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Johns the Pessimist

ALMOST FROM THE VERY BEGINNING of his career as an artist, Jasper Johns reflected about things which are of philosophical interest: about language; about change; about space, time and memory. He seemed to believe that he had to think about all these things in an ongoing process of dialectic, without a standstill, without resting anywhere, without arriving at any point where the dialectic might come to an end. This stance made him a critic of that which is taken for granted, of the mental status quo.

Johns often reminds me of Ulrich, the chief character of Robert Musil’s novel The Man without Qualities (1930–43). Ulrich does not commit himself to a position, a fixed point of view. His aim is rather to achieve something by an act of negation, by withdrawing from naturally normal, straightforward living within the horizon of the surrounding world and by observing that world with mockery,

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