PRINT January 2022


Jasper Johns, Figure 2, 1962, encaustic, oil, chalk, and collage on canvas, 50 1⁄4 × 40 1⁄8". © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

THE MIND ALREADY KNOWS 2, but not this 2. This one’s unfamiliar—at variance with the 2 I already know—and so not particularly well seen by my most ready-to-hand ideas: so many automatic thoughts about 2, two, gray, portrayal, painting, and more. Johns’s clear, obtuse construction shows a natural number turned out in flamboyantly scuzzy typographical uniform, sporting seven colors plus a range of grays and the beige of peeking canvas. Seductively, emphatically, Johns blends content and pure painting, casually reconciling an exaggerated division. We associate 2s in this particular typographic style with hard, unambiguous edges, though this figure’s outline, as it were, frames the signature actions of the painter and all that figure had become by 1962. Elements of movement characterize the organization. The whole is a dazzling play of sharpness and muddle, the prepossessing “figure” at its heart a massive, fluid volume improbably constituted from tessellating hues, surface textures, even faces, and words. In places, collaged paper cuts the paint to shape, scrap picking up where stroke leaves off. The effect? Resistances litter the edge’s path, deeply involving the figure with its surrounds. (The term ground seems inapt.) A marked de-idealization, this may also be an opening. That’s a viewer-dependent consideration; registering the construction’s involutions, you may experience a 2 with many unforeseeable aspects worth considering in depth, a profoundly minute pivot from already-mind.

I cannot learn from what I think I already know. Looking at Figure 2, I see that placing tracing, stacking, spacing, corralling, framing, zigzagging, stopping are all ways of bringing something about, and feel that the act of considering the composition’s sentiment also is. In this grandest of his single-number pictures, held by the Basel Kunstmuseum and lamentably absent from the artist’s recent retrospective, Johns takes as his subject the unofficial numeral of interrelation. Isn’t two integral to the scheme he’s set up between this 2 and me? To think oneself alone in a 2’s company seems absurd. The framework I’m in endorses embodied thinking about observation itself. About art as a moment of the ordinary commerce of social dealings. About what it is for art to bring something about, even if that’s “just” a new sense of what is.

The two of relating matters crucially to Johns, like a tenet of art. All his works evince a long, manifest interest in art with hereness, which heightens the present tense. This Johns is entirely lost by thinking of him as a painter. Figure 2 meets you with the readiness of a utensil. It’s the same dumb frankness that makes the readymade go, powers its queer knack for instilling awe—if only for as long as art insists on being supra-ordinary, with painting as its main mode of insistence. So this ready availability still feels vital, goadlike today. So does the way this art owns up to a dependence, a desire to be not known or recognized but felt and seen. What most matters about it happens hyperlocally. “Many paintings try to place you somewhere else, but The Large Glass doesn’t do that,” Johns has said of the nonpainting. And it was while saluting its maker, Marcel Duchamp (present in Figure 2 as a reproduction of the Mona Lisa), that Johns memorably articulated his own aversion to “art as transportation.” Whatever makes Johns seem “impersonal” can otherwise be seen as a commitment to opening the art situation, which he could only shape as open by damping the sponsoring ego. Beyond the jolting familiarity of his subjects, you see openness, as here, in all the trying things out, in the bevies of moves and moods, the resultant lightness and unclarity, and the underacknowledged deferral of any explanation that brings meaning to a close. As though its making continues in time with my reckoning.

There’s also the openness of bottomlessness. Figure 2 shows a particularly Johnsian way—apparent here but clearer elsewhere (for example in 1959’s Tennyson, made the same year as a palm-size gray 2)—of presenting a picture’s bottom edge as a course of nearly unspent canvas, into which colored material falls or is thrown. These edges are distinctly transitional. Maybe heretically so in as far as they propel the environment into play: Here, the otherwise occluded support links picture with wall, as though opening the form from behind and below to the world another art escapes to achieve itself.

Anyway, this thing makes me want to speak about Figure 2 descending—into the real, from someplace in art. In being so much itself as to be meaningless, but something with an existence nevertheless. In relating to the senses, whosever they may be. 

Darby English is the Carl Darling Buck Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago and a visiting professor at the UCLA School of Art.