Saturday, February 10, 2018


Jasper Johns is still painting.

The reviewer, Deborah Solomon, ends her review: “... Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first masters that Mr. Johns admired. He was especially captivated by the ‘Deluge’ drawings,... When he was in mid-30s, Mr. Johns had a chance to actually see the drawings..... Was it an exciting experience? ‘Yes,’ he replied with typical terseness, and a little laugh, ‘except that they looked exactly like the reproductions.’”

I began my “Comment” at the article: “Solomon’s article ending is lovely. It reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s iconic point that writing in speech—displaced authoriality in authorship—makes all originals quotational.”

My point would be read as nonsense, which I knew when I wrote it. Johns’ point, I imagine, is that “exciting” is not the point. The experience was thought provoking: What is the “original” such that the experience of the object is not basically fetishist, in an era where the original is phenomenally identical to the reproduction?

The original is a monument of the artist’s experience of setting forth the work, which is itself a trace of the creative process that results in the unpredictable sketch. The original cannot be seen by anyone but the artist. The literal trace—the work that is the artist’s own—is a reminder about originality belonging to the work of art: To experience the original is to appreciate that there was an origination set forth in the eventual set-up that can be experienced by others as something important to the “reader.” But the origin of the work of art is merely troped in the trace that is a reminder to the artist in a way unavailable to observation.

Solomon writes: “... Viewers were puzzled by his apparent lack of interest in communicating a higher truth in the usual sense. His goal, it seemed, was less to convey a message than to circle cryptically around it.”

I wrote: “The ‘higher truth’ that Johns is communicating is glyphical,” which is what text and non-textual phenomenality share: semiotic “read”ability. To fairly discern each other is a kind of reading—or, rather, “mere” being with each other—our capability, so far in life, to be with another, is the basis for what textual reading can be—or appreciability of another’s trace of there being originality, “...which is very much in the spirit of ‘Ab Ex’ (which is turned into cliché by abbreviation),” I continued. Solomon is dismissive of Abstract Expressionism, relative to Johns (not quoting Johns on the matter, but offering her own vapid sense of the movement within which Johns matured).

I continued: “Excellent article that Solomon’s is, but given ‘that attempts to discuss the meaning of his work with him will bring on instantaneous silence,’ he probably would care so much about art critic excellence.” Actually, I thought her aesthetical comments were mostly trite: “The paintings feel both intimate and vast.... They have a calm, summing-up feeling.... One thing that Mr. Johns understood at an early age is that language and truth are not the same.” Duh.

“Growing up in the South,” Solomon notes of Johns, not quoting him anywhere, “at a time when its citizens saw no contradiction between the cultivation of perfect table manners and the barbarism of segregation, he was well aware that people were not always logical.”

I commented: “I must say—as someone as deeply rooted in Old South Carolina as anyone (my grandfather looks exactly like Johns, liver spots and all)—there is no contradiction between havng perfect table manners and being vehemently anti-segregationist. Indeed, to gain access to segregationist power, in order to delicately advance progressive views, one must be a master of courtly manner.” Indeed: If I showed you a photo of my maternal granddad and you didn’t know that the photo of Johns is Johns; and I claimed that the latter was the brother of the former, you’d have no visual reason to disagree. My finely-cultured ancestors were not segregationist, but that was an uncomfortable position to live in refined South Carolina, my mom made clear—which is partly why my parents left the Old South while I was still a baby.

Anyway, my favorite passage from Solomon’s review is this: “Indeed, Mr. Johns has no shortage of devoted friends who have known him for decades. Nonetheless, his friends — much like his viewers — can be kept on edge by his remove. Nearly everyone agrees that certain topics reliably engage him, such as gardening and cooking, but that attempts to discuss the meaning of his work with him will bring on instantaneous silence.”

So, one puts words in his mouth and calls it art criticism, because there are deadlines to meet at the paper.