Jasper Johns has a way of making a flip thing into a deep thing. Take his current show at the Museum of Modern Art. It is called “Regrets.” The title comes from a rubber stamp. Johns uses the stamp as a quick and painless form of R.S.V.P. When people send him letters or cards asking him to do things he doesn’t want to do, he stamps the offending item with his “regrets” and then sends it back. Onerous obligation avoided. Problem solved.
Used this way, the word “regrets” doesn’t have any regrets. There are no bad feelings involved. Not really. Johns wasn’t torn up about saying “no” to these requests. He didn’t have any deeper regrets. “Regret,” in this context, simply means, “a polite, usually formal refusal of an invitation.”
But there is another meaning of “regret” that has much more to do with feelings. We say things like “I will always regret how I treated her,” or, “I regret that I never kept on with my piano lessons.” There is a twinge of sadness in this kind of regret. It delves into the counterfactual. It carries the wish that things be otherwise. The sadness of this regret brings us back to the earliest forms of the word. At its Old French and English and Germanic root, the word “regret” has fundamentally to do with distress, with longing. It is a word related to “bewailing,” “lamenting,” “groaning,” and “weeping.”
When Jasper Johns started stamping his latest artworks with the word “regrets,” he was having fun, being ironic. But he was also playing with what underlies fun and irony. He was getting at the real core of irony, which is always about deeper meanings, profundities that are not apparent to those who look only at the surface.
The Jasper Johns show at MoMA consists of two paintings, ten drawings, and two prints. The paintings, prints, and drawings were created by the manipulation of a single image. The image is a photograph that appeared in a Christie’s (London) auction catalogue. The work being auctioned was actually a painting by Francis Bacon, “Study for Self Portrait” (1964). This is complicated, so stay with me. When Francis Bacon was working on the self-portrait back in the 1960s, he used a photo of fellow artist Lucian Freud (Bacon usually worked from photos, never from life). The photo was taken by the photographer John Deakin who, in 1964, took a number of now-famous photos of both Bacon and Freud. Bacon was especially interested in a photo that showed Freud sitting alone in a room, at the edge of a bed, holding his head in his hands. Bacon took the body of Freud from that photograph, merged it with his own head from another photograph, and then painted his self-portrait from that photographic mash-up. Bacon really manhandled the photo of Freud in the process of making his self-portrait. He put paint on it. He folded it and ripped it. He tore a chunk out of it. When the self-portrait was complete, Bacon put the photo into his papers and archives, where it sat for many years. Then, just a couple of years ago, Jasper Johns came across the auction catalogue, which included a reproduction of Bacon’s roughed-up photograph of Freud. Johns decided to use that image for his own artistic purposes.
Johns ripped the page with the photo on it out of the catalogue. He made a tracing of the image and then made a photocopy of the tracing. With the resulting, photocopied image, Johns made further drawings, paintings, and prints. He added and subtracted color. He made lighter and darker versions. In one important move, he doubled the image, placing the two images right next to one another. Now, there were two Lucian Freuds facing each other across a void in the middle of the picture. The void was created when Francis Bacon tore the left bottom corner out of the original photograph. Doubling the picture did something else unexpected. It made the void from the tear in the picture into a kind of black altar. And atop the altar emerged the image of a skull. This was all completely accidental, mind you. The skull is unmistakable in Johns’ prints, drawings, and paintings of the original image. But Johns didn’t create the skull, nor did Bacon. At least, not intentionally. All of Bacon’s random folding, creasing, and defacing of the photo had created a chance event. The defacements of the photo just happened to make an image that looks very much like half of a human skull on the middle-left side of the photo. No one would have noticed it without further work on the photo. It doesn’t jump out of the original. It took Johns’ doubling of the image to bring out the altar and the skull.
“Untitled,” Jasper Johns (2013)
Jasper Johns believes that art can make discoveries and that these discoveries are important. We know this not because of anything Johns has said (he is impossibly opaque when discussing his art) but because of what he does. Johns takes an image or an idea or an object and he goes to work on it. He subjects it to artistic manipulations. He applies color and line. He subtracts color and line. He uses devices of mechanical reproduction (like the photocopier or the silkscreen). He uses his own hand (in painting or drawing). He lets chance creep into the process wherever it will. He trusts his own instincts.
Jasper Johns has been doing this since the very beginning of his career. You know, of course, about the flags. Jasper Johns painted the American flag. He did so, famously, because of a dream. “One night,” Johns explained, “I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” Johns did this flag painting in 1954. Abstract Expressionism still ruled the day in American painting at that time. Serious painters were attacking the canvas with splashes of paint, or bold splotches of color, or crazy patterns of color and texture, or, even, subtle marks on the canvas that could barely be seen at all. The point was in the paint and the canvas and the pure sensuality of it all. Painting something so mundane and object-like as the American flag was a big no-no. Abstract Expressionists had no interest in painting that referred to anything so insipid as the political symbolism of a flag.
But Johns’ instincts told him that painting an American flag was exactly what he should do. He felt it in his bones. His very dreams were, literally, telling him so. Johns eventually painted many flags. But the first flag painting is especially wonderful because it is both a flag and a painting (and neither). It is not a painting with a flag in it. It is a piece of material painted with the same colors you would use to paint a flag. It’s a flag. But it is not a flag, since it is only the painting of a flag. If you are so inclined, you can think about this sort of things for hours, running it around in your head.
There are many things that can be said about Johns’ flags. But the primary point, the most obvious point, is that art need not, perhaps should not, create its own meaning ex nihilo. “We have powerful images right in front of us all the time,” Johns seemed to be saying with his flag paintings, “let’s use these.” The flag is something every American knows, and something everyone around the world knows too. With his flag paintings, Johns took a completely familiar image and forced us really to look at it. He showed us how weird it is. Over the years, Johns kept playing with American flags. He changed the colors, making the stripes, for instance, green. He changed the shape. He took color out completely, creating flags in various flavors of gray. There is tremendous visual excitement in Jasper Johns’ American flags. The excitement comes from seeing something we know and understand, queered. The tension in the paintings comes from reaching the visual limit of how different the flag can look and still be the flag.
What Jasper Johns did with the American flag was not radically different from what Giotto, or Titian, or Rubens did with the Crucifixion. Giotto took known imagery — Christ on the cross — and tried to paint the image in such a way that we can see it anew. In Giotto’s case, this meant getting all the figures of the painting together in one integrated scene (something painters were not generally doing in the late 13th century). But one doesn’t paint a Crucifixion scene because it is something completely new, something never before seen. It has been painted hundreds of thousands of times. One paints it because there is always another way to make it visually compelling (and therefore spiritually meaningful). It is an image that demands to be painted again and again. Jasper Johns realized that, in a post-Christian world, there had to be other images that demand to be painted. He discovered that the American flag is one such image.
This was a tremendous discovery. It pulled painting back into the world of shared images and shared meaning.
Did Jasper Johns really find a black altar and a death-head in the photograph of Lucian Freud that Francis Bacon used to make a self-portrait? It doesn’t seem real, mostly because it is too perfect. It is impossible to look at the work of Freud and Bacon without having thoughts of violence, depression, and death. With Francis Bacon, the death thoughts tend to be unformed, instinctual. Bacon always believed that painting could have a visceral impact. Most of his paintings are gut-punchers. Bacon worked messy, painting bodies with splotches and smears. The pictures evoke an uneasy sense that human bodies can be splotched and smeared. At the core of Bacon’s vision is violence, a need to show the rawness of flesh. Every body in Bacon’s paintings is a body that can be ripped apart. For that reason, we respond to Bacon’s paintings at the level of the lizard brain before we ever get the chance to subject them to analysis. Bacon has you before you are even aware that he has you.
“Boy’s Head,” Lucian Freud (1952)
Lucian Freud was also interested in the human body as a raw and meaty thing. He liked to show bodies as lumpy and wrinkled and bulbous and grotesque. Often, Freud painted people as if they were already dead. The bodies seem half-dead, at least. But that is where the shock of his greatest portraits comes in. These bodies are just lumps of mostly dead tissue. But there are people in them. How do these fleshy tombs contain personalities? Lucian Freud painted that odd scenario (the living person inside the tomb of the flesh) again and again. He had great talent, unlike Bacon, for showing human faces awash in the specifics of personality. Just look at an early painting like “Boy’s Head” (1952). The boy is alive in there. We look at a real person and he looks back at us. But it’s a cadaver, too. The way the boy is stretching the left side of his face with his hand already suggests something untoward, something potentially violent, the corruption of this otherwise youthful body.
The Lucian Freud who sits at the edge of the bed in the photograph that Francis Bacon used for his self-portrait looks like he could be engaged in these same mental contortions. That’s to say, he is a man awash in regrets. But his regrets are not specific. He is not thinking about sins of his past, wondering about how his life could have been otherwise. He’s engaged in a more generalized regret. He is bewailing. He is groaning. He is, perhaps, weeping. He is not weeping about anything in particular. He is weeping because the problem is there. The body is here. We are our bodies. And yet we are not our bodies. We cannot imagine what it would be not to have a body. Nevertheless, we feel entombed in the body, trapped in this fleshy, dying thing. These are not feelings that can be sorted out or solved. They are feelings to be either suppressed or acknowledged. The proper way to acknowledge such feelings is with regret in the most archaic meaning of the word. Bewailing. Groaning. Weeping.
Watching over this bewailing is a black altar and a skull. We wouldn’t have seen that on our own. It took an artist to show us. That artist was Jasper Johns, which makes perfect sense. Johns trusts the process of art, trusts that real discoveries will be made just by making art. Images of worth will be produced. And that’s what we have with “Regrets.” • 14 May 2014