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AN ALLEGORY OF SUBLIMATION
by Michéle C. Cone
 
Jasper Johns, "An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965," Jan. 28-Apr. 29, 2007, at the National Gallery of Art, National Mall, Washington, D.C.

Why is it that the work of a visual artist can continue to fascinate long after its surprise effect has subsided, long after it has entered the canon of art history? Is it thanks to its opacity of meaning? Could it be that the mind loves a riddle, whether it has a rebus-like solution, is a philosophical enigma, or is solvable only by those with knowledge of its codes? Or could the fascination be something other than a teasing of the mind? A teasing of the senses, maybe? These thoughts crossed my mind as I walked through an ambitious exhibition of some 90 early paintings, drawings and prints by Jasper Johns currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, under the subtitle "An Allegory of Painting 1955-65."

Johns is an intimidating figure in the New York art world, especially for a woman. And no one approaches his work without thinking about the evasive meanings of his words, the thought-provoking quality of his oral pronouncements and his booming laughter, a sound that comes from deep inside him and makes one leery of believing that he fully believes his own words. Speaking of artists and artworks that had been important to him, he told Grace Glueck in an interview in the ‘60s:

"Three works from the past have been important to me: Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass and Cézanne’s The Bather. But also, for any artist, things that occur during the period in which he’s working have equal importance, as Rauschenberg’s paintings do for me."

He did not mention the name of René Magritte, the Belgian Surrealist painter, who had a show of his paintings at Sidney Janis Gallery in March 1954, a time when young artists, ready to jettison the rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, were looking for new ways to make art. Entitled "Words vs. Image," the exhibition included the famous image of a pipe subtitled "This is not a pipe," and other paintings in which the relationship of caption and image was uncanny, such as La Clé des Rèves. The Key to Dreams is now owned by Jasper Johns. The show was enthusiastically reviewed by Robert Rosenblum, the late art historian and a friend of Johns, in the Art Digest of Mar. 15, 1955, under the heading "Magritte’s Surrealist Grammar." There is good reason to assume that Johns’ Flag relates both in concept and in sexual innuendo to Magritte’s This Is Not a Pipe, as I pointed out in my text on scenography: 

Not only does the Flag painting produce in the viewer the same questioning as Magritte’ This Is Not a Pipe, it also assumes a definition of metaphor which. . . is much closer to Freud’s understanding of metaphor than the Surrealists’ definition. . . . The wit in Johns’ Flag image lies in the subtle displacement of his image vis-á-vis a more clichéd way of thinking of flags. In the painting the flag is taut and hard instead of limply hanging from the end of a stick.

Michele C. Cone, Beauty and Critique, pp. 166-67

Johns’ involvement with Magritte is further suggested by his ownership of The Human Condition (1948?), a drawing based on a missing painting, according to Martica Sawin (New York Collects, Morgan Library, 1999). It is one of several Magrittes in which a painting on an easel coincides with the view behind it. In this example, done with pencil on buff paper, the easel hides and reveals the mountainous landscape seen from inside a cave, which can be assumed to be Plato’s cave. The notion of "displacement" made visible in the Magritte image is very important to Johns. His own work thrives on displacement.

Johns’ Target with Four Faces (1955), on view at the National Gallery, is a good example of this strategy. The "target" of the title conceals other readings of the image, such as four concentric circles or as four Os (numbers or letters). As for the "Four Faces" aligned above the target, they are not exactly alike, though the title would lead one to believe they are. A slight change takes place from left to right denoted by a faint opening of the mouth. Given the dynamic of a mouth gradually opening, and the four 0s visible in the target image, the idea of orifice springs to mind, displacing the literal meaning of Target with Four Faces. Observing these displacements, repetitions and variations does not exhaust the content of the work, but goes some way to explaining how meanings can slide into other meanings, confounding thought

Johns’ apparent silence on Magritte is hardly surprising, as those were the days when American art was said to have escaped from the hold of European art, and especially from the figurative Surrealism of Magritte. One recalls Donald Judd telling Bruce Glaser, "I am totally uninterested in European art" ("Questions to Stella and Judd"). In point of fact, early on, Johns was placed in a neo-Dada/Surrealist context. Target with Plaster Casts was seen in Paris in a show organized by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp entitled "L’Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme" in the winter 1959-60. And, over the years, the presence of Magritte behind Johns’ early work has been noted by various scholars (Kozloff, Bernstein, Orton, others).

The Dada/Surrealist antecedent in Johns work is certainly downplayed in the D.C show. No flags are on view, no three-dimensional objects, no numbers and no maps with which to play the word/image game. Target with Four Faces and Target with Plaster Casts are there, but only as exceptional instances of the artist’s use of circles, examples of which abound throughout the exhibition. Johns, often said to be the father of Pop art, appears here as the father of Minimalism and Process art. (One of the essays in the catalogue is written by a former practitioner of Minimalism, Robert Morris). Indeed, the D.C. exhibition concentrates on the nearly abstract production in Johns’ early oeuvre, and on variations and repetitions of target paintings, stenciled paintings, "device" paintings and works created by body imprints.

The first two rooms of the D.C. exhibition display variations of the target theme, most of them monochrome circles, green, gray, orange, yellow within a square canvas. The redundancy of the circle motif strongly suggests that Johns is appropriating the circle as his mark the way Carl Andre appropriated the square and Frank Stella the stripe. Of course that is overlooking the hand-made quality of the paint application in the series, and the faint presence of an image within the circle, a spiral. But it is worth noting that in the "Souvenir" series from 1964, also on view, a circular plate at the lower left corner of the painting bears the image of the artist, a signature which combines his face and a circle.

One target image, Device Circle (1959), marks a departure in the target series. Not only does it abandon the monochrome of previous circle subjects, but it introduces an appendage within the circle, a "device" or hand that simulates rotation, and stencil marks spelling "Device Circle" at the bottom. Device Circle (1959) is the start of two new series of paintings on view in the show, the "stencil paintings" and the "device paintings."

The stencil-inspired paintings using the words "blue," "yellow" and "red" combine frantic painterly traces and stencil marks, and the stencil marks are either deposed intuitively all over the canvas, or more regularly in horizontal rows. The color of the works ranges from bright to somber. In False Start (1959) and Out the Window (1959), the brushwork is particularly colorful and active. By the Sea (1961) is in muted blue-grey hues with touches of red filtering through and Folly Beach (1962) is pitch black. In Folly Beach, the darkness is relieved by the whitish letter O and its whitish companion W in the row that spells YELLOW. A white O seemingly painted over the stenciled O floats on the surface of Out the Window. This series is certainly worth lingering over, for the painterly effects are seductive, as if Johns were letting go of something close to emotion, or the memory of emotions. Even the titles lend themselves to this view.  

The other group of paintings that take off from Device Circle are more difficult to deal with. Here it seems, Johns is playing displacement games, if only by misleading viewers into believing that the so called "devices" -- wipers, rulers, brooms -- are operational tools, that they have a technical function in the painting of the circle, the partial circle, the pair of partial circles that are featured in the paintings. Device (1961), a colorful example in the series, features a pair of partial circles and their wiper. Symmetrically placed left and right near the top of the painting, the large disks simulating a spinning motion could not possibly have been painted by the wiper. On the other hand, the device, arrested in its rotation for reasons that may be completely arbitrary, seems nevertheless to be poised for another, more embodied type of action -- rising, erection-like. ("A device," says my dictionary "is a piece of equipment or a mechanism designed to serve a special purpose or perform a special function.")

The light-heartedness of the "Device" paintings gives way to a darker mood when the wiping device looses its materiality and takes the shape of an extended arm, or rather the x-ray image of its bones imprinted on the canvas. This is the case in Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), Hatteras (1963) and Untitled (1963). In Land’s End (1963), the hand positioned vertically as in a farewell gesture has broken away from the circle. Alternating with this series of mostly black-and-white paintings are several fuzzy charcoal drawings on drafting paper, imprints of different parts of the body including hands (Skin with O Hara’s poem, 1963-65) and cheeks (Study for Skin I and II, 1962). The show ends with According to What (1964) and Untitled (1964-65), a pair of monumental paintings that bring together devices, forms and colors harking to previous paintings.

One image that does not make it into the above-mentioned summations of 1964 and 1965 is Painting Bitten by a Man (1961), where the hint of a penis form, sliced vertically, slightly protrudes from the undulating surface of the light-brown monochrome painting. This timidly pornographic image (assuming that the word painting in Painting Bitten by a Man is a censored version of the depicted image), comes from the collection of the artist, and has rarely been seen before. Yet this raunchy painting is an exemplary case of Johns’ strategy of simultaneous concealment and display, perhaps more obvious than most. Its presentation in the D.C. show suggests that Johns has now overcome the self-censorship that kept this particular painting out of view and his own hang-ups under wrap

Overall, the D.C. presentation of Johns’ early works revives an issue that has been lost, ever since the actions painters attempted to tackle with it: The issue of self-revelation through the act of painting. Is it possible? Is it necessary? Is the painterly trace itself an act of self-revelation? It may sound like a contradiction to suggest that Johns’ art is about self-revelation, considering the variety of ways in which the artist uses displacement as a strategy of concealment. Johns’ answers are equivocal of course, and subject to multiple interpretations. One thing the show suggests to me is the second-hand nature of self-revelation in his own work. Johns’ identification with a circle and a photo of himself within a circular object in Souvenir is a case in point.

IN fact, the word "souvenir" is itself a sign of the second-hand nature of self- revelation. Paintings like False Start, Out the Window, By the Sea and Folly Beach hint at past experiences that the paintings not so much simulate as sublimate. The "device circle" paintings, also coinciding with the love affair between Johns and Rauschenberg, indirectly hint at the two terms of that relationship, as does Rauschenberg’s own "device circle" entitled Monogram. On the body imprints, I will quote Jeffrey Weiss in his catalogue essay entitled "Painting Bitten by A Man:" "Uniquely, Johns’ procedures incorporate the corporeal: the body as an instrument. . . the painting as body; the drawing as skin. " I would add here "the device as sexual organ" and rename the Johns show "an allegory of sublimation."

MICHELE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).