Home Global Flag Burning

Flag Burning

Flag Burning

Jasper Johns cultivates the same gloomily ambiguous mood in just about every painting in the huge survey of his work that is at the Museum of Modern Art until January 21. These paintings are all about dead ends, stalemates, and unsolvable puzzles. Johns repeats the Dadaist, is-it art-or-not mantra over and over. routines, until the everything-is-nothing mantra has turned your mind to mush. Johns’s white on-white maps are difficult to read, the numbers blend together, and when Johns paints the seasons, he leaves spring and summer with the same murky chill that autumn and winter. His artistry and punctiliousness give negative things a distinctive patina. Fine finish to him is nothing more than a handful of nihilistic grace points: one drip here and one there. This retrospective examines a 40-year-long state of funk.

Kirk Varnedoe, the Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Modern, has organized the show himself, rather than delegating the job to one of his lieutenants. Johns’s Dadaist frosty forays are a favorite of his. Johns’s bitterness may be what museums-quality art should look like, but he isn’t acting selfishly. Varnedoe is aware of the dangers in overseeing a large collection of paintings from early modern times, while also trying to control a postmodern scene where all art is considered irrelevant. Johns is both a Dadaist as well as a highly admired painter. He can be the master of detente. Varnedoe requires detente.

Marcel Duchamp is the ghost who stares out from every painting and sculpture and drawing in the show. Johns knew Duchamp in the ’60s, and his own polished persona may in some respects be modeled on the likable aspects of Duchamp, who could appear a paragon of bohemian taste, elegance and unflappability as he followed all the new developments in New York right up until the time of his death in 1968. Johns might want us to view Duchamp only as an historical figure. But what Johns and his friends actually saw was an incendiary genius, whose anti-art percus can be considered law because it comes from a man with such sophisticated lips. In an interview in 1966, Duchamp dismissed Andre Breton, the poet and polemicist of Surrealism, as “a man of the ’20s, not completely rid of notions of quality, composition, and the beauty of materials.” The point was that Duchamp was a man of the present who had escaped from all those outmoded ideas.

If Johns sometimes looks likes Duchamp’s truest disciple, it is because he trumped the old aesthete’s rejection of the idea of beauty by resurrecting “notions of quality, composition, and the beauty of materials” as parodistic imitations. Johns’s slurpy surfaces are a send-up of paint quality, just as his what-you-see-is-what-you-get subjects are send-ups of subject matter. Johns has become so pervasive that people find it difficult to distinguish his sent-ups and the actual thing. However, Kirk Varnedoe welcomes this confusion. He explains in a catalog essay that Johns helped him see how one could combine Duchamp’s Dadaism with “the more conventional mainstream lineage Cezanne, Picasso” but that Johns was a “mixture of potent fertility,” although I am not sure about that potent fertility.

Nothing in this retrospective is what it seems, and this conundrum is supposed to keep us on our toes. In 1959, Johns stenciled the word “yellow” on a painting in blue letters, and the confusion delighted him so much that he’s done the same thing over and over; a recent canvas has the word “red” written (this time backwards) in gray. This paradox doesn’t seem to go away for Johns. Johns lacks the ability to master color, which might allow him to make a grey feel as hot and rousing as a red. Perhaps he wants us to ponder our misguided expectations. Johns said that Duchamp had declared that he would kill art “for himself” but that his constant attempts to break down frames of reference changed our thinking and established new units. Does Johns think that Johns’ mismatched words and colors signify a new unit? Johns said that one of his flag-like white paintings was not a painting but a photograph. You can have both, and it still could be neither” Johns said this about a flag painting. But what is that enigmatic sound?

The contemporary art audience will generally take a crack at a puzzle, even if there is reason to suspect that no solution exists. Artists must keep their audience’s attention past novelty wears off. Johns certainly has the ability to weave and reweave his fake-baloney spells. Johns’ manipulative skills can often confuse even the most discriminating museumgoers. He bases his abilities on close observation of how other, mostly better, artists have captured the attention. Johns will demonstrate a clever way to handle paint from de Kooning and a stunning image by Picasso. Johns offers something for everyone: A bit of trompe l’oeil magic for collectors, and a bit more porn for young artists worried that Johns might have lost his edge.

Johns’s work does have a certain fidgety elegance. His effects can be so subtle that they close off a scene instead of allowing us to enter a world with its own integrity. While he may want it that way, those wanting something else are completely justified in refusing the product and the method. The artist is able to move around pigments as though painting was a post-Armageddon game. Duchamp would be proud of his chessboard. As long as Johns doesn’t applaud while his hero lit the match, it is easy to say Johns saved vanishing art.

Johns, who is 66, emerged at a sea-change moment in American art. In the late 1950s, success was coming to the generation that arrived in New York after the war and watched as Pollock and de Kooning achieved national and then international fame. There was much good work being done. But there was talk about Abstract Expressionism becoming a new academy. There were signs beginning to emerge that museums and galleries are responding to the growing enthusiasm for art, which could lead to a decline in the number of surprises offered by artists. All of these developments peaked with the Pop explosion of 1962, but already in 1958, when Johns showed the paintings of flags and targets that he had been doing since the mid-’50s at the fledgling Leo Castelli Gallery, there were signs of discontent. Johns was a man people wanted to see change. His readymade subjects had an almost Dadaist quality, but his elegant and rugged surfaces proved that Abstract Expressionism still has life.

This work was an immediate success when it was shown in 1958. Alfred H. Barr Jr. was the founder director of Museum of Modern Art. He earmarked four paintings to be part of its permanent collection. This began a relationship with the institution that culminated in the retrospective. And Thomas B. Hess, the editor of Artnews and one of de Kooning’s most loyal supporters, reproduced a Johns Target on the cover of his magazine. It was a remarkable response for an artist’s debut show. Even more amazing is that even though they no longer care about Dadaism or Pop, people still have a fondness for the first Flags and Targets. Many skeptics will give Johns credit for obsessing so much over Flags. He would make his stars from newspaper and glue them to the paper. Then he would wash it with milky translucent paint. It’s a lot of work. Johns is concerned about the surfaces one by one, but it’s a simple technique that anyone can use. It has little cumulative effect.

With those first Flags, Johns turns an American icon into his own kind of thingamajig, and if that’s not saying much, it’s more than I can say for the rest of the work in the show. In the ’60s, when Johns tried his hand at big horizontal works with lots of heterogeneous elements, such as According to What, he couldn’t even achieve the vapid decorative sweep that his old friend Rauschenberg was bringing to oversized surfaces. He also introduces collage elements, another Rauschenberg speciality. Johns is too focused on controlling everything to let the explosion of metaphoric possibilities that assemblage offers. The painted body parts in the early Target with Plaster Casts (1955) and the broom in Fool’s House (1962) look feeble and pretentious. It’s hard to imagine a more obnoxious combination.

Johns is also too much of a control freak to let loose with the possibilities of paint. When his work goes abstract in what are known as the cross-hatch paintings (they dominate the ’70s) he leaves us with practically nothing to look at, because there is no feeling for color to give some dynamism to his broken patterns of parallel lines. Johns supplies these abstractions with fancy metaphoric titles such as Scent, Corpse and Mirror, Dancers on a Plane, and Between the Clock and the Bed. Johns’s art is not unanalyzed. Museumgoers who can work out the metaphors will be able to get their heads spinning. The Barber’s Tree from 1975 is apparently based on a photograph that Johns saw in National Geographic, which showed a Mexican man concocting a sort of barber’s pole by painting stripes on a tree. Michael Crichton, the author of the catalog of Johns’s 1977 retrospective at the Whitney, reproduces this photograph and observes that “it was probably the underlying idea of painting over reality that interested Johns.” Oh, of course, painting over reality. Painting over reality for an artist who has already painted the North American continent on his Maps is a next-level leap.

When you see the cross-hatched paintings in this big retrospective, where they mark roughly the halfway point, they look like Johns’s way of putting some distance between his Pop-oriented beginnings and the painter-philosopher that he has always wanted to become. Viewed this way, the cross-hatch paintings provide the perfect lead-in to the work of the ’80s, in which Johns attempts to situate himself among the immortals by crowding his paintings with references to Grunewald, Leonardo, Picasso and, later, Holbein and Cezanne. Johns shares these little snippets of information from masters with the same deadpan humor that he used to present the American icons. Although his art-historical potpourri lacks any particular logic, Johns insists upon his quotes with cool belligerence so you are hard pressed to believe they actually mean that little. Over and over, he reproduces the outlines of several fallen soldiers from Grunewald’s Resurrection. And two Picassos from 1936, Woman in a Straw Hat and The Minotaur Moving His House, crop up more than once, as does a skeletal figure from his 1958 Fall of Icarus.

Johns’s admirers know their art history, and in his recent work they imagine that they are seeing a replay of the mysterious process by which a very great artist sometimes becomes most himself when he quotes almost line by line from a work that he passionately admires. It is impossible to will this extraordinary phenomenon into existence, but some postmodern painters feel so tired of their present that they are willing to pretend they are immolating themselves at the altar of history: it’s what’s trendy. The critics provide specific reasons for Johns’s selfimmolation occurrences. We are told, for example, that a fragment from Picasso’s Minotaur Moving His House first appeared as an element in the Seasons of 1985-86 because Johns was changing his address. This is perfectly logic, however it doesn’t tell us anything about the significance of the quote in the work.

When Picasso salutes Ingres, he’s re-experiencing the magisterial academician’s sensuous arabesques in terms of his own feeling for line and color; each stroke is a sympathetic response. Johns only copies parts: some outlines here and a whole image there. Great paintings are treated by Johns in the same way an artist director would. He cropps and edits, cuts or pastes. His canvases are message boards, sometimes literally so, as in Racing Thoughts (1983), in which a silkscreen reproduction of the Mona Lisa is affixed to a bathroom wall by several trompe-l’oeil bits of tape. He notes down things he likes, and personalizes them with a little joke, as in a recent series of tracings, done on clear plastic, after a reproduction of one of Cezanne’s Bathers. Every art student should know that a trace of a painting doesn’t represent a response to or interpretation. Johns’s ink-stained washes make it difficult for even the Dadaist operation in which one of Cezannes women became a man with an urge.

In the paintings that are gathered in the final room of the show, bits of Picasso and Grunewald are combined with floor plans that are said to represent a house in which Johns lived as a child. He is said to be here in a meditative state, where art and personal histories merge. The man who thinks he’s paying homage to Cezanne by doing tracings of his works is trying to prove that he still believes in high-art tradition. Johns’s muted palette may not achieve the poetry he is after but his gun-metal scheme will alert us that this is serious work. These canvases reflect middle-age maturity and lessons learned. This high-priced grey painting is the equivalent to a highly-priced suit. These paintings are designed to be important.

Some people say that Jasper Johns has been making an impression for so long that by now he’s beyond the reach of criticism. Michael Kimmelman explained in his review of the Johns show in The New York Times that he doesn’t care for a lot of the work, but he also observed that “it’s pointless to argue about Mr. Johns’s place in history; this issue was settled decades ago.” By reassuring his readers that Johns really is an important artist, Kimmelman may intend to soften his own discomfort at finding himself on the wrong side of current taste. Kimmelman admitting Johns’ “place in History” is a bit too generous. It is an ill-conceived notion to think that an artist, who has been widely acclaimed over thirty-five year’s, can be a permanent fixture. Johns’s relationship with the Museum of Modern Art for over thirty-five years is not evidence of anything. He is, however, the closest official artist we know.

There are official artists, such as Velazquez, whom we count among the immortals. There are also official artists like Le Brun who were the dominant force in France during the second-half of the 17th century. They filled Versailles as Johns fills it today, but who don’t count among the immortals. It is not uncommon for artists to be admired in one generation, but forgotten three or four generations later. I wonder if Johns recalls an observation that his friend Duchamp made in 1966: “Success is just a brush fire, and one has to find wood to feed it.” Kirk Varnedoe has thrown on lots of wood, and the fire is burning furiously. Johns’ greatest accolade will be this huge retrospective. It’s easy for Johns to lose sight of the fact that there is still much left after MoMA has burned down.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here