New York

Jasper Johns

Leo Castelli Gallery

The Jasper Johns curriculum of life and art is a series of double binds, but the ultimate nonchoice here is between death and madness. As the words in Racing Thoughts, 1983, warn (in French and German, “Beware, Falling Ice”), the glacier of Johns’ reserve is breaking up and uncovering an intense paranoia. Whereas formerly fragmentation was limited to the extremities of the body, now it is the center that will not hold. Breakup is most elaborated on in this canvas, which echoes a precedent, Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, ca. 1510–15—itself dispersed during the French Revolution and subsequently re-membered in a museum context. The phrases of the caveat are disjointed, begun on the right edge, finished on the left. Only half of a painted hinge shows on the left section, hinting that its twin must be under the right wing, which therefore would conceal, like the altarpiece, a third part. Fully opened, this imaginary triptych would further distance the two halves of the warning. Pulling apart is the modus operandi of this chiasmic composition; it climaxes in the profiles of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on an open vase, expressing political difference through the Irish shamrock on a closed jar next to it.

In the thaw (note the running faucet in Racing Thoughts) the glacier spews forth all that was once kept suspended. Recycling, hysterical, approaches regurgitation. In Perilous Night, 1982, the act comes back to haunt the doer: while one of Johns’ two reworkings of Grünewald in this painting keeps the sword of the stricken soldier in the resurrection scene in its original position, the other moves it so that it would, if extended, intersect with the risen Christ precisely at the wound in his side. Resurrection themes strengthen one’s urge to identify the whale in the flagstone pattern of Ventriloquist, 1983, as Jonah’s. And dare we talk about the ubiquitous wicker hamper near the bath taps in terms of Moses’ emergence from the river? It’s difficult to avoid the notion of Johns fulfilling his own artistic prophecies, just as it’s difficult, with such an elegiac tone, not to see bathos in cups as urns, tubs as graves, baskets as coffins—especially since containment has habitually suffocated Johns. To keep the paintings alive, meaning must spill over, like the tub if the water isn’t turned off; perhaps the cups catch the overflow.

On the other side of suffocation, however, is drowning. Soothsaying Jonah, inside the whale, is not the only ventriloquist; Johns’ concern is to make dumb objects speak, yet in a 1981–82 hachure painting a skull, more direct than later renderings of reproduced death’s-heads, warns us off the property. Perhaps Johns’ crosshatching has always connoted crossbones, a steady reminder to leave surface as surface, to abandon attempts to plumb the depths. But why should we, when Johns himself displays a Thomas Pynchon-like paranoia as he reads human profiles into bric-a-brac; when (in Perilous Night) out of the entire Isenheim masterpiece, he picks, along with the sword, the one detail—the ribbing of the soldier’s jerkin—that echoes his flags’ stripes; when he repaints Racing Thoughts as Ventriloquist and an untitled work from 1983 by replacing George Ohr’s pottery with his Savarin can, the Mona Lisa with his own famous pictures? That we are dealing with tricks of the mind is obvious: the body is always out of sight in the tub, below the picture edge; what we see is the wall above it, a reflection of the upper anatomy (ideas), and what better place to drift on unmoored thoughts? The problem is “racing thoughts”—racing, that is, out of control. One critic has explained the limbs in Johns’ paintings as proof of how thinking leads to detachment from the corporeal; now Johns seems to add the crucial insight that to begin to think is to be unable to stop, and that what starts as an activity of opening up ends as endlessly replayed projections of the self.

Possibly, Perilous Night is a resolution of dilemmas. A sheet of music recalls distinctions between musical time, the succession of different notes, and tempo, the unchanging beat. The soldier’s sword in its two positions falls like a clock hand or like the bar of a metronome. Three cast arms are progressively larger, giving us growth as against the shroudlike associations of the cloth painted as nailed on wood. Ratios such as these might emerge: change/permanence, growth/death, time/tempo, image/pattern. However, to begin to discern structure is to embark on the madness of thinking—especially given the circularity of Johnsian concepts, wherein, if pattern is related to death (compare flagstones, jigsaws, and broken glass), it is also life (hachure as ever-proliferating tissue). And if we are warned away we are also enticed by endless clues, by the very dialectic of revelation and hiding. It would be appropriate if the whale in Perilous Night were indeed Moby Dick.

Jeanne Silverthorne