite image (the very Cubist-looking Weeping Women). Or a central axis can juxtapose three physically disjunct canvases on one side and on the other side parallel the separations between them with purely visual compartments. (See Corpse and Mirror II.) The large printed version of Scent is on one sheet of paper but slyly turns out to be a seamless sequence of separate techniques—lithography, linocut and woodcut. An image manifested in a similar variety of materials takes a vertical format, also on paper, but plays the differences up, rather than down.

Johns’s earlier surface often suggested a palpable ground, a sort of quicksand from which his significant images might emerge or in which they might be swallowed. Now the patterned ground itself takes the stellar role. Sometimes it becomes smoother and more precisely luminous, sometimes it retreats from clarity and subsides into mumbling. Mr. Perrone is surely wrong in calling the near-cancellations of pattern “mistakes” or attempts to control an uncontrolled process. While the regularity of pattern is occasionally modulated by overlaid strokes or images, such devices (X’s or the free, Twombly-like scribbles in Barber Tree) remain superficial in every sense. A more formal and much fresher solution appears when the relocation of structural modules takes over the job of providing pictorial incident. Then it is obvious that Johns is working with pattern, not against it.

The best example is the most recent work exhibited, a sheet of tracing paper which includes a schematic drawing. The drawing makes it possible to infer the process which produces the final image. A stack of three rectangles is used to generate mirror images of each component, making another stack on the right. Unexpectedly, the axis of reflection occurs at a horizontal edge of each rectangle rather than around the picture’s dominant central axis. As a further complication, the upper lefthand rectangle appears in reverse at the lower right, and the lower left at the upper right. The middle rectangle is reflected and shifted in a similar manner. These repetitions are not easy to pick up—only the diagram makes it possible. Johns obscured his scheme by introducing color as a variable independent of the line. Apparently added after the linear substructure, the color reinforces the larger units and turns the fine lines into detail.

Nobody needs to retrace Johns’s procedures in this detail to appreciate the work. The writers saw the exhibition together, and tried to dazzle each other with their cleverness in understanding the patterns. We feel the importance of pattern as an artistic resource deserves attention it did not receive from Mr. Perrone.

Amy Goldin and Robert Kushner
New York City

P.S. What is a Cubist grid?

I’ve never taken to replying to reviews because I think reviewers have a right to say what they want about paintings.

However, in his review of my last show (Artforum, March, 1976) Carter Ratcliff discussed my writing. Thereby he obliged himself to stick to the facts, and he didn’t.

He said that my article “Notes on American Painting of the ’60s” (Artforum, January, 1970) provides a set of rules that requires good painting to do or have certain things, which he specifies with quotes from the article.

But I didn’t do that: never have and never will. I didn’t say what a good painting must be, or have, or do. I described some of the features of paintings which in my judgment are good paintings and how these features work to the advantage of these paintings. It’s as simple as that. I make mistakes but not rules. Anyone who makes rules for painting is a fool, and anyone who reads description as prescription is also a fool.

It is painful and tiresome to endlessly point out simple facts like this to the illiterates of the art world. I’m not sure it’s. worth it, but I felt this one needed answering.

Walter Darby Bannard
Princeton, N.J.

Carter Ratcliff Replies:
Descriptions, in Mr. Bannard’s criticism, are prescriptive statements which guide him without exception in praising and censuring other painters’ work. Hence, his descriptions are poorly disguised rules. The fact that Mr. Bannard refuses to take responsibility for his prescriptiveness does not alter the fact that he is prescriptive. Perhaps, for his sake, I should state an obvious corollary to these remarks: it is not enough to insist that one never has done nor ever will do something as undesirable as promulgating rules for artists; it is also necessary to refrain from doing that undesirable thing.

Mr. Bannard calls me an illiterate and a fool. Name-calling is all very well, if one is reduced to it. Mr. Bannard is reduced to it quite often—see the slurs he has directed at Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein and others. I suppose we would all be judged fools by a perfect intelligence. Since Mr. Bannard’s intelligence is not of that nature, I shall say nothing of his judgment that I am a fool. Illiteracy is another matter, for it is indeed an issue in today’s art world. It is an issue throughout contemporary American culture. However, in this present disagreement, the only question of illiteracy is raised by the off chance that Mr. Bannard is sincere in his claim that he does not set rules for other painters. If his claim is made sincerely, I shall have to conclude that Mr. Bannard is unable to read either the substance or the implications of his own critical writing.

Ms. Foote’s extraordinary cover photograph of Zeus for the February issue of Artforum shows an instinctive understanding of the work that I don’t find in the text of her article on Mark di Suvero, Richard Nonas, and me.

In the first place, my art is not a subsequent development, assimilation, or transformation of di Suvero’s. She mentioned parallels in our development, but then she wrote that my (and Nonas’s) work “profits when compared to di Suvero, as it shows how his insights have been imaginatively mutated.” When I made my first calligraphic sculpture in 1958 I had no idea I was being influenced by work di Suvero was about to embark upon the following year. This is what her comments imply, however.

Secondly, she says that my work, “along with that of di Suvero and Chamberlain, emerged from Abstract Expressionism and has followed comparable lines of. development.” The term Abstract Expressionism is certainly not broad enough to include the great sites of antiquity, Oriental calligraphy and perspective, most of the “ism’s” since the turn of the century, Pollock’s and Newman’s aspirations for space, Kiesler’s “Galaxies,” and Nakian’s “Rape of Lucretia.” It was all that, plus a predilection from the beginning toward a decidedly Eastern visual bias, that cemented my determination to make the large open-form works I brought to New York in 1959. What my work really emerged from was a desire to evoke a whole view of the world as I experience it. The pristine doctrine of form as fact may present things as they are, but their overall appearance is neglected.

Short of denying the object itself, sculpture must consider factors of gravity and perspective as part of its physical liability. It need not be intimidated by them, however.

Our acceptance in the West of Renaissance perspective as the only correct way to view our world has left us with an underdeveloped perceptual, and decidedly literal understanding of objects in space. We can only see what we’ve come to identify as actual space and are quite blind to implied space. Works that question our visual habits are interpreted by the same criteria we use for those that reinforce the widely held assumptions we cling to.

In her discussion of Zeus she wrote that my process “refers as much to industrial construction techniques as to past constructivist art,” and goes on to say that “the transformations that occur here have more to do with context than conscious composition or reformulation.”

Zeus actually was a reformulation of an old idea, first attempted in 1960 and left hanging for a number of years until subsequent works set the stage for it to come into being now. It was never my intention for Zeus to remind anyone of the activity of a crane hoist or any other kind of industrial endeavor. I’d never make a work on such a flimsy excuse. Her cover photograph should attest to one of the real intentions of the work, which is to short-circuit any literal reading of the downstairs Sculpture Now space.

All photographs greatly exaggerate the section of the work closest to the lens, automatically creating an illusion of heightened reality in keeping with the spirit of Zeus. In this sense her statement that my sculptures “appear to work against a natural force” is quite accurate.

Daedalus and Icarus also work against a natural impulse, at least because they came into being without a particular site in mind. Ideally the site should evoke the work.

Charles Ginnever
Putney, Vt.

Nancy Foote Replies
My thanks to Mr. Ginnever for his compliments on my photograph. As for the rest of his letter (lecture?), I think he misunderstood my review as much as he claims I misunderstand his work.

1) I see parallels between his current work and di Suvero’s; I was not suggesting that his entire career has been so influenced.

2) The term “Abstract Expressionism” is not broad enough to include Oriental calligraphy, most 20th-century “isms,” Pollock, Newman and Nakian? This will be news to a lot of people.

3) Regarding the inability of “the pristine doctrine of form as fact” to “evoke a whole view of the world” as he experiences it—all a work gives us is itself. Perhaps Mr. Ginnever should attach annotations as to his underlying intentions.

4) Regarding Zeus: it is made of (beams; so are buildings. The industrial associations this inevitably suggests in no way diminish Zeus’s power as art—if anything, they enhance it. The absence of “reformulation” I mentioned referred to the material, not. the idea.

5) Finally, he states that “ideally the site should evoke the work.” Agreed. That was the point of my article.

Nancy Foote, in her article “Three Sculptors,” falsely attributes to me certain absurd “interests”—I have never been concerned with “the process of continuation” or “infinite extension”—my works have always been rather peculiar in mostly being fixed in configuration by their cardinality—Lever could not “consist of more or fewer bricks” as Foote falsely asserts because the cardinality of Lever (137) determines its shape just as much as do the size and shape of its constituent units.

Carl Andre
New York City

Nancy Foote replies:
It is most edifying to have Mr. Andre confirm his devotion to cardinal parameters. In view of his comments on Brancusi’s Endless Column, however, which he admires for its “verticality which is not terminal,” (Artforum, June, 1970) it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that he might also be intrigued by processes of “continuation” and “infinite extension.”

Suzanne Stephens (“Such Good Intentions : Architecture for the’ Arts at Purchase,” Artforum, January, 1976 has analyzed the failure of Edward Larrabee Barnes to provide the appropriate physical environment for the new SUNY college at Purchase. She might well have sharpened her indictment had she considered Barnes’s earlier work at the other SUNY unit for which he was the campus planner, the college at Potsdam. Although his objective there was complicated by the decision to incorporate into a new campus several older nondescript buildings, his overall solution was much the same: a symmetrical Beaux-Arts complex formed by a linked string of low-scale vernacular buildings arranged around an extended quadrangle and wrapped in a common brick skin. The spaces are grandiose, the buildings are not, the vistas empty and sterile. The expanse of unrelieved brick surfaces conveys, as at Purchase, the notion of “hermetically sealed, noncommunicative sculptural fragments.” The effect is not only monolithic, but students quite naturally find it barren, alienating, and tending to emphasize the very sense of isolation and dullness of site both colleges hoped to overcome.

Stephens generously calls the Purchase campus “a brave attempt to find answers that proved to be beyond its reach.” But the striking similarities not only between the two plans but in the design of individual components of each show Barnes merely restating at Purchase what had already been expressed in the North Country (Architectural Record, August, 1972, pp. 81–90). Was he really seeking new answers? One suspects that instead of bringing a fresh response to the particular needs of the individual client, Barnes was imposing on Purchase simply another version of an idee fixée—and, at that, a concept which, for all his success in designing commercial complexes, simply does not work as an academic setting.

William A. Moffett
Canton, N.Y.

As the owner of The Last Painting of Vincent Van Gogh by Malcolm Morley, I was quite interested in Phil Patton’s review of Super Realism: A Critical Anthology in your January issue. Mr. Patton has obviously not seen the painting and in seeing only a reproduction of the painting, a photograph if you will, he has fallen victim to the photograph’s two-dimensional surface. The Last Painting of Vincent Van Gogh is not a two-dimensional work of a “painterly painting on its easel in a photographically realistic environment,” but rather a three-dimensional, free-standing work consisting of a painting on an easel accompanied by a paint box filled with paint tubes and a replica of the gun Van Gogh might have used. This assemblage was then photographed for the cover of Battcock’s book in a park.

Malcolm Morley was amused by the appearance of this particular work on the cover of a book on photo-Realist painting. I’m led to wonder if Battcock might be playing a subtle joke on all of us by using such a deceptive reproduction of a “photo-Realist” painting. Richard McClean, when once asked about the difference between a photograph and a photo-Realist painting, said the photograph is to the painting what the recipe is to the cake. Presumably, Mr. Patton would not prefer to eat the recipe!

Incidentally, Mr. Patton would not have been photographically deceived had he read page 185 of the book he reviewed.

Larry Meeker
Kansas City, Kansas

The January, 1976 issue of Artforum is printed upside down except for my drawing.

Bruce Conner
San Francisco