On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

JASPER JOHNS 1960

The situation of the younger American artist is a particularly difficult one. If he follows too closely the directions established by the "old masters" of that movement inaccurately but persistently described as Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting, he runs the risk of producing only minor embellishments of their major themes. As an alternative approach, he may reconsider the question of a painting's reference to those prosaic realities banished from the Abstract Expressionist universe. Like many younger artists, Jasper Johns has chosen the latter course, yet unlike them he has avoided the usual tepid compromise between a revolutionary vocabulary of vehement, molten brushwork, and the traditional iconography of still lifes, landscapes, or figures. Instead, Johns has extended the fundamental premises rather than the superficial techniques of Abstract Expressionism to the domain of commonplace objects. Just as Pollock, Kline, or Rothko reduced their art to the most primary sensuous facts--an athletic tangle of paint, a jagged black scrawl, a tinted and glowing rectangle--so, too, does Johns reduce his art to rock-bottom statements of fact. The facts he chooses to paint, however, are derived from a non-aesthetic environment and are presented in a manner that is as startlingly original as it is disarmingly simple and logical.

Consider his paintings of the American flag. Suddenly, the familiar fact of red, white, and blue stars and stripes is wrenched from its everyday context and forced to function within the rarefied confines of a picture frame (fig. 88). There it stands before us in all its virginity, an American flag accurately copied by hand, except that it now exists as a work of art rather than as a symbol of nationalism. In so disrupting conventional practical and aesthetic responses, Johns first astonishes the spectator and then obliges him to examine for the first time the visual qualities of a humdrum object he had never before paused to look at. With unerring logic, Johns can then use this rudimentary image as an aesthetic phenomenon to be explored as Cézanne might study an apple or Michelangelo the human form. But if this artistic procedure of reinterpreting an external reality is essentially a traditional one, the variations on Johns's chosen theme seem no less extraordinary than its first pristine statement.

To our amazement, the American flag can become a monumental ghost of itself, recognizable in its tidy geometric patterns, but now enlarged to heroic size and totally covered with a chalky white that recalls the painted clapboards of New England houses. No less remarkable, this canvas-flag can be restored to its original colors, but unexpectedly considered as a palpable object in space from which two smaller canvas-flags project as in a stepped pyramid. Or, in

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