In my early work, I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly due to my feelings about myself and party due to my feelings about painting at the time. I sort of stuck to my guns for a while but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve. — Jasper Johns
This quote from 1978 reads almost like a confession from the reticent American artist Jasper Johns. He is best known for paintings of iconic motifs such as the American flag, targets, numerals and maps, or what he describes as “things the mind already knows.” Their interpretations teeter between the mundane and the cryptic; and thus, the work’s formal qualities often take centre stage. John’s treatment of the surface is sensuous and his method is unfussy. Marks lay bare traces of the artist’s hand, even if the outcome seems cool and detached.
I remain fascinated by these internal contradictions. Johns’ works and words are slippery, thus when he speaks directly about a subject, one listens. There is an intense vulnerability in his 1978 quote, which articulates the tension between a work’s autonomy and its maker’s biography. Here’s another account:
“I think 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.”
A helpless statement that invites interpretation and speculation—including mine. An early work that reveal these impulses is In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara from 1961, in which the exuberance of John’s 1954–55 painting Flag is muted with shades of blue-greys. The piece is constructed from two panels, joined by hinges in the middle so the composition opens out like a book. Its title is borrowed from a poem by Frank O’Hara about the end of a relationship and ways of coping with such a loss. Using this link as a point of entry, art historian Jonathan Katz reads the painting as a eulogy for Johns’ intimate relationship with Robert Rauschenberg. Katz highlights the flag composition as an important marker that bookends both Johns’ breakthrough work and their lives as a couple. If the idea for Flag came to Johns in a dream, at risk of sounding melodramatic, In Memory of My Feelings was the end of that dream.
The work of art “has to be what you can’t avoid saying.” Johns came to my mind immediately when I was approached for this piece. Coming off the back of a recent body of work inspired by his target paintings, I am also interested in how writing mediates the experience of visual art. The use of image appropriation and textual references are strategies for layering meaning. Katz offered a perspective through the lens of sexuality contextualised in the social codes of Johns’ time, an era when it was dangerous to express queer desire.
To me, Johns’ oeuvre deals with the art of difference. He repeats a lexicon of motifs, making subtle shifts in each iteration only to generate greater dissonance. It’s about the destabilising grey area between seeing and meaning, troubling things the mind thinks it knows. A queer subtext is available, particularly in the appearance of charged symbols that allude to the body, but this reading never entirely consumes the work. The artist has offered fragments of meaning and revealed the source of his images; but consistently avoided explanation.
This gesture offers the possibility for viewers to find beauty in the oblique, in the mysterious. For artists, it is about negotiating the impulse for public expression and the desire for privacy. Just as there are layers of meanings, there are circles of trust among audiences. It is simply a fact about communication, that intimacy is not a given, but instead, a shared condition. At times, an artist is given permission to speak through the voice of another and we see Johns ventriloquizing through O’Hara in In Memory of My Feelings. At other moments, acts of voicing are less clear; he maintains the tension between knowing and not knowing, saying and not saying—a pregnant silence.
In her seminal 1964 essay Notes On Camp, Susan Sontag wrote: “Many things in the world have not been named, and many things, even if they have been named, have not been described.” The critical question has never been what a work of art is about, but what it is. Sontag also warned of the danger of viewing art as ‘content’ and how interpretation has the tendency to de-sensualise the art experience. Instead, she called for “an erotics of art,” urging, “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, hear more, to feel more.”
In front of Johns’ works, one must simply drop the reserve.
Jasper Johns, born 1930, is celebrated as one of the most influential American artists of the post-war era, whose work combines cerebral content with highly sensual handling of materials.