pining for the grey elysium

Can an artist be beyond the reach of criticism because they have been so institutionalized and commodified by the taste makers of celebrity? Are we buying the talent, the art or the brand, like the steak and sizzle distinction. The case is a perplexing one with Jasper Johns. Though he is a gifted painter, he may not necessarily be a great artist, a question of technique over vision or a question of right time, place and context. But in  another fifty years how will this process of turning everyday icons into thing-a-majigs be viewed and will the everything is nothing mantra be finally past its shelf life? ….

Johns. Racing Thoughts. 1983. Read More:

The sun is setting: for Benjamin, the place where imagination comes into its own as an experience is “at dawn and at dusk,” both cosmically and in an individual life, in Paradise and childhood, and in the “reduced, extinguished, or muted” — but not deathly, grieving, mournful — state of the abandoned theater, the twilight. The blurriness of imagination is the “radiance that surrounds the objects in Paradise.”  So the beginning; at the end, it is “the gray Elysium,” a suspended world of “pure appearance,” which comes with twilight, dusk, and clouds and mist: “De-formation occurs also in the acoustic realm (so that, for example, the night can reduce noises to a single great humming), or the tactile (as when the clouds dissolve in the blue or the rain).” Read More:

Art Critics saw immediately that John’s deadpan renderings of banal objects could redefine the potentials of psycho-pictorial space. It was viewed as offering a new and novel manner  of hiding personal identity in broad daylight so to speak. The invisible man.A masking of the violent act and still pointing towards a fatal destiny, a tragic appointment. But, pointing toward something that is not exactly, definably there. Something real but not really representable. The transparency of the self invisible yet present as an allegory of the art of detachment. The narrative being the quest for the self, being itself as a strategy of estrangement. Alienation and being in one package. He would have you believe it was essence and being in one brush stroke, but balderdash aside, his timing was impeccable in being one of the first to present common sense objects at the tail end of the abstraction fad which had become routinized and, how to present, to market, the self in the age of publicity and celebrity.

---Jasper Johns (born 1930), Periscope (Hart Crane), 1963, Oil on canvas, Collection of the artist, Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Courtesy National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.--- Read More:

It was a clever non repudiation repudiation of abstract art, that showcased how the object world could be packaged as a mode of abstraction.  Abstract Expressionism, from Kandinsky and Malevich  had created nonobjective forms and color patterns as a  means of depicting emotional states, which was a necessary step, but then Johns through his influence from Duchamp gave us pictorial representation towards the same end, except filtered through a complex process of irony and more than a little nihilism, a cleverness: but were they only games, played according to a fixed system and ivory tower modernist art codes? Metaphors for paranoid, hysterical boredom pinned down by dogma and ritual and smothered with conformist mannered fatalism? …

---There are official artists, such as VelAzquez, whom we count among the immortals. And there are official artists, such as Le Brun, who dominated France in the second half of the seventeenth century, filling Versailles much as Johns now fills the Modern, who hardly count with anybody today. Artists are hailed in one generation and forgotten two or three generations later. I wonder if Johns recalls an observation that his friend Duchamp made in 1966: "Success is just a brush fire, and one has to find wood to feed it." ... And in the heat of MoMA's fire it's easy to forget that what remains after the flames die down is another matter entirely. ---Read More: image:

…W. R. Bion remarks that there are two types of hallucination, hysterical and psychotic: “The hysterical hallucination contains whole objects and is associated with depression; the psychotic hallucination contains elements analogous to part objects.” Which are Johns’? It depends on whether you regard letters, numbers, flags and maps as whole objects or part objects (which may or may not be indices of whole objects, that is, words, sums, countries). It depends on whether you regard Johns’ gesturalism as hysterical. Certainly there’s a depressive cast to gray. And, to recall other works, Target with Plaster Casts (1955) uses part-body-objects and a whole target (in homage to Duchamp’s mounted bicycle wheel and rotating disks). So are Johns’ gray paintings hysterical and psychotic at once?…

---He writes in his essay, Contemporary Art and the Plight of the Public, "It seems that during this first encounter with Johns's work, few people were sure of how to respond, while some the dependable avant-garde critics applied tested avant-garde standards - which seemed suddenly to have grown old and ready for dumping. My own reaction was normal. I disliked the show, and would gladly have thought it a bore. Yet it depressed me and I wasn't sure why." In the works of Jasper Johns, Steinberg identifies a theme of great consequence that is not clear to the naked eye, that of waiting. Steinberg points out the "sense of desolate waiting" in Johns's works, which all contain objects (flags, faces, coat hangers, etc.) designed to move and function in a particular way, yet they are held absolutely rigid and still. This technique, according to Steinberg, is how Jasper Johns manages to invert the viewer's expectations of what makes for significant art. ---Read More: image:

…D. W. Winnicott also distinguishes between two types of hallucinating, normal and pathological. “Hallucinating is pathological because of a compulsive element in it. . . . Something has been dehallucinated” and then there is a “secondary” hallucination “in denial of the dehallucination. It is complex because first of all there was something seen, then something dehallucinated, and then a long series of hallucinations so to speak filling the hole produced by the scotomisation.” Such pathological hallucinating is a means of “arrive[ing] at a memory of very distressing kind” even as it obscures it. Bertram Lewin notes that “the mental mechanism of hypergnosis, the making over of the external world, literally the seeing in it the shape of a subjective experience, [is] demonstrable in paranoid as well as normal creative thinking.” What distressing memory, what subjective experience shrouded in gray, is Johns compulsively trying to arrive at? Or do his hallucinations plug up the hole in his psyche left by it? Is he falling in the hole, as the Icarian character of the hallucinations suggests? Is he a paranoid creative art thinker? Read More:


Johns may want us to think of Duchamp as an august historical figure, but what he and his friends saw behind the facade of the impeccable aesthete was an incendiary genius whose anti-art apercus could be accepted as law precisely because they came from the lips of a man of such vast sophistication. In an interview in 1966, Duchamp dismissed Andre Breton, the poet and polemicist of Surrealism, as “a man of the ’20s, not completely rid of notions of quality, composition, and the beauty of materials.” The point was that Duchamp was a man of the present who had escaped from all those outmoded ideas.

If Johns sometimes looks likes Duchamp’s truest disciple, it is because he trumped the old aesthete’s rejection of the idea of beauty by resurrecting “notions of quality, composition, and the beauty of materials” as parodistic imitations. Johns’s slurpy surfaces are a send-up of paint quality, just as his what-you-see-is-what-you-get subjects are send-ups of subject matter. By now Johns is such a pervasive influence that it is sometimes difficult for people to separate his send-ups from the real thing,…In an essay in the catalog he explains that Johns has helped him to see that one can unite Duchamp’s Dadaism and “the more traditional mainstream lineage of Cezanne and Picasso.” These artists might have once appeared “antithetical” and “incommensurable,” but after Varnedoe looked at Johns’s work he understood that all of this “can be grafted together … to produce a hybrid of potent fertility.” Johns is a hybrid, all right, but I’m not so sure about the potent fertility. …

…His manipulative savvy can sometimes bamboozle even more discriminating museumgoers, since he bases his effects on a close study of the way that other–mostly better–artists have managed to grab the audience. Johns will take a nifty method of handling paint from de Kooning, a dazzling image from Picasso. He provides something for everybody: a bit of trompe-l’oeil virtuosity for collectors who want their money’s worth, a little porn for younger artists who might suspect that Johns has lost his edge.

Johns’s work does have a certain fidgety elegance. But his effects are so drearily localized that the refinements close down a picture instead of pulling us into a world that has an integrity all its own. He probably wants it this way, but those who want something different are perfectly justified in rejecting not only the product but also the approach. This artist moves around bits of pigment as if painting were some kind of post-Armageddon game, like Duchamp at his chessboard. It’s easy to argue that Johns has rescued the dying embers of a vanishing art, as long as you ignore the fact that he stood by applauding while his hero poured the gasoline and lit the match. …

…He crops and edits, cuts and pastes. His canvases are message boards, sometimes literally so, as in Racing Thoughts (1983), in which a silkscreen reproduction of the Mona Lisa is affixed to a bathroom wall by several trompe-l’oeil bits of tape. He notes down things he likes, and personalizes them with a little joke, as in a recent series of tracings, done on clear plastic, after a reproduction of one of Cezanne’s Bathers. Any art student ought to know that a tracing of a painting isn’t a response or an interpretation; and even the Dadaist sex-change operation involved in turning one of Cezanne’s women into a man with an erection hardly registers amid Johns’s lackluster washes of sepia-toned ink. …

Lawrence Alloway called it “systemic painting” — painting which uses a universal system wholesale — but he didn’t acknowledge that it was a tightly closed construction, and that Johns’ often grandly violent gestures attempt to crack it open, disperse its parts and finally abolish it (or at least countermand it.) But the painterly liquidation never succeeds. It is the tension between the simple anti-esthetic (or non-esthetic) “found representational system” (alphabet, etc.) and the complex, esthetically resonant (and sometimes panicky) “abstract” painterliness — each holding its own despite the effort of the other to contradict it (the intelligible “representations” remain knowable even when they are overrun by the unintelligible painterliness) — that is the expressive core of John’s gray paintings. They enact an unresolvable dialectical drama — a clever version of the old modernist antinomy of Expression and Construction (irrational impulse and self-contained and self-regulating rational system), both historically valid modes of articulation — always on the verge of collapsing into a simple dualism of gestural fragments and meaningless information. Read More:


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