Among the work of living artists, the oeuvre of Jasper Johns, or at least its first half, seems the least assailable of monuments. His breakthrough 1958 show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, featuring the iconic “Flag” paintings, resolved the impasse at which American painting found itself during Abstract Expressionism’s twilight stage; by reintroducing the image as well as the Duchampian readymade, and by creating works that emphasized flatness, Johns signaled the way toward both Pop art and Minimalism. The critically entrenched view of Johns imagines the artist as a crucial bridge between the muscular bravado of postwar American art and the decidedly cooler periods that followed, casting him either as a harbinger of Pop’s studied egalitarianism (particularly Warhol’s) or as a brilliant but remote formalist whose works deny the possibility of meaning beyond their commentary on painting’s presumed final-phase procedures.
With scarcely checked disdain, John Yau, a poet and art critic, drops the hammer on the orthodoxy regarding Johns, whether it be the brittle formalist claim that his works resist meaning or the belief that the direction he has taken since the ’80s has represented a significant falling off. In A Thing Among Things, Yau insists that the views of Johns (particularly in his later years) as an arid if technically dazzling showman and as an enigma whose meanings are hopelessly “hermetic” are equally misplaced. Yau’s Johns is a searching artist-philosopher whose works are grounded in the unavoidable fact of the body’s decay, a universal reality that makes the “elitist” Johns (as he has sometimes been characterized) into the most democratic of artists. Out of a coherent and abiding “materialist vision,” Johns has confronted the prospect of the body’s annihilation—an interpretation that stands on its head the widespread preference for his early work. For Yau, Johns’s response to death’s looming threat has produced an art of “increasing visual complexity” that shows a “more powerful understanding of his primary fixation: What does it mean to be a thing caught in, and carried along by, time?” A constellation of metaphysical and aesthetic concerns—the relation between form and formlessness, the distinction between mere looking and genuine seeing, the expression of an inherent human helplessness—whirls in the haunted sky of Johns’s fundamental obsession: the body’s doomed journey.
A Thing Among Things is energized as well as hamstrung by Yau’s claim to have identified Johns’s “singular, touchstone vision,” the “central idea” generating more than half a century of work. Bypassing the “tired old debate of opacity and difficulty versus transparency and legibility” and performing the sort of close readings that make claims of impenetrability seem like cop-outs, Yau offers bracing interpretations of a range of Johns’s paintings and sculptures. He is especially adept at drawing the artist’s formal gestures into the web of meanings that he claims the works strive to impart. Thus Johns’s refashioning of the figure-ground relationship—so that each remains distinct while also seeming to merge with or be overwhelmed by the other—is a formal parallel to his sense that bodily existence can scarcely keep its dissolution at bay. Yau writes trenchantly about the use of various media, as when he expands on the artist’s suggestion that encaustic is an analogue to flesh or when he considers bronze, in having liquid and solid states, a material capable of expressing something of the body’s instability.
But Yau’s attack on the reductive critical takes on Johns risks its own straitjacketing of the artist. In asserting the thematic primacy of the body’s ensnarement in time, Yau bars other avenues to understanding the work. Connections with Johns’s contemporaries and immediate precursors are dismissed as “insular” evaluations; perhaps in deference to the artist’s well-known reticence, biographical insights are banished as extraneous or, more damningly, as the imposture of identity politics. Although Yau’s focus on corporeality can enlarge one’s sense of individual works, Johns’s career as a whole feels needlessly circumscribed; this reader can’t help but want more of the stuff that suffuses artistic life—its rivalries and successes, even its gossip—rather than the reiterated premises of its purported philosophical orientation. Must Yau maintain such a strict separation of the body from the social realm he deems irrelevant to Johns’s corpus? Can the body ever be entirely extracted from the reality in which it makes its passage?
Although Yau regards Johns’s “everyman representations of the human race” as linking him, Whitman-like, to the commonalities that bind us all, the creator who emerges here is such an artistic paragon that he comes across, paradoxically, as rather less than human. Yau’s Johns is an inveterate manufacturer of masterpieces, an artist whose grappling with the gravest of themes ensures the consistent fashioning of superlative work. “There was no going back, no evidence of regret, no passion recollected in tranquility,” Yau writes of Perilous Night, 1982. “He would do what his art demanded of him.” Or: “Johns’s career is marked by a persistent need to declare freedom from all external agendas, including those that canonize him, while remaining true to his own perceptions and preoccupations.” Such idealizations drain any sense of risk from Johns’s efforts. We should indeed admire the artist’s chancy departures and his refusal to be bound to a recognizable style. But to embark in fresh directions is to hazard missteps, and Yau’s spirited advocacy, as much as it enriches our sense of much of Johns’s achievement, does not displace the judgment that the artist’s later work is uneven. We come away from A Thing Among Things less complacent toward Johns but not quite swayed by Yau’s impassioned reassessment.
James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.