PRINT January 1998


1. THE ARTIST HAS SAID the work shows the idea of a swan dive: legs straight together, back arched, arms stretched out from the sides during the descent. In this interpretation, the parallel bands marked at top center with footprints are not to be thought of as a diving board (a common reading) but, rather, as the body itself gliding down, displaying the soles of the feet. The arms point down, ready to be stretched sideways in the directions marked by the broad arrows at the bottom of the image. So the dive has just been launched. The diver is not entering the water, ready to deliver a breaststroke (another common reading), but is poised in the air. The diving board, the ground from which the diver launches himself, and the breaststroke, in the water in which he will enter, cannot be thought incorrect readings (since the drawing allows them) but subsidiary ones, descriptive of features that are potential to, anterior and posterior to, the dive through the air itself— that imaginative leap the artist has said his drawing represents.

The same may be said of another reading allowed by the drawing: by the imprint of hands on the upper as well as lower ends of the strips that signify arms, and by the lines that bisect both of these strips like hinges halfway along their length. Even if these details are read as indicating arms stretched backward during the dive, they also suggest a movement opposite to the dive. As the dive is launched, the diver already anticipates that his arms eventually will thrust upward out of the water. The gesture of arms thus raised, now usually understood to mean exultation, long served as the principal symbol of lamentation upon death. The downward-pointing arrows beneath the outstretched hands, suggestive that the figure finally will sink, reinforce this older meaning (giving credence to the proposal that the image refers to the suicide by drowning of Hart Crane), but the gesture itself does not allow the one choice. And the complete diving-and-rising form of the gesture forms an ambiguity that is a full contradiction, which marks, as Empson tells us, a division in the artist’s mind. The artist acknowledges this when he says that the image has an ambiguous quality that can suggest either life or death.

2. Jasper Johns is an exile’s artist, for he behaves like an exile in his own culture, as if seeing things for the first time. (In Philip Fisher’s phrase, “He treats his own culture as though it were extinct.”) Having painted iconic symbols as if they no longer symbolized, he began with Diver to describe significant actions shorn of obvious significance, picturing those privileged positions of the body by which human emotion and personality explain themselves, then withholding the explanations. Bodily gestures became meaningless except with respect to their display of the body, which only stimulated the desire to find explanations—the exegete is the exile’s critic—or, more precisely, to remember the stories that the gestures used to tell.

3. In 1963, the year Diver was drawn, I was an art student in the north of England, learning why there is an enormous difference between seeing something by looking at it and seeing something by drawing it. It was a lot later that I read Valery on this subject, but that only confirmed how each gap between a glance and a mark filled instantaneously with the flush of memory. So I was, in a sense, prepared for the commemorative in Johns when, the following year, I first saw his work in one of the enormously influential American monographic exhibitions that Bryan Robertson organized at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. (Diver the painting was shown, but not the drawing.) And yet, I was unprepared for an art where showing was also concealing.

Later, in America between 1970 and 1972, I found my interests turning in two directions: American abstract painting and early European modernism. Johns didn’t belong in either. But it was through the second of these interests that I came back to him. In February 1971, I wrote in Artforum about a group of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, including that of the Stein collection. I argued that the bodily gestures that composed Picasso’s Rose-period paintings of figures in suspended action, transmitted through works like his Three Women of 1907-08, were the sources for the abstracted, linear scaffolds that organized his subsequent compositions; those depicted images of poses were thus transformed into a distilled sign-manual. At the time, I didn’t quite know what to do with this idea. I still didn’t when, returning to New York in 1975, I finally saw the drawing, Diver, in the Ganz collection. But later it dawned on me that Johns was reenacting in a surprisingly new way what Picasso had been doing earlier. Now I feel convinced that one of the most important developments in our century’s art has been the internalization, within the form of the execution, of represented narrative subject matter, which effectively reallocated the narrative component of a painting to its representation in the perception of the beholder. Johns elicits ever more from the beholder when he holds us by the intricate power of a narratable content that is deep within the enacted form of the image as within the privacy of a thought.

4. So what is it about Diver itself that has been so affective? I think it may be the fact that it holds us by an action as if by a thought. Which is not only to say that Johns asks us to think the drawing through, but also that he asks us to treat our thoughts as actions, subject to inquiry about their motivations. So my claiming, pressing this further, that the unseen figure in the drawing is lost in action as an absorbed figure might be lost in thought, catches me performing in this drawing the memory of somebody diving, then rising, then falling, then lost in action to me. Just how lost becomes painfully clear when I see that the drawing’s two panels resemble a closed double door, and that the hands sealing the base of the drawing have become a skull on the ocean floor.