New York

Jasper Johns

Brooke Alexander And Whitney Downtown

It might seem that there could be little more to be said about Jasper Johns, that we know perhaps a little more than we want to, with the Whitney retrospective and the concomitant exegesis. But not quite everything has been covered, especially a consideration of the general reaction to this inundation of Johns. There were at least two shows devoted entirely to the range of his graphic work, and a show at the downtown Whitney, which covered all the various editions which evolved from the painting Untitled from 1972: the hatchings, the flagstones, and the body parts. This last show was interesting because it was such a precisely excised portion of the last work in all its facets.

But I have to move back a bit, back to the retrospective at the Whitney, to get a handle on what this new work entails. To put it simply: the public felt quite comfortable with the paintings and objects on the third floor, the works from the flags to the maps. There people talked, commented effusively and acceptingly, acknowledging the paintings’ worth, both as intellectual tokens, and (not so incidentally) as expensive items of art. But on the fourth floor, with its beginning in the confused middle period, and ending with the pattern paintings of the ’70s, Johns’ audience became mute. The buzz of recognition gave way to a silence of monumental proportions. Perhaps this was also the first reaction to the flags and targets. I think the visitors sensed that something had happened, that these were not the same kind of art that the flags and targets are. The seasoned viewers felt let down, especially because Johns had turned to abstraction (Barbara Rose searched and found them to be “pseudo-abstractions”). The more naive audience was closer to what these paintings mean. What it understood clearly from the flags, etc. was that detached, alienated, cool, one-emotion exterior. And it is not wrong; most American artists took this to be the salient feature of Johns’ work.

Whatever ambiguities the first paintings present, what is stifled is emotional response—it is reduced to a one-dimensional bleakness. Johns separated himself from Abstract Expressionism by his noninvolvement, and he “expressed” it in the most obvious way: he reintroduced the idea that a painting could be “finished.” Their system is closed. The way the paintings suffocate the viewer emotionally is their basic appeal; their denial of expressivity marks them as the real source of most ’60s art. Only the textual interpretation is left open to multiple meaning; and this becomes more a projection on the part of the viewer unable to accept Johns’ disengagement than something verifiably there in the paintings themselves. Johns protects himself, hides himself, and can reasonably state that the paintings in no way express anything about him personally.

But how untrue that is. The Whitney catalogue, for one, equated the personal Johnsian coolness with the detachment of the paintings. The public can easily accept such a state of affairs, because it is rightly suspicious of an object created out of sheer indifference. That is why that public cannot help but be confounded by the pattern paintings. They are visually open, they extend outward, sideways, up and down, out of the frame, off the paper. They are simply different from what has gone before. We have not been prepared for their outpouring of sensation, emotion, differentiation of expressive intent, for the rhythm, the temperature, the openness of these paintings. There is no longer one pervasive attitude—the earlier cool, the middle-period confusion—but a variety of possible responses. Feeling is not reduced to the elegiac, the absence of feeling; how can the superb Scent fit into such a scheme, when it is so obviously flexible, tropical, airy, warm? It is tempting to say that, on the human scale, these paintings are incomparably greater than the flags, etc. For whatever philosophical complexities ramify from the early paintings, they remain the same obdurate, held-at-arm’s-length objects that upset their first admirers.

I don’t think anyone was prepared for this unforeseen change in Johns’ art, and the paintings are just beginning to seep in, their meaning is just starting to surface. In this sense, we are fortunate to have the prints around, since they are more numerous than the paintings, which were whisked away to European and private collections right after their initial appearance; we will probably not see them for a long time once they leave the Whitney.

There is a series of prints made from Untitled, 1975, which is included in the downtown Whitney show. This series dissects the strategies of that painting, its formal changes and permutations. The pattern is generated from a starlike configuration in the upper righthand corner; the other eight square sections are variations on direction, color, and reflection. And what happens is that the permutations become like the stripes on the flag: they are there only to give Johns that well-known room to work on other levels. The formal elements, like the design of the flag, function as a stable ground for him to explore the precise emotional effects of space. Pattern is employed antiformally. They still express nothing of Johns personally; in fact, they express themselves like no other contemporary painting I know. Whereas the flag paintings were flat as paintings, and could be made falsely three-dimensional on paper, the pattern works are just flat. From this vantage, many of the old Johnsian paradoxes that kept critics in a mess of interconnected contradictions seem simple and pat. The new multiples from the pattern paintings do not require truly linguistic systems of explanation; they attract us so immediately with their visual and emotive variety that the expression of deeper textual meaning (Rose’s analogy to Husserl) seems a little premature. This is not a comment on the earlier paintings’ facility; it is an expression of Johns’ incredible ability to expose deep, core complexities while matching them with a new, emotionally satisfying expression not only of the greatest depth, but now, of a generous breadth.

Jeff Perrone