Falling Down on the Job

John Haber
in New York City

Jasper Johns: Catenary

For years now, Jasper Johns has been falling down on the job. Hand prints break his surfaces, as if his art could mark but not cushion a fall. Measuring sticks hang from his work, held by a nail at one end, as if waiting for gravity to set the pendulum in motion. The smeared circles behind them testify to an impulsive process of creation, eradication, and destruction. Older work hints at a murky iconography of falling bodies, from divers to mountaineers.

With Johns, of course, everything eventually comes right to the surface. Just when his art seems most inscrutable, he finds a way to let its outward appearance take care itself. For several years now, the artist has literally incorporated the Earth's downward pull—in a catenary, a string suspended at both ends. That motif now lends its name to an exhibition spanning several years of recent work, and Johns strings together his entire repertory. He includes painterly constructions like those that have made him the traditionalist's ideal of Pop Art or, perhaps, antidote to such a loosening of standards. He includes thinly or thickly veiled quotes from much of his career. Jasper Johns's Catenary (© the artist, licensed by VAGA, 1998)

A show of new work—Johns's first since the death of Leo Castelli, his long-time dealer—has to get people talking. His current gallery calls it a "return to form," with everything back on the surface. Some, however, see only the latest stage in his decline. Even a handmade look may seem a mere shadow of the artist at his greatest or, murkier still, yet another self-quotation.

As usual with Johns, the show offers an occasion to look and to look again, to savor that moment between recognition and comprehension. One can demand how all that falling down got started and the associations it may have accrued as it fell. The search for an answer will range from physics, mathematics, and modern poetry to painting, personal identity, and Johns's refusal to let one stand fixedly for another.

The cable snaps

Imagine a bridge, "vaulting the sea," in "one arc synoptic of all tides below." Many in pre-World War II American art did. Joseph Stella, Georgia O'Keeffe, and others all painted the Brooklyn Bridge, often finding it at once ponderous and lyrical. Hart Crane turned to it for his epic poem, like a homecoming after his Voyages. I cannot say whether Crane's "inviolate arc," like the arcs on many canvases, refers to the bridge, the sky, or the path of the eye.

With its memorable, hulking piers and lattice, its "bound cable strands, the arching path upward," the Brooklyn Bridge really only approximates a pure suspension bridge. In the Golden Gate Bridge, for example, vertical alone cables hold up the roadbed. In turn, the vast weight of the bridge and traffic tugs the cabled arc down, into a fixed shape. Forget the lesser weight of the chain above: only the mass below matters, just as a key dangling on a string pulls it into a taut V.

For a suspension bridge, the even load along its entire length leads to a familiar curve—a parabola, the same as for a ball thrown high into the air. Crane may have followed that easy path when he leaped to his death, off a boat, in 1932. Johns was only two years of age.

But what if all the cables snap? Now the chain, pinned vertically by the tops of the piers, falls solely under its own weight. It adopts a new curve, a visible emblem for the mass below that has fallen away. Minimizing an arc's center of gravity involves some fancy math and results in a less-familiar equation, the catenary. The word comes from the Latin for chain. It has the same form even when the points of suspension lie at different heights, as if one pier had crumbled part of the way, too—or as for most of Johns's strings.

Johns's Catenary series contains much more incident as well. If a catenary could stand for a disaster, the show amounts to piling on the wreckage. A string often hangs from thin slats, mounted at a painting's lower edge, leaning and precariously slightly toward the viewer. An echo of the curve or perhaps its shadow—doubled by another string, freely drawn, traced, or left by the pressure of the thing itself—further mars many surfaces. The ruler makes its appearance, too, as does its circular track behind. The other usual suspects in Johns's late paintings, drawings, and prints make an appearance, from harlequins to stenciled signatures.

Even before the inventory, however, a catenary boasts of its obscurity, far from the simplicity of a yardstick for him or Josephine Halvorson. One has a bit of higher math and a term not in Word's native spell-checker. One may or may not have a reference to poetry from before the artist's birth—and long before he spent nearly full time away from the crowds of New York City. What had happened? How did the painter of images as ordinary as maps and targets, of what you see is what you get, drop off the charts?

Decline and fall

The question has bothered critics more and more over time, if at first more quietly. It seemed to burst out all at once faced with a new show at last. When Johns had his retrospective in 1996, no one, it seemed, doubted his significance. I left the Museum of Modern Art speechless at my own incomprehension. I could not have told you for sure when that meant awe and when puzzlement. Now I am hearing more doubts and more puzzlement. It hardly helps that by far the most majestic of the catenary series, a large, spare, Johns gray work in the Philadelphia Museum, does not make it to New York.

Once Johns worked in the gap between metaphysical dilemmas and personal ones. Susan Sontag quoted him to help define art of late 1960s: "already it's a great deal to see anything clearly, for we don't see anything clearly." His early paintings could well exemplify her "the aesthetics of silence," if not her humorless vision. They revealed nothing about the artist but his working methods, and they made one doubt everything but one's eyes. Now, some feel, he has become dauntingly verbose, while slipping out of reach of everyone's eyes but his own.

No one could doubt that steel balls once forcibly interrupted his canvas. No one could doubt that one had seen a map, a flag, or a target. One might not know that one of his paired beer cans, in Cast Bronze, weighs more than the other, but no one doubted that Johns knew and drank the same brands as the rest of America. These images efface the difference between exemplification, representation, and reproduction. I have located American states with a poster of Map. Arthur C. Danto found the targets so familiar that, he suggested, they invite one to shoot at them.

Andy Warhol made sculpture that only looks like Brillo boxes and images that only look like Warhol's inventions. Johns made paintings that look like nothing else but serve still their purpose as signs, both in and beyond fine art. He sculpted beers cans with a heft that belongs to real metal and with a lush patina that belongs just as unquestionably to both the artist and the world. He had, one imagined, taken the illusion out of trompe l'oeil.

I would not have imagined the bad reviews now back in 1996, as confused as I was then. It testifies to his continuing relevance that people still cherish his origins. The generation celebrated by Susan Sontag should remain so lucky overall. Just as interestingly, doubters find the decline into inscrutability at different stages. (One finds the same apparent slippery slope in critical responses to Frank Stella, another artist of that silent generation whose pursuit of his own logic has brought charges of self-betrayal.) For some, it comes with the cross-hatch paintings, often broken by the circular mark of paint cans resting on canvas. For others, these great abstractions culminate Johns's old games with a literal surface.

For them, the problem begins later, in the 1980s, with fragmentary outlines said to derive from the 1515 Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, shadows from Picasso, and buried allusions to an accident on skis. For still others, it arises as Johns's old penchant for self-quotation reaches critical mass, especially a critical mass of prints. Instead of what you see is what you get, they discovered only reminders of what one no longer can have. Johns's return to the studio and the gallery may bring back the signs of a painter's hand, doubters continue, but the detail still points every which way and nowhere.

Self-quotation and risk

Johns has changed over the years, and I cannot myself regain the exhilaration of his textbook art. However, the difficulty of pinning down even the moment at which Johns changes direction says something about the challenge he offers. Something really has hung on alongside the traces of old selves and of fresh oil, encaustic, and ink. Perhaps it makes no sense to ask what of his early work one sees here, when, after all, he cannot stop quoting himself. Instead, suppose one looks back at the early work in light of the new. In fact, his work has been in physical decline more or less since he began.

Most obviously, Johns introduced the motifs themselves long ago—except, interestingly, for the string. The artist cited Crane as early as 1962, with Periscope. He completed Land's End and the first Divers by the following year. These works, like In Memory of My Feelings of 1961, pay homage to another poet, Frank O'Hara, who died not of drowning but on the beach, struck by a buggy. References to wreckage, falling, and land's end similarly appeared by then in the work of Robert Rauschenberg. A Rauschenberg combine adopted an automobile tire, while Rauschenberg silkscreens include the image of a space capsule and the 1962 title Navigator, to name just a few.

Other images accrued only gradually, through transposition and fragmentation of earlier motifs. No wonder skeptics date the artist's decline to so many different points. One can seek continuity in the theme of body parts, from his target with plaster casts above and the diver's extended arms through the cross-hatching, before it emerges in everything from more shattered casts, the mysterious ski ladders and armor of the fallen soldiers, and in the broader hatching of a harlequin pattern. They make one realize the presence all along of illusion—an illusion that withholds its own referent, like the maps that efface boundaries or the beer cans that, as it happens, have unequal weight. One can see even text, particularly the artist's signature and his work's title, not as an interruption of the image but as further material and metaphor. They serve as further traces of and substitutes for a human body, perhaps his own.

As this gradual process attests, Johns works from the start by a process of self-quotation. He appropriates familiar images and things, like Rauschenberg. However, Rauschenberg spins out endless combinations, turning ever-new snapshots into silkscreens. Johns pursues work in series, like artists from Claude Monet to Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock's canvases titled by number. In this way, he assimilates Modernism to a disposable culture of appropriation, while assimilating appropriation to his own gorgeous mark. Leo Steinberg first associated the picture plane in Rauschenberg and Johns with the "flatbed" of a printing press, but the press seems incapable of turning out any fonts but his own.

From the start, too, then, Johns at his apparently most immediate plays with two other, contrary impulses—to the personal, expressive, and self-reflective and to the impersonal, flat, and literally opaque. An artist with the flair of Roy Lichtenstein or Gerhard Richter may parody good old-fashioned brushstrokes, erase their mark, and yet revel in them as their own. With Johns, the thick encaustic and jagged map boundaries seem to belong to no one else, and yet no one else has so long presented so impenetrable a façade. The plaster casts not only stare but actually redouble absence, by serving as the physical trace or mask of no face at all. Just when one least expects it, the painted, stenciled, or incised color names may come in their own color. Had Warhol cast two beer cans, he would have left no doubt of their interchangeable, light weight.

Johns's impenetrability depends on two other devices still evident in the catenary. One is broken symmetry, a subtle attribute of the beer cans and puzzling arrays of numbers, a far more obvious attribute of the cross-hatching. One might read a sign in his dark gray paintings from subsequent years, Chute de Glace with its skull and crossbones, as warning to beware of falling ice or a broken mirror. Another is the intrusion of a painting's self-proclaimed two-dimensional surface in the viewer's face, just as the slats and strings hang out into the gallery space, in a way that makes his work the quintessentially modern still life. The flags do not flutter on high but stand stiffly or bulge outward at the end of one's nose. A target this close puts one seriously at risk.

Vaulting ambitions

The catenary, then, brings together a cluster of associations that one can see as present throughout Johns's career. They combine progressive self-revelation with refusal to let the expressive mark stand for the artist's personal history. The steel balls stand for cojones, but whose? Johns lived among public men—and painted about his own feelings for one—without becoming an "item" himself. One can see the counterpoint of surface, depth, and object as about one thing: art, he seems to say, means hiding in plain sight.

Yet each trace also stands as a warning, each painted ground as a ground zero. One slips easily from the slippery boundary between accident and intention to the often gray area between accident and suicide. Every mark, then, belongs to both past and present. Memory and art alike never come without traces and without illusions. One cannot have the functions of the sign, as either signifier or signified much less both, without self-quotation, and one cannot turn art on oneself without danger. Johns now works in a world in which Sontag's "perceptual and cultural clean slate" no longer makes sense, and yet his fans, myself included, are only beginning to keep up with his understanding that one cannot help breaking the silence.

Johns really does remain relevant and difficult, the paradigm of the late modern artist, because he combines two great models of difficulty in art. For Danto, art has the conceptual reach to be anything the artist wishes. For another philosopher, Nelson Goodman, Modernism's attention to its own means implies that every visual difference counts. Johns falls between allegory and abstraction, but even that foregrounds a physical vulnerability. And, as I found in comparing those philosophical models of late modern art, the risk is not the artist's alone.

Jasper Johns still falls some mysterious place in-between. His involvement veers from apparent impersonality, as in the targets, into an indecipherable memory trace, as in the shattered body parts of later works. Meanwhile the viewer stands somewhere in front of the work. Thrust up against a target, our place is simply assumed and simply impossible. Anyone might become the target—or the body fragments. If the picture plane indeed represents a printing press, only turned upright, all its letters could come tumbling to the ground.

If Johns's enforced isolation, that drawing himself behind art's closed shade, goes back to the beginning, so, paradoxically, does his focus on fragmentation and loss. Perhaps the very arc of his career—including the return to the hand-made, the often gray palette, and the catenary—suggest a deepening awareness of physical vulnerability with age. Perhaps it means a deepening challenge of letting go of the past, including losses of so many years ago, but even including art. I could suggest an analogy to the dropping of the string, to find its own weight, and Prospero's vow at the end of the play: "deeper than e'er plummet sounded, I'll drown my book." However, that, too, implies a convenient, final place of departure for the work, in the artist's biography.

One often holds out the art object and flat plane of Johns's art as a point of appeal against a premodern or postmodern chaos. Older art offered illusions, newer art only mass reproduction. Each has its own myth of the given—in the mirror, the soul, or the hard data. Johns implies that not even the art object can function as a given. A vault means both an arc—like that of a bridge, a diver, or a catenary—or an undersea chamber, a secret, even a tomb. When each view gives a different date for the artist's decline, each posits a different point of origin, until all points equally reside up in the air and down to earth, in memory and in the museum.

BACK to John's arts home page


Jasper Johns, "Catenary," ran at Matthew Marks through June 25, 2005. Susan Sontag's 1967 essay "The Aesthetics of Silence" appears in Styles of Radical Will (Anchor/Doubleday, 1969).


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME