Jasper Johns: more than the slayer of Abstract Expressionist giants [Interview: Kirk Varnedoe of MoMA]

The Art Newspaper, Oct. 1996, pp. 16-17.

“Jasper Johns: more than the slayer of Abstract Expressionist giants”

By Jason Edward Kaufman

For the past two decades we have seen bits and pieces of Johns’s career. At last, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting him whole. The result is an oeuvre far greater than the sum of its proto-Pop, Minimalist, and Conceptualist parts

NEW YORK. Since his star rose with the famed “Flag” and “Target” paintings of the mid 1950s, Jasper Johns (born 1930) has achieved a position of pre-eminence among post-war American artists. Now, for the first time in almost half the artist’s career, the public will have an opportunity to assess Johns in his entirety. The Museum of Modern Art has assembled the most comprehensive look at Johns to date. The international tour begins in New York, then continues in Cologne and Tokyo.

Organised by Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art, the show is intended to correct the popular misconception that Johns’s historical significance is limited to his early work. From the beginning his familiar iconic symbols were hailed as progenitors of Pop and Minimalism, and his semiological explorations were deemed crucial forebears of Conceptualism and deconstruction. But his art has regularly shifted gear, each time uncovering fertile ground that others have subsequently exploited. The exhibition’s catalogue essays by Mr Varnedoe and critic Roberta Bernstein discuss this impact on contemporary art, as well as Johns’s transformative borrowings from past masters. A companion anthology contains writings, sketchbook notes, and interviews of the artist and a complete bibliography has been compiled and is available on line or on a computer CD. In addition, the museum is showing several films on Johns.

We asked exhibition organiser Kirk Varnedoe to help put the post-War giant in perspective:

Mr Varnedoe, what place does Johns occupy in twentieth-century art?

The standard place that Jasper Johns occupies is as a kind of baton-passer. He is given a grand moment in the sun as the man who comes on stage in order to slay the demon of Pollock and Kline and De Kooning and open up the space for Don Judd and Andy Warhol and Frank Stella, and what follows. Then he is ushered offstage, and the next thirty years of his career don’t tend to be dealt with. In that sense, he tends to be permanently enshrined as the artist of the “Flags” and “Targets”. But that is a ridiculously small slice of a much broader career.

I was astonished that [Guggenheim Museum curator] Mark Rosenthal didn’t put Jasper in the “Abstraction in the 20th Century” show (see The Art Newspaper, No. 56, Feb. 1996, p. 6). For ten years he painted nothing but crosshatch abstractions which, certainly, after Pollock, are some of the most impressive field abstractions that we know. He’s had a complex relationship both to early Modernism-to Duchamp, Picasso, Newman, De Kooning-and to later art-[Kiki] Smith, [Robert] Gober, [Bruce] Nauman. One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is because there is a broader place for Jasper in post-war art than that lonely throne of the great baton passer of ’55 to ’62.

How is it that an artist with such an enormous reputation in the field has not been the subject of a retrospective for twenty years?

I honestly don’t know whether he’s resisted other opportunities to have retrospectives, or whether people have been daunted by the prospect of trying to get together so many expensive works of art in so many different media. It is a complicated show to assemble.

Have Europeans shown as great an interest in Johns as Americans?

No. At a certain point, European painters felt the tradition of belle peinture was something they had to get rid of. [Gerhard] Richter, for instance, stated that Johns’s touch seemed to him too much based in Cezanne. They liked Warhol’s more impersonal silk screens which corresponded to an idea of America as consumer-orientated, hard-edged, and vulgarly energetic. Warhol was strongly collected by Germans. So was Minimalism with its more industrial feeling. Even Rauschenberg’s work was better received for being socially and media orientated. The subjective, private nature of Johns’s work didn’t click with Europeans.

Aside from the late Peter Ludwig, and the museum in Basel, where Jasper gave a lot of works because of his friendship with curator Christian Geelhaar, there weren’t many Johnses to be seen in Europe. Even today representation of Johns’s work in Europe is very spotty. And I’m not sure that they’ve had an opportunity to see first-hand as much as they need.

Is the European understanding of his work substantially different from Americans’?

That will be very interesting to see when the show goes to Cologne. For the German edition of the catalogue, Evelyn Weiss is going to add an essay on the European reception of Johns, which will balance my essay on his impact on American artists.

Have you been planning to mount a comprehensive survey for a long time?

When I took my job in 1988, there were only so many monographic shows the museum could do before the millennium. We looked at the classic moderns and thought that Matisse, Miro, and Mondrian made the most sense because we had such depth in those collections. I put together a triad of post-war artists that I wanted to deal with: Twombly, Johns, and Pollock. Twombly, because the museum had paid so little attention to him, and I believed that he had been very influential for younger artists in the 80s; Pollock, because we are so deep in his work and there hasn’t been a show since 1967 [the Pollock retrospective will open in autumn 1998]; and Johns, for a little bit of both reasons-we have very strong holdings in the early work, but I felt the department of painting and sculpture had paid too little attention to his later career. I wanted to remedy that.

Does the presentation follow the chronology laid out in the catalogue?

The show won’t have nine rigidly separated periods, like the catalogue, but it will follow the same pattern. It will be punctuated by moments where you have works based on a common theme: we have the three early “numbers” pictures-gray, white, and in color. We have the three large “maps,” the three “Between the clock and the bed” paintings, “The four seasons” all together.

One of the challenges has been to integrate the graphic work with the paintings. At a single moment he might be doing “crosshatch” paintings, but revisiting the “target” or the “flag” in graphic work. We’re going to have rooms or areas devoted to graphics interspersed throughout the show so you will be able to see in close proximity all the work in different media done in each period. This is better than hanging paintings alongside prints and drawings on the same wall, which I think is unkind to both because they demand different levels of attention. This will allow his recycling and interweaving of themes to become clear, I hope, in an interesting way.

Aside from their appeal as crafted objects, his works are very much about ideas. Will you explain his work for the audience?

I hope to mark the major changes in iconography or style with succinct wall texts so people will be aware that the show changes character here for a reason. But picture by picture there won’t be explanations. I don’t plan to crowd the wall with huge text labels. A brochure will go into greater depth about the source of specific visual motifs, and an audio guide will delve into individual pictures. Then there is the catalogue. But the pictures are made to live on their own, and to some extent to be mysterious.

Is there an effort to suggest the intellectual underpinnings of his abstraction?

Abstraction is an issue that people are going to approach on different levels. We can tell them the origins of the “flagstone” or “crosshatch” motifs, and point out the fugue-like complexity of some of their buried mathematical orders. But again, I am loath to impose some set of fixed meanings on these pictures. Our viewers are adults for the most part, and curious, and they are free to seek out additional information or to experience the picture on their own terms. That’s part of the implicit contract of abstract art.

The artist must have had some suggestions about presentation. What was his input?

He has been working with us throughout the preparation of the exhibition, and has seen the floor plan or the installation probably four or five separate times over the past eighteen months. He’s often made comments about pictures he thought seemed anomalous within a certain sequence, or ways that he wanted works presented. Obviously, he has an extremely astute eye and knows the works better than anyone.

I reviewed the checklist with him, for all media, and there were certain pictures he wanted to see that I hadn’t necessarily planned. Neither of us has been inflexible. We both want the same thing. I certainly want him to be pleased with the show, and he has respected my opinions, too. The same is true of the catalogue. He does not want to take control or become a curator or an editor, but he has concerns and when asked he voiced them.

What’s something he was very enthusiastic or insistent about?

One example is the installation of “The four seasons.” I had thought of it in one fashion, but he was extremely keen to see them all on one wall because he felt there is an almost cinematic quality to the way the shadow figure moves across the surface of the canvases. He thought that would be better understood by seeing them side by side, so we are going to present them that way. He also helped our thinking about the way the exhibition opens. Originally we had a series of small works from around 1954 in a corridor leading up to the “Flag”, which is the piece that truly begins the exhibition. Jasper rightly pointed out that they seemed a bit orphaned, so we found a way to integrate them immediately after the “Flag”.

When he was twenty-four years old, he supposedly destroyed all of his existing work to make a clean start. One always wonders, did he destroy everything?

No. He had given some things to friends. There exist some works from 1954 that predate the “Flag”, but they are hardly what you would call juvenilia. And it is unclear to me whether they would have been swept away in the destruction because they are related to the “Flag” itself. You see in them the seeds of what’s about to happen. As far as earlier work, I know of only two drawings from before 1954, and one can draw almost no conclusions from them. So some works survived, and some were acquired by smart curators like Walter Hoppes who found a former friend of Jasper’s who had several of these works and got them for the Menil Collection.

What role does humour play in his work?

Johns’s work is often on the edge between a melancholy or morbid sensibility and one that deals in puns and unexpected surprises. Even in some of the darkest aspects of his work there is an element you associate with humour, often because of a seemingly absolutely inappropriate gesture. Like the painting “Bitten by a man” [an imprint of the artist’s bite], or sculptures like “The critic sees” [a pair of eyeglasses with mouths for the eyes] or the “Ale cans”-these are like one-liners, but they have a kind of deadpan quality which makes them unsettling and discomforting. The light-heavy combination has affinities with Beckett and with late Philip Guston, which has a cartoony quality but is dead serious, even gruesome.

Is “Painting with two balls” a joke on Abstract Expressionist machismo?

On one level almost certainly. Johns could not but have been aware of the joke on so-called “ballsy” painting, or painting that “had balls.” But it isn’t clear that he set out to make a joke. That seems to me very unlikely.

What about the anecdote of Leo Castelli and the ale cans? Did that really happen?

Yes. Someone said, “That son of a bitch Castelli, you could give him a couple of beer cans and he could sell them”. It’s a remark attributed to De Kooning. Johns set out to prove him right. He had already been thinking about making sculptures of common objects, and he’d already been using doubled motifs like the two flags. So the remark fell on fertile ground. They’re a classic example of Johns taking something absolutely literally. And although he keeps most of his sculptures, he made an edition of two, perhaps, because in order to make the joke work Leo had to sell one of them.

What about the whimsical paintings of his bathroom wall? They have an air of melancholic resignation.

The implicit idea in those pictures is he’s lying naked in a tub of water, reflecting. It has a ruminative quality, like “Racing thoughts”, as the mind flits from one thing to another bringing together things from different stages of life. The hanging jeans I think of as literally a sad-sack surrogate for the artist himself, an empty shell hung up on a nail.

An aspect of the artist’s private life on which the public’s eye will surely focus is the question of his sexuality.

There has been a body of literature in recent years which has attempted to read explicit homosexual content into his work. I think that is running a very heavy risk of ghettoising or narrowing the meanings in the work, and also of oversimplifying Jasper’s personal life. But that’s as much as I would want to say about it.

Contemporary artists tend to hold Johns in very high regard. Is he the most influential living artist?

I would say there’s no stronger candidate for that title, or if there is, I don’t know who it would be. Nauman has had a tremendous influence, but a lot of what Nauman has been conveying is grounded in his experience of Johns early on. When you think of Kiki Smith and Bob Gober, for example, some of their affinities with Johns’s aesthetic may be filtered through Nauman. One thing that is remarkable about Jasper is that artists as different as Brice Marden and Gober could feel equally indebted to him. He has encouraged painters of pure abstractions like Terry Winters, painters grounded in a photographic realist sensibility like Chuck Close, and on through people like Nauman. Mel Bochner has said, “When you go back up stream you run out of water at Johns. That’s where it goes into the ground”. The number of different streams that track back to Johns is truly amazing.

Is there an aspect of his work that younger contemporary artists tend to find most useful or intriguing?

Right now, it would be the way he has treated the body. Particularly for Gober and Smith this is important. But in general, a broader thing that Nauman tried to put his finger on is that Johns has somehow managed to produce an art of potent subjectivity, even a romantic emotional energy, without succumbing to trivial autobiography or a sense of smarmy sentimentality. There is a combination of an ironic distance and a deep subjective investment that gives the work an authenticity for artists since the 70s.

Which contemporary artists most share his sensibility?

Certainly Richard Serra has been deeply marked by his presence. So have Mel Bochner, Robert Morris, Brice Marden, and much younger artists like Gober and Smith. Among painters, wouldn’t you think that Julian Lethbridge’s pictures look to Jasper’s crosshatch works? I would think Terry Winters looked at the flagstones, just as David Salle’s pictures of the late 80s looked closely at “Ventriloquist” and other assemblage pictures by Johns. But, maybe Johns’s deepest influence isn’t translated stylistically.

Have you thought about how you will situate him in the expanded museum’s permanent collection?

There are artists like Mondrian and Pollock who are represented in the collection by fourteen or twenty great works. That’s the kind of representation I’d like to have of Jasper. But for the moment, I don’t think I would conceive of having a separate Johns room. We have a room with Rauschenberg, Johns, and Twombly at the end of the enfilade of the 50s. That is a really crucial moment and I would like it to be represented more richly. Then I would like major works by Jasper going down the line, in relation to other artists. We already own the greatest painting of the 90s, a promised gift from Mrs Agnes Gund. But between that picture and the 1961 “Map”, there really is only the “Between the clock and the bed” picture [1981], also given to us by Mrs Gund. We need a lot more crosshatch pictures and more work from the 80s like “Racing thoughts” and “Ventriloquist”. We have a lot of catching up to do.

Is Johns strictly an art world phenomenon? Or has his work had any impact on the wider culture?

Often an artist takes something from popular culture, makes it his or her own, then it feeds back into society. Lichtenstein is the prime example. He took the comic books and made them his own. Now comic book style is understood to be ironic and amusing because Lichtenstein proved it could be. There’s a kind of circularity.

Does Johns’s work play into this interchange? In the early work, when he decided to make a private iconography of extremely public symbols, Johns changed the nature of how people thought about making art. It opened up the notion of art as a cultural critique. But Jasper’s later work has been much more private than has Lichtenstein’s or Kruger’s, or Warhol’s for that matter. It’s built more of private necessity. So he has never sought out that sort of broader social implication.

Interview by Jason Edward Kaufman


The collectors

“Institutionally, Alfred Barr, (founding director of MoMA) was the first. He bought three paintings from the 1958 show at Leo Castelli’s for the Modern, and he got Philip Johnson to buy the “Flag”; that’s four from Johns’s first solo show. Riva Castleman, who retired as print curator two years ago, was very close to the artist and organised a major print retrospective of his work. As a result, the museum has acquired every print he has done at ULAE workshop. The Ludwig Museum and Basel Kunstmuseum, as we’ve mentioned, also have strong collections. And Johns is one of his own greatest collectors. He’s kept a major example of almost every style or change of direction in his work, including paintings, drawings, and sculptures, as well as all of the graphics. So he has been able to place a lot of things on loan to museums like Philadelphia and the National Gallery.

Private collectors Sally and Victor Ganz were early supporters and Mrs Ganz retains several very important works. Bob and Jane Meyerhoff in Maryland, starting in the early 80s, became very powerful collectors of Jasper’s work and have an extraordinary collection [see The Art Newspaper, April 1996, p. 10]. David Geffen has been buying extremely high quality work and has a very strong collection of Johns. S.I. Newhouse used to own “According to what”, a major piece of the early 60s, but then sold it. Now he has three or four smaller Johnses better suited to his new apartment. MoMA president Agnes Gund has a great “Map,” a ‘Between the clock and the bed” picture, and the huge recent untitled picture that’s promised to the Modern.

What about Leo Castelli?

Leo didn’t keep that much. He sold the “Target with plaster casts” [1955] to Geffen, and that was one of the last great things that he had. He kept “Fool’s house” [1962] which now belongs to his son Jean Christophe, and a couple of other things. But he sold what he could and didn’t keep a lot for himself”.

The prices

“There are several contributing factors. He has a very small production for one thing. I believe there are fewer than 400 paintings for a forty-year career – not especially productive – and many of the works are small. He is a giant, a senior statesman among living artists; there aren’t many who have had as broad an impact for as long a period. And there are a bunch of collectors who vie for his work. A very signal event was the $17 million price for “False start” [1959]. It was a unique moment – the height of the market in the late 80s – and there was a bidding war between two very determined collectors with deep pockets: S.I. Newhouse and a Swede, Hans Thulin. Above $10 million or so, they were the only bidders. S.I. won the picture [“False Start” has changed hands twice since then, and its current owner is an anonymous lender to the exhibition.-Ed.] Almost doubling the estimate, it suddenly became so far and away the biggest price ever paid for work by a living artist that it deformed Jasper’s market. Though the market has subsided since then, it still is distinct from almost every other living artist’s.

I think most people have some difficulty grasping the $17 million price. Was there a consortium behind Mr Newhouse?

No. It was an individual purchase. Truly remarkable. But then David Geffen’s price for “Target with plaster casts” is not that far behind that. Prices in the mid-range between $10 and $20 million have been sustained for prime works of historical significance, but they almost never become available”.

Jason Edward Kaufman ©

This article appeared in The Art Newspaper, Oct. 1, 1996 (Issue 63), pp. 16-17.


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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