PRINT September 1996

Whole in Two

I like to repeat an image in another medium to observe the play between the two: the image and the medium.
—Jasper Johns to Christian Geelhaar1

I MUST HAVE READ IT on an airplane since that’s the only occasion I ever have to see Time magazine. I remember my indignation over what I viewed as Robert Hughes’ dismissal of Jasper Johns, his complaint that, though Johns had invented some “memorable iconic images,” still, “there have not been very many of these.” This seemed to have been what he took away from Johns’ retrospective in 1977: a repetitiveness that was merely fussy, as “lithography enabled Johns to run scores of variations on his standard themes.”2

My exasperation in reading this passage had been fed by the wholly different set of my own remembered feelings, ones more akin to gratitude and certainly allied to pleasure, as I moved from painting to painting and from drawing to painting or sculpture to lithography, within the space of the Whitney, watching a poetic world notching piece by piece into place, seeing a universe of feeling slowly exfoliate from a restricted supply of imagery continually calling itself to mind. Poetry was indeed the practice that had suggested itself, as I thought of the way images return, reburnished and refocused, at the important junctures of lyric experience, so that whether these are the permutations played on water over rock or the distances between clouds, ranges of emotion are tested against the choice of a limited lexicon within any given poet’s work.

Perhaps the image in all of Johns’ oeuvre I find most evocative and moving is that of the diver, finally called forth as such only in Diver, 1963, but evoked in much of his work in the years previous. Plunging seven feet through the sooty charcoal medium, the outstretched arms and fingers touch bottom at the picture’s lower rim before executing the double arc of a breaststroke that delivers each opened palm to the adjacent vertical edge of the work, itself six feet wide. One is reminded of de Kooning talking about measurement in Western art and the body stretched out prone on the squares of Renaissance pavements, or of another Abstract Expressionist speaking about the dimensions of his painting being determined by the breadth of a man’s extended arms. And while hints of this ethos of Action are always somewhere in Johns’ art, what separates his work definitively from the proclivity to landscape of the New York School is the blindness of this dive, the sense of a gesture that is nothing but touch, the body’s yield to vertigo, the blackness and obscurity closing over its horizonless fall.

Leo Steinberg had already spoken about this sense of a stripping away of the visual in Johns’ work, when he described the 1955 Green Target, for example, as “a target in Braille,” and characterized the artist as someone “who believes nothing that he cannot touch.”3 It was this fact, that Johns’ surfaces are nothing but tactility, endless evocations of the experience of relief, that separated them in Steinberg’s experience from Action painting. “One suddenly saw how Franz Kline bundles with Watteau and Giotto. For they are all artists who use paint and surface to suggest existences other than surface and paint.”4

In personifying what had presented itself as mechanical in the earlier versions of the “device,” with its automation of the smear of paint—executed by the implied rotation of a stirring stick or ruler—the diver’s stroke does not merely render explicit the fact that the “device” had referred to the painter’s gesture all along, to the hand that guides the brush as it drags wet pigment through wet. It also spells out the fact that, unlike the other senses, touch is touched back; so that in closing in on its prey it touches itself as well. Johns’ newly embodied “device”—arm and palm leaving their own print as they smear their semicircle—though executed on this side of the surface, has the uncanny effect of seeming to appear from underneath the surface as well. It is in this ambiguity that it images forth the experience of a body touching itself, pressing itself against itself as in a mirror. And so it had also seemed in the extraordinary “Study for Skin I–IV” set of drawings, 1962, or even in The Critic Sees, 1961.

But nowhere is this effect of the blind reflexiveness of touch made so self-descriptive as in Liar, 1961. A representational version of the liar’s paradox, here the “real” is false, since the tampon version of the letters is reversed, and the “true” is unreal, since their correct, printed version is forever locked within the bubble of virtual space: Duchamp’s “mirroric return.” Yet if this were all the painting were, it would be merely clever and brittle, a bright piece of Conceptual art. What is remarkable is that it is the first manifestation of Johns’ adoption of another Duchampian trope, the “hinge picture,” so that the experience is of our deliverance from the paradox in the imagined folding of the two versions over on one another in the reflexive connection of the imprinting itself, when the touching is touched back, and true and false cancel one another in a moment whose condition is its own, necessarily invisible, auto-proximity. Yet the folding over on itself had also been there in Disappearance, 1961, or Shade, 1959, and prefigured, even earlier, in Canvas, 1956. And this decision to make a work out of the folding of matter over on itself, as a way of imaging touch, is already at the heart of Johns’ method in the slowly built-up collage and encaustic surface of the very first Flag, 1954–55.

Thus, though Diver might be a freestanding image within Johns’ work, emerging in 1962 in the oil painting by that name, as well as in the 1963 drawing, or Periscope (Hart Crane), 1963, or lithographs such as Hatteras, 1963, it elaborates what had characterized the work all along—a form of comment or explanation—just as it would in turn be elaborated by other “images” such as the hinged letters in Field Painting, 1963–64, and According to What, 1964, and even later through all the references to mirror returns.

One of these references is, of course, the hatching motif that Johns took up in 1972 and ran in the Corpse and Mirror pictures of 1974–75. For hatching is, and has always been within Western art, a transcription for how surfaces feel as they turn away from a source of light into relative obscurity, the appearance of the object submerged in light and shade a stand-in for the experience of touching it. That Johns’ dense network of hatching was meant to reconfigure the shallow build-up of encaustic of his earliest surfaces, or the smeared star bursts of oil paint in works from the late ’50s, was just as obvious as the fact that the linear bundles of each hatching component served as a proxy for the outstretched hand and fingers of Diver. Johns himself could not have made this connection clearer than in the paired lithograph Savarin, 1977–81, where the coffee can sits in front of Corpse and Mirror over a base in which the diver’s imprinted hand and arm appears, and Untitled, 1977, in watercolor on plastic, where the same composition figures the “Corpse and Mirror” background as an interlocked sequence of palm prints.

I’ve used all those techniques, but what I mean is that once something is established in my mind as an image, I go to great lengths to reproduce it by whatever means.
—Johns to Nan Rosenthal and Ruth Fine5

In the interview to which Johns submitted at the time of his massive drawing retrospective at the National Gallery in 1990, he admitted to something he had earlier said to one of his interlocutors. With the seeming perversity that marks so much of his recorded conversation, he maintained that he didn’t know how to draw: “I was never well trained as a draftsman. . . . I don’t think I ever did it very well. ”6

Coming from one of the great technicians of postwar art, this is a weird remark, until we realize that until the mid ’80s all of Johns’ graphic mastery had been geared to transcribing experiences of touch, and never what characterizes optical experience, which could be called “seeing-at-a-distance.” It is this form of profile, arriving as it does from a space beyond the surface, that makes its entry into his art with the Seasons paintings, even though the form it takes there as cast shadow might seem to be an extension of the diver’s imprint. But the tracing of the shadow of the artist’s body as it falls from elsewhere onto the surface belongs to vision and not to touch. This is what Pliny the Elder had meant, when he makes the act performed by Butades’ daughter, as she renders her departing lover’s shadow permanent in the form of a traced profile, the birth of drawing and thus of visual art.

And it is with this moment that Johns’ whole field of reference changes, as his weaving of allusions to the world of optical experience—to Gestalt puzzles, to figure/ground reversals—becomes the newfound ballast for his anything-but-tactile surfaces.

In his 1994 book Figuring Jasper Johns, Fred Orton speaks of Johns’ connection to Magritte, signaled by Johns’ acquisition of Magritte’s 1936 The Interpretation of Dreams. Orton relates the presence of Johns’ flagstone image in 1972 to Magritte’s depiction of (equally tacky) meulière stonework, and Johns’ use of body fragments to the Surrealist’s own. But there is something else the two artists share. Both have a peculiarly awkward relation to the drawn profile. The context for Magritte’s is of course the elementary-school primer, a kind of drawing suspended somewhere between the mechanical form of the schoolroom model and the hesitancy of the childish copy. Johns’, as it appears from the mid ’80s on, has no such context to explain it. And in its privileging of the visual over the tactile, it splits Johns’ work in two.

This split feels very much like the one operating in the work of Johns’ contemporary Cy Twombly, which also divides into an emphatically tactile “before,” and a luminously atmospheric (but less formally and conceptually radical) “after” around 1980; or that of a somewhat younger Frank Stella, whose persistent linking of color to the indexical repetition of the pictorial données insisted on tactility up to the mid ’70s, after which a “baroque” style becomes wildly, and arbitrarily, optical, no matter how sculptural its means. We could also think about a similar split in the work of Giacometti, with his pre–World War II sculpture exploring visceral experience—as “felt” from inside—and going so far as to embody (and phallicize) even the visual trajectory (in Pointe à l’oeil [Point to the eye], 1932), only to do a U-turn after 1945 and to mark the output as visual, underscoring that this means seen-at-a-distance.

The “schizo-artist” as exemplified by these cases, among many, many more, may be a mark of our times, which no longer provide the social conditions for those long, gradualist unfoldings of artistic careers, so organic in their slowly burgeoning development over four or five decades, exemplified by Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, and Monet. But it is safe to say that museums of Modern art, most particularly in the context of retrospectives of living artists, are not the sites within which to conduct such an analysis. For the riven career is most generally seen not as an interesting phenomenon, but as a failure, as an inability to live up to the picture of coherent selfhood that the art itself is supposed, reassuringly, to reflect at us, its viewers.

The Museum of Modern Art, however, is in a particularly good position to come to terms with this phenomenon in Johns. The intelligence of both Kirk Varnedoe, the exhibition’s curator, and Johns himself, as its subject, may permit the lifting of the veil that has masked the divide in so many other cases. It may permit us to examine the price of this shift in Johns’ work, not only formally, but in terms of the difference it makes in what I have highlighted above as Johns’ earlier, lyric recapitulations of the paradoxical “image” of touch. And then again, the exhibition may work to paper over this break in the work, producing, yet again, the feeling of the undivided oeuvre, continuous, unruffled, ongoing.

Rosalind E. Krauss


1. Christian Geelhaar, “Interview with Jasper Johns,” in Jasper Johns: Working Proofs, exhibition catalogue (Basel: Kunstmuseum Basel, 1979), p. 65.

2. Robert Hughes, “Pictures at an Inhibition,” Time (October 31, 1977), p. 84.

3. Leo Steinberg. Jasper Johns (New York: George Wittenbom, 1963), p. 27.

4. Ibid., p. 22.

5. Nan Rosenthal and Ruth Fine, “Interview with Jasper Johns,” in The Drawings of Jasper Johns, exhibition catalogue (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art; London: Thames & Hudson, 1990), p. 70.

6. Ibid.