Whitehot Magazine

Jasper Johns On Death by Donald Kuspit

 Jasper Johns, “Untitled” (2018), oil on canvas, 50 3/4 x 34 1/8 inches (© Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, all images courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

By DONALD KUSPIT October, 2021

In 2018 Jasper Johns made 24 Untitled works on paper and plastic. They’re all small—11 1⁄2 by 8 1⁄2 inches, the standard paper size of a letter, suggesting they’re all meant to be letters to the public at large—but they count as one grand work. They are redundantly focused on, not to say compulsively obsessed with, Death. Eighty-eight when he made them—he was born in 1930--he could not help but be aware of it. Death is conceived as a kind of Grand Guignol figure of morbid fun not to say a Minstrel Man (performing the [tap?] Dance of Death?), as the smile with which he confronts and mocks us and the funny little hat—much too small for his large skull—he often wears, in a show of false modesty, suggests. Turning Death into a comic, vaudevillian figure, Johns ironically distances himself from it. But it is implicitly Johns himself, as Johns’ name, neatly stenciled, that accompanies the figure suggests.  

The skeleton and skull are symbols of Death, but they are symbols that have become banal, redundant clichés. In our culture the skull has been kitschified into a popular designer item, as its proliferation on tee shirts and jackets and jeans indicate. I have seen a bracelet made of jewel-like skulls and an expensive woman’s coat imprinted with schematized skulls and black baby booties decorated with white skull logos. The skull has become a trendy ornament, its meaning neutralized or denied, and with that a so-called empty signifier. So has Death, as the television show “The Living Dead” indicates. And so has the skeleton, which dances in cartoons, vigorously, not missing a step. Death has become entertaining—a prominent actor in what the sociologist Theodor Adorno famously called the “culture industry.” And so Death is in Johns’ skeleton series—but it is a personalized Death, Death stamped with Johns’ name, and so no longer anonymous, no longer more fodder for the mass culture, but, paradoxically, a sort of vicarious experiencing of Death by way of art. For Johns has become Death—accepts and owns his own death, lives his death by becoming a living Death performing on the stage of art, an actor acting out his own death. But it is still an impersonal Death—an ironically impersonal Death, for the stenciled name is not a personal signature. Johns’ skeleton works are not meant to be so-called “signature paintings,” as self-expressive abstract expressionist paintings have been called. Are the skeleton works a final subversive, indirect criticism of them, perhaps as too show-off of the self, too full of bombastic grandiosity, directly mocked in Johns’ so-called abstract expressionist phase by being exaggerated, outlandishly overstated? Does Johns’ use of mass-produced letters to “technically” spell out his name mean to suggest there’s not much in a name: the self is not in the name, but in the work? 

Jasper Johns, “Untitled” (2018), ink on paper or plastic, 24 sheets, each approximately: 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches (© Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY) 

Freud said we can’t imagine our own death, but Johns suggests that you can imagine you’re alive when you’re dead, if you use the figure of Death to signify and epitomize what you have done with your life. If Johns’ Death is a sort of song and dance man, as I suggest, then Johns is stating that he’s a comic artist, more pointedly a comedian in the comedy of life, a sort of Commedia dell’Arte character, like Watteau’s Gilles, 1719. He also stands confrontationally before us, isolated in his art, wearing ghostly white clothing, as though half-dead, and a wide-brimmed hat, conveying his pretension to greatness, if with a certain mischievous irony. Johns’ Death is also an actor, ready to play a role in his little theater of Death—art’s Death as much as his own, as his use of broken forms and fragmentary images in many of the works implies. In one work the skeleton—and implicitly the work itself—disintegrates into black dots, in effect the atoms Lucretius said we all eventually dissolve into after we die. In most of the works Johns-Death stands in the midst of the artistic detritus—the aesthetic litter—of his long career as a comic artist, a sort of tragi-comic artist—an artist doing an ironical take on his own career, and an ironical number on art. Johns’ Death is more amusing than terrifying, a caricature of Death rather than the Grim Reaper, as Hans Baldung Grien’s Death is. Crucially, he often comes, with a kind of aggressive desire, for those in the prime of life, as in Death and the Maiden, 1517, but Johns’ sexless Death stands alone, suggesting his uncompromising narcissism, not to say hermetic self-absorption. He prefers making art in his own skewed image rather than making a “living likeness” of someone he cares for. Portraying himself as Death, he makes it clear that his only raison d’être is to make art. In a sense, living for art, he no longer knows what it means to live, which is perhaps why his Death---his skeleton—is so alive.

Jean-Antoine Watteau Pierrot, also called Gilles (1718-1719)

In one work a skull fills the space where the genitals once were, suggesting the triumph of the death instinct over libido, to use Freud’s distinction. In an untitled 2014 work the skull becomes part of a decorative design, ironically libidinizing it. Flattened to fit the space and broken down—dematerialized and with that undermined, oddly trivialized and denied—into a colorful series of fragmentary dashes, generally blue and orange with a touch of green, the skull is mounted on a “stand” as broadly flat and dazzlingly white as the canvas. Aestheticized into inconsequence however nominally haunting—but not intimidating—Johns’ skull becomes an intriguing detail in an ingenious modernist work. Flatness comes to matter more than meaning: the aesthetic mastery of the medium matters more than the nihilistic meaning of Death for Johns. The flat empty space of the canvas becomes artistically consequential as it fills with artistic matter. It is no longer the abyss of Death in which life (and art) will disappear into inconsequence. Johns shows art deliberately triumphing over Death but he also seems to be aware that Death will sooner or later triumph over art, as his sketchy, disappearing skull suggests.

For Johns art is a sort of aestheticized sign language—sign with the “nominal” substance of line and color—rather than an expression of elemental feeling. His is a cool, detached rather than emotionally hot art—Death is not a hot topic for him, but simply something that happens—to everyone, including himself. No doubt it has to be dealt with, because it is inescapable, but one can escape it—defend against it, and the anxiety it unavoidably arouses—with art. His skeletons and skulls signify Death, but in his hands they become aesthetic hallucinations: given aesthetic skin—bold color and intricate line—they de-realize into mirages. Johns’ skeletons and skulls are not nightmarishly real, but amusing daydreams. They don’t intimidate us, they invite us to have artistic fun. Only aesthetics saves them from clichédom—entertaining kitsch. Become abstract icons—absurdly beautiful—they seem to rise above Death rather than confront us with its ugly reality. “Death, where is thy sting?,” the Bible asks, and Johns’ Death has no hellish sting because it has entered the heaven of art. In one of the skeleton works “Coated in Gum Arabic” is written in reverse, suggesting that Johns has a transference relationship to Leonardo, who also wrote in reverse (is Johns also left-handed?), as he has to other artists and their works—Picasso among them, as his use of a grotesquely distorted tragically crying female figure in Guernica, 1937 suggests—rather than to human beings. It is another sign of narcissistic insularity, conveyed through aesthetic hermeticism. Johns identifies with and appropriates from other artists, filtering his feelings through their works, suggesting that he needs art to formulate and master them, indicating he is a kind of romantic, despite his ironical self. 

Jasper Johns, Farley Breaks Down, 2014, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art 

Johns' use of Picasso's despairing female was preceded by the despairing male figure in the "Farley Breaks Down" works, 2014-2015, based on a photograph by the photojournalist Larry Burrows that Johns found in the book From the Front: The Story of War. The photograph originally appeared in 1965 in Life magazine in a photo-essay about a helicopter mission in Vietnam, "One Ride with Yankee Papa 13." It shows James C. Farley, the young Marine who led the mission, mourning for one of his soldiers, killed in an ambush. Like Picasso's young woman, Farley, slumped over and isolated in despair, epitomizes the suffering and tragedy of war. The photograph no doubt has personal meaning for Johns, who served in the military for two years when he was young, suggesting that he identifies with Farley--sees himself as he might have been had he been in combat and led a mission that suffered loss of life. The photograph is also a protest against the Vietnam War, suggesting that Johns' flag and map paintings, 1955, 1958, 1961, although made before the Vietnam War, convey a certain ironical disaffection with the United States, engaged in the Cold War at the time, as the White Flag, 1955--a symbol of surrender, truce, or wish to parlay--ironically acknowledges. Violence is no stranger to Johns, as the gestural violence--chaotic destructiveness, conveying a falling apart Disunited States--of many of those paintings indicates, along with Target with Four Faces, 1955, another allegorical abstraction with representational features, and another war painting, however indirectly. Did Johns, a Southerner, dislike his Yankee Papa, and perhaps his biological Papa, as the shadowy figure that haunts many of the works, a sort of screen memory of himself as an anonymous, alienated, isolated boy, suggests? Farley is "a primordial image of sorrow" Johns acknowledges--and of isolation and alienation, and he's all but anonymous (he has a name but no face), a sort of invisible man.

Vincent van Gogh, Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate), 1890, Oil on canvas, 80 cm × 64 cm (31.5 in × 21.2 in), Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

As soon as I saw Johns’ Farley works I thought of Van Gogh’s Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Edge), a painting he made about two months before his death, when he was convalescing from a serious relapse in his health and too debilitated to paint regularly. The work is also called Worn Out—At Eternity’s Gate. Johns is clearly not worn out, and paints regularly, but he is also at eternity’s gate, although it is likely that he believes that the only eternity is art. Van Gogh was mentally ill---he was diagnosed as “acute manic with generalized delirium.” Johns is not mentally ill, although there is a manic, delirious quality to his early gestural works. But it is a derivative, stylized, conceptualized gesturalism, unlike the gesturalism of Pollock and de Kooning. Theirs seems more fraught with urgent feeling, and with that more authentic and original, that is, originating in the unconscious, rather than consciously conceived, as Johns’ is. Their gesturalism has an immediacy and freshness that his gesturalism lacks. To use another of Freud’s distinctions, Pollock’s and de Kooning’s gestures read as a direct, explosive, irrepressible expression of the id, unmediated by some predetermined conception of art; Johns’ conventionalized, grandstanding, petrified gestures are under ego control, that is, artfully mediated, not to say manipulated to achieve some preconceived aesthetic effect. Apart from lacking the convulsive, impulsive, automatist quality of their abstract expressionism—Johns’ ironical version of it seems to mock it and as such is a pseudo or simulated (and stale) expressionism—Johns uses it to negate, not to say ruthlessly criticize and annihilate a representational image (notoriously, the American flag and the map of the United States) rather than engages it as an expressive end in itself. Johns’ is a second-hand, reified, artificial, canny gesture, rather than the spontaneous, uncanny gesture that is the unpredictable, unexpected, natural—innate—expression of the True Self, as the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott argues. 

Jasper Johns, Skull, 1971, drawing

Johns’ variegated gesturalism eventually becomes the ingenious camouflage—Johns elaborates it into an aesthetic phenomenon in itself, a sort of fossilized all-over painting—that covers Farley’s body like a shroud in After Larry Burrows, 2014. The body all but disappears in Farley Breaks Down, 2014, where it becomes an atmospheric part of the ambiance. In an untitled 2017 work only a leg and hand remain, the rest of Farley’s body dissolves in the melancholy gloom, suggesting Johns’ guilty identification with the dead Marine, and with that his failure as a leader. Does Johns feel, however unconsciously, that there is something lacking in his art, that his art is a peculiar failure: that regarding a skeleton, a skull, a leg, a hand, Farley’s broken down body ego—the foundational ego, Freud said—as so many aesthetically interesting abstract forms, indicate his lack of empathy for any all-too-human subject matter—the empathy that Van Gogh had for his vulnerable human subject matter? The Farley works are subtly beautiful, eloquently aesthetic—marvels of abstraction—but abstract beauty and aesthetic eloquence are not the issue of and beside the point of misery and Death, as Van Gogh’s work makes clear. 

Johns is too detached, too refined, too clever, too self-consciously an aesthete, a connoisseur of surface and form, to fully comprehend and unequivocally convey what existentialists call the “suffering unto death” from which there is no recovery. His extraordinary control does not do the commonplaceness of suffering and ordinariness of Death justice, as Van Gogh’s deceptively simple, straightforward realistic work does. It transcends the realism of the photograph that Johns used as his point of departure and the oddly baroque decorative aesthetics that his treatment of Farley’s despair dead-ends in. Johns uses good art—very high art—to neutralize bad feeling, aesthetically outwit the anxiety that Death arouses. It works, but in the end his comic skeletons and Farley’s covered—obliterated—body tell us nothing about what it means to feel Death gnawing away at one from the inside, wearing one away with worry and despair, as Van Gogh’s incurably tragic figure does. Van Gogh shows him humbled and infected and defeated by Death; Johns uses Farley to show off his artistic skills and undeniable ingeniousness. Death did not come to Van Gogh’s civilian from the outside—during war, as it did for Johns’ soldier—but was inside him all along, finally taking over his body and mind completely. Van Gogh had no artistic defense against Death—didn’t aestheticize it, polish it into pearl-like beauty or treat it as a sort of joke, as Johns does—but sees it with clear, unblinking eyes rather than through an artistic glass, not to say an aestheticizing distorting mirror, finally blurring it into oblivion. Johns fails Death, Van Gogh gives it its due. Johns uses aesthetics as an anesthetic; Van Gogh doesn’t need or want an aesthetic defense against the destructiveness of Death. Identifying with his decompensating old man, to use a psychiatric term, he needs no aesthetic compensation for Death. 

 Vincent Van Gogh, Skull, 1887

At one time or another Johns has been an abstract expressionist, a Dadaist, a Pop Artist, but I think he is best understood as a Symbolist manqué. His flags and maps are symbols, and so are his skull and skeleton, and flashlight and beer cans, among other commonplace objects he has “sculpturized,” not to say “Duchampized,” although none of them have been as transgressively perverted as Duchamp’s urinal. So is Johns’ Fragment of a Letter, 2009 by Van Gogh. A double-sided—bizarrely Janus-headed?—relief, Van Gogh’s words appear on one side, the letter is spelled out in American Sign Language on the other side, and signed by Johns in American Sign Language. Appropriating, Americanizing, and identifying with Van Gogh, Johns perversely misuses him to ironic effect. Van Gogh is a symbol of what Johns would like to be—an existentially engaged, all too human artist, his art conveying intensely lived experience—but can never be, indeed, is incapable of becoming. Johns is too ironic—too artistically “knowing,” clever, and sophisticated for his own human good—to be empathic and vulnerable—and as accepting of life and reconciled to death—as Van Gogh was. Johns preaches to the art world, not to hardworking laborers and impoverished peasants, as Van Gogh did. To use Miguel de Unamuno’s phrase, Johns lacks “the tragic sense of life” that Van Gogh had. Johns’ works convey no sense of the pain and pathos of life and the despondency and aloneness of human beings that Van Gogh’s works convey. Johns has no feeling—love---for nature, as Van Gogh did. Indeed, Johns’ is a peculiarly denaturalized, loveless art. Johns and Van Gogh are irreconcilable opposites; Johns’ ironic reconciliation with Van Gogh is a joke played on him. Van Gogh may be a victim of Johns’ irony, but his art dismissively transcends Johns’ Duchampian irony.

There is something inhumane not to say dehumanizing about Johns’ works. He is interested in inanimate objects not sentient people. His cast of Merce Cunningham’s foot acknowledges his artistry as a dancer, just as his cast of his own hand acknowledges his artistry as a painter. He prefers what psychoanalysts call part objects rather than whole objects, suggesting his arrested development as a human being, his development of his “advanced” art—but where does it advance art to?—perhaps a compensation for it. Cunningham and Johns are not everyday people, as the people Van Gogh painted were. I suggest that Farley was ironically appealing to Johns because he recovered from his breakdown to return to war and ironically die in battle a few years later. Johns’ Farley is less a tragic figure than an absurd figure. His depression is temporary, a consequence of his experience of war, rather than marking him forever—declaring that he is doomed—as the hunched body of Van Gogh’s distraught figure does. Farley is not yet “at eternity’s gate” as Van Gogh’s broken down man is: he is suffering from the incurable sickness unto Death, as Kierkegaard called it. To emphasize: Death is inside him rather than outside him, as Johns’ Death is: he appropriates Death by identifying with him, but he does not feel him on the inside. 

However pathetic, grief-stricken, and guilt-ridden Johns’ Farley is, however much he is an embodiment of hopeless suffering, Johns uses the photograph of him as he uses every found object--and the all but lifeless, inert Farley is another found object--as a stimulus for an exercise in modernist aesthetics, no doubt a brilliant, cunning, witty exercise. Johns is no doubt a more sophisticated, “advanced” artist than Van Gogh, but Johns’ Farley is existentially inferior to Van Gogh’s Sorrowing Old Man. He’s not dressed up in fashionable, not to say luxurious, aesthetic clothing, but simply dressed in plain clothing. He lacks the abstract veil that makes Johns’ soldier an aesthetic mystery. Oddly dehumanized by Johns’ artful treatment of him, Farley lacks the emotional resonance that Van Gogh’s old man has. Van Gogh is not struggling to be in the avant-garde lead, but trying to convey an existential truth as directly as possible—without the aesthetic equivocation in which Johns indulges. Van Gogh’s old man is terrorized by the thought of death, John’s Farley is only a signifier of it, like Johns’ vaudevillian skeleton. 

The difference between Van Gogh’s approach to Death and Johns’ may have to do with the fact that Van Gogh was religious, and believed that if one kept the faith and loved one’s fellow human beings one would be liberated from the tomb of death as Christ was however sorrowful one’s life was, while Johns’ religion was art, which has many idols and dead gods, and will not save us from death or ourselves. WM


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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