PRINT September 1996

One for All

I DON’T LIKE NOT liking Jasper Johns’ later paintings. It just seems ungenerous. The paintings from the first 20 years of his career have given me so much pleasure, so much excitement, so much consolation, that feeling a deep connection to his art slowly unravel for the second 20 years is like losing a cherished intimacy. My anxious anticipation for the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Johns’ work since 1954 is born of a hope that I might get some idea of just what happened—either to the paintings, to me, or to both of us.

Between 1955, when he completed his famous Flag, and 1968, when there began a lengthy hiatus from his regular schedule of exhibitions every two or three years at Leo Castelli Gallery, Johns was an indispensable figure in creating an epochal shift in art. That change has since been characterized with many salient descriptions, including an evolutionary switch from Modern to post-Modern attitudes and from avant-garde to Pop activity. I also think of it as a deeper alteration in cultural grounding, one that went from a European foundation to a distinctly American one. I don’t mean this in the old chauvinist sense of blood-and-soil nationalism. Rather, the Stars-and-Stripes image of Flag also symbolizes a tectonic shift in the narrative of culture, which was on a lot of minds at the time.

Just as emblematically, Clement Greenberg’s contentious essay “‘American-Type’ Painting” also appeared in 1955. The critic sought to consolidate the stature of Abstract Expressionist art at precisely the moment Johns was busily embalming its gestural brushstrokes in the cadaverous translucence of pigmented wax. By then, a first wave of so-called American-Type painting, which valorized personal liberty through an abstraction born of Surrealist journeys into the irrational and the unknown, had long since crashed on history’s shores. Susan Landauer, in her recent book and exhibition The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism, has convincingly shown that AbEx was a nationwide phenomenon in postwar America, not a local one. From 1946 on, its ethos was as common in artists’ studios in Iowa and Oregon as on 10th Street in New York. Rather than erupting in Manhattan and rippling out toward the margins, an AbEx ethos simmered everywhere. Such widespread receptivity to advanced ideas in art had never before characterized American cultural life. Although Abstract Expressionism would eventually be narrowed into a specifically New York School, its early prevalence in the far-flung studios of postwar artists all across America signals that a fundamental change had occurred in the culture.

1955 was also the year that Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay got hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in one climactic episode of the homosexual purges at the U.S. State Department, and it was the moment hysterical resistance erupted against the Supreme Court’s ruling that public school segregation violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. It shouldn’t be surprising that Jasper Johns, a gay kid fresh from segregated small-town South Carolina, might regard as just a tad vainglorious freshly minted claims of a postwar triumph in unfettered liberty for American-Type painting.

More than two years passed between the dream Johns is said to have had that gave him the idea to paint Flag and the first showing of the famous encaustic collage, in a group exhibition at Castelli at the end of the 1957 season. During that brief span a lot of memorable things happened in rapidly changing postwar life, both large and small, which collectively and in hindsight suggest the swelling tides of a sea change in American culture. Jackson Pollock died in a car crash in suburban Long Island and James Dean died in a car crash in suburban Los Angeles. Allen Ginsberg’s doleful Howl echoed forth from San Francisco and Ginsberg’s pal Jack Kerouac published On the Road. Swiss expatriate Robert Frank hit the road too, to photograph The Americans. In a London still reeling from wartime devastation, the nervously forward-looking exhibition “This Is Tomorrow” saw the future reflected in a shiny new consumer life being created in the old colony across the Atlantic. In Paris Roland Barthes published his Mythologies, inspired by encounters with the new mass culture, and outside Chicago the first franchise outlet opened of a suburban L.A. drive-in called McDonald’s. L.A.’s Case Study House program, which had sought to apply a European Modernist esthetic to the mass-produced American housing industry, quietly admitted failure with the construction of Craig Ellwood’s deluxe Case Study House #17, the first luxury example in the program’s adventurous series of Miesian model homes; it retreated to upscale exclusivity and abandoned the program’s original aspirations for elevating the middle-class masses.

European Modernist ideals just didn’t fit the emergent powerhouse of American sensibilities, which were democratic, consumerist, and entertainment-oriented. In a shifting context like this, Johns’ blunt painting of the Stars and Stripes quickly became an artistic emblem, in addition to its traditional role as a patriotic one. Johns has denied that his early works were a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, but surely his audience saw them that way. The images and objects in his youthful repertoire—flag, target, drawer, canvas back, window shade, number, alphabet, coat hanger, map—had several things in common, as Leo Steinberg made plain as early as 1962. All of them are manmade things, which definitively underlines their subject matter as cultural (rather than natural). Those things are ordinary, they predetermine the picture’s size and shape, they are nonhierarchic. They are flat.

And as the artist famously put it, they are “things the mind already knows.” Johns’ paintings drained from art any claim of primary value for being the representation of an artist’s expressive self. An American flag had no claim on the existential uniqueness of an individual human being. Ditto a target. The drawer wittily implied something personal tucked away inside the painting—socks? underwear?—but this was a drawer that couldn’t be opened. The ignominious backside of a canvas could be painted over just as well as the front. Numbers weren’t deployed to add up to any sum, nor the alphabet to make a statement. A shade was pulled down, obscuring views of the void. Anyone could drape his cloak on the empty hanger of Johns’ art. The map would take you nowhere you hadn’t seen before.

The transformation of an artist’s private experience into a coherent public language had been a hallmark of 20th-century European painting, from Picasso and Matisse to—well, to Americans like Mark Rothko and Pollock. Suddenly, though, the polarities were reversed. The nature of artistic representation changed. Images had always been described as being surrogates or stand-ins for something absent. But Flag was cobbled together from encaustic collage on three wooden panels that emphasized the painting’s own materiality as an object; even the white stars were cutouts stuck on the picture. It showed that an image doesn’t just represent a thing that isn’t at hand; it is something in its own right, too. Flag, as is often acknowledged, is both a painting and an actual flag.

And yet, that’s not all it is—not by a long shot. The painting also makes a crucial proposition. Flag, like every other flag, is also representational because it represents a constituency. As a flag and as a work of art, it stands in for a body of citizens, men and women who have voluntarily chosen to pledge allegiance and are entitled to elect their representatives. When Johns drained the artist’s expressive self from the core of his pictures, he created a vacuum that showed how works of art attain notice, stature, and even meaning: they represent the interests of like-minded individuals, drawn from among a differentiated public that constitutes the audience. The authority of social experience, materialized through an artistic language of idiosyncratic private pleasure, is what characterized Johns’ surprising work, not the other way around. His flag waved for you; would you salute?

Johns’ early paintings signal the moment when art’s long-established European and aristocratic cultural model finally began to give way, in favor of one that could be persuasively described as distinctly American. In Los Angeles the signal was received and processed without skipping a beat. L.A. professed no entrenched European cultural matrix but did claim a consolidated cultural industry of Hollywood entertainment. The configuration contradicted traditional conceptions of the centrality of artistic self-expression. Whether for L.A.-based artists who grew to considerable local stature in the ’60s, such as Billy Al Bengston, or of major international consequence for the past 30 years, such as Edward Ruscha, the impact of Johns’ work—the unabashed sense of wide-open permission it offered—was immediate.

Bengston had been a motorcycle racer of daredevil demeanor, happily cultivating bodily risk that was rather different from the one metaphorically demanded in the gestural canvases of ’50s American painters. On an extended 1958 tour of Europe he saw Johns’ paintings in Venice; soon after he stopped making gestural abstractions and began to focus on creating centralized emblems. The first was Grace, a graphite-colored canvas thinly painted with short, cross-hatched markings of the brush, and featuring a more thickly painted, centralized square surrounding a heart. The picture is a frank valentine, in which a Pop emblem commonly denoting emotional love replaces the artfully coded emblem of Abstract Expressionism’s self-expressive brushwork. Then came pictures centered on an emblematic set of sergeant stripes. Militarily speaking, it’s the sergeant who enforces the commands of those in authority. In these resplendent paintings Bengston introduced the spray guns and glossy lacquer paints regularly used by civilian artists over at the motorcycle body shop. Such pictures at once refused and reversed a European and Expressionist valorization of privileged private experience.

This glamorous theatricalization of pleasurable yearning also drove Ruscha’s art. The Californian had moved from the Midwest to L.A., wanting to become a commercial artist. In 1957, he was enrolled at the training school for Disney animators, Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), when he encountered Johns’ work in a magazine reproduction. He too stopped making pale pastiches of AbEx paintings, later crediting the flags and targets has having convinced him to become an artist. The relationship are obvious between John’s stenciled letters, numbers and words, and Rucha’s sometimes impastoed paintings of emblematic vocal utterances of California cool, such as 1961’s Ace and Boss. More important though , Rucha’s art was soon marked by what I think of as a “Holiday Inn Rootlessness,” in which existence is simultaneously experienced as being somewhere in particular and nowhere in general. Many of his unprecedented photobooks—Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Thirty Four Parking Lots In Los Angeles, Royal Road Test—evoke the transient banality of life on wheels. Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963, like a bastard offspring of Kerouac’s On the Road and Frank’s The Americans, traces a state-by state automotive journey from L.A. back to Oklahoma, whence the artist came, creating a hugely comic riff on the idea of autobiographical revelation. In the book’s last photograph, which takes a sudden detour to a Fina gas station not in Oklahoma but in Texas, Ruscha makes shrewd fun of the pointed tensions between old and new conceptions of art—Fina providing a cinematic, European art-house emblem denoting “The End,” and Texas offering a plainspoken, all-American reassertion that, no, you can’t go home again. So much for the reverential AbEx journey in search of existential origins.

Geographically and psychologically, Twentysix Gasoline Stations is a map, which followed hot on the heels of Johns’ own great maps of the United States from the early ’60s, where the names of states or colors migrate aimlessly across the surface amid signlike bursts of gestural encaustic or oil. In the early ’70s these utterly impersonal guides to the lay of the land got redrawn in terms of total abstraction in Johns’ puzzlelike crosshatch paintings, which map only the surface parameters of the canvas. Like exploded, linear color patches in a painting by Cézanne, the primaries, secondaries, and black and white patterns of Scent, Corpse and Mirror, The Dutch Wives, and so on create sensuous, internal visual rhymes, often of great complexity. The left edge of one multipanel crosshatch painting even mirrors the right edge at the other end, conceptually enclosing the picture’s circularity. “In my beginning is my end,” as the critic Thomas B. Hess, quoting T. S. Eliot, wrote of these paintings.

It’s a short step from there to Johns’ work of the ’80s and beyond, in which a different circle is closed—though for me, it’s always looked like a short step off a tall cliff. Johns’ newer paintings are like bulletin boards, on which assorted items of distinctly personal interest have been pinned. The memorabilia include prints and doodles tacked to the studio wall, fragments of faces and looming self-portrait shadows familiar from Picasso’s art, the eccentric shapes of George Ohr ceramics (which Johns famously collects), a favorite passage of the great Isenheim altarpiece, the old-fashioned water faucet on Johns’ bathtub, and reminiscences of his flag. A recurrent image shows a pretty young Gibson girl turning away her face while, when looked at from another mental angle, she metamorphoses into a crone shrouded in a babushka. In the girl’s beginning is her end.

The same apparently can be said for Johns. Ironically, after waning interest in his art by the end of the ’70s, pin-up pictures like Racing Thoughts or The Four Seasons panels were being critically celebrated by the mid ’80s, but for reasons that jeopardized the revolution he’d done so much to foster. Johns, it was claimed, was finally lifting the cryptic veil that had shielded his autobiography for so many years: his expressive self, so long repressed, was making a triumphant appearance at center stage. It’s as if the artist, squarely in the midst of the ’80s neo-Expressionist boomlet, had followed the example of Nixon in China: dispensation was granted for his supposed turn toward an aristocratic privileging of private experience, against which he had battled for so long.

But I can’t help asking whether a return to the artistic situation from which Johns liberated himself (and us) 40 years ago is really all that’s going on in his later paintings. Do they in fact announce the revivalist, even reactionary tendencies that have seemed to be their disappointing impetus? The champions of this view commonly assert that the only other option is to regard his work in strictly formalist and commodified ways; but in this respect, at least, they are flatly wrong. For just as Johns’ Flag was also a radical representation of social experience spoken in art’s language of idiosyncratic private pleasure, the recent studio-bound compendiums of personal tastes and private entertainments might well be regarded in much the same way, rather than as an old-fashioned celebration of privileged subjectivity. After all, Johns today is something other than the private enigma he was in 1954. At this advanced stage in his critically significant, wildly influential career, he’s an elder statesman. As an artist central to the culture he’s now as emblematic as the American flag—something the mind already knows. The radical outlook on the distinctiveness of American life he first proposed is today as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. The uneasy question before us as the MoMA retrospective goes up is whether Johns got lost along the way in the later work, or whether, like Ruscha, he headed for Oklahoma but ended up in Texas.