Friday, February 16, 2007

A South Carolina Boy at Heart, Another Look at Jasper Johns

Katherine Knight

I decided to challenge myself by reviewing ‘Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting 1955- 1965’ at the National Gallery. I know embarrassingly little about Jasper Johns; especially when you consider that he spent his middle school, high school, early college, and army years in my home town of Columbia, South Carolina. But Johns’ was never a loyal native-son in the way that Dizzy Gillespie, Steven Colbert, or the guys from Hootie and the Blowfish are, so I’d inherited the bias that Johns had ‘sold out’ or had ‘gotten too big for his britches’. Plus, I had never been convinced that Johns’ work was Art. What is all the fuss about? This seemed like the perfect opportunity to investigate.

The exhibition claims that Johns’ work was vital in determining the future of post-war (and post New York School abstract expressionist) painting. This claim is supported by tracing the way four motifs- the target, the mechanical device, stenciled words, and casts or imprints of the body- challenged accepted notions of Art, art making, and the Artist. The exhibition itself is sponsored by Target, and I still can not decide if this detail is a disgusting example of rampant corporate sponsorship, or a telling manifestation of the breadth of Johns’ influence on our culture.

Anyway, the target was, of course, the first motif to be presented. After several small pencil drawings of targets, where the image is nearly lost to the density of the scratchy marks, I was first struck by the large ‘White Target’, painted in 1957. The image is constructed by collaged torn paper covered over with gloopy white encaustic. Looking at the messy surface, I was more aware of a sense of work than I was the presence of the artist’s hand. This is a significant and intentional shift, especially when contrasted with the surface of a Pollock painting, where the drips are controlled and carefully choreographed.

A second large ‘Target’ from 1961 furthers this line of thought. This target, also in encaustic, is blue, yellow, and red, and although the circles remain true, the paint is applied in a frantic slap-dash manner, as evident by the thread-like colored drips flecked haphazardly across the bottom of the painting. Again, the sense of work prevails. The message is clear; Johns is removing the romance and mysticism from his role as a painter, and questioning the possibility of artist as manual laborer. To Pollock he seems to say; sometimes a drip is just a drip.

Johns further questions the role of the Artist in his Device paintings, which depict perfectly crafted arcs along with the simple devices used to make them. Later, many also include imprints of his own arm in a similar capacity, which demands that we view the arm, and perhaps the artist as a whole, as a simple art-making device.

At this point in the exhibition, as I was considering becoming a true Johns believer, I came across four pieces of a different nature that would solidify Johns’ position in my esteem. The first was a stenciled drawing (reading Red Yellow Blue Yellow from top to bottom) entitled ‘Folly Beach’. Folly Beach! The site of many a happy holiday and the beach I visited when playing hooky from high school, and later, from work. This drawing, I soon discovered, was a study for a larger painting entitled ‘By the Sea’ which contains the aforementioned stenciled phrase and flashes of corresponding color amidst a muddle of steely blue-grey and murky green, which is undeniably the Atlantic Ocean.

Following this were the drawings ‘Hatteras’ -which is a device drawing depicting an arm cutting a light arc through a cloud of dark smudges in a clear reference to the beam projected by the historic Cape Hatteras light house- and ‘Edisto’- whose smudged footprint and adjacent clam shell could only mean a beach walk on Edisto Island, where Johns lived and worked for several years.

These discoveries delighted me; a South Carolina boy at heart! All was forgiven, but they also made me consider the work differently. What other subtle commentary could be hiding behind the bigger picture? Could the charcoal colored ‘Voice’ from 1965-67, whose solitary message is defiantly resilient despite the threat of literally being wiped out, perhaps be saying something about the civil rights movement? What about the original ‘White Flag’ (which was not present in the exhibition) from 1955? A white American flag; what other connotations could that possibly have? The mind boggles.

In all, I thought the exhibition was a success. The literature early on encourages viewers to ‘de-familiarize’ themselves with Johns’ work, and I think this is good advice. His reinterpretation of the Dada ready-mades and the ensuing dialog about what Art can be and who can make it has become so familiar to us that his early, ground breaking pieces seem almost quaint. When considered in context (post Rothko, Pollock, and Newman, and pre Pop Art), the work takes on a deliberateness and power that had previously been lost on me. I went into the exhibition with ignorance and skepticism, and came out enlightened. Isn’t that what Art is supposed to do?

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