Jasper Johns with John Yau

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

On the occasion of his exhibition, Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Paint, 1955-1965 which will be on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. from January 28 to April 29, 2007, the artist welcomed the Rail’s art editor John Yau to his home to talk about various subjects. Before the interview took place, Johns asked Yau not to ask him about the philosophy of the exhibition because he didn’t know what it was. As he told another interviewer, “I was not involved in the determination of the title. Maybe Jeffrey Weiss’s text will explain the meaning.”

John Yau (Rail): Have you ever seen a UFO?

Jasper Johns: Yes. When I was in the army in Sendai, Japan, a friend and I saw odd lights moving through the sky and we made a report. We were told that there had been x-number of sightings in the last month.

Rail: You moved to New York City from South Carolina in December 1948, when you were 18. You saw your first Picasso the following year, when you were 19. While on leave from the army, which you were in from May 1951 to May 1953, you came up to New York and saw Picasso’s play, Desire Caught by the Tail performed by the Living Theater. Would you say that these experiences constituted your education?

Johns: They contributed.

Rail: Over the years I have heard you quote lines of Edith Sitwell’s poems from memory. Do you know a number of her poems by heart?

Johns: There are a few, but I often forget them.

Rail: When did you first begin reading Sitwell’s poetry? Did you ever hear her read? And, if so, what do you remember about her reading?

Johns: I suppose it was around 1949 when I was boarding with friends in St. Albans on Long Island. I realized that something odd was coming from the radio and I listened until there was an explanation of what it was: a recording of Sitwell reading “Façade,” with Walton’s music. I don’t think I had ever heard a poet read before that.

Rail: What other poets did you hear read in the early 1950s? I think you once mentioned going to a benefit reading for Kenneth Patchen at the Gotham Book Store.

Johns: It was not at the Gotham but in a church. Patchen was ill, I believe, and a group of poets read, Sitwell, cummings, McLeish, Moore, Williams, among them.

Rail: Was there a point in your life when you wanted to be a poet? Did you ever write poems?

Johns: No.

Rail: The other day you mentioned that you first saw the work of Larry Rivers at Tibor de Nagy, the exhibition of paintings of his family and Berdie, his mother-in-law. By then, I believe that you had seen work by Jackson Pollock, Isamu Noguchi, and Barnett Newman, as well as by Picasso, Munch, Magritte, and Cézanne. Was this Rivers’ 1951 show, his first there, or was it a later one?

Johns: I think it would have been in ‘53. I don’t think that I knew Magritte’s work then.

Rail: Was Rivers’ portrait of Frank O’Hara posing nude in that exhibition? Or did you see it at a later date?

Johns: I remember people talking about it, so it probably was included.

Rail: Do you remember your response to Rivers’ show?

Johns: I was an enthusiastic observer. The work in the show seemed youthful, sophisticated, directly and openly ambitious.

Rail: When did you first read Frank O’Hara’s poems? Had you met him by then?

Johns: I imagine that my interest in Frank’s work came after I had met him, but I don’t remember.

Rail: Shortly after Alfred Barr saw your first show at Castelli, he asked O’Hara what he thought about your paintings, and O’Hara wrote a letter in which he stated which paintings he thought the museum should obtain for its collection. It seems to me that he liked your work from the moment that you began to exhibit. Is that the right impression?

Johns: I don’t know if O’Hara had seen any of my work before the exhibition at Castelli; possibly, but I can’t remember.

Rail: I read somewhere that you met Mark Rothko in the early ‘50s, just after you got out of the army, which was in 1953. What was the occasion? Did you see him more than once? What do you remember about him?

Johns: I never really knew him. I met him at a party at the apartment of the poet, Arthur Gregor. Most of the people there seemed recently to have returned from a summer at Yaddo, or a similar place. Late in his life he was friendly towards me but we never met privately.

Rail: How and when did you meet Jack and Wally Tworkov?

Johns: I met Jack and Wally and their two daughters, Hermine and Helen, through Bob Rauschenberg. Jack was teaching, perhaps in his own studio. The family was interesting and generous and we were welcomed into their home and into Jack’s studio. Jack seemed fond of Bob and his work and, later, was curious and attentive to what I did. His lively mind and his open spirit gave pleasure to many younger artists, I imagine.

Rail: The painting Flag was damaged at a party that took place in your loft in the 1950s, before your first show at Leo Castelli in January 1958. I believe both Morton Feldman and Philip Guston were at the party. It seems to me that those who have written about the enmity that the Abstract Expressionists had for younger artists working in a different way are both inaccurate and simplistic. Do you remember who else was at the party? What was the reason for the party?

Johns: I don’t recall the reason. Morty and Philip were good friends at the time. I believe Mercedes Matter, a friend of both, was there. I think the enmity of the older artists, if that is what it was, found expression when they felt younger ones were receiving too much attention, of which there was not so much in those days.

Rail: Did you see Guston’s show of the hooded figures at the Marlborough Gallery? Did you go to the opening, and, if so, do you have any memories of that night?

Johns: No. I saw the one at David McKee in the Barbizon.

Rail: Am I right in remembering that you have a drawing by Guston of a man lying in bed?

Johns: Yes, it was in that show.

Rail: In a conversation that I recently had with Irving Sandler about the ‘50s, he said that the surfaces of your early paintings were unlike anything else being done at the time, that they were different from the work of the Abstract Expressionists and from that of your peers, and a number of people didn’t know what to make of this. Was this something that you were aware of? Was it a conscious decision to move your work in that direction?

Johns: Certainly. I knew that my work was different but, even so, I was often able to notice resemblances. Some people were probably put off by the difference. I was put off by the resemblance.

Rail: Speaking about the ‘50s, I believe it was Frank O’Hara who said that the audience for poets was made up of painters. After you began exhibiting, were poets one of the first audiences for your work?

Johns: I suppose that certain poets, painters, musicians, dancers, who imagined they were part of an avant-garde, formed audiences for one another. And some poets, with their gift of language, wrote criticism for art magazines.

Rail: I believe that you went to the reading of Frank O’Hara and Robert Lowell at Wagner College on Staten Island? O’Hara wrote a poem about Lana Turner while he was on the Staten Island ferry, which he read. Is this where you first met David Shapiro?

Johns: I was not at that reading. I think I met very young David at Morton and Lita Hornick’s apartment where she was screening a Genet movie. Frank introduced us.

Rail: Did you ever go to the Five Spot and other places where jazz was played in New York?

Johns: Yes, sometimes. I wasn’t into jazz but I liked listening to Ornette Coleman. And sometimes other things happened. I think Kenneth Koch read at the Five Spot. Hasn’t he a poem about filling the Atlantic with cement or plaster of Paris?

Rail: There is a poem by Frank O’Hara, “To The Harbormaster,” which was inspired by a poem by Thomas Wyatt. And yet, in reading O’Hara’s poem, one doesn’t need to know the source to get a feeling from the poem. In your work since the early 1980s, you have incorporated images derived from Picasso, Hans Holbein, Grünewald, and others. Is it necessary that we know the sources?

Johns: We would be pretty hard up if it were necessary to know in advance. Yet we sometimes miss a great deal because we feel we have nothing to hang on to.

Rail: A number of writers have said your work is hermetic. Do you believe it is necessary to possess an esoteric body of knowledge to understand your work? By esoteric, I mean something that is only understood by an initiated few—the Kabbalah, for example, seems to be something we need to be familiar with in order to understand many of Anselm Kiefer’s recent paintings.

Johns: No.

Rail: Do you have a Brillo Box by Andy Warhol, which is not red, white, and blue? I believe the one you have is three other colors. Could you tell me how you got it? Didn’t Warhol want to trade it for one that was red, white, and blue, but you refused to make the trade?

Johns: What Andy brought me, as a present, was a Heinz ketchup carton made of plywood and painted tan and red. He seemed pleased with himself and I thought he had just made it. A bit later he asked me to return it to him so he could repaint it. He was going to produce a series of them and wanted them all to be the same colors. Liking the idea of the unique, I refused to let him change mine. Later I thought the sculptures would be useful as stools or tables, if Andy didn’t object, and, with his approval, I acquired several more in a trade with him. Some while ago, I gave the unique one to MoMA.

Rail: When you and Bob Rauschenberg were doing window displays, were you aware of Warhol’s window displays?

Johns: I don’t think so, but at some point our work must have overlapped.

Rail: What was the first work of art you bought or traded for after you came to New York?

Johns: Something I gave away long ago, a watercolor influenced by Klee. I don’t remember the artist’s name.

Rail: You had a dream in which you saw yourself painting the American flag. Do images, events, something you heard or saw, call to you? Are they often the inspirations for your work?

Johns: I am grateful if an image suggests a work that might be made. Of course, one can’t always count on that kind of good luck.

Rail: Do you remember the dreams you had about Marcel Duchamp?

Johns: I think I wrote them down somewhere in order that I wouldn’t forget. In one Marcel told me; “What I did with a volume of air, you did with a gallon of water.”

Rail: There are two artists whose work I have seen in your house. One is Oyvind Fahlstrom and the other is Kim Jones. What do you like about Oyvind Fahlstrom’s work?

Johns: He and his then wife Barbro Ostlihn and I had studios in the same building down on Front Street for a while. He would work on what he seemed to consider a sort of maquette of a work and then Barbro would have to execute a meticulous rendering of it, the “real” painting. She would complain “I have to do my own work and Oyvind’s!” He was impressive in his concentration and in his ability to combine the almost eccentrically personal and the political. I asked him why he so seldom smiled and he said he didn’t want to get wrinkles.

Rail: What about Kim Jones? When did you meet him? You have a drawing by him that he did when he was a child. I remember you showing it to me, and pointing out that it was a drawing of a battle, and that this preceded him being in Vietnam.

Johns: I met him in Los Angeles when I was working on prints at Gemini, years ago, I don’t remember the date. I have several of his works, from different times.

Rail: You have used images from Picasso in your work. Have you ever used anything from Matisse?

Johns: No.

Rail: You have done tracings of Cézanne. Have you ever done a tracing of a “Deluge” drawing?

Johns: No. I don’t see that it would be possible using the techniques that I have worked with. I have a fuzzy memory that Robert Morris once made a group of works that were in some way closely related to Leonardo’s drawings.

Rail: Your work often incorporates an absence or empty place, a placeholder, for example in Gray Numbers, 1958, the top left rectangle is empty, and in Target with Plaster Casts, 1955, there is an empty compartment. How did this emptiness come about?

Johns: I imagine that it was an attempt to alter the rhythm of repeated body parts as well as to give equal value to “something” and “nothing”.

Rail: There is an ink on plastic that you did, Scott Fagan Record. Who is Scott Fagan?

Johns: I also made a print of the record. He is a musician who lives mostly in the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, I think. Lil’Fish Records is his label.

Rail: In your print Decoy, you transferred reproductions of the plates of your 1st Etchings, 2nd State to a lithographic stone. In an interview you mentioned that you had read an article about Rodolphe Bresdin by Dick Field in which he stated that Bresdin had transferred his etchings to a litho stone and then reworked the image, and that this inspired you to do what you did. Are there other instances where you were inspired by a specific technical thing that an artist did?

Johns: I can’t think of instances, but they surely must exist. I haven’t studied Bresdin and don’t understand why the refinement of a work would take place on a litho stone rather than on the etching plate. Somehow, it seems backwards to me.

Rail: It seems to me that some of your motifs, such as the ones of the faces in profile/vase, are irritating because one sees either the faces looking at each other or the vase between them, but never both at the same time. There is a continuous frustration in the looking. The figure and ground keep changing places, and one becomes aware that one never sees this image in its entirety. The feeling I get from this motif is both satisfying and maddening. Why does this conundrum hold interest for you?

Johns: I am not certain that one can’t see both at once. Has someone who knows about the eye and the brain made a determination?

Rail: In the 1980s, your work changed; and the site of a number of your paintings from that decade-Racing Thoughts, 1983, and The Bath, 1988-is a room with a bath. Was one of the inspirations for those paintings What the Water Gave Me, 1938, by Frida Kahlo, which you would have seen at the Grey Art Gallery exhibition of her work and Tina Modotti’s?

Johns: I doubt it, but at some point I saw and enjoyed the Kahlo painting. I visited the Grey Gallery exhibition with Nick, Paula Cooper’s teenaged son.

Rail: Other images in Racing Thoughts and The Bath came from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. Did it occur to you, when you first saw the work, that you would use things from it?

Johns: I suppose I had visited Colmar before I began using images from the altarpiece, but I made my first tracings from a portfolio of reproductions that Wolfgang Wittrock had sent me.

Rail: On a number of occasions you have used the words “helpless” and “deliberate” to talk about art making. For example, you once said “the final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement, but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say.” Years earlier, in another statement, you said: “It was not a matter of joining a group effort, but of isolating myself from any group. I wanted to know what was helpless in my behavior-how I could behave out of necessity.” What do you consider to be examples of helpless behavior?

Johns: Those quotations suggest to me that I felt or wanted my work to have a sense of the inevitable, the unavoidable. There was an attempt to uncover or succumb to a primary motive in the process of painting. This may not be very clear—there are so many available choices or possibilities. I suppose there was an attempt to establish some sort of spiritual discipline.

Rail: Do you think that the forms of helpless behavior you have experienced have changed over time? In what ways have they changed?

Johns: Certain thoughts and practices without being maintained may leave a residue that over time continues to color evolving thought and practice.

Rail: Is the helpless behavior of a material, the puddling of the ink when used on plastic, for example, one of the parallels between art and life?

Johns: I imagine that our understanding of the behavior of materials is closely related to our understanding of the rest of what we think of as reality.

Rail: In a recent interview you said: “Much of what I do seems to come from a kind of irritation that needs to be got rid of. But, of course, what is being dismissed is replaced by something else—it is a vicious cycle.” “Irritation” conveys a sense of discomfort, but it also alerts you to something. Would what it alerts you to be a sense of life?

Johns: Irritation creates a need to focus. Painting acts to display that focus and to diminish the irritation. For some artists the value of the painting is the expression of that process. I realize that I have not identified “irritation.”

Rail: Would the irritation be connected in some way to the residue of thoughts and practices you mentioned earlier?

Johns: I don’t know. I think, for me, that sensing of irritation is just part of the condition of being an artist.

Rail: You recently said, “What I do seems closer to the life of a laborer than to a Chinese poet.” Could you talk about this more? One reason I am asking is because on different occasions you have made a clear distinction between who and what. You have said, “I had a wish to determine what I was,” which is very different than someone saying about his or her relationship to art or poetry, I had a wish to determine who I was. Tu Fu or Li Po wrote about their lives in exile, while a laborer makes things that are functional. Their poems are autobiographical, while a laborer’s autobiography is often manifested in the way he or she makes something; the evidence of his or her life is contained in what has been made, a stone wall or a table.

Johns: There isn’t much to talk about. I believe the thought came to me when I was asked something about my work during an audience with the Emperor of Japan. We were in a room that faced a beautiful garden of white birch trees, a poetic and elegant setting, I thought, and I wanted to express that my work, perhaps, had coarser roots than a life of contemplation might.


John Yau