Los Angeles

Jasper Johns

Pasadena Art Museum

This is the fourth in a series of major Johns retrospectives organized during the past year in New York, at the Venice Bienalle, in London and finally at Pasadena. Each of these shows differed slightly as a result of the difficulties in arranging for the loan of paintings over such an extended period of time.

The present exhibition, though a bit smaller than the first (and largest) at New York’s Jewish Museum, contains major examples from every series of Johns’ work, and includes a number of major pictures not seen in New York. The most interesting of these are the earliest existing Johns, “Untitled, 1953,” a small green painted collage the structure of which forecasts his later number and alphabet paintings; and three major 1964 canvases, “According To What,” “Studio” and “Evion.” The most famous pictures, the flags, targets, letters and numbers of 1955–58 seen from a perspective of at least seven years hold up magnificently. The shock and crisis quality are, of course, gone, but we are left with the beauty of the painting itself, with the soundness of the perfect structuring of space and the legitimacy of the paradoxical play between image as subject and picture as object.

The more recent work, though, raises new problems. The revolution has been fought and won. The “Crisis in American Painting” of the mid-fifties has passed. Johns was instrumental in leading an entire younger generation out of the trap of Expressionist license and away from the mystique of gesture as autobiography. If he went back to Cézanne to rediscover the integrity and all-over importance of the picture surface, he avoided Cubist space and fragmentation by objectifying his image and concentrating on the matter of the art object. But then the point was made and proved in better than forty canvases and sculptures, success was upon him, and one could not devote a lifetime to repeating its image.

Thus, in his work since 1959, he seems to have returned to an exploration of subject matter, to the paradoxes of subject-as-object-as-subject and to the borderline between reality and illusion. He brings back his repertoire of images and reworks them, even reintroduces the abstract emotive gesture as a graphic end but ties it to the reality of the canvas by various devices—stenciled names of primary colors, the actual objects used to apply the paint and finally objects or impressions of objects from his own studio, his intellectual and, presumably, emotional environment. Formal considerations seem to become less important, at least in the traditional sense. Color becomes more brutal, acid, as does the space. Objects are often attached to the canvas with their shadows or reflections painted in. One finds a kind of layering, a turgid building up of space and ideas.

Multiple levels of meaning are literally layered upon the picture plane and along it, like the cross-section of an idea to be read across the canvas. Occasionally, he will revert to his earlier formula as in his series of maps (typical of which is “Map 1962”), or in certain commissions, but the main body of work presents the viewer with difficulties that are immense. It seems more and more to involve fragments of autobiography, painful attempts to once again achieve a level of purposeful clarity. One responds to the pictures more on faith than with the intellect. It seems Johns backed himself into a corner. The most apparent directions for his development were quickly usurped by numerous younger artists, and he was left with the most esoteric meanings of his work, questions raised, but as yet unanswerable. He seems to be reaching for a kind of complexity that stems from Duchamp’s suggestion of attempting to reach the impossibility of sufficient visual memory. But Duchamp stopped painting.

Of Johns’ most recent work, the pictures that look best have a formal coherence, as in “According To What,” “Field Painting 1963–64” and “Periscope—Hart Crane 1963.” But the structure now seems less important than the ideatic content—the intense searching of one’s own psyche for a fresh point of view, and illumination of one’s own most painful questions. These pictures cannot be scrutinized in terms of a conventional formal ideology; rather, they must be seen as fragments of an heroic search for enlightenment. Where the verbal world leads us closer to an acceptance of ultimate absurdity, Johns seems to be fighting in visual terms for some sort of meaning—starting where Duchamp left off and the philosophers have so far failed.

Don Factor