PRINT December 1985


WHO IS JASPER JOHNS? The first artist to transform the banal overlooked objects and national symbols of the American psyche into private icons? A reticent autodidact who slew the Goliath of Abstract Expressionism? A Clark Kent who deflected the course of Modernism? An art-world star whose reserved work will forever elude certain critics? An artists’ artist? A neodadaist? The most intellectual painter America has ever produced? A hermetic researcher of permutations? A magician able to unlock the spell embedded in commonplace objects? The unwitting father of Pop art and Minimalism? An extension of the self-trained native genius in the tradition of Hart Crane and George Ohr? Daedalus patiently constructing a labyrinth down whose paths we can wander, but whose center we will never find?

The closest Johns comes to answering these questions is in sketchbook notes. Here he discloses two deeply and symbiotically entwined personifications—the “spy” and the “watchman.”

The watchman falls “into” the “trap” of looking. The “spy” is a different person. “Looking” is and is not “eating” and “being eaten.” (Cézanne?—each object reflecting the other.) That is, there is continuity of some sort among the watchman, the space, the objects. The spy must be ready to “move,” must be aware of his entrances and exits. The watchman leaves his job & 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? In a painting named Spy, will he be present? The spy stations himself to observe the watchman. If the spy is a foreign object, why is the eye not irritated? Is he invisible? When the spy irritates, we try to remove him. “Not spying, just looking.”—Watchman.1

This is not an artist’s description of universal goals, or of the desire to reach an exalted state. It is the record of a man so self-conscious, so aware of the implications of his own thought, that he will assert openly only the barest semblance of the hidden identities within him, which are themselves forever divided. Johns’ entire career has been about leaving possibilities open, about making complete statements and summations that are incomplete and fragmentary. It has been about the dynamic between withholding as much information as possible, and seeing as a form of preservation. It has been about covering the fissures. The spy and watchman are forces engaged in endless opposition, and in endless reflection of one another. This is Johns’ vision of what it means to be an artist. His reluctance to explain, confess, describe, or theorize goes against the behavioral drift of contemporary artists. His refusal to be a source of answers for the questions directed toward his art, his reluctance to say what he’s doing or to fulfill the intentional fallacy by telling critics what he means to do, has left him alone and us confused.

Johns is the self-conscious embodiment of Narcissus: he gazes longingly into the pool, but sees no whole, beautiful reflection, only the fragments of a life. This absence—this refusal to believe his self can be discovered in nature or in the medium of paint—is finally what separates Johns not only from the Abstract Expressionists, but from the route of Romanticized selfhood and eternal values that the Modernist epoch took, despite Marcel Duchamp’s contrary radical discoveries. Johns knows that connections are conditional and temporary, that identities change or erode, that lacunae separate him not only from the world but from himself. He knows that nothing is what it appears to be, that the self is made up of false presences. But however much he doubts, Johns’ urgent need is to make something out of all this; he is an artist in love with his materials, and with what they can and cannot say.

Johns is someone for whom the phrase “look before you leap” is particularly ironic in its applicability, because he has already fallen into the well of himself. Transfixed as he is by the absence of a whole reflection, he finds it necessary to break down his perceptions into the smallest integral units of gesture, color, image, mark, and the formal means used to transfer them from one realm to another. Everything must be precisely defined before it can be used. In formal terms, both Johns’ need to start a painting with the composition already predetermined and his preference for working within a deliberately limited range of color are what set him apart from his Abstract Expressionist forebears. Gestural painting is a Dionysian enterprise; in such painting, composition is intuitive and arises out of the process. The painter seeks to make thought and action embrace in a transcendent dance of ecstasy and doom. Johns, on the other hand, considers and reconsiders every option. He is the warden of a studio, spying on the movements of its only guard.

Throughout his career, Johns has returned to a handful of motifs: flags; maps; targets; the Savarin can; the Ballantine ale cans; the Modernist triad of red, yellow, and blue; skulls; crosshatching, and fragments of the human anatomy. His development can be seen as starting with the presentation of one of these signs, often returned to in subtly different versions, and sometimes repeated in the same painting. The later work, starting around 1972, can be characterized as a move toward more and more complex juxtapositions, which not only encourage continuous reading of disparate parts, but also assemble, analyze, and broaden the artist’s initial attitudes. Common to all these motifs is the disquieting way they connect to either the viewer or each other, or to both. Rather than allowing us the familiar pleasure of looking at a painting, Johns straitjackets us, too, in a state of self-consciousness. Is this a flag? An image of a flag? Is it a painting or an object? Abstract or representational?

Many years ago Johns offered another rare clue to these questions: the single remark, “things which are seen and not looked at.”2 He was seemingly talking about his choice of subject matter, but this was an autobiographical admission. Choosing a subject that was both as public and as invisible as the American flag to lavish his attention on was not merely an act of youthful arrogance. Rather, it was a necessary act of independence from prevailing Abstract Expressionist modes, and a canny way simultaneously to represent his feelings of anonymity—by isolating an emblem of Everyman—and to assert his citizenship in a world that had not noticed him yet.

In Johns’ early work, from the period 1955 to 1960, the viewer is confronted by emblematic embodiments of self-laceration, extreme isolation, vulnerability, inertia, and frustration. However, any speculative reading of the work is difficult because of Johns’ choices of formal devices and approaches that implode these complex psychological states, their fragments becoming absorbed in the encaustic or sculp-metal. In this airless realm, the viewer must become a creator of meanings. Yet attempts to penetrate the barrier separating one from the introspective states implicit in Johns’ work are almost immediately deflected by the artist’s ability to select banal motifs from the public realm. The clinical thoroughness with which he explores these motifs has an immediate confounding effect on the viewer, who is unsure whether to turn the attention on the motifs origins, on the way it has been transformed, or on the interior state it protects.

A severely circumscribed application of trompe l’oeil was one of the first devices that allowed Johns to investigate his experience of the world while protecting himself from the viewer’s confusion with subject and author. At various points throughout his career, Johns has carried on an intensely personal conversation with John F. Peto, the 19th-century American artist of trompe l’oeil views. Johns uses this received language to shape and assert, criticize and deny. He went so far as to stencil the signature “Peto Johns” along the bottom of his painting 4 The News, 1962. Although this connection has been mentioned by a number of critics, Johns’ liberation of this minor compositional device has taken a back seat to the critical discussion of his response to Modernist formal issues.

The focus of Johns’ dialogue with Peto is the latter’s painting The Cup We All Race 4, ca. 1900. Rather than glorifying America’s 19th-century materialism and its habit of collecting bric-a-brac, as William Harnett did, in this painting Peto applied his illusionistic approach to a battered, melancholy object, a dented tin drinking cup hanging from a hook. The background that the illusionistic hook has been driven into might be the interior of a flattened-out wooden box; it could also be the painted-over back of an old stretcher. The boards; the punning title that looks as if it’s been gouged in the wood; the nails; the tacks holding the remaining torn edges of a postcard that appears to have been ripped from the lathe; the brass plate on which the artist’s name has been “engraved”—everything is depicted with a painterly verisimilitude that is meant to trick the viewer into thinking that what is seen is an actual group of objects rather than a representation. Beyond its trickster quality, the painting embodies an intense, prolonged gaze at a narrowly defined world.

Johns did more than simply respond to the way Peto employed an illusionistic approach. He understood immediately that Peto’s “tricking the eye” method is coextensive with the way we fool ourselves when looking at paintings. The work fuses the literal with the metaphorical, and its presentation of object as image and image as object suggested to Johns a way past his Joseph Cornell–inspired work.3 Johns goes further than Peto, of course. He not only isolates his motif from all familiar contexts, but he also eliminates all references to surrounding space. By joining image and object, thingness and its absence, Johns dramatizes the conditional relationship between context and identity.

Implied in Peto’s choice of subject matter is the conviction that what we race for—fame, love, money—is an illusion. Instead of glorifying the race, Peto uses trompe l’oeil to trick us into reaching for something we can never grasp. Though reticent with their information, both Peto and Johns convey their relationship to the world by infusing their work with an awareness of being stifled, frustrated, and cut off. Our self-conscious experience of their work reenacts their self-conscious experience of the world. They are able to convey subliminal discomfort because of their hypersensitivity to the pathos embedded in a common object.

Having used the flags and targets to investigate, among other things, the highly charged relationship between painting and sculpture, surface and object, Johns turns his attention to the difference between an object and its representation. In Painted Bronze, 1960—the Savarin can filled with paintbrushes—he dramatizes the difference by making a bronze replica and painting it in a way that corresponds to the actual object. The result is a trompe l’oeil sculpture, a descendant of Peto’s drinking cup. Because it has been removed from the functional realm, the Savarin can exists as a sarcophagus. Certainly there is something inescapably haunting about a painted sculpture in which brushes—the tools of Johns’ trade—have been permanently “encased.” The artist not only attacks the myths of painting and of artist-as-magician, but also conveys his immense doubt about the capability of art to transport us from our daily lives to a place that is more exalted, sublime, and healing.

With the Savarin can, frustrated desire and a sense of inadequacy are objectified and given their place. There is no attempt to deny this doubt and alienation; Painted Bronze is a whisper of anguish. Johns made the piece after his first, now famous solo exhibition in New York. The fact that he had been catapulted from obscurity to fame did little to assuage his self-doubts. If anything, public attention became another obstacle for the spy and the watchman. It had to be deflected or transformed, as in the self-accusing titles of paintings such as Good Time Charley, 1961, and 4 The News.

Johns goes from periods of ruthless investigation, in which one thing leads swiftly to another, to long stretches of restlessness and reevaluation, and back again. The heated investigatory periods seem to depend on a sudden glimpse contained in a dream, something he notices while sitting in a theater in San Francisco, or sees while driving on his way to the airport. He has, for example, hinted at why he chose the Savarin can as a subject: “I think what interested me was the coffee can used to hold turpentine for brushes—the idea of one thing mixed with another. . . .”4

Johns’ work has incorporated a wide range of images, as well as stylized abstract marks and mundane objects. He has made sculptures and paintings, and initiated a hybrid form of the two. There have always been allusions to Leonardo da Vinci, Peto, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Paul Cézanne, Willem de Kooning, Edvard Munch, and Duchamp, among others. Johns believes the formal structure underlying Cézanne’s paintings is crucial to his investigation. His analysis of these works leads him to formulate that there must be a “continuity of some sort among the watchman, the space, the objects.” This provides him with another possible way of exploring the act of “seeing and not looking.” It implies that it is possible to evolve a composition in which each depicted object is not only capable of holding its own perspective within a nonhierarchical composition, but will also mirror the others, thus establishing a continuum. Johns is responding to Cézanne’s legacy, but he is also suggesting that this legacy does not necessarily lead to nonobjective abstraction. In fact, he is proving that the Symbolist and Impressionist aspects of Cézanne’s work have not been fully exhausted. His response to the fact of “things seen and not looked at” has been to evolve a wide range of resonant symbols and formal motifs, such as crosshatching, in which similarly colored, abraded parallel lines are employed as stylized units of facture to articulate the surface. Throughout the ’70s Johns used this motif to orchestrate various perceptual systems in which the overall composition is made up of equal and distinct parts. The viewer in turn is confronted by a continuum in which predetermined ruptures adding up to an intricately integrated field are the painting’s raison d’être.

Derived from the standard vocabulary of etching, the crosshatch motif is a descendant of Cézanne’s small juxtaposed brush-strokes of vivid color. The difference is that Johns’ unit is an abstract presence: it alludes rather than describes. Johns uses these units to confront the viewer with a highly unified yet completely fragmented visual field which explores perceptual systems, figural presences, and psychological locations. The allusions to the figure, as in The Dutch Wives, 1975, Weeping Women, 1975, and the “Tantric Detail” series, 1980–81, are as much about absence as about presence. The two Between the Clock and the Bed paintings, 1981 and 1983, allude to both psychological locations and figural presences, and also to a late painting by Munch, Self Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940–42. Beyond the title, what links Johns’ paintings to Munch’s is the patterned bedspread, which is recalled by the crosshatch motif. Munch’s grim self-appraisal depicts the artist standing between two symbols of mortality, a faceless grandfather clock and a bed. Backlighting the artist is a yellow sunlit wall, with rough images of earlier works. Johns, aware that to establish a formal connection with Munch’s painting and with Munch as his psychic stand-in would be to leave himself vulnerable to the work’s trenchant subject matter, makes sure that we can neither fall “into” his paintings, nor discover the spy behind his guise of style, sign, or juxtaposition. Unlike Munch’s painting, Johns’ contain no figure, only a formal structuring device in which the light emanating from certain areas in the paint suggests a ghostly stick presence.

Throughout the ’70s Johns was preoccupied with the possibility of infusing a figural presence into an abstract perceptual system. The “Corpse and Mirror” paintings, 1974–84, for example, can be read as a hall of mirrors in which no figure is present, but, like Painted Bronze, they can also be seen as a corpse of painting. Not only do the two sides of these diptych compositions mirror each other in increasingly complex ways, but the outline of the bottom of the Savarin can, which is traced on one side of several of them, suggests that the works be read as tables on which Johns has simultaneously assembled and dissected a perceptual system. The absent paintbrushes are the scalpels Johns has used to peel away the crust of appearances in order to reveal the corpse. The painting is an autopsy.

Johns began his latest phase of inquiry in the early ’80s. The paintings synthesize Munch, Peto, and Cézanne, Johns’ earlier motifs and new ones. In returning to his interest in Peto, and in choosing to recontextualize some of his earliest motifs, Johns appears to have come full circle. But he hasn’t; Johns circles around things, never back to them. His career can be described as an unpredictable series of slow orbits around his absence of an absolute identity. Instead of suddenly switching his orientation or lessening the breadth of his ambition, he has found a way perpetually to sever his images from their social and art-historical usages, making them, as he did the flag, into something personal, complex, and particular. The primary method he uses to dislodge his icons is that of placing them in a new context of resonant relationships. Both where they are placed in the painting and what they mirror in other sections of it determine, in part, their new identity as specific motifs within Johns’ resonant lexicon.

In Perilous Night, 1982, the two versions of Racing Thoughts, 1983 and 1984, Ventriloquist, 1983, and the various untitled paintings from 1982 through 1985, Johns introduces emblematic aspects of the watchman and spy, while structuring his compositions according to Cézanne—“each object reflecting the other.” In order to fulfill the moves first announced in his sketchbook notes, Johns, with his obsessive patience, has had to discover a whole array of new motifs, among them a black, white, and gray jigsaw puzzle portrait of the young Leo Castelli; a Barnett Newman etching; a Swiss road sign; references to Matthias Grünewald’s Resurrection, 1510–15, and to a wood engraving of a whale, by Barry Moser, that appeared in the Arion and University of California Press editions of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; a poster of the Mona Lisa; a vase commemorating the 25th wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and Ohr’s pots. What are we to make of this sudden barrage of images from a painter known to rework a single motif for as long as a decade? And what do they tell us about Johns—or, perhaps more precisely, what has this willful, reticent artist decided to tell us about himself?

In Perilous Night the watchman is visible and the spy has left behind an inventory of his considerations. Although the title is derived from a piano composition by John Cage, it also refers to a passage in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Johns is wondering what will happen to motifs of his such as the American flag now that he is making a significant change in his approach. By contextualizing his flag motif in a shallow trompe l’oeil space, as he does in Ventriloquist, he knows he is draining away much of its earlier power. He is also appearing to be anecdotal. All of this is the result of his admitting into his compositional procedure a possibility that he had so far rigorously denied throughout his career—a fictive space. Not only do the objects depicted in Perilous Night and Racing Thoughts, say, mirror each other, but the space they inhabit mirrors the world. No wonder this and other recent paintings are full of warnings.

On the left side of the Perilous Night diptych the outline of Grünewald’s soldiers is coextensive with the black ground. They represent the watchman fallen “into” the paint, the trap of looking. When they wake up, they will take no information away. Implicit in this motif is Johns’ distrust of fictive space and of the pleasures of painting. On the diptych’s right side are a series of considerations of both the past and future. Three sculptural fragments of a boy’s arm hang along the top of the painting, like shed skins. The stumps are capped by red, yellow, and blue, in their Modernist order, and are attached to the painting by hook-and-eye fastenings. There is also a strip of wood lath tilting away from the picture plane; a reference to Between the Clock and the Bed, painted in the mirroring manner of “Corpse and Mirror”; a collaged piece of a page from the Cage composition, and a small painted version, in gray, of Grünewald’s soldiers. Along the bottom of the right side are trompe l’oeil gray-and-black wooden planks—with a few drips of red, yellow, and blue paint—on which a trompe l’oeil handkerchief has illusionistically been nailed, recalling Peto’s tin cup. All this is lovingly rendered. The spy is the critical force behind the right side: he is considering the effects of naturalistic representation and has decided, as with Johns’ earlier response to Peto’s trompe l’oeil, to employ it in a severely circumscribed manner. Instead of becoming a representational or realist painter, Johns, mining both conceptual attitude and painterly response, has found a way to have his abstract realm absorb seemingly representational images.

Johns has been circling the spy and watchman since the mid ’60s. Now he represents them in symbiotic images through which he reveals his complex attitudes toward the identity of the artist and the purpose of painting. In doing so, he goes even farther than he did in his earlier work, which addressed the identity of a painting, but was never open about the forces behind it. Instead of covering a canvas with, say, orderly rows of encaustic numerals embedded in an encaustic ground, Johns now deploys symbols that mirror the fragmented aspects of his interior life. The suspenseful conditions for the meeting of the spy and the watchman are set up in the diptych Racing Thoughts. In contrast to Corpse and Mirror II, 1974–75, the painting can be described as a hall of mirrors in which a multitude of reflections appear, each of them emblematic of some glimpse into Johns’ own identity that he has let us have over the years. (Characteristically, the artist himself does not make a personal appearance.) If we were able to connect the severed phrases of the Swiss road sign that are located at the left and right edges, the painting would become a cylinder. Meanwhile, the title has been arranged along the top of the right side in such a way that were the letters connected to make the title legible, this panel too would become a cylinder. A circle within a circle has been opened up; the divided selves that have hidden for so long behind the public disguises of such motifs as the flag and the maps are revealed.

The Swiss sign in Racing Thoughts serves as a warning: translated into English, the French and German phrases mean “beware of falling ice.” A jigsaw puzzle-like portrait of Castelli and an abstract reference to corduroy pants have been placed on top of the crosshatching on the left side, which has imploded the outlines of Grünewald’s soldiers so that they are no longer as distinguishable as they were in Perilous Night; the superimposed images represent Johns’ public persona, and the watchman. The Mona Lisa is present through a trompe l’oeil image of the poster of her on the right side; she is the spy, Leonardo and Duchamp in disguise, and also the ultimate enigmatic image of someone we can never know. The commemorative vase at the right, which plays tricks with positive and negative space, is an irritant—a spy—which in its optical trickery can never meld into a whole image, only into the alternating profiles its outline suggests. (The quest for the cup is false.) The orange, green, and black American flags in Ventriloquist offer another aspect of the spy as irritant. These colors will reveal their optical opposites (red, white, and blue) as an afterimage if looked at long enough. In Ventriloquist the commemorative vase is again located at the bottom of the painting. On the left side the outline of a whale has been embedded into the pattern; on top of this image Johns depicts more illusionistic pots and cups. They are like bumps on the whale for a phrenologist to read, but these bumps of information cannot be translated, and their meaning will remain hidden. The whale is the watchman.

These are just some of the fragments of Johns’ disclosures to be found in his recent work concerning the identity of the artist as split between spy and watchman. Tired of gazing into the pool, he has plunged into it, shattering its surface. But beware of the trap of equating looking with knowing. In a new series of drawings that sketch out paintings currently in progress, and in an etching that serves as the frontispiece for a recently published edition of Wallace Stevens’ poetry (Arion Press), a shadowy, featureless full-length figure looms—another blank being. Another psychic stand-in for Johns?

––John Yau contributes frequently to Artforum.



1. Quoted in Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York: Harry N. Abrams/Whitney Museum of American Art, 1977, p. 51.

2. Crichton, p. 28.

3. See Max Kozloff, Japer Johns, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969, p. 15. This reference is cited in Crichton, p. 27.

4. Crichton, p. 43.