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Thomas Crow
Photo Michael Marsland.

Jasper Johns
Target with Four
1955. The Museum of
Modern Art New York

Jasper Johns
Flag 1954-55
The Museum of
Modern Art New York

Flag Gate
Jefferson County
N.Y. c. 1876.
Museum of
American Folk Art.

Patriotic Quilt

Mary C. Baxter
1898. Museum of
American Folk Art.

Jasper Johns
in Saint Martin 1992.
Photo: Jack Shear
talk show:
thomas crow on
jasper johns
by Suzaan Boettger
A "fresh form of description" is how Thomas
Crow described his presentation on Jasper
Johns on Nov. 4 at the Museum of Modern
Art, the second in a series of talks in
conjunction with the museum's Johns
retrospective. Description? The word
struck an odd note, a bit modest for a
scholar who had just been introduced as
having been wooed by Yale University to
return to native shores from Sussex in
order to become the Robert Lehman Professor
of the History of Art. Also, in a time when a
public appearance by Jacques Derrida, the 
promulgator of deconstruction, is likened
to that of a rock star, 
(see: Panelmania: From Artaud To 2001)
the practice of "description" has actually 
become something of a problem. The notion 
evokes a (re)turn to the visual, the touchstone
of the now-disparaged type of criticism based on
"formal analysis" and evokes as well a
posture of neutrality that is widely seen
as a tool of the status quo. But Crow
familiar for his mastery in the fields of
theory, was simply discouraging great
expectations of any hermeneutical
revelations about the early Johns' work he
called "so thoroughly scrutinized that it
allows nothing left to say." So much for
defensive disclosure. Yet then he added
that his "description" was meant to "leave
us in a place to apprehend the work
differently than when we began."

And so we were, and did. Sort of. Crow's
nominal topic, "The '50s Avant-Garde and
the American Interior" was enigmatic--
architectural interiors? the American
wilderness? national consciousness? But no
matter: fellow intellectuals from the
journal October graduate students
critics, artists and a smattering of
curious MOMA patrons braved the ambiguity
to hear Crow's thoughts on Johns. The 48-
year-old scholar has published three books
in the last two years, coalescing his
reputation as serious analyst who can write
well. The two from 1995 display his span:
Emulation: Making Artists in Revolutionary
France (Yale) and The Rise of the Sixties
(Abrams). A master at creatively framing a
picture with its social history so viewers
see it anew, Crow deserved a bigger
audience, but MOMA's inconvenient 8:30 p.m.
hour undoubtedly deterred others.

Crow's project as a scholar has been to
recognize the positive impact of the non-
art public on "high" art. Rather than
consider artists as above, and the
visionary leaders of mass culture, 
Crow has argued that, From its beginnings
the artistic avant-garde has discovered
renewed or re-invented itself by identifying with
marginal, "non-artistic" forms of
expressivity and display--forms improvised
by other social groups out of the degraded
materials of capitalist manufacture.
Similarly... the identification with the
social practices of mass diversion, 
whether uncritically reproduced, caricatured or
transformed into abstract arcadias--remains
a durable constant in early modernism.
(From "Modernism and Mass Culture in the
Visual Arts, " a 1981 paper in his anthology
Modern Art in the Common Culture, Yale, 1996)

Applying this high/low dialectic to Johns
Crow first sketched the background to
as, he put it in a "sub-title" to his talk
"What did Alfred Barr see in 1958?" when
MOMA's founding director and "intellectual
creator" viewed Johns' first solo show at
Leo Castelli and telephoned MOMA curator
Dorothy Miller to come right over so they
could select works. They purchased Johns'
1954 Flag, Green Target, Target with Four
Faces and White Numbers (thus anointing the
28-year-old into the modernist pantheon).

Describing Barr's long-standing
appreciation for American folk art and his
feeling for the common man, Crow positioned
these as fundamental to Barr's recognition
of the illusionistic flatness of Johns'
Americana imagery--akin to flags made by
untrained artists in the form of gates and
checkerboard trays, and to the folk painter
John Kane's depiction of flags with
portraits of Abraham Lincoln. Crow asserted
that Barr did NOT see Johns as subverting
Abstract Expressionism or "triumphing" over
Paris but as a path back to European
modernism through the "American interior"
of folk idioms.

This eccentric account was fascinating, 
both because it showed another side of the
cosmopolitan Barr and because it
contradicted the customary understanding of
Johns' and Robert Rauschenberg's proto-Pop
assemblages as a reaction against Ab-Ex's
gestural heroics. Yet abjuring any
reductive binarism, Crow would not simply
trade in the appeal of Johns as avant-garde

for Johns as naif (and there was no talk of
Johns' intentionality, anyway, within this
focus on curatorial reception). Here Crow's
symbiotic "high/low" polarities came in
terms of "aristocratic" and "rustic"
positions encompassed by the classical
schema of the "pastoral." Pastoral poetry
conjures songs by shepherds celebrating the
idyllic country life in comparison to a
decadent city. It is a genre of literature
and painting historically cultivated by an
urbane aristocracy, who thereby connect to
an arcadian bliss--as represented by
primitivist rustics in an Edenic terrain--
and mourn for that paradisiacal realm's
loss in contemporary life.

Thus, in yet another subtitle to his talk
Crow addressed "Johns as Natural
Aristocrat." Johns' flags, targets and maps
not only display connections to America's
rustic nature and his own rural upbringing
but his mode is also aristocratic in the
severe reserve of both his unemotive early
works and his reclusive privacy (so
absolute "that even the minor revelations
of Jill Johnston's biography created quite
a stir"). Likewise, Crow gave instances of
the activities of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
and wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of
MOMA's originary "aristocratic" patrons
that connected them with the "rustic"
class. Crow takes evident pleasure in the
detective side of art-historical research, 
and his slides of early photographs of all
these figures amplified his discussion.

Overall, Crow's "description" of Barr's
attraction to Johns' early work was
enticing but incomplete. Crow has applied
this structure of pastoralism to recent art
before (his 1993 article is in Common
Culture)--yet here, its elegiac mood, 
redolent in several of Johns' works
referring to gay American poets Frank
O'Hara, Hart Crane and Walt Whitman, 
was not addressed. Nor was John's ambiguous
relationship with Europe, with Abstract
Expressionism and with the increasing
materiality--objectness--of the late-1950s
"avant-garde" mentioned in his title. The
lecture had a spirit of an investigatory
work-in-progress atypical in hallowed MOMA;
after less than an hour, Crow not so much
concluded as abruptly stopped.

Yet, it's for this experience of the
experimental that many of us are in New
York--to catch ideas in their early arc.
MOMA's department of painting and
sculpture, notably singular among New York
museums showing contemporary art for being
led by a productive, Ph.D.'d art historian
Kirk Varnedoe, is remarkably also the only
one providing a forum for scholarly
lectures on adventuresome art historical
ideas and methodologies (panels, with
numerous personalities speaking briefly
are safer). Varnedoe will moderate panel
commentaries on Johns among historians and
artists on Nov. 11 and 18 and on Nov. 25
will himself lecture on "Lessons of the
Objects"; for more info call (212) 708-

SUZAAN BOETTGER is an art historian and critic in New York.