In Conversation

John Yau with Phong Bui

Coinciding with his recently published monograph A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns, Art Editor John Yau paid a visit to the Rail’s Headquarters to talk about his observations of Johns’s work with Publisher Phong Bui.


Portrait of John Yau. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): When did you first see or encounter Johns’s work and how did it have an impact on you? Was it immediate or rather a prolonged meditation over time?

John Yau: The first time I saw his work was when he had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1977. In Boston in the early 1970s, where I lived before moving to New York in 1975, the only contemporary art you could see was Color Field Painting. In 1969, when I was a student at Bard, I started going to New York, mostly to SoHo and 57th street, but I didn’t see Johns’s work then. I had seen quite a lot of contemporary art by the time I moved here, but the Whitney show exploded everything that I thought I knew about art, and I went back to it over and over. I also began reading everything I could about Johns’s work. I had no idea what was going on.

I recognized the things he used, but I knew that was just the beginning. And much of what I read seemed very narrow in what it said about his work and art, which became a spark for me. The effect was immediate and prolonged is how I would put it.

Rail: So it coincided with your beginning of thinking about writing art criticism.

Yau: No. A sculptor, Jake Grossberg, who taught at Bard, said that I should write about art; he was the first to tell me that poets wrote criticism, and that I could do the same. He pointed me toward Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, as well as Donald Judd and Robert Smithson—practitioners, rather than art historians. But the possibility of being an art critic seemed remote, at best. After I moved to New York, I began keeping a journal of exhibitions I saw, a few sentences accompanied by a thumbnail sketch of something in the show. I also began going to the New York Public Library and reading hard-to-find reviews. I read a lot Ashbery’s reviews in the Herald Tribune on microfiche, for example, and reviews by other poets, such as James Schuyler. I had started reading art magazines at Bard, and did it to keep up when I moved to Cambridge in 1972. However, I didn’t start writing about art until ’78.

Rail: So after having seen Johns’s show, did it increase your desire to write criticism?

Yau: It was consistent with my desire to respond to it in words—like what is this experience that I’ve had? What am I looking at? I don’t know if I thought of writing criticism so much as I wanted to try and put into words what I experienced.

Rail: So it fortified your desire, let’s put it that way.

Yau: Yes, but let me be clear. I found the whole situation exciting. Painting, sculpture, performance, hearing music, and seeing films of all kinds—it was all fresh to me.

Rail: Okay, so it took you nearly twelve years, right? —we’re skipping forward, now—I’m just trying to reconnect to the first time you saw Johns’s work. But it took you nearly twelve years to write the second book, which is what we’re talking about. The United States of Jasper Johns—the first one—was published in 1995. The Thing Among Things came out last year, in 2008; so what was the impulse that drove you to do the second one?

Yau: I was dissatisfied with the first book after it came out; I felt that there was something missing from it. I don’t know how else to explain it, and I thought, “Well, maybe I just will never see Johns’s work clearly, that all the things said about his work will remain between me and the work, my experience of it.” I was literally possessed by this feeling that there was something going in the work that the critics, myself included, hadn’t gotten to, something basic and very human, and that it had eluded me. So I just kept thinking about it, here and there. And then when I saw the show of Catenary paintings, there was quite a lot of negative response to it, which surprised me because I was so moved by the show.

Rail: Particularly Kimmelman, in the New York Times.

Yau: Yeah, and Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, and David Cohen in the New York Sun. They were pretty much in same rut saying more or less the same thing. When lots of people are saying almost exactly the same thing, it’s likely that they have stopped looking and thinking for themselves. I remember glancing at art magazines and seeing that nobody else had written about them, which surprised me. It was as if everybody had concluded that Johns was a hermetic artist whose work was no longer worthy of consideration. He wasn’t making history, and he had gone down the wrong road, which suggests that the art world’s primary concern isn’t art, but predatory self-aggrandizement.

Rail: Right.

Yau: At the same time, I had gone to the show five or six times, and decided to write about it, as a way of investigating my experience, which didn’t jibe at all with what was written. As I started writing about the paintings, and rethinking everything I had thought about Johns’s work, and going to MoMA and other museums and looking at earlier works, things started to occur to me, and it just began to build. I didn’t start out with a book in mind; I intended to write an article, which I knew would be published in the American Poetry Review, because the then-editor—Arthur Vogelsang, who’s no longer with the magazine—gave me free rein to write about art. I called him and said, “I’m going to write a long piece about Johns. I am not sure what I am going to say.” And he said fine without asking any questions, something no art magazine would ever do.

Rail: That was four years ago, John, wasn’t it?

Yau: Something like that. So I ended up writing sixty or seventy pages, which art magazines wouldn’t take because it’s too long. It was published in two different issues of APR. While I was writing, I became aware that I was thinking about a book. I sent the articles to friends of mine, including Cory Reynolds and Jeremy Sigler, and Cory approached Sharon Gallagher, who runs D.A.P., because she liked what I wrote and she worked there. All along I guess I knew I wanted to write another book on Johns, but I didn’t want to write a proposal and go around and see who might be interested. In my fantasy, D.A.P. was going to be the publisher, which is actually how it worked out. I went and met Sharon, who said, “Well, you could put the old book with this new stuff, just figure out a way to integrate it.” And I thought, “No, I really have to do the whole thing over. In fact, I have to start from the beginning, which is essentially what I did.” [laughter] So I said, “No, I’m going to write a completely new book,” and Sharon was fine with that, and got me to work with Todd Bradway, an editor there, who was terrific. The whole point is that Johns’s work was the impulse and it always has been; it was thinking about his work and trying to make sense of it, because I felt the formalist emphasis on him being an artist interested in flatness seemed small and limiting. That’s art about art, and I just never felt that way about his work. I intuitively felt there was much more to it than that.

I guess the impulse also came from all the years when I hadn’t written about Johns’s work, but did think and talk about it in various classes I taught. Usually, I focused on a few paintings or sculptures, a group of works. Each time I tried to write a lecture or notes, at least, tried to say something different and perhaps useful about his work. So it came from teaching and thinking out loud you might say.

Rail: So both teaching and seeing the Catenary paintings. And somehow because it’s part of the greater continuity, you had to go back to the earlier thematic subjects.

Yau: Right. I had to start at the beginning. I wanted to discover the connections running through his work, from the “flags” and “targets” to the Catenary paintings. I kept thinking there was a connection that I hadn’t seen, but was there. A number of people had said that Johns is only good up to a certain moment, and, for the most part, these conclusions were based on the formalist model of flatness and two-dimensionality. I just thought, “Well, if it isn’t about flatness, what is the continuity running through this work?” Is there or isn’t there a continuity? And if there is, what is it?

Jasper Johns, FLAG (1954-55). Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood (three panels). 42 1/4 × 60 5/8 in. (107.3 × 154 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Philip Johnson Johnson in honor of Alfred H. Barr Jr.

Rail: Right.

Yau: This is where my book differs substantially from everything else written on Johns’s work. The orthodoxy is that Johns chose the American flag and target because they were flat things, and that he has been interested in flatness and ready-mades throughout his career—that for many years his art has always been about art with occasional forays into veiled autobiography. The formalist side of that view begins breaking down in 1981 when Johns introduced space into his painting, “In The Studio.” But, according to his detractors, the veiled autobiography becomes more hermetic in the 1980s. For those who are negative, the work from 1981 until the present is proof that Johns has gone off the tracks, and become even more secretive and aloof than before. After all, he is now using things found in the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Matthias Grünewald, rather than something familiar, like an American flag or target. His work isn’t transparent, as it once seemed to be; it is no longer a witty comment on the two-dimensionality of painting. Well, the emphasis on two-dimensionality and being truthful to painting’s essential identity is a holdover from Clement Greenberg. Johns is about as interested in Greenberg as a seahorse is in a rattlesnake.

Jasper Johns, TARGET WITH PLASTER CASTS (1955). Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. 51 × 44 × 3 1/2 in. (129.5 × 111.8 × 8.8 cm). Collection David Geffen, Los Angeles.

As I said earlier, it seemed to me that Johns is interested in something else; the question is what? In the meantime, I noticed a number of things while looking at his work, things that never got talked about though they were right there in front of us. One is the relationship of a solid form to liquid—the maps, the paintbrushes in the coffee can, and the bathtub. Each of these subjects focuses on a commonplace experience in which liquid embraces a solid, but does not completely cover it—a land mass surrounded by ocean, paintbrushes immersed in turpentine, a body sitting in the bathtub, with the head above the water. These things come from life, not from an aesthetic agenda preoccupied with flatness. And I thought, these works, done at different times and in different mediums, suggest a current of thought, a preoccupation. And formally, all three instances can be understood within a very particular context, one that I define as figure/ground. And here I would say that Johns’s interest in the figure/ground relationship isn’t purely formal; it has to do with contingency, with the fact that things do not exist independently of each other. A light bulb needs a wire and socket to work; a drawer needs a bureau to function as well as achieve its basic identity; a coat hanger needs a hook. Things are separate and connected. And so without having a plan or an idea, I paid attention to this aspect of his work and saw where it went, and tried to be attentive to where it took me.

Rail: Well, as you know, some of us think that Johns can be characterized by his resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or some kind of doctrinal faith, right? It’s certainly very fitting to those who are aware of how much Johns resists discussing the meaning of the work. Though in your reading, Johns saw himself—for instance, from the first chapter—painting the American flag. You brought it up, his alignment of sight with other senses, especially touch and awareness of gravity in reference to the ocular and the textual modes within every painting and sculpture. I think it’s parallel to his treatment of figure-ground relationship. Could you elaborate or talk more about this?


Jasper Johns, IN THE STUDIO (1982). Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects 72 × 48 × 4 in. (182.9 × 121.9 × 10.2 cm). Collection the artist.

Yau: First off, I don’t think it’s the job of artists or poets to explain their work. About Johns’s alignment of sight with the other senses—all of which constitute our humanness—I had this to say: since the late 1950s, there is the belief that painting culminated in flatness, and a kind of abstraction in which meaning and space is emptied out, replaced by literalness. Within that discourse is an emphasis on opticality. The first question that occurred to me was whether or not Johns wanted to fit into someone else’s narrative? As a poet, this would be of personal interest to me. Why would any artist want to do so? I mean, obviously there are artists who do want to fit into someone else’s narrative, but I never thought that Johns was one of them. Well, to go back to your question, starting with “Flag” (1954-55), Johns has made work that engages sight and touch, as well as often had words in his work; he doesn’t privilege the optical over all else. There is a layered, compressed space in “Flag.” And then, in works such as “Land’s End” (1963), “Watchman” (1964), and the Catenary paintings, which he started in the late nineties, there is something suspended in the work. I feel that Johns’s interest in suspension and immersion is connected, and that these states of consciousness are common to us all. If there is a narrative to Johns’s work, it has little to do with the external models that have been imposed on it. He did what he did for different reasons than those assigned to him.

Rail: He did it for himself.

Yau: Yeah, but to be experienced by others. And you know, you construct something for yourself, which is not necessarily closed, not a neat package for others to write about, but, in fact, it may be open ended and irreducible, and you yourself may not know all that your work is getting at. Johns says his work has to do with life, and I responded to that possibility by trying to discern what connected the works done at different points and in different mediums throughout his career, and how they might be connected to life, rather than to an aesthetic agenda. And what I felt connected them was his very particular understanding of the figure-ground relationship, which is the inseparable bond between two different things. And his sources are common things. I also want to be clear that I never talked to him about any of this stuff, we’ve never had a conversation about this, and that’s the way he wanted it.

Rail: From what we know of Johns, he’d prefer his hands off in this regard. Besides, it’s a chance for you to rethink his whole enterprise more closely.

Yau: Yeah. I think that it’s very real that he doesn’t want to control what I or anyone else writes. I’ve known artists that want you to be their mouthpiece, which isn’t respectful. And some turn on you if you don’t say what they want. Johns lets me gain my own authority about his work. And you know, if I get something wrong technically, he’ll tell me, but I think it is important to know if I got something technically wrong. He has been very patient in explaining that part of his work.

Rail: Chuang Tzu, who was part of the Hundred School of Thought, the philosophical summit of Chinese thought during the the Warring States Periods in the late 4th century B.C.E., insisted that the union of the heart and mind couldn’t be achieved without the body; this was essentially a treatise on perceiving or making all things equal. This is why his philosophy is very crucial to the development of Chinese Buddhism. I feel that this relates to Johns’s deep admiration for Cézanne. I’m referring to a letter Gauguin wrote to Emile Bernard, in which he says, “Cézanne is like an oriental mystic, who sits on a mountaintop reading Virgil, while contemplating nature.” Don’t you agree this is to be considered a deeply melancholic view on how things relate to one another in their equal worth? There is anxiety in Cézanne’s paintings generated from his doubt as it is similarly detected from Johns’s paintings?

Yau: Well, as you know, I talk about Chuang Tzu in my book; he dreamed that he was a butterfly, and when he awoke, he wondered if he was a person who dreamed that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was a person. This is the equality that you are talking about. It is one thing to say that all-over painting privileges no one part over any other and quite another thing to say that one experience—drinking a beer—should not be privileged over another—making a sculpture of two cans of beer. Also, to go back to the figure/ground issue—is the dreamer the figure and the dream the ground? Or have figure and ground, dreamer and dream, become one?

     To go back to the idea of “deeply melancholic view” and “anxiety.” Melancholy is a funny word to use. I’m not sure that I would use that word because it originally meant “gloomy.” I don’t think Johns’s work is gloomy. And I don’t think it is full of anxiety, which is to say nervous or apprehensive. The arm and hand in “Land’s End” is sinking and rising, succumbing and striving. If there is anxiety in this, it is the one that we all feel but try to overlook—the anxiety of being alive. Finally, I try not to reduce someone’s work to a word or a phrase. I think that the easier it is to characterize someone’s work, the less interesting that work probably is. Here is a question: The material world that we live in is constantly changing, and transformation and change are central, inescapable reminders that we all live in time. How do you keep your eye and mind on that?

Rail: And Johns is susceptible in observing that fact. That’s what I’m saying, he doesn’t detach himself from it.

Yau: No, he doesn’t. He knows he’s part of the world. He doesn’t stand outside of the world, time or change.

Rail: Right. In the introduction, you suggest that in both historical and narrative terms, Johns is often described as the one that falls in the middle between Pollock and Warhol. Do you mean the dispute that arose in the late 60s between the tail end of Greenberg’s formalist view and the rise of postmodern theory? In terms of the idea that painting had become fatigued and Michael Fried and people like Rosalind Krauss and other art historians who believed that Andy Warhol, Helen Frankenthaler, and Frank Stella represented the real advance going on in art.

Yau: I am questioning the neat, simplistic, death-of-painting reading that begins with Pollock getting rid of the brush, followed by Johns who still has a sensuality to his work or what people call touch, followed by Warhol who brings in silkscreen or, as they say, mechanical means of reproduction. According to this narrative, Warhol is the big breakthrough figure who seems to bring everything, subject-wise, into his work, while Johns seems more limited in what he brings into his work. This narrative states that painting died once it achieved flatness and Warhol brought in mechanical means. Once art about art achieved its goal, it was supposed to make institutional critiques. This narrative is based in part on the Hegelian idea that thinking supersedes the visceral in mankind’s progress, which is diluted in our time to the belief that the image replaces the thing, and outsourcing is better than making something by yourself. One might also say that Plato’s ideal of the pure image influences this kind of thinking. I find that narrative to be false and misguided. We can’t escape our materiality, our bodies. And this has nothing to do with the Romantic notion of the “I.” The other thing is that Warhol isn’t read that carefully. He claims to be transparent, and says that “there’s nothing beyond the surface of my paintings,” which is a sly nod to formalism. I don’t think that’s true, and have written about it on a number of occasions.

Rail: There’s more irony in Warhol than it appears.

Yau: In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire talks about the “despotic perfecting process, borrowed from the store of classical ideals.” I feel that Warhol is really a conservative figure because he’s preoccupied with beauty and with surface; you know, Marilyn Monroe, before and after plastic surgery, and this notion of beauty as a standard by which people fail or succeed. There are many artists, quite well known and celebrated, who accept and celebrate culture’s repressive authoritarianism, because the ideal of beauty enables them to be either disdainful or obsequious about people who aspire to accepted standards of beauty. I wasn’t interested in these models. There’s a certain conformist thinking to them to them that I find repellant. Also, Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life has long been misrepresented. By bringing beauty in, as Warhol does, even if artists like John Currin and Richard Prince seem to be making fun of it, all of these artists are really classicists who believe there’s a privileged society that they wish to be part of. They tacitly support the idea of class and privilege, and know that art has aided them in their social mobility. They believe that the artist is special.

Rail: You mean like Bouguereau [Laughter.]

Yau: Like a privileged world that other people can’t belong to or join, and of course notions about class and the need to have them be separate and closed off.

Rail: That’s why the failure of Constantin Guys is more interesting than the success of Bouguereau. To change the subject a bit, John, I thought it was extremely useful in Jeffrey Weiss’s show at the National Gallery, “The Allegory of Painting,” that he focuses on the unfolding relationship of four specific motifs between 1955 and 65: the target, the map, the stenciled naming of colors and the imprint of the body. But as far as utilizing, or let’s say reducing, art making to a series of quasi-mechanical procedures is concerned, how much do you see John’s relationship to Duchamp is invested here?

Yau: People take one very small, technical aspect of Duchamp, his use of the ready-made, and reduce it until finally it becomes a laborless gesture that signifies that you’re post-modern. It’s your membership to a club. I don’t think Johns ever wanted to be part of that or any other club, and he was never satisfied with making just that gesture. I do say in my book why I think he picks these motifs, that the flag and paintbrushes crammed into a coffee can precede his existence, and will still exist after he is gone and won’t miss him. That’s a different notion—the tin can with the brushes in it is going to be there in his studio when he’s not in his studio. It’s not going to acknowledge his absence. That’s a different view of life than a notion of ready-mades or found images as ironic commentaries on painting’s flatness or the evils of capitalism.

Rail: Right, but that’s the kind of reduced reading of Duchamp for those who came in the part of the Conceptual movement, right?

Yau: All I can say is look at that amazing piece of Duchamp’s in the Philadelphia Art Museum, “Why Not Sneeze.” There are all sorts of provocative things going on in the relationship between seeing and touch. What is that cube of sugar made of? Why are they in a birdcage? Why is the title on the bottom of cage? It’s fragmented and somehow unitary at the same time. And then how do you put the whole thing (or experience) together? This piece escapes any reductive reading, while the use of the ready-made has become ubiquitous.

Rail: So what you’re saying is that the conceptual basis of Duchamp’s work is continually misread.

Yau: I think Duchamp is simplified and misread and many claim to be his heir because it is timely in that it is post-studio, but in fact, I don’t think Johns wanted to be Duchamp or his heir. I think Jasper Johns wanted to be Jasper Johns by figuring out what that means. [Laughter.]

Rail: That’s a huge difference! [Laughter.] And in order for Johns to do that, John, would it be fair to say that he kind of takes a position that is not in the mix, he’s really outside the establishment? Right? Because of that Jeffery Weiss show, it was great to see John’s untitled drawing, “Cut, tear, scrape, erase.” (1964), which is a diagram of four technical procedures that were to be performed. Whether Richard Serra has seen it or not we don’t know for a fact, but in Serra’s “Verb List” which he did four years later in 1967, we see Serra’s inventory of those physical actions to be performed as sculptural operations on various materials obviously. But in fact, Serra once said that he values Johns’s early process as a form of labor, pointing out the kind of aggressive indifference that refuses to distinguish between major and minor activities. There’s no doubt that Johns commissioned Serra’s “Splash” piece (1969) in his basement or perhaps giving permission to Serra’s wrestling with Pollock, through this phenomenology of making. But there’s another component to this, because for Johns, the hand comes to be a kind of voice, don’t you think? I’m just saying that because the hand is not the carrier of the making, but the one that argues with the scene, you know what I mean. In other words, he kind of re-contextualizes ordinary objects such as the ruler, the beer can, and the coat hanger and so on, to be undeniable things. And by doing so, it becomes the means of a turning point, a modification of a certain mood he had. I mean is that fair to say that they are undeniable objects even though they are very seemingly ordinary?

Yau: Undeniable, yes, but for what they tell us about life, not for an aesthetic reason. At the same time, how do you become objective, in a way, where you decide that what happened to you is not so important. It’s important yes, but it’s not so important because it is likely to have happened to others. Mondrian tries to figure out how to become objective, and he acknowledges that he can’t get rid of subjectivity completely, but he tries. Johns is trying to become objective and he’s trying to get rid of subjectivity as much as possible. Johns’s things are commonplace. The point is: Johns didn’t adopt someone else’s definition of an objective language, abstraction, say.

Rail: Well, what both Robert Ryman and Mondrian have in common is that they have chosen a neutral format, which is a square. So that’s a form of subjectivity in a way, right? I mean this is something that we refer to in Johns’s early work, particularly the targets. They are a square format, and I don’t think he ever repeats that again. But, from 1950 on, he moved through all these different formats, and every one of his major iconic, serialized forms has been at one stage or another, articulated in grey as a predominant color. I don’t mean all of them. Do you think this might possibly allude to the prevailing dark palette of Albert Pinkham Ryder? I’m thinking about this because Ryder painted with wax and candle grease in order to achieve luminosity. And Johns uses beeswax. What do you think of that projection? Do you think that Johns ever thinks about Ryder?

Yau: I don’t think Ryder is a large figure in his imagination, but I might be wrong.

Rail: You don’t see the prevailing grey in Johns resembling Ryder’s moody, dark palette. Neither do you care to contemplate his or Ryder’s moodiness and melancholy, a word you refuse to use. [Laughter.]

Yau: Right, I refuse to use it. And I don’t see it that way.

Rail: But it’s fair for me to bring it up, right?

Yau: Of course. Frank O’Hara once said something to the effect that it was easy to see similarity, but it was the viewer’s responsibility to discern difference.

Rail: I just want to throw it out there! You know, Paul Valéry once said that seeing is forgetting the name of the thing that one sees. I mean this is the condition in which Johns identifies with Duchamp’s use of indifference for bringing awareness into the here and now, which you say earlier. But Johns says of Duchamp, in praise, I don’t remember exactly what he says, I think, “Allowing for the change in focus of the eye of the mind, to place the viewer where he is, not elsewhere.” Do you see that remark as being particularly different than Stella’s, “What you see is what you see?”

Yau: Well, “What you see is what you see,” implies that the surface is everything, and the painting is self-contained, and, in Stella’s case, optical—it’s his bid to be accepted by Greenberg. “To place the viewer where he is, not elsewhere” is about the mind and body, and thus sight and touch, in relationship to its immediate circumstances. “What you see is what you see” is static, while the “changing focus of the eye” underscores that neither the eye nor the world are static. Mondrian focused in a number of his writings on how the “dynamic equilibrium” was more in tune with reality, which he saw as constant change, than the static. And yet, the static is what replaced the dynamic equilibrium. It’s Stella’s “black” paintings. Maybe that’s when the art world went off the tracks, and those who refused to get on that bandwagon are the ones we should be looking at. Maybe we should think of Johns differently than we have. He was not interested in the static. There was always a shift in his work—the body parts above the target, the flag is not symmetrical, there’s not a perfect symmetry and flat surface in his work.

Rail: It is different because the minimalists, at least minimalism itself, never quite embraced asymmetry. They never allowed the asymmetrical element to dominate the symmetrical. I think that Ryman is exceptional, and that’s why he’s outside of it.            

Yau: Yes, and also Robert Mangold. Information shifts between the inside and the outside of the line.

Rail: One of the most common attributes inherent to Johns’s early work is two pronounced components: the sensual and the conceptual paradox. I think they persist in their own coexistence. In other words, they can be seen as a metaphoric action of a gestured surface—the way the paint is handled—which is different obviously than abstract expressionist paintings. And on the other hand, the literal kind of mobility of attached objects, the accumulation of various tensions and the exchange between pictorial fact and verbal action. This is the Max Kozloff argument, which, I think, is too close to the Marxist notion of historicism and progress—the idea of progress. But in your observation, John, you argue for Johns’s vision of reality being in the work as a palpable materialization of the vision, meaning the making of it, meaning that the solid form is inseparable from its subject of dissolving possibilities, which is a common thread that you establish from the beginning, right? But is that why you thought of the material he uses, for instance encaustic and bronze, in such concrete terms as liquid and solid conditions? For instance, when you talk about the map paintings being representations of the interaction of both liquid and solid.

Jasper Johns, MAP (1963). Encaustic and collage on canvas. 60 × 93 (152.4 × 236.2 cm). Private collection.

Yau: Johns uses wax, lead, and bronze; they exist in either solid or liquid states. When he paints a map in encaustic, the material echoes the thing, which is a representation of solid and liquid. However, while the material exists in either a solid or liquid state, the map exists, one might say in both. And when he uses oil paint, like in “Watchman,” where he has pushed the ball across a board, it’s non-reversible action. And there’s the figure hanging upside down. So he understands time as being irreversible, and I think that’s always part of his work, and part of his consciousness.

Rail: Which is kind of exceptional, no? Because during that two or three years, 61 to 63, in which he paints “Periscope,” which is dedicated to Hart Crane, ready-mades are not featured prominently in his work.

Yau: Exactly. It’s important to remember that whenever people seem to put him in a certain place, he moves to another place. For instance, he didn’t use ready-mades in all of his work. That’s important to remember.

Rail: when Johns published the sketchbook notes in 1965—I have a copy here in Art and Literature, the very one that included the first translation of Merleau-Ponty’s “Cezanne’s Doubt,”—you thought of it as being a notebook entry made public, rather than a manifesto. You show the relationship between the “watchman” and the “spy” as metaphors of the body and mind, which you brought up in reference to Wittgenstein, who had a similar understanding of subjective and objective experience. That’s what it is, body and mind, subjective and objective, or let’s say associative and logical. How do you see this relationship carried out in other consequential works like “According to What” and “4 The News.” Is there continuity there?

Jasper Johns, 4 THE NEWS (1962). Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. 65 × 50 in. (165.7 × 127 cm). Kunstsammiung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf.

Yau: With the newspaper crammed between the two panels, “4 the News” seems to be asking how do we know what we know, and how do we get verification. Is it through the newspaper or through our senses, an external or personal source? Both possibilities are problematic. As the title, “According to What” suggests, what measures should we use to comprehend our experience—the spectrum, newspaper, or ruler? All of these measures offers only a partial, contingent understanding. How does it all fit together?

Jasper Johns, PAINTED BRONZE (Ale cans) (1960). Oil on bronze, 5 1/2 × 4 3/4 in. (14 × 20.3 × 12 cm). Museum Ludwig, Ludwig donation, Cologne.

Rail: Johns recalled the genesis of “Painted Bronze (Ale Cans)” when he heard that DeKooning was annoyed with [Leo] Castelli, and he said, “That son of a bitch, you can give him two beer cans and he could sell them.” In response to that remark, Johns then did a sculpture of two cans of beer and Leo sold them. Unlike other critics who reduced the reading of the work to this reactive position concerning the work of DeKooning and the abstract expressionists— particularly to the association of abstract expressionists’ drinking habits, you also pointed out another way of reading the two beer cans, which I had never thought of before. There is the “after,” which is the empty open can on the left, and the “before,” which is the one that is full with a little dent on the top right. In reading the cans from left to right, from open to closed, you say that we live between the “after” and the “before,” between what we have done and what we have yet to do. Do you think that Warhol might have seen Johns’s “Painted Bronze (Ale Cans),” or had it in mind when he did his first version of the painting “Before and After” (1962)?

Jasper Johns, ACCORDING TO WHAT (1964). Oil on canvas with objects (six panels). 7 1/3 × 16 ft. (2.24 × 4.88 m) Private collection.

Yau: He bought a drawing by Johns from the show of sculptures and drawings, and saw that work. The more important thing about the connection between Warhol’s “before” and “after” and Johns’s “after” and “before” is that the former suggests a Christian narrative of transcendence and reincarnation, and Warhol was supposedly a churchgoer, while Johns isn’t interested in reiterating that cliché narrative, which, to bring up Duchamp, places the viewer elsewhere.

Rail: So Johns wasn’t thinking about that narrative of elsewhere but Warhol was. This leads me to his use of what some call crosshatching. I was thinking of how we actually perceive the crosshatching. First of all, crosshatching is a classical shading technique in which one set of lines crosses over, or overlaps the other, in order to create this illusion of various values.

Yau: Yes, but in Johns’s case, hatch lines, rather than crosshatching, might be more accurate, because they are parallel.

Rail: Yes, except for “Weeping Women,” in which he used the thinner line overlapping the thick one and which would suggest affinity with Picasso’s “Woman in Bed” (1907). The way that the figure is being composed around the middle, the rest is fortified by this bold crosshatching, which carves out the space so strangely. I was thinking about that too, and maybe in some early works—some occasion, particularly in drawings of the flag and target, where some of that is being utilized. Secondly, in accord with what I was thinking about Pythagoras, who once said that “where two lines cross, the junction of the two lines is thick.” And what is more important is that, having in mind Pollock, and being aware of his large unstructured fields, Johns wanted to structure the field, and did so by filtering a gesture through a form of repetition. You pointed out in Chapter Seven that he had organized a system of hatch marks that allow for both symmetry and asymmetry to be imbedded in one another. Would you agree that for him the order itself is hardly as important as the demonstration of its full ability and fragility?

Yau: No, I wouldn’t agree—I think it is all equally important. If I remember correctly, when he found out that Pollock had a painting entitled “Scent,” he thought of changing the title. I don’t think he was thinking of Pollock when he made his first hatch painting, I think it’s convenient for people interested in a kind of art-historical narrative to focus on that. I mean there’s all kinds of writing on the “hatch” paintings, which argue whether or not they are abstractions or, as one writer claims, pseudo-abstractions, all terms that seem completely beside the point.

Rail: Are you referring to Barbara Rose’s piece on the hatch paintings?

Yau: Barbara Rose, and there’s Kirk Varnedoe, who organized Johns’s restrospective at MoMA. He had another notion of what they were. And Richard Armstrong had another notion. They all came up with a definition of them in relationship to so-called pure abstraction. These arguments didn’t help me look at the paintings. Tom Hess, I remember reading his essay early on, figured out the system. I thought that was the most useful essay I’d read. He gets you to rethink your experience of the painting, but otherwise, I thought most of the writing was not helpful. I think writing has to help give you a way to think about your experience of the work, but not claim that that’s all it can be about. Many claim that art is either about art or it must be an institutional critique; it cannot be about life. This very authoritarian situation has persisted for years. As a poet I find it a bleak prospect—you are supposed to make work that is historically important because it proves someone’s theory about what constitutes historically important work. Let’s become a hamster and run around in that wheel, and if we do someone will toss us a carrot.

Rail: We talked about Johns’s desire to create order only to cancel it out or obliterate it. In reference to “Scent,” and what followed, for instance “Corpse” and “Mirror,” he reduced the palette, but he also cancelled out the right side, so that he is also pointing to a demonstration of the importance of its fragility.

Yau: A piece of string hanging in front of a painting is a highly susceptible thing; it continues to move, one would say, after you leave the room. That’s pretty powerful, poignant and straightforward to me. There is also something joyful and accepting about it, which often gets overlooked.

Rail: Could you describe the shift from the transitory phenomena to the criteria entailed in the crosshatched paintings up to the paintings titled “Between the Clock and the Bed,” and the studio paintings that came after?

Yau: I think he analyzed and made connections out of what the world gave him. He learned about the visual affinity between his hatch marks and the coverlet in Edvard Munch’s late painting, “Self-Portrait Between The Clock and The Bed,” and made his “Between The Clock and The bed” paintings. In Munch’s painting, the artist is standing in the darkened bedroom but behind and to the right of him you see the studio door presumably open and the sunlit room behind. And so, along with noticing the affinity between his marks and Munch’s red, yellow, and blue striped coverlet, Johns also has to deal with a painting that has a figure and a room and, because of the door being open, another room behind it. When Johns put space in “The Studio,” which was done in 1981, I think he’s dealing with what his own art is challenging him to do. In his three “Between The Clock and the Bed” paintings, Johns has evoked a room and a figure in it by virtue of dealing with Munch’s painting; he can ignore this fact or deal with it. If, after the death of painting, it was the artist’s task to make an institutional critique, and theorists, especially ones teaching in Ivy League schools, love to say “institutional critique” as some kind of mantra, they haven’t been very forthright about their finger pointing. They forgot about what Pogo said, “we have seen the enemy and it is us.” Well, hasn’t Johns just made an institutional critique of criticism by doing the very thing that criticism says you’re not supposed to do. It’s like, “Let’s be a little self-reflexive over here, you theorists.” [Laughter.]

Rail: There was an interview in the early 70s, where he was asked whether he believed in new art as a criticism of old art, where his response was something to the effect of, “Art criticizes art.” He’s not so sure of the terms of new and old, but he felt that old art is just as good at criticism of the new as new of the old. Right? Which I thought was very beautiful. In seeing the whole history of art as a continuous whole. This is the idea of progressive change, the Marxist idea of art being progressive. This is the same view that Meyer Schapiro held throughout his life. That’s why Schapiro was able to write so eloquently about Romanesque and early-Christian art along with Modern art and the work being done during his lifetime. But one of the great things about Johns is the way he used imagery from other works of art, it’s allowed him to do that whether the references are obvious or cryptic. Whether he referred to these sources in a variety of ways through copies, traces, imprints, and so on, they are integral always to the visual, conceptual, and expressive intentionality of his work. We detect that in his views of Leonardo, Grünewald, Cézanne, Munch, Picasso, Duchamp, even to some extent Newman. How do you think he specifically selected those artists? What would be the qualifications you see in that? I mean not Manet, not other artists—

 Yau: There’s a reference to Manet in one of the Catenary paintings.

Rail: Yeah, that came later, but that was based on, I think, the commission for the National Gallery in London.

Jasper Johns, CATENARY (I Call to the Grave) (1998). Encaustic on canvas with wood and string. 78 × 118 × 8 in. (198.1 × 299.7 × 20.3 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Yau: It’s based on Degas’s reassembling of a painting that Manet had cut into pieces and partially discarded, but hadn’t completely thrown away; it’s an early version of “The Execution of Emperor Maximillian.” After Manet died, Degas rescued that painting from oblivion. Johns reassembled Degas’s reassembly, which suggests one way artists approach art—they reassemble something that already exists, which is different than appropriating or parodying something. In remembering a dream, as Johns did when he painted Flag, isn’t he reassembling an experience that can’t be verified, except through the painting?

Rail: Exactly. But otherwise, is there a process of selection here?

Yau: I think he sees something in the work that he can recontextualize in light of his own preoccupations, I don’t think it’s ever a quotation or a citation in the parodic manner that is espoused by certain post-modern theorists. I think his recontextualization is based, in part, on his very particular reading of a work. It tells him something.

Rail: I absolutely agree with you, but I’m saying, is there a kind of selection process that’s based on an admiration for particular artists.


John F. Peto, THE CUP WE ALL RACE 4 (c. 1900). Oil on canvas and wooden panel. 25 1/2 × 21 1/2 in. (64.8 × 54.6 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd.

Yau: No. I mean his range is extraordinary. He likes the trompe l’oeil painter John F. Peto, Marcel Duchamp, George Ohr, who was known as “the mad potter of Biloxi”, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd, who ended up in Bedlam for killing his father, Matthias Grünewald, Edvard Munch, Juan Gris, and Barnett Newman; he likes a lot of artists that supposedly don’t go together, that alone is interesting. He’s not doctrinaire, but encyclopedic. It’s not like he likes all the “right” people. There are people that always like the “right” people. Johns included the cover of “The Sonnets” by Ted Berrigan in a painting with that title. There’s a lot of reassembling of pre-existing lines in these poems, sort of like Degas reassembling Manet. Johns isn’t going through the world upholding a mainstream approved hierarchy. And I think these people he alludes to are artists whose work he has understood and read in an original way that shows us another way to read them by the way he places what he is using in his own work. That’s interesting. I think artists use other artists all the time but in a certain moment they’re only supposed to be used in a certain way, which is ridiculous. Like, “You can use x, y, z, but you have to do this, this, and this in order to use them.” It’s a prescriptive thing. It’s a hangover from Clement Greenberg. Sure there’s a pressure, there’s an extreme pressure, “Oh yeah, you’re not supposed to do that.” But that might be the moment that things get interesting.

Rail: Are you referring to Sol LeWitt’s “Notes on Sculpture?”

Yau: Well, I was just thinking about the pressure on artists to do certain things. One would think that they would want to resist the pressure to conform to external agendas or to any signature style in their own work. In other words, how do you stay open?

Rail: You know, my first impression in seeing the Seasons paintings at Leo Castelli in 1987, when I first came to New York after art school, was that they generate this incredibly deep sense of the introspection of life. Life is essentially susceptible to this universal acceptance of vulnerability. I’m not referring to just the repetition of the foreshadowing figure there of his youth, of his boyhood, whatever. But at the same time they insist on this incredible assertion of the autonomy of the self. Don’t you feel that in accordance with what you have observed in Johns, of who you think of as a hermetic artist, that there is, as you say, solitude?

Yau: It’s the solitude of being human. I don’t think it’s the solitude of a hermetic person. I think that Johns, and a number of other artists whose work I go to for sustenance, understand that being human ultimately means there is a kind of solitariness to it, let’s put it that way, which they accept. I think you could probably divide the art world—here’s a generalization—into those who accept the solitariness of being human and those who need constant approval. Some work alone, others need entourages. Johns never took refuge in any doctrine, theory, or pre-digested attitude about what art should or should not do. He’s always stayed out there, and gone his own way. Many people seek refuge of one kind or another, but his refusal to seek refuge is also an understanding of what it means to be human; that there is no refuge in the end. Nothing saves us and nothing protects us. I find that inspiring.

Rail: In the Catenary paintings, John, a number of reference Picasso’s harlequin. For me, the way I read Picasso, identification with the harlequin was part of the greater circus, right? Performer, let’s say. Because we admire their ability to move so swiftly, with certain control, and at the same time, their agility, right? But in some ways there is a deep, deeper implication within that too, which is the marginalized performer, which the French poets always talk about—the clown—being the poet, the outsider, observing life while performing the act. Do you think that Johns somehow sees himself similar to the way that Picasso shows himself?

Yau: He did once say that artists were the elite of the servant class. Harlequins and painters are laborers, servants, one might say.

Rail: He once said that to you?

Yau: No, he said it in print, “artists are the elite of the servant class.” The other day I watched this film, and a curator said about a particular photographer, “Oh that photographer was the last bohemian.” I got annoyed at this, because I thought that he’s the last bohemian this curator knew about, but if this individual went down to the Lower East Side and talked to some of my poet friends, maybe they wouldn’t say they were bohemians, but certainly their life and the way they’re living, would qualify as a bohemian life—without the romanticism to it; there’s no romanticism or anything else. Just to go back to Johns—it’s like, if you say that maybe all artists are marginalized, or all poets exist outside—that culture’s never embraced a certain aspect of art and literature; it prefers to ignore poetry and push painting into a narrative that culminates in its demise and obsolescence. Poetry and painting are perceived as threats because they posit a different notion of freedom. I don’t think Johns thinks of himself in the same way that Picasso does. I don’t think he’s identifying with the harlequin, at least not in that romantic way that we associate with Picasso. He might identify with the harlequin in the sense that he is a worker. He might also recognize that the self can become another, a harlequin, for example, rather than a hero. I don’t think there’s a one-to-one equation.

Rail: Last question, John. Do you see any affinity between Johns and Beckett? I mean, they collaborated on that incredible book, Foirades/Fizzles.

Yau: I see some affinities there.

Rail: [Laughs.] I think it’s very unusual.

Yau: I think the way they understand how language functions is pretty connected. There’s this story about Beckett, which Johns told me; it seems that Beckett was walking across a park one morning. And somebody, who recognized him, said “Good morning, Mr. Beckett!” or something like that. And his response was: “I wouldn’t go that far.” Johns and Beckett are not willing to accept the things that people ordinarily just accede to, or accept, they’re not willing to go along with long held assumptions. They stop before that acceptance. And I think that’s a kind of temperamental affinity that they have. There’s something hilarious about the fact that Beckett says, “I wouldn’t go that far.” And the fact that he thought about this common greeting is useful to remember.

Rail: Well, it reminds me of a story in an interview that Heidegger did with Masson, and they were talking about Cézanne. Masson cited Cézanne who said, “Life is frightening”—la vie est effroyante. And Heidegger couldn’t write for a year. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? But it was Cezanne who said it. So “I wouldn’t go that far” depends on who says it. [Laughs.]

Yau: “I wouldn’t go that far” [laughs].

Rail: Why do you think most people misread his late works?

Yau: Well, I think Johns has been misread ever since he first began exhibiting, and this was compounded when he changed his work in 1981. I think his work challenges the accepted narrative of art’s historical progress on many levels, as well as many other assumptions. This is something Art Spiegelman said to me when we first met. He said, “Why did you write a book on Johns?” and I gave a little quick answer. And he said, “Oh, you don’t believe he belongs in that narrative that is rushing painting toward the cliff edge?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” But there is that insistence on the narrative of the end, the one that says, “you are not allowed to do that anymore.” Why is it that all these people that are saying that painting has died are tenured professors at Ivy League schools? Why do they hate labor and sensuality so much? Writing is labor—why is that form acceptable and painting not? Is it because writing is intellectual and painting is not? Is it because the labor of painting means one is less intellectually evolved than the artist who outsources his or her work? And the notion of determining how something is to be done, and what something is to be about. Can anyone say the words, thought police? You know, these days art can’t be about mortality, about being human or feeling and celebrating vulnerability in the face of time’s indifference. It has to be an institutional critique. But pleasure, what’s wrong with pleasure? As Wallace Stevens said, “it must give pleasure.” Stevens believed poetry could be both sensual and intellectual and the result of labor, of thinking. He felt that it all fit together—pleasure, doing, and thinking. That’s the impact Johns’s work made on me, and why I have kept returning to it.