On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

JASPER JOHNS: REALM OF MEMORY 1997

When this you see remember me." Gertrude Stein's unforgettable six-word couplet not only sums up a wealth of human experience, from photographs and postcards to tombstones and paintings, but it also pinpoints the uncanny ways in which Jasper Johns's art obliges us to be constantly aware of his presence, whether of his body, his mind, or his feelings. In endlessly inventive surprises, both overt and covert, Johns hovers within his own art, almost looking at us as we try to look at him. And when we focus, as we do here, on an anthology of fifty-two works from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s that Johns chose to keep for himself, then the implication of their significance to the artist is further intensified. The parallel with Picasso's private collection is inevitable. He, too, preserved for himself over the decades an abundance of works that we feel must have had special meaning for him, marking private as well as public turning points in his life and art.

A useful point of entry into Johns's bell-jar world of self- exploration is a canvas of 1964 (fig. 96), the first of two versions of a composite image titled Souvenir. 1In the most direct and obvious way, this can be read as a confrontational self-portrait with the artist staring directly at himself as well as the viewer. But in every other way, it sabotages all expectations of self-portraiture. For one thing, the likeness of the artist, rather than being hand-painted by him, is, in fact, a tourist souvenir from a sojourn in Japan in May of that year. A mug shot of Johns, taken by the artist himself in a photo booth in Tokyo, has been transferred to a white china plate, providing this particular tourist, like countless others, with a literal souvenir of a visit. But this rendering of the artist's face, as impersonal as a passport photo or an image in a high-school yearbook, looks at us blankly in the midst of a strangely personal assortment of words and objects that would probe backward and forward into Johns's life and art. For instance, the words RED, YELLOW, BLUE have been added to the Japanese souvenir plate, creating an emblem (the three primary colors) in an impersonal style (stenciling) that, ironically, turns into a recognizable symbol of Johns's work. Earlier, he had often embedded in his art this verbal reference to the holy trinity of a painter's palette, and this would remain a persistent motif. Much as in Picasso's art, where the presence of a guitar of the figure of Harlequin would suggest a projection of the artist himself, so too do these three words--red, yellow, blue--become almost a surrogate signature for Johns. 2 Indeed, in this photo-portrait they encircle his image as if they were an integral part of his personal identity, like the attributes of a saint.

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