and Newman: An Encounter in Art
In the summer of 1954, Jasper Johns, a young artist who had decided to choose painting over poetry, moved to Pearl Street at the southern tip of Manhattan. A number of artists had found cheap studios in the area in small lofts near the seaport. It was a critical year for his life and his art, which he completely reconsidered, destroying almost everything he had made previously. Barnett Newman, the great New York School painter, had a studio nearby on Front Street. Elegant, intellectual, formal and stubbornly contrarian, Newman was an artist the young Johns, given in certain respects a similar disposition, could admire. Both had an interest in connoisseurship and owned works by other artists they admired.
This exhibition of works on paper by the two artists shows Newman's complete graphic work and documents Johns' thinking about the meaning of Newman's art. It also provides an opportunity to suggest several new hypotheses regarding the evolution and meaning of Johns' art in relationship to his predecessors, the first generation of the New York School. Over the years Johns purchased three works by Newman, two 1960 ink drawings and a lithograph published in 1961. Beginning during a critical period in his development, Johns cannibalized the graphic works by Newman in his collection, inserting them as motifs into his own paintings and prints. Why he did this must remain at this point conjecture, but that he did so is hardly accidental.
Nor is it coincidental that his was a period of personal crisis and stylistic change related in intensity to the moment when he encountered Newman's art as a young painter three decades earlier. It has not been said, but I believe that Newman was much on Johns' mind even before he met the artist himself. He had seen Newman's banded paintings at Betty Parsons Gallery where Newman had one-man shows in 1951 and 1952, and he appears to have understood their formal radicality better than anyone else at the time.
In the paintings he exhibited at Betty Parsons, Newman accomplished a goal Pollock was also intent on resolving; he eliminated the distinction between figure and ground. Instead of separating one from the other, he proposed a format in which the image was identical with the field, with no background left over. No shapes were depicted, not even as flattened silhouettes. Rather the field was divided into regular zones. This is of course the format of the iconic Flag that Johns dreamed of and then painted for the first time in 1954. Because Johns' image is both literal and identifiable, his medium is encaustic rather than oil, and he is more of an easel than a mural scale painter, the obvious debt of the horizontal bands of the flag, which line up to the horizontal framing edge as Newman's "zips" line up to the vertical frame, has hardly been noticed.
Technique, materials, palette, content and size separate Johns' Flag from Newman's color field abstractions, but the formal relationship is clear. Johns takes a step in the direction of literalism, however, by choosing an image that is both flat by definition and an object by recognition. Thus, Johns the skeptic turns his back on the aspiration toward transcendence of empirical materialism through the metaphor of light radiating from within, which is at the heart of Newman's aspiration. Of course the context within which Johns initially painted the American flag was not the heroic World War II image of Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimus. On the contrary, it was the height of McCarthyism when the definition of patriotism was a major issue.
The literalism of Johns' initial painting-object, the Flag, is of course, the common source for American art in the Sixties, both pop and minimal. The flag appears in Johns' works apparently whenever he feels that fundamental American values are being threatened. In the early Eighties, Johns depicts the exquisitely painterly print by Newman that he owns in Ventriloquist. The idea is related to the theme of the picture within a picture often used by Degas, another artist in whom Johns has shown an interest. The rectangular "insets", however, which characterize Johns' works of the mid Eighties, also may refer to the cinematic view into another scene that is the central concern of Hitchcock's Rear Window.
In Ventriloquist, an encaustic work of 1983, Jasper Johns paints a Barnett Newman. Newman's 1961 lithograph Untitled appears at the upper right margin, partially cut by the frame, and reversed, as if seen in a mirror in the manner of Leonardo da Vinci's mirror writing. The allusion to the process of printing, which if actual, would impress itself literally in the soft wax, is another of Johns' ironic metaphors that in turn plays off Duchamp's suggestion to use a Rembrandt as an ironing board. In Ventriloquist, Newman's lithograph is seen in conjunction with Johns' negative green, orange and black Flag, which originally appeared on the Moratorium poster designed for the largest public protest against the Vietnam War. The Newman print appears again in John's 1986 lithograph based on the painting.
Some of the images associated with the Ventriloquist theme, including the Newman Lithograph, are also present in the two versions, one encaustic, one oil, of Racing Thoughts done immediately before and after Ventriloquist in 1983 and 1984. In Racing Thoughts, however, the Newman print is replicated not mirrored. All three of these paintings related to the theme of the artist's genealogy, artistic, genetic and spiritual, first announced in 1982 in Perilous Night. In this context, Newman is acknowledged, together with Leo Castelli and John Cage, and along with Leonardo, Duchamp, and Michelangelo (whose flayed self-portrait in the Sistine Chapel Last Judgment is seen outlined in Racing Thoughts) as one of the artist's father figures.
All three works contain references to death, suffering and the vanitas motifs that are Johns' primary concerns in the Eighties. These religious Christian themes parallel Johns' earlier interest in Zen and later in Tantric Buddhist subjects, which have occupied him during moments of crisis, either artistic or personal. They are, in fact, meditations on human mortality as well as on the immortality of art. Racing Thoughts also refers to Grunewald's Resurrection in the Isenheim altarpiece. It may well be that Johns was thinking of Newman at the time because Newman's Stations of the Cross had been recently installed at the National Gallery.
Technically, Newman's painterly lithographs and ink drawings inspired Johns as well, specifically in works like Voice. Like Newman, Johns transfers the painterly impulse to brush drawings, which do not depict linear outlines in the manner of the Western tradition, but are more closely related to monochromatic Asian painting. From a series of works of the Nineties, in a graphite and watercolor drawing in the collection of Annalee Newman, Johns incorporates the images of the two 1960 brush drawings by Newman that he owns. Once again in this case, the Newmans are reversed. Both 1960 brush drawings by Newman owned by Johns are seen again inserted in the tope margin at the upper left and upper right in untitled, in two of his large ink on mylar painterly brush drawings. Both Newman drawings are ironically reversed, as if they were printed rather than drawn by Johns.
The same two Newman brush drawings are also seen in several 1992 Johns graphic works that focus on the issue of the relationship of image to frame. A graphite on paper drawing depicts the two Newman ink drawings in pencil, reversed as if printed.
In Johns' Untitled, 1992, a large watercolor and ink on paper in the collection of the artist, Newman's works are mirror images once again. Two works contain depictions of trompe l'oeil wooden frames, as well as of the narrow metal frames around the Newman works on paper. Again, the drawings are reversed as if seen in a mirror or printed. Of these maddeningly contradictory works, perhaps the most maddening is the lithograph that depicts the two drawings by Newman framed in narrow silver molding, together with an image of a 1990 painting by Johns in a heavy wood frame. These are presented as though drawn on a sheet of paper with edges folded in and taped to a wall.
Newman's continuing importance to Johns is underlined in Untitled, 1992, a large watercolor that pairs an image taken from a group portrait of Johns' family with a mirror image of the Newman drawing. The painted faux margin is a direct quotation of a Newman "zip" and lends monumentality to the work. A 1994 lithograph closely related to this drawing was published by ULAE to help the American Center in Paris raise money. They symmetrical placement of the family portrait and that of the Newman drawing opposite implies that, for Johns, art and life are interchangeable. It is all in the family.
Written for the occasion of a duel exhibition at Brooke Alexander Gallery:
November 18, 1999 - January 15, 2000
To see more work by Jasper Johns, click here.
To see more work by Barnett Newman, click here.