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The Holeness
of Jasper Johns

by Miles Mathis

The born lover of ideas, the born hater of commonplaces,
must feel in this country that the sky over his head
is of brass and iron.—Matthew Arnold

Ken Johnson reviews another exhibit in a recent New York Times edition (Jan. 8, 2009), this time the Jasper Johns exhibit at MOMA. Johnson begins this way:

The exhibition affords an occasion to ponder its possible deeper currents of meaning. Consider, for starters, “Target with Four Faces” (above). There is the slyly punning relationship between the eyeless faces and the single bull’s eye, which might be construed as representing the limits of individual perception versus the completeness of transcendental vision. Also there is tension between fragmentation and wholeness, which, embodied as it is in the style of an old carnival game, generates feelings of nostalgic melancholy.

There is that “tension” again that Johnson likes so well to manufacture from nothing, as he did with Pearlstein. Here it is a tension between fragmentation and wholeness. But once again, I have to ask, “Is there a possible tension between fragmentation and wholeness?” No, there is no tension, they are simply opposites of one another. You either have fragmentation or you have wholeness. You cannot have both, so they cannot create a tension. If one is there, the other is not. Tension must be between two present qualities: you cannot have tension between two words, especially when one of them is not applicable.

Do you see any wholeness in that painting? I don’t. I guess Johnson thinks that because we have a circle, we have wholeness. But a circle is a circle and wholeness is wholeness. A circle may represent wholeness, it is true, but it may also represent “holeness” or “donutness” or “targetness.” Given that we are talking about Jasper Johns here and given the circles within circles, I think it is probable we have targetness here, not wholeness.

Is there a tension between targetness and fragmentation? I almost hate to ask, because I am quite certain Johnson could come up with a yes answer somehow. But, if we look at the actual painting, we come up with nothing. There is no tension there, just a flabby idea and a fake mini-mystery that is not worth unraveling. The greater mystery is why anyone bothered painting this, why anyone bothered taking it seriously, and why art history decided to make its creator, Johns, rich and famous. That question certainly creates some tension, at least in me, but I don’t think it is the tension Johnson is talking about.

Johnson also claims there is "a slyly punning relationship between the faces and the bulls-eye". [Aha, so it IS a bulls-eye, not a wholeness!] As with the tension, Johnson can’t really tell us where the pun is. A pun is normally a humorous ambiguity, but we can’t expect modern critics to know what words actually mean. They don’t use words as denotative or connotative letter compounds anymore, they use them—according to the NYT art criticism handbook—as “colorful suggestions, intimations ripe with relative meaning.” So punning doesn’t really mean “punning” here, it just happens to be the right length and have the right sound on the lips. Besides, the painting doesn’t need to contain any humorous ambiguity: the word “punning” already contains it. The word “punning” gives you a little smile, even applied to nothing, and you can apply that smile to the void of the painting if you like.

The problem is applying this punny smile while you are also drifting into "nostalgic melancholy." Lot of tensions here, aren't there? Miraculous, really, how Johns manages to hit every possible human emotion in such a small patch of motionless square-footage. We laughed, we cried, we went to heaven and hell, it was an emotional roller coaster, a technicolor panorama, a feast of extravaganzas, a veritable smorgasbord of dichotomies.

Johnson continues:

“Flag” (1954-55) intimates similar preoccupations. Art historians and critics have observed how neatly this painting of the American flag collapses representation, abstraction and objecthood into an indissoluble yet paradoxical union. Less often mentioned is what the flag represents: united states, multiplicity and oneness.

Johnson is really a perfect fit for this job, I have to admit. Just look at the modern beauty of that first sentence! The painting “intimates similar preoccupations.” You can read that fifty times and still be no better off than before.

“Hey, what’s up, Jasper?”

“Oh, not much, just intimating a few preoccupations!”

And apparently large numbers of important people have observed how neatly this painting collapses representation, abstraction and objecthood into an indissoluble yet paradoxical union. The jiggers, you say! Well, I’ll be.

But wait, couldn’t you say that about any painting, if you were whacked enough to want to? Couldn’t you say it about the Mona Lisa, for example? In the Mona Lisa, we have representation, abstraction, and objecthood, all at once. The image is a representation, Leonardo has used abstract elements to create his image, and the painting as a whole is an object. The Mona Lisa is also an indissoluble union, or just as indissoluble as this flag painting: both are indissoluble until you drop them in a vat of turpentine. And Johns flag is paradoxical only to people who are confused by images of real things that look like the real things. So these nincompoops would also find the Mona Lisa to be paradoxical: they might look behind the frame to see if the lady were really there.

But Johnson isn’t finished with his philosophy for dunces, his presentation of painting as pons asinorum: he must reiterate that deep assertion about “multiplicity and oneness”, which of course is just our old “fragmentation and wholeness” again. Funny that the painting is an “indissoluble union,” but it is also an example of fragmentation and multiplicity. I guess he means the sort of fragmentation that maintains union: fragmentation that is not fragmented.

And more:

The beauty of those early works is in how such seemingly impersonal images can convey such plaintive urgency.

I’m sorry, could anyone tell me where to look for “plaintive urgency” in the paintings above? How can a still flag have any urgency, plaintive or otherwise? “Hurry up and look at me before I…before you…before we…nope, I’m still a flag.”

It has commonly been supposed that Mr. Johns picked motifs that were relatively empty of meaning so that he could focus without distraction on abstract forms and technical processes.

Johnson also makes this common supposition. But if Johns is focusing on the forms and processes, where does the urgency come in? Where is the tension? Where is the content? The answer: there isn’t any. The motifs were empty of meaning to begin with, and Johns did not fill them with anything. He did this on purpose, so that the critics would have something to do. That is why they love him. He is a creative non-entity, which allows them to intimate their own personal preoccupations and to write ridiculous sentences full of manufactured paradoxes and invisible idiocies.

the catenary is the white line hanging in the gray

In his most recent works Mr. Johns has been meditating on a geometric entity called the catenary: the curve of a loose length of string suspended from two points. Dryly abstract as it is, the catenary is not the most vivid of Mr. Johns’s metaphors, but it is a good example of the tension between reserve and self-revelation that has fueled his art for more than five decades.

Johnson is at his creative best here, since he can seem to judge which of John’s metaphors is the most vivid. Such a task is beyond me. I honestly couldn’t tell you which was the most vivid.

But I do agree with Johnson, at last. The catenary is a good example of the tension between reserve and self-revelation that has fueled his art for decades. Look closely: the catenary is hanging slack.

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