New York

Jasper Johns

This exhibition brought together all but one of Jasper Johns’ map paintings, as well as several prints and works on paper. For all the attention paid to Johns’ work in recent years, there has been no attempt to challenge the widely accepted view that the artist is a hermetic formalist. Roberta Bernstein, whose essay on Johns is excerpted in the catalogue for this show, continues this treatment by stating, “The map is a subject which could be interpreted to have personal meaning, if certain areas were made to stand out from others. But Johns paints the map the way he paints all of his other works: each area of the surface. . . is of equal importance.” This kind of thinking is in basic agreement with Frank Stella’s well known reification of formalist criticism: “What you see is what you see.”

One reason critics have contributed to the mystification of Johns’ work is because they have failed to develop a way of reading that is specific to his art. They have failed, in other words, to heed their own dictum—that new forms of art demand new ways of reading. While critics have developed a number of provocative ways of reading Pablo Picasso and some serviceable ones for Jackson Pollock, they have developed few for reading Johns. Thus, after being exhibited for more than three decades, his work remains a mystery.

Johns began working on his first map painting in 1960. Formally, he had already incorporated found things into his work, begun to address the relationship between the name and the thing named, and investigated notions of the boundary. The map paintings, then, seem to be a formal extension of earlier work, and have often been viewed that way since they were first exhibited. I would like to propose, however, another way of looking at both the maps and Johns’ earlier work. At the beginning of his career, before he worked on his first flag painting, in 1954, Johns taught himself how to use encaustic and how to make plaster casts. In a sense, he had taught himself two distinct means of communicating, but had not yet discovered what it was he wanted to say. Encaustic is a mixture of pigment and wax. Among other things, wax is a material exuded by worker bees. It has a honeylike odor and is used to construct a nest or house. The worker bee is both an engine of efficiency and an undifferentiated life force—a worker rather than an individual. It is also a paradigm of consumer culture, which attempts to be continually generative. Johns has said, “I think artists are the elite of the servant class.” He has also said that as a child he learned that artists were socially useful.

The maps are the works of an artist who wants to be socially useful, and at the same time of one who knows that works of art are seen but not looked at: they are consumed by society. Artworks reveal our capacity to consume something without considering what it is. In painting, Johns strives to make the viewer aware of his or her own mindlessness. The map not only evokes the difficulty Johns has differentiating himself from others, but it also becomes a field of discovery. He presides over its emergence, its birth. Johns’ early paintings, including his maps, are about the skin and body of the self. They are poignant signs of recognition.

John Yau