We began Clyde Hill Publishing and our emerging poetry imprint, Pulley Press, because we’re interested in people who think differently – founders innovators, thinkers, and tinkerers. The painter and sculptor Jasper Johns checks all of these boxes. And more.
In those seemingly carefree days of early 2019, a year before pandemic shutdowns, I found myself in New York City on an assignment to save a book. That’s another story. Back home in Seattle, I’d read a rare interview with the artist Jasper Johns and noticed that he was having his first show in five years at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea. No appointment was necessary so I could just drop by.
His iconic flags, flagstones, maps, numbers, targets, and postcards make me happy. These objects, which he describes as, things “the mind already knows,” makes me think, not too much, but just the right amount. Or, so I thought.
That weekend morning in 2019, towards the back of the gallery, a somber painting halted my already luxurious pace. The painting is entitled, Marine Lance Corporal James Farley Breaks Down in Office Over the Death of Fellow Soldiers During the Vietnam War. Initially I paused because I saw the name Farley, my mother’s maiden name. On closer inspection, I was drawn to his painterly depiction of a photograph taken by LIFE magazine’s Larry Burrows in 1965. Johns, here is making art and journalism. We all know photojournalist Eddie Adams’ horrifying image of an execution during the Tet offensive, and the enduring photos of a US military helicopter evacuating the US embassy in Saigon. Johns’ painting underscores what we know: that crushing news has phases: the events as they happen, learning about the news afterward, the grief, and the hope, even beauty, that can then surface.
In early October 2021, as COVID-19’s delta variant raised new alarms, I walked to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Rittenhouse Square to see Jasper Johns’ Mind/Mirror, a comprehensive showing of his work. In recognition of the reoccurring theme of reflection in his life’s work, two simultaneous exhibitions are underway through Feb. 13, 2022, one in Philly and the other in New York City. I visited Philadelphia first and the Whitney in New York City a few days later.
Approaching the Philadelphia Museum steps that the Hollywood pugilist Rocky made famous, visitors are greeted by banners hung from the roof announcing Jasper Johns’ presence. The American city where it happened, the city of Ben Franklin and the Declaration of Independence, seemed a fitting venue for an artist who has become best known for his American flags.
With so much intention in his paintings, I was curious to explore what the artist is trying to tell us. Johns was once asked if good art can be understood. Not with language, he answered. “I don’t know that art can be understood in any final way but a second for understanding tends to open one’s eyes rather than close them.”
Title: Skin with O’Hara Poem. Photo by Greg Shaw.
Art critics will have much to say about the Jasper Johns retrospective, but as a writer, publisher, and former journalist, I appreciated something on this visit with Johns’ work that I’d not thought about before. In Marine Lance Corporal James Farley, Johns is reporting the news, but in a deeper, more reflective way. In his Books and Newspaper (1957) paintings makes art of these publishing objects. Newsprint itself is used in many of Johns’ works as an art medium. And what writer doesn’t enjoy am artful Fountain Pen?
In a piece for the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl writes that he is, “verging on yet another wordy thesis about the intentions of Jasper Johns, which, to be authoritative, would need confirming testimony from him. Fat chance.” I suppose I’m doing the same.
Several of his American flag paintings, his Usuyuki series and others incorporate newsprint collages. Many have noted this, including John Yau’s, The United States of Jasper Johns. But what if newsprint is used to convey something more, that artist’s interest in “things which are, rather than judgements?”
The show’s use of the word “mirror” in its title suddenly seemed intentional, recalling the idea that journalism reflects society. Has his American Flag absorbed the news we make, or is it reflecting who we are, like a mirror? After all, William Randolph Hearst founded the New York Daily Mirror only six years before the artist’s birth.
We the People; We the news we make. The 2007 Jasper Johns exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was entitled, “An allegory of painting.” A symbolic representation, indeed.
Jasper Johns at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Greg Shaw.
In the early 2000s, according to wall text in the Whitney, Johns returned to his theme of numbers, this time presenting them in sculpture. In an airy gallery overlooking the Hudson, a monumental version of the numbers hangs at one end, and 19 smaller sculptures fill the room. Look carefully at the backs of several of these smaller sculptures and you’ll find newsprint in sculp-metal relief. Headlines with words like AIDS, Impeachment, Classifieds, A Better Tower and The New York Times masthead are visible.
In 2018, the FBI returned several paintings to the artist that were stolen by his former studio assistant. In apparent reference to the heist, Untitled, 2018, reports that news featuring a nearly full-length skeleton wearing a cute little hat and laying in a coffin. Newspapers are spread on either side, presumably recalling the considerable press the incident generated.
His According to What paintings, which perceive, interpret and differentiate systems, echo a journalistic attribution. Johns told novelist Michael Crighton, “when I could observe what others did, I tried to remove that form my works. My works became a constant negation of impulses.” I cannot help hearing a news reporter’s objectivity.
In Skin with O’Hara Poem Johns takes on the role of publisher. And not just a publisher of poetry. Alley Oop, which incorporates the 1930’s comic strip set in the Bone Age and featuring the dealings of a caveman, brings us the funny pages.
Throughout his career Johns took on a role painter and sculptor correspondent, reporting from his native South Carolina, the Caribbean and Japan. In a Time interview, Johns said dying while on assignment doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
Crowds in Philadelphia and New York City during my visits were large for weekday mornings, and the newspaper coverage has been both voluminous and respectful. A critique for The Washington Post wondered what it would be like to visit the Whitney with a blindfold on but able to touch and Philadelphia with eyes wide open but no-touch. He concludes that they are presented similarly, just a little differently. The echoes and shadows between the two are fun to discover, but if I had it to do over again, I would see the Whitney showing first and the Philadelphia showing second. I found the Whitney to be more informative and biographical, which might give someone like me, a casual lover of art, better context for the show in Philadelphia.
I’ll conclude with this tribute to Jasper Johns with an object of the mind (a number) and an old school editor’s notation…
Special thanks to the art department staff at the Boston Athenaeum for their assistance.