For years now, whenever Jasper Johns has had a show, you could count on a reviewer to cite his best-known axiom: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Do something else to it…” The sculptures in this show certainly seem to call out for that axiom, more so once the viewer learns that Johns made Numbers (2007), a cast aluminum relief of a grid of numbers from zero through nine, in response to his painting, Numbers (1964), his only public commission, which he did in Sculp-metal on canvas for Lincoln Center, where it can still be seen in the east wing of the Grand Promenade of the New York State Theater.
On ViewMatthew Marks Gallery
May 7 – July 1, 2011
In a revealing interview with Terry Winters, which is in the catalog accompanying the exhibition, one learns that in the 1964 commission, Johns “had a complicated idea, which didn’t materialize.” He made the numbers individually on separate canvases, and used the Sculp-metal to suppress the “too prominent” seams when he joined them together. In the first Numbers he also cast Merce Cunningham’s footprint, because he “thought it was an amusing idea to get Merce’s foot into Lincoln Center.”
This small visual joke reminds us that, from the outset of his career, Johns has been a subversive and critical artist on many levels, many of which are not immediately apparent. At the same time, the footprint gives the piece a literal scale. In the interview we learn that Johns approached Lincoln Center about casting Numbers in metal, perhaps because he felt that the original was not materially permanent enough, but couldn’t get anyone interested in his proposal. This question of impermanence reminded me of a time years ago, when I asked the artist—then in his early ’60s—about the unstable combination of materials he used in his groundbreaking Flag (1954–55), which included a bed sheet, newspaper, encaustic, oil, and plywood, he stated: “It is falling apart, just like me.”
Johns calls Numbers (1964) a painting, but considers the more recent Numbers (2007) a sculpture because the latter has “less brushwork.” After Numbers (2007) was cast in aluminum at a foundry by a process other than the lost-wax process that the artist originally wanted, “the original wax that [Johns] meant to be used up in the lost-wax process still existed, a bit damaged from the mold-making procedure.” This damaged piece became the basis of the six two-sided sculptures displayed on pedestals in the show. These works are “made from sheets of wax, broken, torn, or cut out and applied,” and subsequently cast in bronze, aluminum, and even silver. While they are freestanding here, they can also be displayed on the wall, with the cast wall mounts prominent in each piece.
Along with cutting the wax, Johns used silkscreen and blocks of printed type to achieve an extremely shallow bas-relief. He also cast Cunningham’s foot shortly before the dancer’s death in July 2009, in part to connect the recent Numbers with the earlier one. He attached keys, cast a hand, and made fingerprints. To return to Johns’s best-known axiom, as we tally the many actions and processes that he has seamlessly unified in these sculptures, I begin to wonder if the artist doesn’t feel hemmed in by his own words, particularly since they call attention to what he does formally, yet barely venture into the realm of meaning.
For years now Johns has been known as the aloof and hermetic artist, as if he is to blame for our inability to discern meaning in his work. Such terms, however, are a front for hostility toward the deeper implications of his work. More than 50 years after Johns started out as a groundbreaking artist, who has continued to collapse boundaries and mine new territory to this day, haven’t we all agreed that his formal genius is beyond dispute? But is that all he has done? Marcel Duchamp believed the viewer completed the work of art, which seems the very thing that the art world is reluctant to do unless the art comes with an academic stamp of approval, not a cast of Merce Cunningham’s foot?
Why do we give ourselves permission to scrutinize some artists (Duchamp, for example), but not others? As far as I am concerned, Johns’s work is in the same category as Duchamp’s; it should be read expansively, rather than reductively. Instead of repeating his best-known axiom, I would like to offer my revision of it: Take something. See something about it. See something else about it. See something else about it, etc.
By his combination of uneven, tactile surfaces, shifting light, numbers, and newspaper type, Johns collapses the different cycles of time that we all inhabit as well as acknowledges that the social domain is not separate from, or triumphant over, nature. To assert, as some postmodernists have, that art’s only province in the social domain is to be blind to the fact that we do not exist outside or beyond nature, where being de-skilled will not help anyone survive. Johns recognized the interconnectedness of the social domain and nature more than 50 years ago with his first Flag, its blue canton lined with stars. The topology of his recent sculptures, with their layers and rough, molten-like surfaces, recalls the petrified surfaces one encounters on an archaeological dig. Cunningham’s footprint reminded me of the preserved footprints found in the prehistoric Chauvet Cave, which can be seen in Werner Herzog’s film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010).
Johns’s compressed evocation reminds us of how brief and inconsequential our individual lives are in the face of limitless time and space. Along with this sense of life, he insists on the here and now through the tactility of aluminum, bronze, and silver: he has incorporated reminders of the recent past—and how important it once seemed—with his use of newspaper type: and he has acknowledged infinity and limitlessness with his grid of numbers. It is this latter aspect of the work that changes how we might look at his earlier uses of numbers, a motif he first explored in the mid-1950s. The theme of the individual’s personal life and its relationship to infinity dates back in Johns’s work to at least the painting, Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), which alludes to Crane’s poem “Cape Hatteras,” where these lines appear:
“Walt, tell me, Walt Whitman, if infinity
Be still the same as when you walked the beach
Near Paumanok—your lone patrol—and heard the wraith
Through surf, its bird note there a long time falling
Numbers are one way we deal with sequential and spatial perpetuity, just as the Big Dipper, which Johns included in a number of his “catenary” paintings, is a surrogate for the vastness of space. I am not speaking metaphorically, but literally. The sculptures bring home that we may be someone recognized by the world, but our destiny is to become part of the earth. Knowing this, is it possible to keep looking without averting your eyes? This is the primary reason that Johns is a great artist. He melds his formal innovations to his materials so that we can see ourselves in the brief moment that we are on the earth.
Looking, and paying attention to details, is key. The 17 magnificent drawings shown with the sculptures amplify the theme of looking that runs throughout this exhibition. The faces in profile, the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law conjunction, and the outline of a child emphasize looking as key to one’s existence. Each of these figures, as well as the artist, exists on the brink of eternity. The earth will persist, whereas the world (or social domain) might not. Johns enables us to contemplate what our brief moment looks like. (It is not a tale of progress, as told by the art world). In Johns’s work, the personal becomes submerged in something far larger and more profound. It is time that we look at his art and see something other than what so many have seen before. Otherwise, we fail him and ourselves.