Jasper Johns

Butler Institute of American Art

The drawings and prints shown here—many of them either preparatory studies for or souvenir afterimages of the more famous, larger paintings—are vibrant with uninhibited gesture, at least in comparison to their grander versions. What seems clear is that Jasper Johns has let go in these works, as though it were alright to mug in front of one’s mirror, but not when one is playing Racine on the big stage. These almost convince me that Johns is at his best and most authentic when he is working in a small, intimate format. He seems relaxed with his motif, possessing it completely; in the paintings, the same motif is presented at arm’s length, in a deliberately, overly detached way. In these small works Johns floods the motif with feeling, swarms all over it. In the paintings such sense of contact and abandonment is forbidden; every detail—even the seemingly intense flourishes of paint—seems to exist as part of a dispassionate Byzantine intrigue. The conspiratorial, deliberately cunning air of the paintings is absent here. Johns does not seem to defer the gratification gesture gives him; in these works, the painterliness seems genuine.

Some of these pictures clearly have special import and ingeniousness. In Study for Racing Thoughts, 1983, a surface of hatching segments is paired with the neat grid of a picture puzzle; the whole is rendered in pale colors and superimposed with an image of Leo Castelli’s somber face. This portrait is an epitomizing work, and a self-portrait as well, Johns existing in and through the scattered, racing thoughts that take emblematic hatching form. Indeed, the work makes clear that the corrosively brooding character of Johns’ gesture—a sign of intense reflection as well as instinct—destroys whatever it has contact with, eats into it like acid. The motif becomes simply a transient occasion for the scratchings of Johns’ thought.

At the same time, certain motifs, or types of motifs, persist. The Castelli portrait is unusual; faces are rare in Johns. (There is, of course, his own youthful, rigid face, poisonous with psychopathology, in Souvenir, 1970.) All feeling is displaced onto objects, which are manipulated into oblivion even as they are elevated into heroic themes. Johns clearly is more comfortable with objects than with people, and he treats them with greater intimacy and flexibility. Indeed, he treats exterior objects as though they were internal objects, using them to give his psyche’s oppressive presence symbolic form. No doubt this is a sign of genius, which the poet Novalis described as the ability to treat imagined objects as though they were real and real objects as though they were imagined. But it cannot be determined whether Johns’ objects are real or imaginary, for all the objects he shows reside entirely in his psyche; they represent opaque psychic states. Johns does not know the name and identity of the objects that haunt him, even though he publicizes them by giving them the identity of easily nameable things. He is fixated on objects whose meaning he does not truly know, which is why the object seems mysterious to us also. As long as he is in this state of apparent knowledge but deep ignorance, he will continue to make fascinating art.

Donald Kuspit