PRINT March 1996


FAMILIARITY OBSCURES ORIGINS. I doubt I’ll ever remember precisely when I first encountered Jasper Johns’ Alley Oop, a touchstone for my thinking about physicality and process. Along with Johns’ flags, targets, and numerals, Alley Oop instituted a new class of painting, at least in my experience. It was neither illusionistic like traditional representation, nor expressionistic like works of the New York School, nor purist, constructivist, or formalist like other symmetrically disposed compositions of its time. A narrative lay hidden in it—an episode of the comic strip Alley Oop—yet this painting told no story, nor was it attempting to convert fine art to the cult of the popular. Unlike the Pop art thematically related to it, Johns’ Alley Oop didn’t ironize the presentation of its comic icon, but probed the fictive caveman’s material realization, using paint to explore patterns of print, including the comic-strip format and its irregular grid.

The medium of Alley Oop is oil with collage. During the late ’50s, Johns more typically used wax encaustic, with or without collage. His encaustic yields very little of its specific materiality to the demands of a conventionally unified picture, where successive applications of paint combine seamlessly into an integrated image. In his flags, targets, and numerals, individual strokes of encaustic are so resolutely physical that, when one mark is superimposed on or set beside another, it doesn’t seem to eliminate or even impinge on the other’s presence. The strokes themselves become like discrete layers of collage, as if each mark could be peeled back. It seems entirely appropriate that Johns’ encaustics often incorporate bits of actual collage, compounding the physicality of the whole.

Alley Oop imitates the format and re-creates in oil much of the material effect of a particular Johns painting in encaustic, which exists in two comparatively large versions: Flag on Orange Field, 1957 and 1958. The relatively small scale of Alley Oop is determined by its collaged element, part of a page of comics; unlike an image of a flag, convertible to any size, this sheet of cartooning was designed to be held in the hand. The intimate physicality of Johns’ Alley Oop—with paint marks fitted to the cartoon’s format and consistent with ordinary gestures of the hand—makes a viewer feel ever so close to the hand of the painter. This work stimulates your own hand into reflex action and makes you feel like painting Alley Oop yourself.

Everything about Alley Oop seems matter-of-fact and casual, from the cardboard support, with its loosely layered strokes of orange, occasional scratches, and encrustations, to the collaged comic, with its dense array of primary hues, flesh tones, and bare spots. I imagine that the printed cartoon served to concentrate Johns’ attention and elicit his painterly response. Some of the colors he superimposed are transparent enough to allow the cartoon’s drawing, consisting primarily of fine black lines, to peer through; lines are also visible at the edges of the more opaque strokes of color. From underneath and along the side of the layers of paint, the cartoon’s print appears. Remarkably, Johns’ paint is entirely assertive without obliterating the cartoon; rather, in addition to the actual paper, the printed lines themselves become a surface, forming a base for the paint’s reciprocal action. The presence of the underlying black lines—like the collaged lines of newsprint type in many of Johns’ encaustics—causes the individual strokes of paint to seem to lift and project themselves toward the viewer. It is as if the colors were exercising respect for something located between the extremes of pure imagination (all possible figuration) and pure substance (a blank material support). This extra something is the momentary configuration of mundane reality, the immediate impetus to feeling. Reality appears here as a piece of cartooning, just a little material thing that happens, and happens in Johns’ sight.

Why should I care so much about configured paint, supportive ground, and a catalytic something extra, and so much less about whatever private meaning a partially obscured episode of the comic strip Alley Oop might hold? I care because Johns’ Alley Oop becomes a public invitation to passional freedom. In 1958, the year of its creation, Johns’ friend and influence John Cage explained the matter in terms of his own attempt to convert musical compositions (back) into sounds: “Since the sounds were [just] sounds, this gave people hearing them the chance to be people, centered within themselves, where they actually are, not off artificially in the distance as they are accustomed to be, trying to figure out what is being said by some artist by means of sounds.” Since Johns’ colors are just colors, this allows a viewer to observe freely, in the way Johns himself observed the cartoon Alley Oop, letting his centered esthetic sense respond to the given patterns, allowing himself to be re-created through the process—whether confirmed as the same or transformed into someone different.

When marks are just marks, you don’t need to “figure out what is being said.” Because Johns’ Alley Oop lacks formal and thematic fixity, it extends your state of awareness. You look, listen, and can invent. The paint says what it wants to, and so do you, in attentive reciprocity.

Richard Shiff is the director of the Center for the Study of Modernism at the University of Texas at Austin.