PRINT October 1977

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, critique, and the utmost pessimistic irony. He loves to play with possibilities. He may choose among them, but every choice could just as well have been a different one.

He uses his imagination and says: Here such and such might, should or ought to happen. And if he is told that something is the way it is, then he thinks: Well, it could probably just as easily be some other way. So the sense of possibility might be defined outright as the capacity to think how everything could “just as easily” be, and to attach no more importance to what is than to what is not.1

This man is aware of his own mediated nature. He lives “within a finer web, a web of haze, imaginings, fantasy and the subjunctive mood,” as Musil puts it in the novel. It is not only possible, but in fact extremely likely, that he would pass unhesitatingly from the abstractions of philosophical reflections to the realities of artistic problems, in a constant experimentation with possibilities.

AT THE BEGINNING of his career, Johns took for granted as ultimate the order of the world in which he lived and in which he found his proximate concerns. In that world he attributed a fresh and often brutally realistic meaning to the things around him by virtue of his artistic intention. As he put it in an interview with David Sylvester, referring to the early paintings of flags, targets, and numbers:

I’m interested in things which suggest the world rather than suggest the personality. I’m interested in things which suggest things which are, rather than in judgments. The most conventional thing, the most ordinary thing—it seems to me that those things that can be dealt with without having to judge them: they seem to me to exist as clear facts, not involving aesthetic hierarchy.2

This resentment against personality or judgment or an esthetic hierarchy of things more or less worthy of regard is deeply rooted in a resentment against subjectivization in the esthetic sphere. Johns did not want to impose himself upon the things he dealt with. He did not want to give a meaning to them on a purely constitutive level through his ego and its potentialities. Rather, he wanted to transcend the subjectivism implicit in this attitude toward the world and to see the things around him as objects which exist matter-of-factly among other objects within the continuity of the world.

There are, for instance, the two well-known target paintings in which he combined the elementary patterns of a target’s concentric circles with the casts of fragments of the human body. In Target with Four Faces, 1955, we see the casts of four faces in boxes over the target. The faces are cut off at eye level; all we notice are the lower part of the nose and the mouth. In Target with Plaster Casts, also of 1955, the casts of several anatomical parts are placed in small boxes over the target. In these and other early paintings there is a radical elimination of illusionistic space. The background is ripped away from the objects presented, and as a result these objects exist on an explicitly flat surface. They give the impression of existing in a vacuum, in some independent, self-sufficient, autonomous manner. Johns himself seems to have felt at the time that the objects he used in his paintings were almost there by chance or fate. When asked by Leo Steinberg why he cut off the casts of the four faces under the eyes before employing them in the Target with Four Faces, he said: “They couldn’t have fitted into the boxes if I’d left them whole.”3 In this as in other respects, he did not realize at the time that it was up to him to pay attention to plaster casts, or targets, or flags and numbers, in that he intended those objects on the basis of his feelings, interests and reflections, and in that there was always a correlation between those objects and his own intentional acts.

In 1959 the 29-year-old Johns found it necessary to change his attitude toward the world. The change seems to have arisen from his willingness to see life as a sequence of alterations between contradictions. This kept coming up in almost every work after 1959. He shifted from art to life, from realities to possibilities, from given objects to their destruction, from the memories of the past to the flux of experiences in the here and now. It seems to me that he developed at that stage in his career a new philosophical world-view.

The case of False Start is the most puzzling of all. Johns confronts us in this painting of 1959 with stenciled color-names, and with an inconsistency between those color names and the given colors on the canvas. In some cases the word “blue” really identifies a blue field, or the word “yellow” a yellow field. But most color-names run quite contrary to the colors of the fields on which they are placed: a blue or yellow field is labeled red; or a red field, orange; or a yellow field, white. These dizzying shifts between color names and their corresponding color patches require a shifting attentiveness. They require that we oscillate between what we see through our eyes and what we know on the basis of our previous knowledge. The same could be said of Jubilee, also painted in 1959. We recognize through our eyes that there are black, white, and gray areas on the canvas. But color-names like “red” or “blue” or “orange” are placed on these fields, which implies that the painting has other layers of meaning—layers that call the reliability of our own previous knowledge into question. We shall not be confused by such paintings if we consider that Johns changed his philosophical outlook in those days.

In 1965 Johns considered,

The early things to me were very strongly objects. Then it occurs that, well, any painting is an object, but there was . . . I don’t know how to describe the sense alterations that I went through in doing this in thinking and in seeing. But I thought how then to make an object which is not so easily defined as an object.4

What he says here points directly at his new ideas. In few words, he reports that “the object itself is a somewhat dubious concept,”5 and that his understanding of an object depends upon a shifting point of view.

Now the idea of “thing” or “it” can be subjected to great alterations, so that we look in a certain direction and we see one thing, we look in another way and we see another thing. So that what we call “thing” becomes very elusive and very flexible, and it involves the arrangement of elements before us, and it also involves the arrangement of our senses at the time of encountering this thing. It involves the way we focus, what we are willing to accept as being there. In the process of working on a painting, all of these things interest me. I tend, while setting one thing up, to move away from it to another possibility within the painting, I believe. At least that would be an ambition of mine.6

Here we have a pluralist world-view. The early paintings were guided by a fixed focus, and Johns seems not to have been aware of the overall framework in which the understanding of an object has its place. He did not realize how he, by virtue of his feelings, intentions, interests, and his whole being in the context of the world, was contributing to the understanding of an object from a variety of viewpoints—in a Joycean game with a multiplicity of conflicting, and perhaps even logically contradictory, ideas.

A parallel from literature may clarify the new world-view. Here are a few sentences from Tropisms and the Age of Suspicion (1956–57), by Natalie Sarraute:

Now she was grown, little fish grow big, yes, indeed!, time passes fast, oh! it’s once you’re past twenty that the years begin to fly by, faster and faster, isn’t that so? They think that too? And she stood there before them in her black ensemble, which goes with everything, and besides, black always looks well, doesn’t it? . . . she remained seated, her hands folded over her matching handbag, smiling, nodding her head sympathetically, of course she had heard, she knew that their grandmother’s death had been a lingering one, it was because she had been so strong, they weren’t like us, at her age, imagine, she still had all her teeth.7

We read about a young lady, the way she is dressed, her grandmother, and about a lot of other things. But all these sentences—or better, these chains of words—leave us very much in doubt about their meaning. To put it generally: we do not know what to concentrate on—whether on aging, or on matching accessories, or on an elderly lady and her teeth. Such a text, with its varied and disjointed elements, gives us no hint for reconstructing a definite picture or an ordered, logically coherent world. What it provides at best is a collection of short remarks, fragments of ideas, and punctuation marks.

There are many passages in Joyce’s Ulysses, as well as in the writings of Samuel Beckett and Uwe Johnson, or Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor, in which we recognize something very similar. What we find in their works is the use of language with all its trivial elements, as our day-to-day means of communication; and if these writers have any expectations with regard to our reading of their works at all, then surely the most important one is the hope that we read them as circumspectly as possible. We can never be sure of these texts (just as we can never be sure of False Start and Jubilee with their tensions between color names and color fields). On the contrary, the more complex these works are, the greater the necessity to turn forward and backward during the process of reading them. Thus we become immersed in works like these. We gather each of their momentary phases. We follow how they move from descriptions to arguments, or from the things around us to unusual things, to things which are presented in such a detailed or ironical manner that they seem foreign, strange, or sometimes even terrifying.

Johns himself comes out very clearly and strongly, very certain of these points:

Most of my thoughts involve impurities. . . . I think it is a form of play, or a form of exercise, and it’s in part mental and in part visual (and God knows what that is) but that’s one of the things we like about the visual arts. The terms in which we’re accustomed to thinking are adulterated or abused. Or, a term that we’re not used to using or which we have not used in our experience becomes very clear. Or, what is explicit suddenly isn’t. We like the novelty of giving up what we know, and we like the novelty of coming to know something we did not know. Otherwise, we would just hold on to what we have, and that’s not very interesting.8

This view of his thoughts comes near to implying that anything worth believing seems to be worth doubting too. Johns says himself:

Whatever idea one has, it’s always susceptible to doubt, and to the possibility that something else has been or might be introduced to that arrangement which would alter it.9

Or again:

I personally would like to keep the painting in a state of “shunning statement,” so that one is left with the fact that one can experience individually as one pleases; that is, not to focus the attention in one way, but to leave the situation as a kind of actual thing, so that the experience of it is variable.10

CHARACTERISTICALLY, JOHNS DOES not hanker for some kind of certainty. He remains indeterminate. He seems to believe that the creation of something is based, dialectically, on a negative impulse. That, in turn, requires that we respond to his work with a dialectical process of our own. We play with the different parts of his work, arrange them in a special order of our choice through the combinatory power of our own minds, and take more and more layers of meaning into account. But there is no such thing as a firm solution. Every solution is tentative—“variable,” as Johns would be quick to say.

In 1961, Johns did a painting called No. It shows two letters of aluminum foil, an “N” and an “O,” which are played off against the gray tones of the surface. Of course, the two letters can mean a negation; that’s one possibility raised by the painting. They can imply a critique of anything that comes to an end in reconcilement. But they can also mean other things (e.g. the Japanese “No” drama), which indicates how Johns can slip into a game with layers of meaning, displaying a purely intellectual irony and the utmost skepticism concerning all possibilities of arriving at a point where such a continuous process of negation might come to an end. This, by the way, shows how some find it difficult to come to terms with his work. We have to decipher it from a shifting point of view, and we will always arrive at meanings which are ambiguous—meanings which float through our mind and provide us with opportunities for reflection about the discontinuity of the world.

WHAT WAS OBLIQUELY IMPLIED in Johns’ change from a prospect of continuity to one of discontinuity in the world had been explicitly stated by Nietzsche. Nietzsche didn’t put much credence in the continuity of the world. He talked about nihilism—about there being no aim that we could take for granted, or any value or meaning in which we could believe. He kept telling us in The Will to Power (1901)11 that “the entire idealism of mankind hitherto is on the point of changing suddenly into nihilism—into the belief in absolute worthlessness, i.e. meaninglessness” (No. 617). It is as if Nietzsche is saying: there have been a number of philosophers since the ancient Greeks who have taken the world as something orderly, as something which exists in and by itself. But time after time, a strong sense of metaphysical speculation has run through their arguments, and as a result they have forced their own metaphysical constructs (often of a high degree of conceptualization) upon the world. Nietzsche opposed such constructs, since they were for him all part of an attempt to approach the continuity of the world metaphysically, in terms of aims, values or meanings which he couldn’t take for granted. He cared for interpretations. “Against positivism, which halts at phenomena—‘There are only facts’—I would say: No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations.” He also remarked caustically: “We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing” (No. 481).

Such views are all basic to Johns’ philosophical position. Like Johns, Nietzsche subjected the positivistic concept of fact to the most savage criticism, on the ground that it cuts off the question about shifting viewpoints and ambiguities in the discontinuity of the world. Nietzsche did not thrust aside the role of facts. He did not go so far as to say that we can arrive at some kind of understanding of the world without a searching examination of facts. But he thought, like Johns after 1959, that there is much more at stake in the actual process of understanding the world than facts. For such an understanding is unthinkable without “interpretations,” without “a compulsion to arrange a world for ourselves in which our existence is made possible,” as he put it in another passage (No. 521). That certainly summarizes what we carry to facts. It’s above and beyond all positivism, a hermeneutical, practical intent. Indeed, we ourselves belong to those facts which we may understand at a certain time under certain conditions and against the background of our own “compulsion”; we belong to them, if only because we attribute various meanings to them, on the basis of a shifting point of view.

This intention to transcend the continuity of the world would not be worth mentioning here if it did not provide us with an important point of departure that helps us in our understanding of the mentality that motivated Johns’ artistic experiments after his first one-man show in 1958. At that time Johns read Robert Motherwell’s anthology The Dada Painters and Poets (1951), provoked by a number of art critics who had placed him in the tradition of the Dada movement and described him as a neo-Dadaist. He saw the Arensberg Collection of Duchamp’s work in Philadelphia. He studied Robert Lebel’s Marcel Duchamp (1959). He even met Duchamp. And he wrote him several admiring notes, in one of which he referred to Duchamp’s “fascination with the tentativeness of all states-of-affairs”—and emphasized that his work “brings into focus the shifting weights of things, the instability of our definitions and measurements.”12

I leave the larger question of the relationship between Johns and Duchamp to the art historians, but it is clear that Johns’ encounter with Duchamp helped him to attain the artistic and philosophical independence out of which he created his later work. As Barbara Rose pointed out, Johns was “essentially a provincial painter” at the beginning of his career, in spite of all his intellectual curiosity; and it was only the encounter with Duchamp (and shortly thereafter with Wittgenstein’s philosophical writings) which brought his “potential for abstraction into line with the requirements of modernist aesthetics.”13

Perhaps that is why Duchamp’s profile appears on the hinged flap beneath the title in the 1964 According to What,14 a painting that offers a most interesting juxtaposition of things: a kitchen chair with a cast leg glued to it, a band of silkscreened newsprint, a number of colored circles, a variety of letters, and a coat hanger that dangles from a wire attached to a spoon. The juxtapositions of According to What run radically counter to a fixed point of view. Johns knows that. He said, while preparing a lithographic series According to What at Gemini G.E.L.:

The painting was made up of different ways of doing things, different ways of applying paint, so the language becomes somewhat unclear. If you do everything from one position, with consistency, then everything can be referred to that. You understand the deviation from the point to which everything refers. But if you don’t have a point to which these things refer, then you get a different situation, which is unclear. That was my idea.

As he noted in the same context, “Everything changes according to something, and I tried to make a situation that allows things to change.”15 We cannot really appreciate these remarks if we isolate them from Duchamp, and from the whole pessimist tradition of Western European philosophy. Duchamp had decisively influenced Johns by placing the young American in touch with this tradition, making him aware that everything is in a state of transition. What the commentators on Johns work have failed to note is that Duchamp himself was part of a long and remarkably consistent pessimist tradition, and that Johns’ arguments often bear a marked resemblance to philosophical reflections that have been building up since Nietzsche and those following him from the late 19th century on.

Anybody who knows Husserl will agree that he reacted, like Nietzsche and Duchamp, against the continuity of the world. Oversimplifying it, we might say that he took seriously the constitutional act of our ego—that is, the act in and through which our ego attributes a meaning to something—and that he conceived the constitutional act of our ego in his last years within the broader horizon of the world in which we live. In the end, what mattered to Husserl was that the world is seen in discontinuous terms. Heidegger too, again like Nietzsche and Duchamp, took his stand against the continuity of the world. In Being and Time (1927), he tried to understand the question of being as it has come down to us in Western metaphysics. But under the cover of his larger concern for the question of being, Heidegger also paid attention to the process of dialectic in which the world is mediated by our mind and our mind is mediated by the world. What he was getting into was the dialectical relationship between the projective character of our understanding and the prestructure of our understanding, which he described phenomenologically in terms of “fore-having,” “fore-sight,” and “fore-conception.”

Or take the dialectical analyses of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and the younger members of the Frankfurt School. Through all their critical, Marx-oriented analyses emerges a deliberate and determined opposition to the continuity of the world. Habermas, who grew gradually out of the Frankfurt School, underlines that opposition by introducing the concept of “knowledge-constitutive interests”—interests which are rooted in the practice of life. There is, of course, no such thing as a continuity of the world. We are shaped to a marked degree by the horizon of life. This concern for the horizon of life led Habermas (in particular in his writings after the publication of Knowledge and Human Interests, 1968) to reflections on intersubjectivity, which in turn prompted him to reflect on communication in our day-to-day life, which then brought him to reflect on the system of symbolic forms that we use in our language (which we do not invent on our own but accept as part of our discontinuous being in the world).

Some who have no use for Nietzsche and the various phenomenological and dialectical debates of recent decades might turn toward the philosophical writings of Wittgenstein, which, from 1961 on, Johns himself began to read. Johns noticed that Wittgenstein conceived the horizon of the world in which we live, and in which we play our language games according to certain linguistic conventions, as the ordinary setting of a language community. And he also noticed that Wittgenstein tried to describe the immediately given by words as they are actually used. That was on the assumption that the understanding of the meaning of something is a matter of its use, an idea that held a certain attraction for Johns. Yet Wittgenstein had done something else, too: he had talked about ambiguity. He had written about the “change of aspect,” or the “changing aspect,”16 or a variety of viewpoints, in passages which bear a curious resemblance to Johns’ remarks about changes and shifting viewpoints. And he had also been suspicious of the fetishizing of an object: “I can see it in various aspects according to the fiction I surround it with,” he had said,17 thus implying that the understanding of one aspect may be as valid as another.

That is nowhere better exemplified than in Johns’ Decoy (1971). What emerges in Decoy through a layer of black is the well-known imagery of Johns’ own earlier paintings, sculptures, lithographs and etchings. At the center we see a Ballantine Ale can, known from the sculpture Painted Bronze (1960). We discover images originally seen in the painting Passage II and in a series of related lithographs (as for instance the photographic reproduction of the wax cast of a leg). Or we recognize elements of the 1st Etchings (1967–8) and the 1st Etchings, 2nd State (1967–69). What we have, then, in Decoy is a juxtaposition of earlier images which are remarkably various both in their individual logic and in their effect upon us. This juxtaposition is not a restoration of Johns’ own past. Roberta Bernstein makes the proper point that it is rooted in “a history of accumulated meanings,”18 but is also a novel mingling of images that have been kept apart in space and time. What Bernstein has not shown are the far-reaching philosophical implications of such a juxtaposition. Johns himself knows that his complex of juxtapositions amounts to a “fiction,” to use Wittgenstein’s term—that it is an illusion, an artificial construct of his own imagination. And he knows that he can bring this artificial construct into question in a dialectical process. For Johns this realization is not in any way disparaging (he is obviously aware that there is nothing wrong with paying attention to art as a “fiction”); the point is to stress that the creation of a work of art—and the experience of one—always implies a negation. To understand ideas like these, one must remember that Johns moves very much in the same direction as that taken by Nietzsche and his followers since the late 19th century. There is the same interest in negations, the same interest in contradictions, shifting viewpoints, and ambiguities.

Rolf-Dieter Herrmann is professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee.

A major retrospective of Jasper Johns’ work opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art on October 18th, where it will be on view until January 22, 1978. From there it wit travel to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, February 12–April 9; the Centre Pompidou, Paris, April 30–June 29; the Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo, July 28–September 20; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, October 15–December 10, 1978. Jasper Johns, by Michael Crichton, is being published by Harry N. Abrams as the catalogue for the exhibition.



1. R. Musil, The Man without Qualities, tr. E. Wilkens and E. Kaiser, New York, 1953, p. 12.

2. Jasper Johns: Drawings, catalogue of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, London, 1974, p. 7.

3. Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, New York, 1972, p. 32.

4. W. Hoops, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,”Artforum, March, 1965, p. 35.

5. Jasper Johns: Drawings, p. 16.

6. Ibid., p. 9.

7. See the M. Jolas translation, London, 1963, p. 50.

8. From J. E. Young, “Jasper Johns: An Appraisal,” Art International, September 1969, p. 51.

9. Jasper Johns: Drawings, p. 13.

10. Ibid., p. 19.

11. My references to the texts of Nietzsche are to the W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale translation, New York, 1967

12. Art in America, July–August, 1969, p. 31

13. B. Rose, “Decoys and Doubles: Jasper Johns and the Modernist Mind,” Arts Magazine, May, 1976, p. 73.

14. For the discussion of this painting and its relation to Duchamp’s Tu m’ see P. Kaplan, “On Jasper Johns’ According to What,” Art Journal, XXXV (1976), 247–250.

15. Print Collector’s Newsletter, May–June, 1972, pp. 30–31.

16. L. Wingenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G. E. M Anscombe, 2nd ed., New York, 1967, p. 196.

17. Ibid., p. 210.

18. See Jasper Johns’ Decoy: The Print & the Painting., catalogue of the exhibition at the Emily Lowe Gallery, Hofstra University, New York, 1972.