Tuesday, 12 February 2008



A comprehensive survey of mainly grey works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY and an accompanying show of works on paper at Matthew Marks, NY once more return this acclaimed artist to the public eye. At 78, Johns’ achievements stretch over half a century, and while his influence rests largely with his work of the 50s, his development has continued along rigorous, if less inspiring lines.

Johns rose to prominence in 1958 with works that use a repertoire of stencilled alphabets, words and numbers, concentric rings - usually called targets - and most famously, the design of the American flag. Such two-dimensional objects are not strictly pictured of course, but merely presented or instantiated and Johns’ emphatic brushwork and heavy encaustic paste allow modulations within a given colour; determine precision to line or edge (see also Post 71). The paintings sometimes use three-dimensional attachments to contrast the two-dimensionality at issue, to set scale and relate surfaces in other ways. The object emerges both transcendent and resilient, absorbing such variations while conversely imposing a level of compliance upon brushwork and colour. The exercise may seem meek in its conformity and narrow variation or daring in its choice of such familiar objects and idle treatment.

His deeply ambivalent attitude owes much to the work of Robert Rauschenberg but it is Johns’ more condensed means that exert the greater influence, especially over American art (see also Posts 13 and 56). The influence is felt firstly in Frank Stella’s black paintings; dispensing with a familiar design for an obvious one, maintaining a similar adherence to ‘straight’ lines, but now stripped of more traction than thinly applied household enamels. More ingeniously, Johns’ influence is re-directed in the work of Andy Warhol, where Warhol initially exchanges stencils or templates for familiar graphics or illustration – crucially focuses design on print source. Edward Ruscha similarly exchanges template lettering for established typefaces and similarly stresses the contrast with print for painting. Bruce Nauman takes up the three-dimensional component to Johns’ work with less obvious templates for body parts, rough cast and neon lettering. Each radically extends the project and tends to point to Johns’ comparative conservatism, promptly assign him an historical niche.

Johns subsequently relaxes the nature and arrangement of such templates and degree of conformity, in works such as Map (1962) and Diver (1962). But means quickly look arbitrary without closer alignment; design and template simply lose traction and identity. Johns turns to simpler geometry, to circles and squares but these carry less detail, do not then exhibit a compelling adherence or lack either. He tries irregular shapes in even distribution, like paving stones, and then parallel lines in small groups of uneven length, or a hatching pattern. Here the ordering is built up from line and makes special demands of painting for distinctive instance. Yet line in short straight parallels of even width only pushes Johns’ painting to more cursory and decorative detachment. Johns varies spacing to lines, adds layers and greater density to off-set this.

By the late 70s he combines hand prints with stencilled text, hatching and paving into more diffuse pattern. Compliance is less an issue than coherence. Pattern is then augmented with more figurative motifs, sharing surprising affinities and then by greater compartmentalisation or layout, in the arrangement of parts. He introduces traced outlines to traditional works, although often veiled in obscurity, together with photo-release or transfers, faux wood-graining and trompe l’oeil supporting nails. Parts vary in how easily they are recognised, what they stand for, by this arrangement and elsewhere. Tellingly, Johns soon adds those familiar ambiguous drawings such as a hag/beauty, two profiles to a vase or the famous duck/rabbit, heavy-handedly signalling his continued ambivalence.

The project begins to look somewhat dry and flat footed in comparison with much that has followed him. Johns started from a devotion to strictly two dimensional objects, not unlike those Picasso and Braque take up around 1912. But where they demonstrated resemblance between such two-dimensionality and various three-dimensional objects, so that text, wall-paper or wood-grain, for example may depict other objects in multiple and overlapping ways, for Johns the opposite view proved equally compelling. Two-dimensionality was never so suggestive or free, was merely adjusted with each painterly instance. Yet as Johns steadily expands his repertoire, it is precisely the allusiveness that fired Picasso and Braque that eventually appeals. His later work reflects this, but there is now no need to vigorously ground them in paint, this would be counter to their purpose, but equally, no way to properly engage with such drawing, once line is schooled in only the strictest and most reassuring of outlines. Johns settles for tracing too obscure to easily register, design too diffuse to properly trace or depict.

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