Sense III

“Johns’s early paintings declared independence from European influence like nothing before them. Incredulous on this score, some observers at the time took refuge in calling him Neo-Dada, but there’s an Atlantic Ocean’s worth of distance between his work, which is dead serious even when playful, and, say, the satiric displacements of common objects by Marcel Duchamp. Tellingly, Johns has never been as esteemed in other countries as he is on these shores. To my mind, his art jibes with America’s chief contribution to philosophy, the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. It is about how art works work. In addition, despite Johns’s fastidiously ironic detachment, the early paintings could seem to symbolize American imperial confidence at its peak and on the march, waging the Cold War. We know where that went. The “Farley Breaks Down” pictures could be seen to acknowledge the subsequent horrors of national hubris, most irreparably in the blood vat of Vietnam. But here I am verging on yet another wordy thesis about the intentions of Jasper Johns, which, to be authoritative, would need confirming testimony from him. Fat chance.” [Peter Schjeldahl on Jasper Johns]

“Mr. Johns himself is loath to offer biographical interpretations of his work — or any interpretations, for that matter. He is famously elusive and his humor tends toward the sardonic. He once joked that, of the dozens of books that have been written about his art, his favorite one was written in Japanese. What he liked is that he could not understand it…
He says outright that he does not have faith in the process of memory, insisting it is less likely to disclose truths than to twist them. One of his frequent rejoinders is, “Interesting, if true,” in response to statements of incontestable fact...
One thing that Mr. Johns understood at an early age is that language and truth are not the same. Growing up in the South, at a time when its citizens saw no contradiction between the cultivation of perfect table manners and the barbarism of segregation, he was well aware that people were not always logical. Born in 1930, Mr. Johns was the only son of an alcoholic farmer and a mother accustomed to hardship. His parents divorced in 1933, by which time he had been sent to live with his paternal grandfather, the first of many painful dislocations in his childhood. “I was a good guest,” he said, without rancor. “I was always a guest.” [Deborah Solomon on Jasper Johns]

Jasper Johns Untitled 2016

What about the link that Johns establishes between the landscape (mountain) and the human body (lips)? Are the inward-looking eyes pondering our destination, as part of a landscape that is itself a minute speck within something unfathomable (the Milky Way)? Why is the painting’s ground largely blue with hints of orange peeking through? Why has the right edge of “poster” of the Milky Way started to curl up? Was the proportion of the older painting — whose dimensions convey landscape — what bothered Johns? Is this why he made his response on a square, or abstract, format?
Regardless of whether the viewer knows about the earlier painting or not, what “Untitled” conveys is a curiosity about looking, both as an outward act and an inward one, in pursuit of some understanding of our material relationship to time, space, and the world we inhabit. What is the connection between them? How might we see ourselves in the world we must let go of, in the end? [John Yau on Jasper Johns]

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