Jasper Johns: A Conversation (part three)

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Jasper Johns: ‘Fools House’ (1961-2)

A couple of months ago Richard Guest and I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy in London. Then we exchanged emails about it, and this is the result.
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Richard:
Those are great quotations; I think he’s being honest, and they explain the work’s strength and its durability – the paintings have no fixed meaning and Johns never sought to impose one. I like the idea that the artist paints, writes, draws, records etc in the way they are able, because they have to (get something out there).

Yes, I think the key to the work’s appeal is its sensual quality – the images are seductive, in part because of their texture, because the hand of the artist is visible. And the tension between the concept and Johns’ intuitive delivery are what grip us.

Can we talk about Fool’s House (1961-2)?
 
David:
Indeed! For me Fool’s House is ‘the one’ where it all comes together. I wasn’t really expecting it, unlike the flags and targets, but it brought a smile to both our faces (which is an amazing accomplishment). It was able to do that because – I think – it is so right. The balance between the conceptual and painterly elements is perfectly struck – there is a kind of rich counterpoint between them, a perfect tension between the real and the depicted, the word and the gesture, the planned and the spontaneous, the intention and the act. The action of the broom sweeping the paint in the arc is balanced against the frozen nature of paint, the hanging of the broom and cup on hooks that suggest they could swing…the writing on the canvas, naming the articles correctly – a slap in the face for Magritte – but there more. Johns revered Marcel Duchamp we are told, but this feels like a robust defence of painting, a giant leap beyond Duchamp’s barren late work. It feels like a more personal painting too, somehow. How did it strike you?

Richard:
Fool’s House was one of the biggest surprises for me – I’ve seen so many reproductions of it, but nothing prepares you for its raw, pugnacious, visceral effect. Duchamp’s coolness has been replaced by the heat of creation. It’s a dense work – conceptual, jokey, handmade and very much alive! A tangible object in the world and one that seems to be making a proposition: art can be this way (which would be taken up by lots of painters, particularly in the eighties); it doesn’t have to be purely conceptual or purely gestural.

The objects: broom, stretcher, towel, cup could all be found in the typical painter’s studio – is Johns referring to himself as a fool (the stencil used to title the painting is very similar to those used by removal firms to label wooden tea crates)? If so it’s a nice personal/ autobiographical byroad to go down and lends humour and tenderness to the work. The laconic labelling of the objects can be read in a couple of ways – this is a cup (a la Magritte) or the cup goes here. I like the second interpretation, because it suggests a fussiness about the arrangement of objects in a space.

There’s a lovely tension between the actual (the objects) and the world of the imagination (the paint marks). Gestural, suggestive paint marks allow the mind to wander, to create images in the murk. The area to the right of the broom records a lot of activity – maybe something was painted in and painted out again. I wonder if this prompted Johns to paint in the other grey areas, creating a composition he found pleasing on a purely visual level. Containing the whole in a frame emphasises the action of the mark making as well as the cup being simultaneously part of and outside the painting.

For me there’s a rawness to Fool’s House, it’s an open work: there’s space for the viewer’s imagination to complete the picture. And there’s a real tenderness there – an attempt at preserving a snapshot of a life? – casting about to save a few things as the ship goes down…painting as life raft…

David:
Fool’s House is at once a gathering of ideas and a spontaneous expressive moment from an artist’s life. It does remain open to interpretation in a way that some of his other work perhaps doesn’t – I have read conspiracy style theories about it online – that it contains a self portrait, that it contains rosicrucian style references to Raphael and Vermeer etc etc. Not very plausible mostly, but pointing to the the dualistic character of so much of Johns’ work: a cerebral practicality versus free expressive openness. He does not duck any of the hard questions about painting but he remains free to paint any way he wants. Quite an achievement.
 
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Jasper Johns: ‘Regrets’ (2013)

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Jasper Johns: A Conversation (part two)

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Jasper Johns  ‘Flag’ (1958)

A couple of months ago Richard Guest and I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy in London. Then we exchanged emails about it, and this is the result. 
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Richard:
I think the subjects are very specifically chosen – they have deep roots in the Western psyche – a target is for shooting at, so we think about the implications of that image; numbers underpin our lives and shadow our activities in all sorts of ways (data, economics etc), maps and flags signal ownership of land. These objects are all so much a part of everyday existence for so many people that they are taken for granted, but they hold fundamental meaning – road signs, logos, labels are ephemeral by comparison. So, I wonder whether Johns used the maps, flags, numbers and targets to stimulate some kind of intellectual/ tactile reverie in the viewer. If so, to what end? I don’t think his concerns were ever aligned with those of the Pop artists; he was looking beyond labels and design at deeper human experience.

David:
They certainly are very old and as near to universal as you could wish for. On the other hand he chose that particular flag (Stars and Stripes), and that particular map (of the U.S.A). As far as I know he stuck with them. Similarly he has never varied the typeface for 0 through 9 – it’s always the same typeface that is depicting the numbers. A font so old from the days of stencils it probably doesn’t even have a name. It’s almost as if what started as an unconsciously chosen symbol has evolved a deeper aspect and what we have ended up with is a series of portraits or views of a specific landscape – like Frank Auerbach painting the same models for fifty years or Cezanne or Hokusai revisiting the same landscape in different seasons or from different viewpoints. Is it possible he finds them somehow almost as real as people…in some way anticipating a kind of abstraction or virtualisation of our physical lives?  Johns’ work somehow embodies the moment the standard of living in the States was suddenly way better than anywhere else on the planet, but without depicting a refrigerator or a Lincoln Continental. When the materialist ephemera of our culture has long disappeared, it Johns’ work a fitting encapsulation of that moment, a monument to it even?

Richard:
Not a monument. Or an encapsulation. I think both terms are too static to capture the nature of the work. The work is simultaneously a part of and comment on the time – Johns is right in the thick of things – the US cultural debate – questioning his times and positing ideas for a future. His art lives and breathes still – its meaning changing with the political, social, cultural tides. This is another difference with Pop, which for the most part represents a fixed point in time in terms of what it’s saying. Johns’ work somehow embodies a complex representation of the American experience. On the one hand, it is complicit with capitalist values (the art market being a  model of the system in microcosm, and the soaring value of his work within it) and on the other it seems to undercut it, by pointing to objects that define everyday life and saying here are your rulers: discuss. The hand of the artist is in the service of these iconic/ monumental images, and is necessarily humble, which I think raises a question of scale.


David:
One thing for sure is that he himself never attempts to explain his work, its origins, its ideas at all. It’s not his job. He is the master of the unhelpful artist-on-the-subject-of-their-own-work quotation. Here are a few:
“One works without thinking how to work.”,
“I don’t know how to organise thoughts. I don’t know how to have thoughts.”
“I have no ideas about what the paintings imply about the world. I don’t think that’s a painter’s business. He just paints paintings without a conscious reason.”
“I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that didn’t matter –- that would be my life.”

I don’t think he is being deliberately unhelpful here, (although bizarrely it made wonder how Marcel Duchamp would have fared on the Graham Norton Show), I just think his angle of attack is so oblique relative to almost any other artist it is very hard to explain it in simple terms. This is perhaps more revealing:
“I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.”

This hints at the transcendent quality of the work. The borrowed starting point (the real thing – map, target, flag etc ) kick starts the work, before Johns takes it over and remakes it in art. The process through which the canvas is covered by the addition of paint is also a process of reduction – if the supplicant is honest and without ego. What remains has the essence, the life that the artist was seeking to put there.

It’s not cerebral – in the sense you need to think about it to understand it – but it HOLDS the mind. It is not a concept that has been merely executed, (a sense of the death of an idea there), but an idea that has been allowed to take flight – or to become manifested through – a (to me) surprisingly traditional and intuitive process of painting.
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Jasper Johns: ‘Painting With Two Balls’ (1960)

Jasper Johns: A Conversation

 
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Jasper Johns: ‘Target‘, 1961

A couple of months ago Richard Guest and I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy in London. Then we exchanged emails about it, and this is the result.
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David:
When we arranged to visit this show, I confess that I was doing it out of a sense of duty rather than because I thought I would enjoy it. It was a show that I thought I ought to see: a definitive survey of a major artist. Johns is an iconic presence in the art of the last hundred years; but I thought his work was a bit dry, a bit ‘correct’ and he was not necessarily among my favorites. I certainly didn’t have that sense of rock star excitement I had when I was going to see Jackson Pollock, Picasso or Kiefer. I was so wrong! I don’t think I have ever been so pleasantly surprised by a show: after seeing it I would certainly put him up there with the very best. What were your expectations going in?

Richard:
If I’m honest, I thought it would be a box-ticking exercise; when you’ve seen so many of these works in reproduction, they seem really familiar, so I wasn’t expecting many surprises.  I certainly wasn’t prepared for the emotional power of the works’ physical presence. And I was bowled over from the first. Reproductions could never do these works justice.
Shall we start at the beginning of the exhibition and talk about Target, 1961? The first thing that struck me was the size of the work; it filled more of my field of vision than I was expecting…

David:
Target was hanging in the first room, and we just walked straight at it! There was no preamble in this show, no juvenile works or historical context – it was just straight down to the big stuff. And that caught me off guard. Without the usual build up (and time to put up my mental barriers perhaps), it was as you say: the physical presence of the work was so much more powerful than I had bargained for. The intensity of the mark making and the density of the paint just don’t register in reproduction. And it is much bigger than I thought it was too – in a way bigger than the idea alone would require. The vigour and commitment of the painting was very strong; much more emphatic than someone just executing an idea. Or else he was just faking it very well, but I don’t think so. I felt he had a real fervour to paint, and it was very uplifting. More than that though – it suggested to me that my idea of Johns as a ‘cool’ painter concerned primarily with ideas and who used paint only to reference the History of Western Art was at least partially mistaken. To me it suggested that he was taking the vigour of Abstract Expressionism and fusing it with conceptual irony that came from a European tradition of Surrealism and Duchampian detachment. It was hanging in the octagonal room, and somehow that room always makes stuff look great!

Richard:
Yes, it was nice to skip the part where you squint at a load of tiny works on paper. No preamble needed, I guess!
I’ve started to think the idea is just a point of departure for Johns – it starts a purely tactile and visual exploration. You can see the hand of the artist, but it’s at the service of the exploration – Johns is not trying to show us it’s him painting. The marks look to me like evidence of a thorough absorption in the activity. Ha, yes I’ll never think of him as detached again! I like your fusion idea – it’s as if he liked the marks the Abstract Expressionists were making, but did not trust their stated aims. Even so, I think the way he manipulates materials have a similar effect for me – they record a human presence/ action and provoke an emotional response. I wonder what he feels when he’s staring at a finished work…

David:
Well, his aims are clearly divergent from Rothko, Pollock and co, who were deep in existentialism and Post-War trauma. Johns – obviously quite a bit younger – doesn’t suffer from this and is not turning has back on the material world. Completely the opposite in fact; his paintings are celebrating the American Moment. Not for Jasper the gloomy emotional self-lacerations of the Abstract Expressionists or the self-referential obviousness of Pop.  And yet he shares a surprising amount with both – from the physical involvement in the medium that he inherited from Abstract Expressionism on the one hand to the use – or misuse – of readily recognisable symbols and objects from everyday ‘real’ life which he shares with Pop and Dada on the other.

I think you are right to say the idea is the point of departure, but (to grind the analogy out a bit) the vehicle for the journey is that borrowed object from the real world – the target, flag or map that we all recognise immediately. Then he can take us wherever he may as the viewer gets immersed in the spiritual intensity of the mark making.  He clearly chose things with good abstract potential rather than figurative imagery which would have been harder for him to work with, but also things that were familiar enough to resonate with almost any viewer. Could he have chosen almost anything: road signs, logos, labels etc? Or would that have changed the feel of his work? He only seems to have worked with a handful of these motifs for decades.

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Jasper Johns: 0 through 9 , 1960

Mark Wallinger’s ID – A Conversation (Part Two).

On May 1st, Richard Guest & I visited Mark Wallinger’s show  ID  at Hauser & Wirth London W1. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Here is Part Two – you can read Part One here.

 

My accidental version of Shadow Walker in Lisson Grove – the twins in the camo trousers I was surreptitiously trying to photograph cropped off at the head!

My accidental version of Shadow Walker in Lisson Grove – the twins in the camo trousers I was surreptitiously trying to photograph cropped off at the head!

David: Ever Since and Shadow Walker left me pretty cold I have to say, but there are a couple of things that make me scratch my head. Shadow Walker is on a screen resting on the floor, leaning against the wall. It was shot on a phone of some sort I think, it is very poor quality footage anyway, and it’s vertical). Ever Since is the reverse – very high quality and projected directly onto the wall. Leaning stuff has been everywhere recently..so maybe I am tired of it, but is the slipshod presentation of Shadow Walker a little studied – do you really feel any spontaneity looking at it or is Wallinger tying to be too clever by juxtaposing all these disparate idioms?

As soon as we move into the North Gallery we are (if we had been going round the right way) greeted by Ego which is a pair of peeling inkjet prints ‘shot on an iPhone’ we are told. They are stuck on the wall any old how, with blu-tac or similar it looked like. Again there is a massive and deliberate contrast between this and the standardised size of the Id paintings which seem to have the correct production values for H&W. Does this contrast work for you, and does it seem to be a clue to unlocking Wallinger’s approach?

Ego – Gallery tour in progress...we hung back.

Ego – Gallery tour in progress…we hung back.

Richard: Wallinger could be trying to be too clever, but I prefer to think he’s problem-solving, without regard to aesthetics – finding the most direct way to express what he wants to say and going with it (the resulting object is what it is, its aesthetic a part of the message). For me there’s a freshness to this show, which could not have been achieved if it had been all paintings or all videos (But in answer to your question, I don’t feel any spontaneity looking at Shadow Walker, more a wave of ennui crashing over me).

Yes, I think there is a clue in Ego to what Wallinger is doing. He is an artist, regardless of media or technique, who understands that everything he makes has an intrinsic aesthetic value, in part based on what it looks like and in part what that appearance “means”. (To a certain extent, I think he sends up his role as an artist) Ego, for example, would mean something quite different had it been painted. He’s clearly alluding to Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (and possibly the opening title sequence of The South Bank Show), but the image was made in the quickest way possible and reproduced without fuss. Ego carries an idea as much as any of the other work in the show, so its appearance may be lowly in comparison with the Id paintings, but its worth as a statement is equal. Do you like it as a work?

David: Honestly, it’s only because I am talking to you about it that I have even stopped to think about it. It is not just ephemeral but scruffy…slapdash and proud. You are completely right I think to suggest that the method of production is integral to the meaning, but whether it really is produced without regard to ultimate aesthetic impact is hard to say. Outside the gallery context this work would just be two pieces of paper – within it, it feels like a deliberate old-school provocation. It is almost Dadaist in character and Wallinger must know that. It is the key work of the show I think, but I have difficulty with it . I am curious about its conception…but it seems to forestall my scepticism by referencing the most famous and sublime depiction of creation (and by implication artistic creation) while simultaneously seeming to disrespect it by casually presenting it as a second-hand experience.

Ego installation view …appropriately shot on a blurry phone.

Ego installation view …appropriately shot on a blurry phone.

It’s all a bit too cool for me. It is very far from the impulse that first drove a cave dweller to pick up a piece of burnt charcoal and draw a horse on the walls of a cave. It falls into the category of comment rather than expression. Problem solving is a very positive way of looking at it. For me it is part of a sub genre of critical commentary in an artistic medium. Is that unfair?

Richard: As far as Wallinger’s method is concerned, I’m not so sure it is that far removed from the Paleolithic decorating impulse – the cave dwellers would have used a quick and convenient method to convey their message, with the materials they had at hand, I think, without regard to aesthetics (because they were in the process of inventing them).

For me, Ego represents the shortest route from conception to creation in the show. It appears to be a joke, but it’s a complex one:

  • Wallinger unfairly compares the craft of his work to that of Michaelangelo
  • (whilst simultaneously daring the gallery to sell inkjet prints of photographs he took on his phone)
  • and makes light of the fact that he has spent little time crafting the finished work (once he’d had the idea, he surrendered it to a mechanical means of production)
  • he asks the question, “where do the ideas for my art come from?”
  • and answers it, “from me and my accumulated knowledge of art” (both hands are his)
  • and finally he invites the audience to laugh at the shoddiness (and cheek) of it all
  • and asks, “have you got the guts to buy this?”

What I found really interesting about it as an image was that in it Wallinger has black dirt under his fingernails and the Id paintings are all black – does this suggest we can date Ego to the same period? Did he produce Ego in a creative rush after finishing a particularly satisfying Id painting (if so that makes his joke even funnier)? Do you think he achieved personal satisfaction from executing any of the Id paintings, or was his approach to them as conceptual and cool as it appears to have been with Ego?

David: That is as good an all round picture of how Ego functions as we are going to get, I think. But what it tells me is that if Mark Wallinger is anything to go by when we look around we no longer do it with our eyes, but with our iPhones; and what we see is not life in the raw, but a series of references – images quoted from the past. As if only by looking in the mirror of Michelangelo’s Creations can we correctly place our own. Our ability to directly experience things is compromised by our knowledge of art and our insatiable image capturing technology. There has been a Fall – a loss of innocence and there is no going back. This robs art of its primal power of redefining how you look at something on its own terms as if for the first time. It is always doing so as part of a network of critical references, and each work is merely an inflection of this ongoing critical environment. In a way it’s like the block chain security devised by Bitcoin where each transaction is recorded onto an ever-growing chain of verified transactions. If an incoming transaction does not have all the previous ones attached it will be rejected. Works of art in the critical canon have to absorb and reflect all previous works and critical positions: if they do not then they cannot be verified critically and cannot sit within the canon. They are in outer darkness critically and commercially. Meanwhile the critical canon becomes ever more bloated, unwieldy and impenetrable.

Read Part Three here