Sunday, August 3, 2014

Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, the Cathedral, and Regrets

The mind cannot always live in a 'divine ether.' The lark cannot always sing at heaven's gate. There must exist a place to spring from -- a refuge from the heights, an anchorage of thought. Study gives this anchorage: study ties you down; and it is the occasional willful release from this voluntary bond that gives the soul its occasional overpowering sense of lyric freedom and effort.  Study is the resting place -- poetry the adventure" 
(Wallace Stevens, from his journal, 1899).

I like it best when the lark sings at heaven’s gate... but, for whatever reason, it isn’t – it actually can’t be -- a constant thing. “And why not?”  you ask.  I can’t be in the studio for too many hours; I begin to make mistakes, because I need time away from the work, too. The “adventure” that is poetry or painting needs its preparatory and anticipatory phases, and needs to be remembered and re-collected so that it can be faced again, with new energy, another day. The “ether” is a demanding state of mind, and needs every artist to approach it ... with great care.

1. Gimme Shelter

One definition of being “ether” is to burn, or to shine; humans can remain in an ecstatic state for only so long. Our son sent us a lovely essay by John Le Carré on Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here is a short excerpt:

A lot of actors act intelligent, but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you .... Philip took vivid stock of everything, all the time. It was painful and exhausting work, and probably in the end his undoing. The world was too bright for him to handle. He had to screw up his eyes or be dazzled to death .... Philip was burning himself out before your eyes. Nobody could live at his pace and stay the course, and in bursts of startling intimacy he needed you to know it. (

Le Carré suggests that Hoffman was all too aware of the dangerous pull of the dazzle. It would be very difficult, if Le Carré is right, for Hoffman -- or any truly empathetic receptor -- to shut down all the systems. It would be possible, I am guessing, to think that, once shut down, the senses may not -- ever again -- open back up. But it is a risk, leaving yourself so open to the brightest of lights; Nietzsche’s Zarathustra said “but this is my solitude, that I am girded round with light” (“Night Song”).  There’s a loneliness in being in the artistic avant-garde, and it can kill.

A lucky few can shut down the systems, and then they have learned the ways to open themselves up: one method is the choice of solitude. Agnes Martin finally settled into artistic isolation, finding her artistic voice in New Mexico.

you don’t have to worry
if you can imagine that you’re a rock
all your troubles fall away
It’s consolation
Sand is better
You’re so much smaller as a grain of sand
We are so much less
These paintings are about freedom from the cares of this world
from worldliness ....
Don’t look at the stars
Then your mind goes freely – way, way beyond  (Writings, pp. 39-40)

Martin was open, but open to her own mind, her own path. Martin saw herself as small, her art as the big thing. She wanted to find what she called “classic” truth in her art, an objective vision. For that, she says, she can only “turn to perfection as I see it in my mind, and as I also see it with my eyes even in the dust” (16).

Agnes Martin advised that “innocence” of the mind, of play, “must be protected as the source” of her art, of her life (139). Innocence is not something grown-ups tend to pursue, but Martin says that’s what there is, that’s all there is. She went into her mind so deeply to find that innocence and renew it -- in paint.

My husband is currently reading James Lee Burke’s Pegasus Descending, a well-written whodunit (with pretty tough villains). One of the characters says

You got to remember who you are so you don’t become like the people around you. Each night you tell yourself over and over you got a special place inside you where you live. It’s like a private cathedral no one can touch. That’s the secret to sanity... But you can’t tell anyone about your special place .... Because once they know you got that special place in your head, they’ll strap you down and kill your brain cells with electroshock (p. 171).

Maybe you don’t need to worry very much about “the people around” you -- and that little “electroshock” threat should be seen as perfect Burkean overkill. But the cathedral inside you that “no one can touch”?  It has to be there. That “place inside you where you live” keeps you happy in your own skin, and able and willing to face another day, as Burke’s character knows. We all look for that “secret to sanity.” Agnes Martin tells us it is in one’s own mind, if we can just hold still enough to find it. James Lee Burke -- whose art could not be more different from hers -- says it’s in there, too.

Here is a painting of mine that plays on the idea that "Everyone, Inside, is a Cathedral":

But then there’s an artist like Jasper Johns. He doesn’t talk much about his artistic sources, and people apparently see that as a challenge. A small book of photographs of Johns’s work was published by Rizzoli in 1997. The book’s only text is by Leo Castelli, who has known Jasper Johns since signing him in 1957 to his gallery and thus into art-world stardom. Here are a few excerpts from Castelli’s essay:

*”How else can we explain...” (7)
*” ...the artist seems to be...” (7)
*”... the artist places within our reach new, enigmatic elements... I believe that these elements reflect a sense of theatricality...” (12)
*”... they carry a message that we must decipher...” (13)
* “I am convinced...” (13)
*”the Mona Lisa that we find... can scarcely be anything but...” (italics mine; 14)

We can see only hesitation, guesswork and great distance from Jasper Johns in Castelli’s remarks. Over 40 years, and Johns has not let him in.

2. Must We Dig Straight On Through the Canvas?

In her book on Jasper Johns, teasingly called Privileged Information, Jill Johnston concludes that  John’s art,

considered as a whole ... can look like a giant collage of cross-references, of narratives inside narratives, or narratives completed by linkages from painting to painting, close or far in time – some guiding core story tied up secretly within (53).

There’s a story in there somewhere, Johnston insists; she wants to find that “guiding core story.”  Perhaps because of her dedication to tracking that “story” down, Jasper Johns refused permission for Johnston to reproduce any photographs of his art in her book about his work.

This limitation on Johnston leads her to talk about the images in the abstract, and, then, the artist in the particular. In one section, Johnston discusses Johns’s sexual partners, something no-one needs to do in relation to the art, and then moves on to link perceived personal loss to a series of works that Johns had begun in the 1980’s, works that included traced outlines of figures. Critics found the source, eventually; it was the amazing Isenheim Altarpiece. Johns says of his initial impulse that

‘I thought how moving it would be to extract the abstract quality of the work, its patterning, from the figurative meaning. So I started making these tracings. Some became illegible in terms of the figuration, while in others I could not get rid of the figure. But in all of them I was trying to uncover something else in the work, some other kind of meaning.’ ....  [And Johnston then asks] What ‘other kind of meaning was he after?’ (283-5)

The source of the tracings found, Johnston is now after a meaning. But look at what Johns has actually said:  he is moved to extract the patterns from Grünewald’s original story. That is, the pattern is no longer part of the narrative, because Johns pulls it out and it’s now free-floating. That’s the point ... a fallen soldier becomes just an outline, perhaps like the lines of a radiator. Let me explain.

Michael Crichton has written a very thorough book on Johns, with photographs, and quotes him:

Early in his career, he said people should be able to look at a painting ‘the same way you look at a radiator .... No special vision or knowledge was required (32)

But to Johnston, the idea that, sometimes, a line is just a line, is just not it. About the dead-end she has reached with the Grünewald figure, she writes

In his paranoia, Johns has emphasized the importance of the figures’ identity himself .... Feeling cornered, Johns cornered himself, threw a blanket over his head and yelled a muffled image from inside: ‘I know who I am, but you’ll never see or find me. Anyway the pattern on the blanket that covers me is really all there is. I’m dead, these are my remains’ (italics are Johnston’s; p. 285).

Jasper Johns is not speaking, there is no corner, no blanket, Johns is not dead, and there are no “remains.” Clearly, Johnston has run into a wall, and isn’t fond of the after-effects.

Back to our radiator-friendly critic, then.  Michael Crichton’s introduction to his book JASPER JOHNS, (first published in 1977, reprinted in an expanded 1994 edition), begins with a quotation from the psychologist Jerome Bruner:

There is a deep question whether the possible meanings that emerge from an effort to explain the experience of art may not mask the real meanings of a work of art (p. 6).

The effort to explain the experience can disturb the experience. The work itself is the thing. We might turn to the critics at our leisure, but should not before we have  encountered the work on our own and found our own responses.

Hasn’t Johns said – or not said anything but -- that, over and over? The work is the thing. And yet, the critics’ need to explain is palpable. The idea that they possess a set of insights about a given art work that only they can articulate constitutes the core of their art-world identities.  

Not Crichton, who offers process and a sight of the surface of the artist’s works. He finds leitmotifs, but leaves calmly: enough has been said. 

John Yau is similarly clear and clean in his A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns. Yau quotes Scott Rothkopf, who says the critics embarked on an “iconographic truffle hunt” when faced with the paintings of the 1990’s (note 3, page 178).  Yau concludes that

Once we try to read Johns’s iconographically, we inevitably become lost .... The motifs are not symbols to be decoded, but, as Johns wrote in his ‘Sketchbook Notes,’ ‘things’ placed in a ‘continuity of some sort ...’  where there are no boundaries between the ‘space’ and the ‘objects.’  .... For Johns it seems that ‘continuity is reality, a realm of invariable change and transformation. Nothing is fixed or permanent” 
                        --A Thing Among, (p. 166)

Yau goes on to say that this sense of continuity is Johns’s ‘sense of life”: the absence of boundaries, change, seen through his eyes, and placed in his paintings, and seen with the visitors’ senses (166).  No absolutes. Yau says “we should resist” narrative as we look at these paintings (192).

3.  “Regrets”
New York’s Museum of Modern Art curators, Christopher Cherix and Ann Temkin, visited Jasper Johns last year in his studio, saw the body of work on the walls, and hastily arranged an exhibition of the work, “Regrets” at MOMA, showing right now. I’m on the wrong coast to see it, but I now do have the catalogue, with a splendid essay by Cherix and Temkin.  The title for the show comes from a stamp Johns developed to answer invitations: the word “regrets,” and a signature. He has silk-screened the original stamp to embed in the works of this series, and here it is from the upper corner of "Study for Regrets":

The curators begin their discussion by saying that “for Johns, the painting’s subject is the painting” (11).  It isn’t some abiding “guiding core story,” but changing approaches, and changing results.

This series of works begins with a photograph printed in a Christie’s auction catalogue. The photo portrays Lucian Freud as he turned awkwardly away, all angles, from the camera. Francis Bacon had commissioned the photograph from his friend John John Deakin, and it became the base for an oil “Study for Self-Portrait” – with Freud’s body and Bacon’s head -- before spending rather a lot of time on the floor of Bacon’s studio.

Johns apparently likes the idea of an upturned, overturned, caught-in-space body, because it gives him great lines to play with in his paintings. Here are the two astonished soldiers at the base of the “Resurrection” panel of the Isenheim altarpiece, followed by the Freud photograph:

And here is “Perilous Night,” with the red outlines of the soldiers’ bodies on the left, followed by “Study for Regrets,” which inverts the photo of Freud at left, and reproduces the outlines as they were photographed, at right, from the show’s catalogue, (Plate One, with my reading notes):

Some of the works in this series are “undeniably physical,” the curators tell us, as they reproduce “Regrets,” a charcoal, watercolor and pastel drawing, which should be studied “inch by inch” (27). Here is a detail:

This catalogue, and exhibition, give us Johns’s unfolding process over 18 months. But the curators say, “like all great works, they remain ultimately unknowable. They create a constellation of potential meanings as intricate as the very materials that compose them” (32).

Fun as the “truffle hunt” sometimes can be, this is as close as we will ever get, as close as we should get, to Johns’s cathedral.