Capture the Flag

Jasper Johns’ own private icon.

Jasper Johns: A Retrospective

Oct. 20, 1996–Jan. 21, 1997

The Museum of Modern Art

New York City

Among the dozens of appropriated motifs that swim in and out of the later work of Jasper Johns, whose career is the subject of a curatorially brilliant retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, is the face of the Mona Lisa. The reference is not to Leonardo. The reference is to Johns. For the Mona Lisa is the classic instance of the image that becomes synonymous with its creator. It is the emblem of painterly emblems, the imprint on the ultimate tote bag of Western art. It’s the archetype for Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, Jackson Pollock’s drips, Andy Warhol’s soup can, and Jasper Johns’ flag.

The flag was the outcome of a standard modernist ritual of self-launching. In 1954, when he was 24 and an artistic unknown, Johns decided to destroy all his work, with a view to purging himself of influence and beginning afresh with a blank canvas. It was a sacrifice the gods seems to have found satisfactory (which is, of course, why we know about it: If they hadn’t found it satisfactory, the story would have acquired a different beginning). For they sent Johns a dream, in which he saw himself painting an American flag, and the result was the work with which his name will always be associated, an image he would produce many renderings of–white flags, flags on orange backgrounds, flags with (by mistake) 64 stars, flags drawn in pencil and graphite wash, flags in superimposed triplicate.

The original Flag (1954-1955)–which is a representation of the familiar red, white, and blue, 48-starred item–first attracted attention in 1957, when it was displayed in a group show at the Leo Castelli Gallery. The following year, Castelli gave Johns a one-man exhibition; Alfred Barr, of the Museum of Modern Art, attended, and agreed to purchase four works. Flag was among them, but the possibility that the Museum’s acquisitions committee would object to it as unpatriotic made Barr nervous, so he arranged for the architect Philip Johnson to buy it (the price was $1,000), with the promise that he would donate it to the Museum later on (which he did, in 1973, when it was worth a lot more than $1,000).

The thought that Johns’ Flag, which seems so sweet and inoffensive in comparison with the art that causes controversy today, would give anyone political jitters seems a commentary on the oppressiveness of early Cold War America. But it is really a commentary on the timidity of the art establishment. For a version of Johns’ White Flag (1955-1958) had already appeared in the window of Bonwit Teller, in 1956, as a background for two mannequins displaying the latest in ladies’ suits, and no one seems to have called in the FBI. American commercial culture, in the 1950s and early 1960s, was, in its lack of inhibition, way ahead of American high culture. It was this friction between the agitators of appetite and the guardians of taste that gave rise to pop.

J ohns’1958 show figures in many stories of American art as the first step in the turn away from abstract expressionism, from the hot grandiloquence of Pollock and De Kooning toward the cool of pop, minimalism, and conceptual art–the art of the ‘60s and after. There is some truth to this version, but not enough. Johns must have been happy to have displaced, in his understated way, the cultural dominance of the big action painters. The title of his sendup of abstract expressionism, Painting with Two Balls (1960)–and there they are, squeezed forlornly between two big panels of drips and brushstrokes–is about as explicit as Johns ever gets. The flags, targets, and twin Ballantine ale cans–Painted Bronze (1960)–are plausible prototypes for the art of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Bruce Nauman. But the Johns retrospective makes it clear that that to insist on thinking of him as popist or a minimalist or a conceptualist is to miss out on the pleasures of his work.

Kirk Varnedoe has arranged the exhibition, and the excellent catalog that accompanies it, to exemplify what has become a leading theme of his work as chief curator of painting and sculpture at the museum. This is the idea that modern art is a song that never ends–that what began with Cézanne and Picasso did not stop with Warhol or with Schnabel, but is an impulse that is continually being renewed and revisited in Western culture. There may be no better illustration of this thesis than the work of Jasper Johns.

From one point of view, Johns’ flags and targets derive from the famous ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp–the urinal, the bicycle wheel, the snow shovel, all exhibited before 1920. They are anti-art. They ask the question asked by Duchamp’s bicycle wheel and, later, by Warhol’s soup cans, which is, if this is a work of art, then what is not? But from another point of view, they derive from Monet’s haystacks. The flags and the targets and the rest are, like the haystacks, simply subject matter for painterly treatment. They are, as Johns himself put it, “things the mind already knows,” forms which can be remade, over and over, and seen anew. This puts them about as squarely in the artistic mainstream as anyone could wish.

For Johns’ paintings and sculptures (the ale cans, the sculp-metal shoes and flashlights, and the combines) lose exactly half their point in reproduction. They retain their intellectual aspect, but lose their sensual aspect. In reproduction, the flag picture is a familiar dadaist conundrum: something that is neither a flag nor a picture. On the wall, though, Flag is a magnificently variegated surface, an intensely made thing, a dense amalgam of newspaper, encaustic, and paint. It does not occur to you, when you encounter it in the flesh, to contemplate its metaphysics–any more than encountering a movie star in the flesh inspires reflections on the nature of modern fame. You are too busy soaking up the sense data.

“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Ditto.” The recipe is from an early notebook of Johns’, and it is the best explanation of his procedure. It is why a list of the materials Johns has used over the 40 years of his career includes beeswax, lighter fluid, oil stain, plaster casts, crayon, charcoal, chalk, cardboard, ink on plastic, and the impress of his own body. One painting features his teeth marks. He doesn’t want to represent or to deconstruct. He wants to transform.

A n artist who takes a bite out of his own painting, and who derives his subject matter from a dream, is, in some sense, a private artist; and the later work, as Varnedoe has organized it, suggests an increasing absorption in a personal vocabulary composed of body parts; crosshatching patterns (an overworked motif of the 1970s); vases; clocks; skulls; specific borrowings from Duchamp, Picassso, Holbein, and a 16th-century Grünewald altarpiece; little stick figures with bubble heads; and, in the most recent work, the image of a spiral galaxy.

Like the early flags, these elements got reworked in a variety of media and a range of combinations–as though if the right combinations were found, the rebus might be decoded (though, of course, it never is). There are periods in which the work fades into hermeticism; there are periods when it aspires to a lyric summing up, as in the four Seasons (1986), in which the shadow of the artist is projected onto a sequence of Johnsian montages. Sometimes the desire to work out an idea–as in the large-scale panel picture According to What (1964), which presents a series of Johns’ customary images in a deliberately decentered composition–produces a flaccid surface. But mostly there is the spectacle of technique brought to bear on form; and although this is a minimal definition of art, there is nothing minimal about the results.