Never a force of personality, artist Jasper Johns left his art to speak for itself

Born in Augusta, Jasper Johns set a world record for highest price paid for work by a living artist in 2006 when music legend David Geffen sold “False Start” for $80 million to a consortium of hedge-fund investors.

At that time, Johns was worth more than a van Gogh or a Rembrandt. The record was broken by artist Damien Hirst just a month later. Damien who? Such is the life of painter Jasper Johns. He went from window decorator to bright shining star, but his glow now dims in the eyes of critics.

After only his first solo exhibition, Johns rose to fame as the American artist who saved the world from the reign of the Abstract Expressionists, who were diverse, varying from Pollack to de Kooning, but were largely nonrepresentational. They tossed narrative out the window and attempted to transfer pure emotion to paint and canvas.

Johns is still considered perhaps the greatest living American artist, but his legacy is in question.

“I think all artists owe a debt to Jasper Johns. Certainly, he was an undeniable influence on contemporary art,” said artist Philip Morseberger, a painter of international acclaim who now lives in Augusta.

Morseberger was born in 1933, just three years after Johns was born at a hospital in Augusta. To be certain, both artists began by drawing what they saw around them.

Morseberger would have drawn what he saw in Maryland, while Johns drew the wooded South Carolina midlands. The first 17 years of his life, Johns would have captured scenes of his Southern upbringing. But by the time Johns left the University of South Carolina for New York City, and Morseberger studied at the Maryland Institute of Art, abstract expressionism had taken over the art world.

“If you tried to draw a figure or something representational, they would come down on your pretty hard. You got a lot of criticism,” he said. “It was as though there was nothing but abstract expressionism.”

What Johns did was to make it acceptable to create representational art.

Adolph Gottlieb, a painter and sculptor, predicted that abstract expressionism would reign for 1,000 years. It was, to be fair, the first important school in American painting that arose separately and organically, separate from European artistic culture. It was also the first to influence art abroad.

Pollack. De Kooning. Mark Rothko. Franz Kline. These were the names among the artistic stratosphere in the ’40s and early ’50s. Their goal was a raw and impulsive art form where what was significant was the paint and the act of painting.

Abstract expressionism infused excitement into the American art scene, but it was,perhaps, a product of its time. It was an America that had suffered through World War I, the Great Depression and World War II in the course of about 20 years. And for all our Norman Rockwell-inspired nostalgia, those were tough and turbulent times. Perhaps after all that, Johns and the whole of the American art world were ready for something new.

Jasper Johns once told art critic David Sylvester, “I am interested in things which suggest the world rather than suggest the personality.”

Morseberger certainly was. His early work is nearly photorealistic, and certainly they’re representational. “Study of a Female Head,” “Hey, Let’s Have Some Red Man,” and “November 22, 1963”all dealt with recognizable scenes, from missing Civil Rights workers to the Kennedy assassination.

The change began in the mid-’50s, when a younger generation of American artists — Johns and Robert Rauschenberg chief among them — brought a sense of playfulness and irony to their canvases.

Local artist Jay Jacobs casually sums up a cultural sea change: “The whole brooding, dark, dress-all-in-black and sit in a cafe and scribble in my notebook type artists, which were a lot of the abstract expressionists — the troubled drunks like Pollack — to me, it’s like Johns and Rauschenberg came in like a breath of fresh air and said, ‘Screw this. Go be sad somewhere else. We’re going to make some art.’”

Somewhere in the middle of 1954, Johns and Rauschenberg had gotten jobs as window designers for Tiffany’s and Bonwit-Teller, doing paintings, drawings and collages. Supporting himself solely with art changed John’s perception of himself.

He told best-selling author Michael Crichton, who wrote his biography,cleverly named “Jasper Johns,” that it was at that time he decided to stop becoming an artist and to be an artist — after a dream in which he saw himself painting an American flag. He destroyed all of his early work, including the images of his youth and young adulthood. Only four paintings survived his rampage.

It wasn’t a fit of pique. Johns was in the process of defining himself as a person and an artist. Growing up, shuttled from one relative’s home to another by a mother who had little means to care for him, Johns was a private but fiercely intelligent boy who crafted hand towels from burlap sacks and labored over his drawings in silence. He graduated valedictorian from Edmunds High School in Sumter, despite changing from Batesburg-Leesville Consolidated High School partway through his four years. But throughout the instability of his upbringing, he always knew he wanted to be an artist — whatever that signified for him.

“In the place where I was a child, there were no artists and there was no art, so I really didn’t know what that meant. I think I thought it meant that I would be in a situation different than the one I was in,” he said, about growing up in Allendale, S.C.

Less than a year after the destruction of his past work, Johns’ famous “Green Target” exhibited in the Jewish Museum. And in 1958, at his first one-man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art snapped up three of his paintings, including “Flag” (1954-55).

At just 28, Johns was a legend.

The pieces in that first exhibit showcased the very canvas upon which Johns painted. In the iconic painting of the American flag, he had taken familiar imagery, with all of its cultural attachment, and broken it down on canvas.

He neutralized the subject matter and exposed the process of painting, using a method called “encaustic” painting that hadn’t been popular for centuries. It called for wax mixed in with pigment, resulting in a viscous fluid that dried very quickly.

“It took him a long time to paint with that technique. So he was sitting there just focused on this really rudimentary image for a long, long time. I, personally, would have thrown it out the window,” Jacobs said.

Johns explained that he saw himself painting the flag in a dream, and during the bare few interviews he has given, declines to define or defend his art in such a way that adds further narrative to it. For him, painting is a cerebral exercise that remains incomplete until a viewer steps forward.

“Everyone is of course free to interpret the work in his own way. I think seeing a picture is one thing and interpreting it is another,” Johns once said.

Regardless of his subject matter, Johns and his contemporaries (but mostly Johns) are credited with building a bridge between abstract expressionism and the future movements of pop art and minimalism. Perhaps the abstract expressionists — and, of course, the Dadaists — had to destroy the art before the new generation could rebuild it.

If that’s true, Johns is the foundation for the whole of contemporary art. Museums call him the most influential artist of the last century. Critics call him the greatest living American painter. But if you ask them why, they will point to that first show. They will point to “Flag.”

That was 50 years ago.

But Johns has never remained idle. In the ’50s, with Merce Cunningham, he choreographed a dance piece called “Walkaround Time.” In 1960, he took up printmaking. In 1963, he painted his famous “Map,” depicting American states in bold colors and distorted shapes. In 1967, he illustrated author Frank O’Hara’s book, “In Memory of My Feelings.” In the 1970s, he collaborated with Nobel Prize winning poet Samuel Beckett on his book “Fizzles.” In the 1980s, he shifted his style to realist figuration. In 1993, he won the Praemium Imperiale prize for painting.

“I think his place is secure,” Morseberger said, with a wry smile. “He’s done OK for himself.”

Perhaps being a “bazillionaire,” as Morseberger termed it, is one measure of success. He admits a bit of disappointment with the artist’s more recent works, suggesting that perhaps Johns is out of ideas. Perhaps he is selling art for art’s sake — that of being in the exclusive club that garners fawning praise for works past and not present.

“You see his old imagery repeated,”Morseberger said. “He’s exploring well-covered territory. You get the sense that maybe he is just going through the motions.”

Beginning in 1983, he worked on some new imagery — including the catenary, a curve formed by a string draped between two points — that looked as though he were moving in a more personal direction. But in 1985, he showed “Two Flags,” an ink-on-plastic simulation of watercolor. In 1994, he laid a layer of grey over a colored flag, but let some of it seep through. As though to underscore the obvious, he called that painting “Flag.” Though he has continued his exploration of the catenary, one can still find flags and targets sneaking into his recent work.

But then, subject matter has never been the point of John’s work, has it?

Some people take from Johns the importance of the struggle to produce art.

“He thought it was less important, almost, the subject matter, and more important the way he got to the final conclusion of the painting,” said Jacobs. “I think the main thing is the process with him.”

He didn’t make it easy on himself,painting with fast-drying wax and constructing Sisyphean scenarios like “Device,” where he nailed boards to his canvas that then swung through the paint he applied.

“I am just trying to find a way to make pictures,” Johns said, shrugging off attempts at categorization.

But for other people, it was the choice of subject matter that stands out. Johns often made the very canvas, wood or paper upon which he painted part of the subject. He transformed them from passive recipient to active participant, experimenting widely with surfaces and structure.

But then, too, he raised ordinary subjects to a level of high art. He cast two beer cans in bronze (“Painted Bronze, 1960”), and then painted them to look just like ordinary beer cans. His flag motif took a look at an icon of American culture, one he’d sworn to defend as a private in the Army, and forced viewers to examine it for more than its cultural significance.

And Johns is little help in determining his intentional focus: “The thing is, if you believe in the unconscious — and I do — there’s room for all kinds of possibilities that I don’t know how you prove one way or another.”

He’s also commented that it’s not a painter’s business to decide what his or her works imply about the world, that the painter’s business is to paint paintings without a conscious reason.

But he also told friend and biographer Jill Johnston that he likes Pablo Picasso’s “Straw Hat with Blue Leaf” for “being more than one thing.” So perhaps, by returning to the flag motif, the image of a target or the numbers 1 through 9, which also often appear on his canvases, he is urging us to examine them once more.

But then he once said, “I think a painting should include more experience than simply intended statement.”

The question is where this revisiting of his familiar iconography is enough to maintain his place of relevance in art history.

“He is most respected for his early work. His later work doesn’t draw as much critical attention, for obvious reasons,” Morseberger said. But it may be, he suggested, that as culture shifts and society changes, that critics and fans alike will view his work in a different way.

Once an artist dies — not to be a harbinger of doom, but no one lives forever — and their personal effects and papers are catalogued, the resulting body of research provides more insight into their lives and objectives than they may reveal on their own. So through scholarly examination of these artifacts of Johns’ life, a continuing genius may come to light.

Perhaps we’ll find, despite the lukewarm reception he’s received from critics, that he is looking at us, looking at his work and watching our reactions. Maybe he is waiting for us to complete the puzzle. After all, his painting of an image of an American icon has, itself, become an icon — as has the artist, himself. The resulting tangle of influence looks very much like Johns’ own “Three Flags.”

We may find that the Augusta-born artistic innovator sustained a stronger connection to the area than cursory examination of his work reveals. For years he maintained a beach house at Edisto Island; and his half-brother runs a restaurant in Charleston. But he only slips quietly into town upon occasion, for things such as funerals, according to family members. He is the last of the male Johns, however.

Johns has never been the force of personality that marked both his predecessor, Jackson Pollack, and his follower, Andy Warhol. These artists lived big lives and encouraged the mythology that surrounded them.Warhol, in particular, invited attention with his Factory and flamboyance.

In contrast, Johns has always lived a quiet life, first in South Carolina, then in New York and now in Sharon, Conn. He winters in the Caribbean. His motto has been “privacy above all else.”

Johns is famously reclusive, like the artistic J.D. Salinger, who values his shelter. He is described as humble and down-to-earth. When Morseberger managed to acquire his address, and wrote to request that he sign a vintage poster of his work that he had found, Johns kindly wrote back that he would be happy to sign the poster if Morseberger would send it.

“He has shown himself to be generous,” Morseberger said. Other artists relay similar experiences about the intensely private man who rarely grants interviews and cut off a relationship with Jill Johnston, a former friend who wrote an autobiography that he said includes absurd interpretations of his art.

And yet, Johns said once that whatever he does seems artificial and fake to him, implying that all of his efforts and success are some house of cards that may come tumbling down on its own at any minute.

And yet, Johns’ overbearing, alcoholic, genius forerunner, Jackson Pollack, said that every good painter paints what he is.

Johns, then, is the American flag. He is a revolutionary who tore down the trappings of an oppressive regime. His painting of an image of an American icon has, itself, become an icon — as has the artist behind it.

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