It has been said that a painter’s “late style,” when old age prevails, is characterized by the coincidence of simplicity of pictorial forms and high ambition. In the case of the late paintings of Titian and Rembrandt, their anguish and vulnerability is wedded to their unstable representations: space becomes mysterious, light becomes dramatic and spotty, and form becomes fragmented. This is also true of the late work of Matisse and de Kooning, but for the opposite reason. Also notable is Mondrian, who found enthusiasm in old age—one may think of his “Broadway Boogie Woogie” as an exciting response to New York’s captivating sound and rhythm. Continuing on, suddenly night falls and there appears Jasper Johns, on the pretext of fishing, fixing on the heavenly stars reflecting on the water, tracing the formation of the Milky Way or even the Big Dipper. With a bit of prolonged hesitation, he turns his gaze on the curve of his bamboo rod and transforms its beautiful shape into fragile string.
Like an old man who becomes a child, like a philosopher who gives up philosophizing in favor of fishing by the riverbank, full of a sense of wonderment while contemplating the matter of life, death, and the universe—these are the major themes of Jasper Johns’s new body of work, dating from 1997 to 2002. This exhibit marks a significant time since the great painter’s retrospective at the MoMA in 1996. As I’ve always been utterly perplexed and amazed by Johns’s ability to gather objects and subjects alike from previous work to give birth to new ones, I now realize that he has done this consistently with a keen pacing between intervals, which parallel his movement and repose, all in the service of introspection. Just as much as I’ve tried over the years to read into the meanings of his iconographies, I also have contented myself by acknowledging their resistance to interpretation. They simply install their own meanings among many meanings.
Let us begin with Johns’s ability to itemize his objects or subjects, or vice versa, throughout his long and productive opus. First of all, they are man-made things that could be found in our everyday environment. They persist while retaining flatness, though rarely after their shapes. Secondly, they belong to no hierarchical system, which allows them to be animate and yet remain perfectly still. In other words, they are unchanged by how they are situated in space and how they’re affixed to the painted surface. This leads to the question of edges in relation to the negative space between them, which in turn negotiates the occasional overlapping and repeating figures with ground distinction. As a whole, they yield to a democratic unity, organized by the memory of the hand’s movements: remembering things past in order to arrange the present and anticipate things to come. These elements appear in paintings like “According to What” (1954), “Diver” (1967), “Perilous Night” (1982), “Untitled” (1984), and “The Seasons” (1985–86).
One of the distinguishing features of our first-person avowals of our mental states is that they are both autobiographical and incorrigible. It is not that the abstract is increasingly pronounced in Johns’s perpetual flux since The Seasons paintings. Whether I could have traced cross-references that pertain to both Johns’s history and art history—the blueprint of his grandfather’s house, a boy’s shadow, the outline of a Grünewald soldier from the Isenheim altarpiece, the color diamond patterns and the handkerchief from Picasso’s Harlequin and Weeping Women series, the renovation after Degas’ reconstruction of Manet’s “The Execution of Maximilian” (a double play of the same world), the erotic humor within Monnier’s prints—what most interests me are the dramatic changes in the predominantly gray field.
Unlike his signature gray strokes, which at times can be physical and heavy in their paint application and at other times display discrepancies in their expressiveness, in these new paintings his touch adheres to uniformity in spite of the dense surfaces. Both “Bridge” (1997) and “Catenary (Jacob’s Ladder)” (1999) evoke greater discrepancies in their field of vision. By heightening the tonal scale of gray with a variety of brushstrokes, they suggest a meteorological presence. One feels the moisture in the air; then comes the rain. They remind me of Caspar David Friedrich’s “Monk Before the Sea” (1808–10), a painting of a monk in black costume with a bald spot on his head, standing alone on sand dunes in the foreground facing the massive, dark ocean and the gray sky. Friedrich’s painting evokes the monotony and boundlessness that tie the spiritual conception of the body, the mind, and the celestial light together with the spirit manifesting itself in nature through light. I certainly felt the vastness and a profound immensity of distance between the pictures and myself. Like the dreams in Dr. Edward Young’s "Night Thoughts in Life, Death and Immortality," there is a strong feeling of the didactic and aphoristic, and yet an air of mystery and sorrow as well. In addition to his use of contrast, Johns employs a fragile string that sags from a thin wooden slat that is hinged at one edge, the other edge attached to the canvas. The string helps to defuse the tension between darkness and lightness, density and fragility.
By letting go of his previous eloquence and the dialogue with the external realm, the great painter this time turns inward. Ever so diligently he begins to introspect the basic meaning of life and art all over again. It is a matter of the metaphysical and existential domain, as the extreme qualification once stated by Ludwig Feuerbach that “a true philosopher does not have a philosophy.”
TOMASSIO LONGHI is a contributor to the Rail.