ONE NIGHT IN 1986, while standing at the top ramp of a Guggenheim Museum opening as an art-world wannabe, peering down at this social universe that seemed so distant and magical to me, I found myself standing next to an older man. He seemed to be doing the same thing. Both of us were in our own worlds. After a while, he turned at me and said, “Hello, Jerry.” I was surprised. I looked at him blankly. After a pause, I said, “I am sorry. What is your name?” He said, “My name is Jasper Johns.” It was a perfect picture of my unchecked egotism and his imperturbability, modesty, and honesty. And he answered exactly what I asked. It felt like proof that by then, Johns was being seen as an outmoded artist from another era. He was only 56. ¶ Johns had made his mark not as a throwback but as a genuine revolutionary—one of the biggest in American art history. For a full century before, beginning with the Impressionists, cresting with Picasso, and reaching a sort of endpoint with the Abstract Expressionists, most of whom were a few decades older than Johns, the making of art was ruled by the principle of purity and the vision of the artist as a history-bending shamanic genius. Johns initiated a new century, still ongoing, in which works could be purposefully impure, imperfect, and connected to the things of the world, while also being serious philosophical machines. In this, he had predecessors, like Marcel Duchamp and Yves Klein, and successors, like Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and even Jean-Michel Basquiat. But the real track-jump happened, or started, with Johns—in part because, ironically, in rejecting self-consciously iconic grandiosity, he produced what turned out to be among the most iconic, if largely impersonal, works in all of art history. This is why Ed Ruscha called Johns “the atomic bomb of my education.”
IN THE FALL OF 1954, the 24-year-old— who had been laboring on muddy, vaguely Abstract Expressionist–influenced works— effectively burned his artistic ships and destroyed all of his previous work. “I decided to stop becoming and to be an artist,” he said. “If you avoid everything you can avoid, then you do what you can’t avoid doing … You do what is helpless, and unavoidable.” The word helpless is a key to his work.
Not long after destroying his art, he woke up one morning and said, “I dreamed that I painted a large American flag. The next morning, I got up, and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” The result is Flag. Soon, the enamel house paint he was using “wouldn’t dry quickly enough,” so he switched to a technique he had “read or heard about.” This was encaustic, an ancient technique used in Egyptian Faiyûm portraits and Roman painting, which came to define much of the look of Johns’s art. It is a sensuous, fast-drying mix of heated beeswax and pigment that preserves every brushstroke in creamy, streaked, sluiced pentimento. You glean every mark, touch, over-and underpainting, decision, and erasure. You are almost in his body, witnessing the morphological development of a work of art—what Richard Serra meant when he said you see Johns’s art “millimeter by millimeter, second by second.” Johns is helping us to see the time.
Johns remarked that Flag took “a long time” to paint. He has also called it “a very rotten painting—physically.” The flag is a triptych of panels and isn’t the proportions of a “real” flag. The work’s surface has been built, collaged from newspapers, headlines, bits of print, ads, and the like. The writing visible through the translucent encaustic has “no significance to me,” Johns said. View Flag as a paradox: something that reveals contradictory truths. It is iconic and ironic; a real thing and a fake; painterly and awkward; visually blistering and psychically cocooned; patriotic and subversive; a new form of beauty made of old forms; drop-dead obvious and forever at a distance.
I think Johns’s dream was partly inspired by “the first person I knew who was a real artist.” This was Robert Rauschenberg, whom Johns met in 1954. The two became lovers. The Texan described Johns as “soft, beautiful, lean, and poetic … he was always an intellectual … he would read Hart Crane’s poems to me.” Rauschenberg brought Johns into his world of artists like Josef and Anni Albers, Cy Twombly, Buckminster Fuller, Franz Kline, Dorothea Rockburne, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Merce Cunningham (Johns called him “my favorite artist in any field”) and the dancer’s partner, John Cage—who called the couple “the Southern Renaissance.” It is no exaggeration to say this circle totally remade American culture at its very mid-century peak.
Johns has always acknowledged Robert Rauschenberg as the nuclear furnace of it all. “I learned more about painting from Bob than I learned from any other artist or teacher.” One critic remembered Johns saying that “Rauschenberg was the man who in this century had invented the most since Picasso.” Indeed, Rauschenberg is the American Picasso. Rauschenberg said that he and Johns “started every day by having to move out from the almost overpowering influence of Abstract Expressionism.” If Abstract Expressionist art was big, existential, emotional, serious, and about the “sublime,” their work would be smaller, figurative, vernacular, more ironic, profane, made from everyday materials, made from life.
For all effective purposes, on the night of March 8, 1957, Modernism ended and contemporary art began. Composer Morton Feldman brought husband-and-wife art gallerists Leo Castelli, 49, and Ileana Sonnabend (then Castelli), 42, to Rauschenberg’s studio. The two immigrants were about to become the deans of new American avant-garde. They already loved Rauschenberg’s work. That night, Castelli mentioned that he had just seen a green painting of a target in a group show. (This was Johns’s Green Target.) Rauschenberg told them that the artist lived downstairs. “I must meet him,” said Castelli. Rauschenberg returned with Johns a few minutes later. The two dealers went to Johns’s studio.
In the studio, they saw different flags, targets, numbers, letters, and more. Sonnabend bought Figure I, the painting of a number, on the spot. Castelli told the best chronicler of the period, Calvin Tomkins, that the first time he saw Green Target, “I was thunderstruck … I saw evidence of the most incredible genius.” He said it was like wanting to “get married.” Castelli offered Johns a show at his new 4 East 77th Street gallery. Rauschenberg seemed excited for Johns. Several days later, however, “in a state of near despair,” Rauschenberg visited the gallery and asked if he could get a show. His exhibition was scheduled for two months after Johns’s. American art history was about to jump the tracks.
The month that Johns’s first solo show opened, the best art magazine of the time, Art News, featured his Target With Four Faces on the cover of its January 1958 issue. This was unheard of at the time. On Monday, January 20, 1958, Johns’s debut solo show opened at Castelli’s gallery. Five days later, Alfred Barr, the MoMA’s director of museum collections, arrived with MoMA curator Dorothy Miller at Castelli. By day’s end, they had arranged for MoMA to purchase Green Target and Flag (for $1,000 each), Target With Four Faces ($700), and White Numbers ($450). The flag was acquired as a promised gift by Philip Johnson because the curators feared museum trustees would reject the work as communistic and unpatriotic. It was a sellout show. By contrast, Rauschenberg’s show saw just two sales, one of which was returned. Castelli also bought Bed for $1,200 and, in 1989, gave this absolute masterpiece to MoMA; it was by then valued at as much as $10 million.
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