PRINT January 2022


Jasper Johns, Liar, 1961, encaustic, Sculp-metal, and graphite on paper, 21 1⁄4 × 17". © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

WHO AMONG US has ever prevented our ego from experiencing a new body of work through the lens of our own current projects? This writer, for one, has not.

Recently, I found myself approaching the work of Jasper Johns, lavishly presented in the new retrospective, through the grid of Roland Barthes, on whom I am now working, and here, most particularly, through Barthes’s 1953 essay “The World as Object.”

What are we to make of Johns’s constant recourse to the material object—the maps, targets, flashlights, lightbulbs, ale cans, shoes, inanimate body parts, partial faces? Barthes’s “World as Object” addresses seventeenth-century Dutch painting, specifically, the still lifes. This world, he says, is reduced to an “empire of things,” amounting already to a “‘modern’ aesthetic of silence.” He continues,

The only logical issue of such painting is to coat substance with a kind of glaze against which man may move without impairing the object’s usefulness. Still-life painters like Van de Velde or Heda always render matter’s most superficial quality: sheen. Oysters, lemon pulp, heavy goblets full of dark wine, long clay pipes, gleaming chestnuts, pottery, tarnished metal cups, three grape seeds—what can be the justification of such an assemblage if not to lubricate man’s gaze amid his domain?

In contrast with this array of translucence, viscosity, gleam, Johns exploits the matte, the opaque, the alkaline. His wax encaustic, charcoal, grease, paint stick all militate—it would seem—against sheen.

But that is to overlook the glassy gleam of the mirror, which holds the represented object apart from its suspended reflection on the surface of representation. When Johns worked with Samuel Beckett on the 1976 book Foirades/Fizzles, Johns refused to illustrate a well-known work, such as the suggested Waiting for Godot, instead requesting a new text. (Beckett responded, “A new work? You mean you want me to write another book?”) Beckett ultimately sent Johns five unpublished fragments, for which the artist created etchings of crosshatchings that serve as reinforcements of the planar surface of the page. Beckett chose these for the endpapers of the book, and Johns responded with the (inevitable) painting End Paper, 1976.

The suspension of the surface of representation over the body of the represented manifests itself most clearly in a group of drawings and prints from the early ’60s, for which Johns pressed his lubricated face onto drafting paper, later brushing the imprint with charcoal dust. Another obvious example is Liar, 1961, comprising a flap stenciled with the word LIAR beveled onto a planar surface whereupon the word’s mirror image appears as a stamp also reading LIAR. In Johnsian fashion, we have here the construction of a liar’s paradox: The stenciled flap above the plane is itself the representation of the word, with its imprint below asking the viewer to decide which of the two is illusion and which is “truth.”

The large “Seasons” canvases, 1985–86—which owe much to the projected shadows of Duchamp’s readymades in his Tu m’, 1918—feature images of the artist’s silhouette as it was cast onto the floor by the intense sunlight flooding into his Saint Martin studio. Likewise, in a photograph of Johns at work on Untitled, 1984, the artist’s shadow falls across a large canvas as a projector throws a lattice  onto the canvas/screen and the artist reaches out to trace the projected lines. 

Already by the ’60s, Johns had gone beyond the unclenched layers of representation in his drawings to the ninety-degree projections of freestanding letters that swivel on the axis of the gap between the panels of Field Painting, 1963–64, and According to What, 1964, mirroring the colored words RED, YELLOW, and BLUE on the surfaces abutting the gap.

To that end, we might return to Barthes’s piquant lines on the represented object:

All art which has only two dimensions, that of the work and that of the spectator, can create only a platitude, since it is no more than the capture of a shopwindow spectacle by a painter-voyeur. Depth is born only at the moment the spectacle itself slowly turns its shadow toward man and begins to look at him. 

Rosalind E. Krauss is university professor of art history at Columbia University. She is a cofounder and coeditor of October.