Perhaps no American artist of the twentieth century is more celebrated, yet more misunderstood, than Jasper Johns, who rocketed to instant fame as a young man with his legendary first gallery show in New York in 1958. That distinguished event marked the first pure American contribution to the formalist principles of Modern art, indicating a break from Abstract Expressionism, the dominant style in New York following the end of World War II. The tide had already been shifting away from Europe’s monopoly as the prevailing influence of the avant-garde.
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And what could be more profound a statement about the super-powered United States of America becoming the nexus of the art world than a giant painting of its flag? Johns wasn’t making a political statement, but instead, ushering the evolution of painting into a clear, knowable definition as a flat surface. By employing imagery of objects that were inherently flat, such as targets, numbers, maps, and flags, he dismissed the whole wishful notion of painting’s role of perpetuating an illusion. Johns continued to riff on this concept over and over again for decades to follow. None of his later work would ever eclipse the impact or ignite such a revolutionary response as that first show at Leo Castelli gallery. The artist, reticent to explain his thought process, continued to pursue invention, and the inherent meaning has remained a mystery.
The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, in collaboration with the Royal Academy in London, put together a comprehensive survey tracing the evolution of the artist’s six-decade career called Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’this past Spring. Curator Ed Shad offered insight into the full range of John’s motifs and motivations.
Gregg Gibbs: What is the significance of Jasper Johns in the pantheon of art history? Why is his work considered to be so important in the development of Modern art?
Ed Shad: To start, there is the art historical story of him devising new ways of approaching art-making in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. That story is very well trodden. At the time when he made the flags, for instance, avant-garde art looked like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko. That’s what art was doing and that’s what art was. It gave primacy to the self, where the gesture on the canvas gives an insight into you as an individual if you were living inside the United States. There are reasons why we look at Pollock and feel his personality, but also get ideas about the fact that his paintings look like outer space or the atom bomb. So imagine going from that, to this very stoic, anonymous presentation of the American flag in the mid-’50s done in encaustic. That movement is very striking as it travels from that expressive, energetic assertion of self into something you have to slow down to understand, something you have to study. When you look at a Jasper Johns flag from the ’50s, the last thing to think about is Eisenhower or the basic political goings-on during that time. Instead, what you should look at is the philosophical, perceptual two-step between how things acquire meaning. The more you get involved with the flags, the more meaningful they become—you return to this everyday object as something new. Fast-forward 60 years to the present moment, it is just as radical today as it was then—something that requires you to stop, look and think.
Often referred to as the bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop, Johns retains the gestural application of the medium but combines it with populist subject matter. What has made him such a pivotal figure in facilitating this change of genres?
There is kind of a temptation to think of him as a Pop artist and not an Ab-Ex artist. The reason I’m tempted to refrain from Pop is because an Andy Warhol soup can, for example, looks like it was plucked from his kitchen. This elicits a sense of consumerism, the way food is mass-produced and democratic in the way it’s deployed. Whether you are a rich person or a poor person, that soup can of clam chowder is the same either way. Johns’ image is taken from daily life, a methodical measured image that distances us from what it is. He kind of occupies that middle ground of perception.
Is it like Gauguin stating that a painting is merely an arrangement of color on a flat surface? Johns is not commenting on consumerism, but embracing the flatness or flat images, right?
If you look at the 1967 flag from the Broad collection, the stripes wrap around the edges. The canton, which has the stars, continues around the side of the frame. This is fully a flag. You could salute this if you wanted to. There is no part of this flag that is not a flag. Next to it is Flag on Orange 2, which shows the flag with defined edges embedded in an orange field. So unlike the other flag, which is an object, this one is an image. Another great example is 3 Flags from the Whitney, which is three flags stacked on top of each other. This may seem simple, but there are lots of things to think about here. The sides of the stretcher bars are gray, though the flags are objects stacked on top of each other, and the flag image terminates at the edge of the canvas. Something asserts itself as an object that is capable of clearly being defined as an image. To get really geeky, it is doing with real objects the exact opposite of what the rule of Renaissance perspective does when, in the arrangement of space, large objects are in front and smaller objects are in the distance. Johns arranges objects in a real space, deploying them in a deadpan way by making a point: that the way we relate to the world is partially a function of the perspective system in which we find ourselves.
What makes that such a radical departure?
The artist Ed Ruscha said that when he first saw the flag paintings, it blew his hair back. There was nothing like it before. Flag ‘67 is a great situation where a flag that is fully an image is on top, and a flag that is fully an object is on the bottom, one rendered in orange, black and green and the other in gray. But, there is a third flag. If you stare at the top one for a number of minutes, allowing your retina to get tired, then stare at the gray version below, your eye will produce a red, white and blue flag. Here the flag has entirely left the canvas. Now the image you see of the flag is completely created by your eye.
How extensively did you approach this survey, and were there some important works you were unable to include?
Each of these objects is incredibly fragile. For example, the MOMA piece featuring a target with body parts attached above the image was done on a bed sheet and cannot travel. These are not exactly the type of things that are supposed to last forever. The target with plastic casts, owned by David Geffen, was one of the first objects that Johns made, and we can understand if collectors have to think on an individual basis about the fragility of certain objects. There are some important pieces not included in the show, but we understand and are very proud of how it came together.
Why did you decide to hang the exhibition thematically rather than following a chronological progression?
It is curated topically because Johns presents a motif that emerges and repeats, sometimes over the course of 60 years. Each motif does not always mean the same thing, though. When you see a flag from 1955 next to a flag from 1968 or a flag from 1985, that certain motif has changed according to how Johns has changed and how the world is changing around him. While motifs inside of a chronological survey presentation can be located, we wanted to facilitate the chance to see those changes over time. In the target gallery, you can look at a 1958 target next to one from 1992. We wanted to give viewers the opportunity to tease out more of the meaning behind the work by focusing on the particular motifs.
Tell me about the red, yellow and blue paintings. What could he be trying to convey when the word doesn’t match the color that it is labeling?
The primary colors of red, yellow and blue, literally, are tools, the tools by which all other colors are made. You can mix them together and create any other color, so this is the starting point for color. In a painting like False Start Johns gives us an opportunity to think about the symbols of colors. R-E-D is our symbol for red linguistically, but nothing about those letters corresponds, in any real way, to how we experience the color. Sometimes you’ll see red written in yellow that is labeling blue. That symbol has become destabilized. You have an activity going on where you’re taking this toolbox of primary colors and exploring what they mean, how they carry their own emotional weight. And you can do the same thing in gray. There is a calibration from a color into gray that is subtle. What is happening here? How is this doing what it’s doing? These are the things that Johns seems to be interested in. I can’t speak for him, but that’s what I get.
He famously doesn’t like to explain his work. Why is that?
As I read more about his work in his interviews, he actually does tell you quite a lot. I would encourage people to read his earlier interviews to gain insight into his ideas. I think the popular opinion that he doesn’t comment much can be misleading. For instance, his remarks about measurement help me get into his paintings. So many of the things he has said about his work really take you into the process in a dynamic way.
Portraits of Jasper Johns by Bob Adelman. Jasper Johns in his Riverside Drive studio in New York City in 1964. © Bob Adelman Estate