Face with Watch
by Nina Siegal
Jasper Johns gazes through the arched window of a converted farmhouse in Sharon, Conn. He is seated on a plush grey couch on the second floor of his studio, where he has taken a break from work on a new series of etchings. Hes dressed in blue jeans, tan work boots and a dark grey shirt that is stained with paint. It is a lucid, bright day, and a lush tree looms across the window.
His answer my question takes so long that it seems he may have forgotten it -- or even that one has been posed. I have been prepared for this. The 74-year-old artist has a reputation for silence. "While very amiable, he has a remoteness that makes all questions sound vaguely coarse and irrelevant," observed one interviewer in the 1970s.
More recently, another reporter wrote, "The dominant impression one gets after spending an hour with the artist is silence."
My interview with Johns is occasioned by a new survey of the last 20 years of his work, "Past Things and Present: Jasper Johns since 1983," that opened earlier this month at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Up to this point in our hour-long conversation, I have found him to be anything but reticent. Rather, he is generous and voluble when asked about his personal life and his working habits, laughing frequently.
It is only when asked about the meaning of his paintings that he hesitates, and his clear blue eyes shift away, to somewhere past the window frame. "Meaning is something people find or construct or enact more than it is something that is offered to people," he says when he finally speaks. He says this without a hint of cunning or disdain. He simply doesnt want to impose his own interpretation of his work on others, preferring to let viewers reach their own conclusions.
Johns launched his extraordinary 50-year career, of course, with a series of Pop Art paintings that employ simple iconography -- flags, targets, maps and stenciled numbers. He reworked these motifs hundreds of times in drawings and prints, encaustic and oil, color and monochrome, repeating patterns and sometimes turning them upside-down.
The current exhibition, the first major Johns retrospective since his 1996 show at New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, focuses on his output of the last 20 years. Joan Rothfuss, the curator of "Past Things and Present," says that during those two decades the intensely private artist began to collapse his intellectual distance from his work and to explore personal themes. "It was time to drop the reserve," says Rothfuss. "By 1983 his attempts to keep his own history and himself out of the work were over, and you start to see autobiography in his work -- places where he grew up, pictures of his family."
Among the images in this exhibition, which includes more than 80 prints, paintings and drawings, are references to artists he admires (Leonardo, Picasso and Duchamp), blueprints of his childhood home, photographs of his grandparents, depictions of his bathtub and outlines of his own body. These are references to an interior life that Johns has been reluctant to expose in the past. Now a white-haired man with weathered skin and palms coarsened by years of handling art materials, he seems more willing to discuss the influences on his life and work.
Johns was born on May 15, 1930, in Augusta, Ga. He describes his father as a "neer-do-well" and his mother as a housewife. When he was two, they divorced and he was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Allendale, S.C. By the time he was eight, his grandfather died, and he was sent packing again. He spent the rest of his youth living between homes, sometimes with his mother and her new husband, sometimes with a schoolteacher aunt in South Carolina.
When an itinerant painter moved into his grandparents house as a boarder, young Jasper, then around five or six years old, was captivated. "I remember going into his room and seeing all these paints and brushes, and I stole some oil paints," he says, laughing at the memory. "I had no idea what to do with them once I had them. I denied Id taken them, but everyone knew. I made quite a mess of things."
It wasnt until he went to college that Johns had a proper set of his own tools. He studied art at the University of South Carolina for a year and a half, quitting in 1949 to move to New York City, where he enrolled in commercial art school. He quickly ran out of money, he says, and one of his instructors from South Carolina made a plea for a scholarship on his behalf. "The director called me up to the office and said theyd give me a scholarship because this teacher spoke so highly of my work, but he didnt think I deserved it," Johns recalls. "I said, If you dont think I deserve it, you shouldnt give it to me. He replied, If you stop school now, youll never be an artist."
Johns blue eyes brighten as he tells this story, and he laughs. He is one of the most recognized artists of his generation, and he has been far more financially successful than he would have been had he become a commercial artist. His paintings have fetched as much as $17 million at auction, and on the private market they have reportedly sold for quite a bit more. He sells his works directly to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, and to the worlds wealthiest collectors.
After a years national service Johns continued painting, and met some of the people who would greatly influence his career: the composer John Cage, the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg, a fellow artist. At the time, Rauschenberg was making window displays for the Bonwit Teller department store in Manhattan. Johns was impressed that his friend was able to make a living doing something creative. Rauschenberg got him a job as well, and the two worked together on window decorations for Bonwit and Tiffanys.
It was through Rauschenberg that Johns also met the legendary gallery owner Leo Castelli, who represented many of the original Pop Art painters. Johns 1958 show at the Leo Castelli Gallery, which included his early images of the now-famous flags, targets and numbers, catapulted him to instant stardom, with MoMA buying three works.
Johns had painted his first American flag in 1954, and it is the image with which the artist is most often associated. His White Flag (1955) hangs in the Metropolitan; Three Flags (1958) is in the Whitneys permanent collection. A 1973 piece, Two Flags, sold for $12.1 million in 1989 -- the second highest auction price ever achieved by the artist. Where did the idea for the series come from?
"Well, it certainly wasnt out of patriotism," he says. "It was about something you see from out of the side of your eye and you recognize it as what it is without really seeing it. It is the thing itself, but theres also something else there."
What else is there? "I dont think I want to describe it," he says, a coy smile on his lips. "Its probably shifted its meaning over time."
Johns says he is sometimes amused and sometimes frustrated when his flag paintings are perceived as a symbol of support for the U.S. government. He points out that when he first painted them, in the late 1950s, just subsequent to the McCarthy era, critics interpreted them as subversive. "Theres certainly a degree of irony, that was always part of it," he says. "Now they treat the flag as if its very. . . ." He searches for the word. "Precious."
Castelli gave President John F. Kennedy a Jasper Johns flag one Independence Day in the 1960s. "I thought it was the tackiest thing Id ever seen," said Johns at the time. "Then John Cage said to me, You must just think of it as a pun on your work."
Cage was a close confidant and mentor to Johns. "John Cage was both a wonderful intellect and a generous teacher, and also a kind of preacher -- he always wanted to tell you what was good."
Like many top contemporary artists, Johns insists that he doesnt categorize himself as part of any esthetic movement. He says, "That way of thinking is a way to simplify the world and put it into an order where people can then dismiss it."
In particular, he resists being labeled as a Pop artist -- despite his long-time inclusion in exhibitions and publications about the Pop Art movement -- because he worked before those artists arrived on the scene, and his work "had different concerns." Instead, he says, "I was trying to find something I could do that would have a kind of objective clarity. And somehow I began to see paintings as objects -- as literal things rather than as metaphors. Of course, theyre both, but for me at the time it was a way of organizing my actions and eliminating the ideas that had been part of my life and most of my training."
What was he trying to eliminate? "I was moving into something more concrete. Everything I did related to some object or image that was identifiable to myself, and also to other people."
The new work in the Edinburgh exhibition includes an image of an American flag painted in green and black and taped on to a cross-hatched wall. Images of the Mona Lisa float alongside those of his own shadow.
When we finish talking, Johns walks me down to the studio, where he is preparing a series of etchings based on works he made in 2003. His assistant is finishing up copper etching plates that will be the basis of the next set of prints. The paintings, created in his second home on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, are called Pyre, Pyre 2 and Bush Baby. In each, you can decipher the pattern of the costume of Picassos "Harlequin" paintings. There are also references to his trademark stenciled alphabets and numerals.
Johns likes being alone. He lives with his dog on his estate in the manicured hills of Connecticut, just across the New York border. His studio assistants, aspiring artists themselves, visit during the day. He also maintains a pied--terre in Manhattan for visits to the city, but these days he rarely takes the trip into town.
Since Leo Castelli died in 1999 at the age of 91, Johns hasnt had gallery representation, says Bob Monk, an art dealer with the Gagosian Gallery in Manhattan who has known Johns for decades. "Everyone would love to represent him," says Monk. "But Leo was a father figure to him, and he doesnt need a gallery at this point; he can sell to anyone he wants."
Johns lends his work to museums when asked, and over the years he has donated about 250 prints to the Walker Art Center, some of which are the basis of the current retrospective -- 30 pieces in the show belong to the artist and another 30 are his gifts to the Walker.
Despite his generosity and prolific output in the course of his five-decade career Johns has remained something of an enigma to his fans, and even to many of his friends. "In his 20s he would always say, My paintings have nothing to do with my feelings," says Monk. "He didnt want people to confuse images with his own emotions."
At 74, he may be more willing -- both in person and in his art -- to allow people to make that mistake. "He always had personal content in his work, but it was buried," Rothfuss says. "He emphasized the structural, the way it was put together, the way it focused on meaning. The work still has that conceptual rigor, but maybe now its the opposite: the expressiveness of the content is just as important."
In other words, perhaps Jasper Johns is finally letting his guard down.
"Past Things and Present: Jasper Johns since 1983," July 10-Sept. 19, 2004, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.
NINA SIEGAL is a freelance writer on the arts. A version of this article first appeared in the Scotsman.