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THE GRAYING OF MODERNISM
by Donald Kuspit
 
It was not for nothing that white was chosen as the vestment of pure joy and immaculate purity. And black as the vestment of the greatest, most profound mourning and as the symbol of death. The balance between these two colors that is achieved by mechanically mixing them together forms gray. Naturally enough, a color that has come into being in this way can have no external sound, nor display any movement. Gray is toneless and immobile. This immobility, however, is of a different character from the tranquility of green, which is the product of two active colors and lies midway between them. Gray is therefore the disconsolate lack of motion. The deeper this gray becomes, the more the disconsolate element is emphasized, until it becomes suffocating.
-- Wassily Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art(1)

Tis a strange place, this Limbo! -- not a Place,
Yet name it so; -- where Time and weary Space
Fettered from flight, with night-mare sense of fleeing,
Strive for their last crepuscular half-being. . .

-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Limbo

. . .hallucination appears as an anti-thought. . . it is not a means of representing but rather a state when the thing cannot be in a state of no-thing and when it is impossible to distinguish through hallucination between the thing which is present and the thing which is absent.

-- André Green, On Negative Capability(2)

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

-- T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

Thereís Yves Kleinís blue, Anselm Kieferís black, and Jasper Johnsí gray. Dare one say that Kleinís blue is gloriously French, Kieferís black is dismally German, and Johnsí gray derives from the flag of the defeated Confederacy, of which Johns, being from South Carolina, is a native son? No doubt itís an all too naÔve and simplistic interpretation, but it suggests the point I want to make: Johnsí gray is about self-defeat -- the self-defeat of modernism, its dead-ending in a hallucinatory whimper. Wearing the vestment of gray, it becomes what Coleridgeís Ancient Mariner called "the Night-mare Life-in-Death." Johns is an ancient modernist mariner: corroded by gray, his alphabet, flags, maps and numbers decay into hallucinatory oblivion even as they remain charged with nightmarish life by his painterliness.

It is an increasingly rancid, ruthless painterliness: John Coplans once said to me that there was not a gesture of Johnsí that was not full of contempt. But I think it is the angry indifference (and pessimism) of Duchamp, which Johns celebrated as "hilarious" -- ironic comedy: Duchamp plus gesturalism -- intellectualism plus impulsiveness (Idea Art plus Abstract Expressionism) -- is the formula of Johnsí art. But it is an intellectualism that is past its prime, an impulsiveness that has become shopworn and overfamiliar: both are propped up by a kind of calculated rage, which mocks their avant-garde orthodoxy even as it submits to it. Johns is unable to rise to the sardonic heights of Duchamp or plunge into The Deep as Pollock does (to refer to one of his last paintings) -- he cannot achieve ironical emptiness or give himself up to intoxicating "primary process" -- because he is their epigone. They made the revolution; he didnít. Heís a frustrated camp follower, not an outrageous original -- a decadent consolidator rather than a visionary. Johnsí gray is a ratification and reification of Duchampís negativism and Johnsí painterliness is Abstract Expressionism reduced to cynical absurdity. Johns canít help being inauthentic: The true modernist faith had already been revealed, and all he could do was to dogmatize it into gospel and ritual.

Is Johns a good avant-garde conformist, his gray evocative of the "man in the gray flannel suit," his American contemporary? Modernism was no longer a terra incognita of art when Johns entered its ranks, but an established phenomenon, if still a little risqué, at least in the United States. If art hangs like a cross around the necks of Duchamp and Pollock, signaling that they are blessed by it -- even if they mortified it on a cross of their own making -- then art hangs around Johnsí neck like the albatross that hung around the Ancient Marinerís neck, signaling he is cursed by it.†

His gray signals all this, and something more: What might be called Johnsí J. Alfred Prufock complex. Like T. S. Eliotís impotent hero, thereís a mannered fatalism and fashionable world-weary wisdom to Johnsí gray art. "I grow old. . . I grow old," the young Prufrock announces in his Love Song, and pretends to the wise despair of the old -- the dubious acceptance of the inevitable that passes for wisdom, the resignation that passes for understanding. From the beginning of his career Johns claimed to be the wise old man of art, prematurely gray but sharper than his peers. Bretonís "drop[s] of intellectual blood" have turned gray in Johnsí art, but they still flow, sometimes wildly, with a sort of calculated abandon, sometimes seductively to form an atmospheric veil. Indeed, many of his gray paintings have the same muted, offhand eroticism as Prufrockís Love Song.

An ancestor of Roland Barthes, the prematurely jaded pseudo-Ecclesiastes Prufrock declares: "I have known them all already, known them all" -- so why bother to experience them (let alone "know" them in the biblical sense). "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons," Prufrock states, and Johns measures out his art with letters and numbers, flags and maps -- all things already known. "I have seen it all," Johns seems to say, and so there is nothing to see. Or "I might as well be blind to it all" -- just like the critic he mocks in The Critic Sees (1961). It is as though the critic canít see things in the surrealized "state of no-thing" (art?) Johns saw them in by virtue of his superior perception -- not to say "metaphysical" insight -- but only sees the banality of the things Johns "artified" (into pseudo-profundity). This seems the point of the gray fog, which blurs everything into "crepuscular half-being," to recall Coleridgeís words.

Things are numbed into pseudo-solemn silence by Johnsí gray. It is tone-deaf, and so unable to attune to them. "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas," Prufrock says, and this is exactly what things become in Johnsí gray smog, a sometimes splashy but always soundless sea. Or is it that that Johns uses his paintbrushes like claws, tearing things apart, as though to see what makes them tick, more often for the sadistic pleasure of it? As the Skin works of 1962, 1973 and 1975 suggest, Johns sometimes prefers to flay his objects alive, leaving a ghostly illusion of them -- the hollow space of their shadows -- as an "esthetic" remainder. And reminder: But these are not lost beings Johns is trying to recover through a faulty resurrection, but willfully destroyed beings -- beings destroyed with the same malice, masquerading as curiosity, that a boy who tears the wings off a butterfly has. It is as though they are marked by the stigma of the Fall -- imprinted with the sin of being when they should not be. A flag and a map signify a country, but they are not its being, and the letters of the alphabet may be the building blocks of language but they are not language, just as numbers may be mathematically necessary but they are not mathematical thinking. Letters and numbers, along with flags and maps, are false essences.

Johnsí numbers donít add up nor do his letters make sense by themselves. They follow one another, as though foreordained, but they donít link to form sums or words. Nominally connected by their sequential ordering, they are abandoned in a limbo of possibility. They are "Platonic ideas" however physically "fantastic" and majestic they may look because of the painterly activity that gives them intense presence -- the flawed, uncanny life of hadean figments of intellectual imagination. Or are they Johnsí version of the mental and mythopoetic "fragments I have shored against my ruins" that the narrator of Eliotís The Waste Land spoke of?†

From Impressionism onward modernism has moved steadily away from reality testing into the deceptive wonderland of hallucination.(3) It has moved away from the real thing and towards the perverse reality of the hallucinated thing -- into the bizarrely timeless and spaceless limbo of "vision" where things are real and unreal simultaneously. What began as an epistemophilic adventure ends in epistemophobic stalemate, which is what I think we have in Johnsí engulfing grayness. It transforms real objects into hallucinatory objects: Johnsí light bulb and Savarin Coffee can, among other objects two dimensionally or three dimensionally rendered, are hallucinatory realities -- recognizably real but with hallucinatory presence, thus false to themselves and known to be false. But it is not only the world of objects that has been grayed by Johns, but art itself: Suspending the reality principle, it becomes a realm of dubious pleasure -- pseudo-esthetic pleasure. It also loses moral value, however indirectly; if white and black have moral significance, as Kandinsky and innumerable others have noted, then mixing them together to form neutral gray renders art morally indifferent.

Art is no longer a matter of life and death -- of conflict between the wish for eternal life, which the ideal work of art supposedly embodies and pure light symbolizes (all the more so because it is "secretly" a cornucopia of vital colors, the unconscious music of colors giving light its subliminal seductiveness), and the fact of death, the non-being that is the fate of being, the non-being which no pretense of artistic immortality can outsmart, implying artís futility, deathís triumph and artís futility symbolized by perfect darkness, darkness in which the music of colors has been so completely extinguished that it never seemed to have existed, the darkness of the eternal silence of the cosmic grave -- but a clever game, even when it toys with life and death, as Johnsí Tantric works do (the perfect Prufrock paintings?).

After all, he recites the alphabet and counts from zero to nine like an intelligent child, and even more cleverly and impressively he knows the names of all the states of the Union. But mischievousness always comes with cleverness: Johns struggles to disunite the Union -- he remains a Southern secessionist at heart (after all, the Civil War started in South Carolina). He tries hard to tear the states apart and blurs their identity in Map (1960) and Map (1962), just as he blurs -- all but blots out -- the identity of the American flag in many works, as though the Union it symbolizes is null and void. The states decay like autumn leaves, obscured into shadows of themselves. Johnsí pledge of disallegiance paintings may be malevolent and sinister, but theyíre still just games of separatist solitaire -- resentful hermetic games played by a hermit rebel in full awareness of their absurdity and futility, that is, the failure of the Confederacy. Johns plays the game with more or less energy -- the power of his gesture waxes and wanes in an almost manic / depressive manner -- but whatever amount of impulsive energy he cleverly deploys on their surface, his paintings are only games, repetitively played according to fixed rules, indeed, almost academic modernist art codes.

Lawrence Alloway called it "systemic painting" -- painting which uses a universal system wholesale -- but he didnít acknowledge that it was a tightly closed construction, and that Johnsí often grandly violent gestures attempt to crack it open, disperse its parts and finally abolish it (or at least countermand it.) But the painterly liquidation never succeeds. It is the tension between the simple anti-esthetic (or non-esthetic) "found representational system" (alphabet, etc.) and the complex, esthetically resonant (and sometimes panicky) "abstract" painterliness -- each holding its own despite the effort of the other to contradict it (the intelligible "representations" remain knowable even when they are overrun by the unintelligible painterliness) -- that is the expressive core of Johnís gray paintings. They enact an unresolvable dialectical drama -- a clever version of the old modernist antinomy of Expression and Construction (irrational impulse and self-contained and self-regulating rational system), both historically valid modes of articulation -- always on the verge of collapsing into a simple dualism of gestural fragments and meaningless information.

W. R. Bion remarks that there are two types of hallucination, hysterical and psychotic: "The hysterical hallucination contains whole objects and is associated with depression; the psychotic hallucination contains elements analogous to part objects."(4) Which are Johnsí? It depends on whether you regard letters, numbers, flags and maps as whole objects or part objects (which may or may not be indices of whole objects, that is, words, sums, countries). It depends on whether you regard Johnsí gesturalism as hysterical. Certainly thereís a depressive cast to gray. And, to recall other works, Target with Plaster Casts (1955) uses part-body-objects and a whole target (in homage to Duchampís mounted bicycle wheel and rotating disks). So are Johnsí gray paintings hysterical and psychotic at once?

D. W. Winnicott also distinguishes between two types of hallucinating, normal and pathological. "Hallucinating is pathological because of a compulsive element in it. . . . Something has been dehallucinated" and then there is a "secondary" hallucination "in denial of the dehallucination. It is complex because first of all there was something seen, then something dehallucinated, and then a long series of hallucinations so to speak filling the hole produced by the scotomisation." Such pathological hallucinating is a means of "arrive[ing] at a memory of very distressing kind" even as it obscures it.(5) Bertram Lewin notes that "the mental mechanism of hypergnosis, the making over of the external world, literally the seeing in it the shape of a subjective experience, [is] demonstrable in paranoid as well as normal creative thinking."(6) What distressing memory, what subjective experience shrouded in gray, is Johns compulsively trying to arrive at? Or do his hallucinations plug up the hole in his psyche left by it? Is he falling in the hole, as the Icarian character of the hallucinations suggests? Is he a paranoid creative art thinker?

Iím not sure, but I felt suffocated by Johnsí gray, repeated ad nauseum in the huge exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. Freud wrote that hysterics suffer from memories and strangulated affect (associated with them), and I felt that Johns was trying to strangle -- suffocate and smother -- my affects with his gray. It remains peculiarly affectless, however animated by his painterliness -- it is a sort of sound and fury signifying nothing. Affect is signified with pro forma gesture -- a sort of dramatic veneer on an experiential vacuum. In other words, process seemed staged; Johns did not so much immerse himself in it (as Pollock seemed to) as he did perform it as a de rigueur modernist ritual.

(Johns likes to keep things at a certain intellectual remove, know them second hand, as it were -- for example, "knowing" the United States by way of a flag and map. As his Duchampian sculptures suggest, any ordinary and familiar thing can be colonized as a "work of art," that is, made extraordinary and enigmatic -- or at least unfamiliar -- by being fetishized into art, thus drawing new attention to it. This suggests that Johns prefers to live in Baudelaireís "artificial paradise" rather than the lifeworld, here and now. One might say that Johns is an ironical democratic version of the aristocratic esthete of Huysmansí Against the Grain.)

Each gray hallucination in the exhibition seemed like a silent film of a staged explosion or its aftermath. The violence seemed to whimper, and the whimper grew more excruciating with every hallucination. There was a sense of anti-climax, mined for all it was worth. Modernism was re-playing itself like a broken record, squeezing every last bit of enigma and insinuation out of the medium. But the uncanny was exhausted. This gray was not oceanic, as in Pollockís Ocean Grayness (1953). This gray seemed stale, flat, unprofitable and sometimes pedestrian. I thought I was looking at the suicide of art in process. Even when the gray -- it had certainly lost a lot of subtlety from Whistlerís Arrangement in Gray and Black (1871), more commonly known as "Whistlerís Mother" -- was punctuated by bright spots or energetic streaks of color, or a photograph of Leo Castelli, Johnsí art dealer father figure, or Johnsí own scowling face on an advertising campaign-for-myself button, I felt suffocated by the paranoid boredom grimacing in Johnís hallucinations.

It was the memory of the found object -- the signature of Duchamp. But by celebrating it rather than suppressing it, Johns unwittingly trivialized Duchamp by making his idea of (anti-)art commonplace.†

"Jasper Johns: Gray," Feb. 5-May 4, 2008, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

Notes

(1) Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (New York; Da Capo Press, 1994), 186

(2) André Green, "On Negative Capability -- A Critical Review of W. R. Bionís Attention and Interpretation," International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 54 (1973), 117

(3) For an elaboration of this thought, see chapter 4, "Hallucinatory Insanity: The Way to Another Reality," in my book Psychostrategies of Avant-Garde Art (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

(4) W. R. Bion, Second Thoughts (New York: Jason Aronson, 1984), 149

(5) Quoted in Bertram D. Lewin, The Image and the Past (New York: International Universities Press, 1968), 15

(6) Ibid., 70