Collection of Irma and Norman Braman
Jasper Johns painted the five-panel work "Diver" in 1962.
Copyright Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Jasper Johns's True Aim

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

It's said that there are many types of intelligence, other than the bookish kind.

Wayne Gretzky had what you could call athletic intelligence. He had a genius for understanding how bodies and objects move through space, and for controlling how he might intersect with both.

An investor such as Warren Buffett has a brain that does the same with dollars, understanding how they move through the economy and how to hip-check them into his pocket.

The great American painter Jasper Johns is all about what you could call pictorial intelligence. He achieved a rare genius for grasping how pictures work, and for doing things with them that no one else had done before.

"Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965," the major exhibition that opens today at the National Gallery, makes it clear that Johns has an artistic mind up there with only a few other geniuses in Western art. If Titian is the Galileo of painting, and Cezanne its Darwin, then Johns is, if not Einstein (that would have to be Picasso) then at the very least its Francis Crick. Coming out of nowhere -- Johns had barely practiced as an artist when he made his first crucial works in 1954 -- the 24-year-old established the DNA that a great deal of later art is built on.

It's almost as though Johns's work rethought pictures from scratch, questioning everything we think we know about them.

Can a picture represent a thing -- a flag, a target -- and be a concrete example of that thing at the same time? (More on this below.)

For a picture to be about color, one of art's classic aims, do its colors have to be in color, or can they be replaced by the words for them, rendered in shades of gray? (Or, what kind of buzz do you set up in a picture if you paint the letters Y-E-L-L-O-W in blue?) Or maybe, if you want to go for real color, you should go all the way and include it in your picture only as plain, foursquare blocks of red, blue and yellow, floating among all the other things your picture tries to show. And if you do that, are you working in abstraction -- the only truly acceptable way to work among the avant-garde of Johns's 1950s New York -- or are you in fact making a picture that points beyond itself to things out in the world, such as color charts and paint chips?

Johns created
Johns created "Skin With O'Hara Poem" based on an imprint of his head and hands.(Jasper Johns - Licensed By Vaga, New York)
Say you do take that radical step away from the safety of abstraction. What, then, are all the different ways a picture can evoke the world beyond its edges, without ever rendering an image in the conventional sense? Johns covered objects in paint -- a skull, his hands, the side of a house-painter's brush -- then pushed them up against his canvases. He heated the base of an erotic sculpture by Marcel Duchamp and used it to melt a cryptic shape into a wax-covered canvas. He actually bit into another wax surface, leaving a "picture" of his scraping teeth. He covered his face with oil, rolled it like a cylinder-seal across some paper, then lightly rubbed the sheet with charcoal to reveal the strange imprint his face had left behind.

Or say you stick with abstraction for a moment. (Johns is all about assembled moments and sudden changes of mind.) Can an abstract artist leave a hand-painted trace -- as expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning had been so keen to do, in the moment just before Johns -- without it pointing back to him and his big artistic ego? You could, maybe, use a mechanical device to make your mark -- a stick pushed around a pivot, in Johns's case, used to smear paint in a circle -- instead of your own brush-wielding hands. Or you could splash paint on with a brush, but in such a random way that it can't speak a word about the kind of man you are. (Except to say you're happy to undermine the heartfelt smearings of your predecessors.)

And what about a painting's signature, and the title that christens it? Should they be stenciled in bold letters onto the front of your image, as an integral part of the picture as a whole and equal in importance to the color names you've also stenciled on? Johns often does such showy signing and titling, undermining normal notions of what's a "major" or a "minor" feature of a work of art. Or should name and title be scrawled on the back of a canvas, so as not to interfere with its true "picture" -- in which case, why not turn that signed and titled canvas back to front and stick it to a larger one, so that the signature and title again become part of the total subject of a picture, as something hidden then revealed?

Maybe it's a good thing that Johns had so little background in fine art -- what he learned at college in South Carolina, two semesters at Parsons School of Design in New York, one whole day at Hunter College in the Bronx -- before he took the plunge as a professional. He had no investment in old ways of doing things to keep him from discovering new ones, and then passing them on to those who came after him.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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