The magazine of photography and ideas
The More Things Change: An Interview with Jasper Johns
Melissa Harris in conversation with renowned painter Jasper Johns.
We tend to think that a photograph of someone reveals something about that person, but sometimes, what we take away from an image is ultimately dependent upon the circumstances; the portrait’s truth to the subject perhaps relative, its evidentiary value negligible, its elemental nature morphing and evolving through the process of being reworked, reconsidered—depersonalized (or not)—as it gets recontextualized.
Around 1964, Francis Bacon commissioned the British photographer John Deakin to photograph Lucian Freud; the image was used as a reference for Bacon’s eventual triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969). It is said that Bacon messed with his source material when he worked—tearing it, folding it, and splattering it with paint. Does this photograph, as presented here, tell us about Freud, or Deakin, or Bacon?
In the spring of 2012, Jasper Johns saw Deakin’s portrait of Freud in an auction catalog, reproduced on a black background. Johns lifted the image and had his way with it, in terms of both form and content—creating variation after variation. The original photograph and the resulting works—two paintings and a group of drawings and prints made between 2012 and 2014—are currently on view in Jasper Johns: Regrets, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (through September 1). The exhibition’s title is a riff on the words on a rubber stamp the artist has employed as a mode of declining requests and invitations when need be.
It would seem that it was not the fact of Lucian Freud that initially drew Johns to the photograph. The image, composition, and physicality of the already much-handled print clearly engaged Johns. For some viewers, however, the provenance of the photograph inevitably informs Regrets, and Johns is forthcoming about its source. But then—teasing the photograph’s intrinsic documentary quality and intentionality, and treating it almost as a found object—Johns offers us a way into the work beyond its layered narrative: here is a picture of an artist, commissioned by a second artist, made by a photographer, and then taken up and deconstructed anew by yet another artist.
There have been moments in Johns’s work at which he has clearly referenced a specific person, in a way that is deeply essential and experiential—more of than about the individual. Consider, for example, Frank O’Hara’s footprint in the sand in Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara) (1961/1970); or the painting commissioned for what is now called the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, Numbers (1964)—the corner of which bears the imprint of Merce Cunningham’s foot. Consider Johns’s signature target, rendered in flowers, offered in lieu of his own physical presence onstage at David Tudor’s 1961 performance of John Cage’s Variation ll in Paris. Numbers, targets, footprints, flowers: stand-ins for the person? Measuring devices for quantity, distance, time? Evocations of absence—regretted or not—and presence? Then there are Johns’s Study for Skin works from 1962, and Skin I and Skin II from 1973—the impressions of his oiled body on paper—perhaps another kind of stamp? Johns made use of his own body again, outlining his shadow, in his series of paintings, prints, and drawings titled The Seasons of the late 1980s, touching on notions of time passing and the mutability of identity.
Positive and negative space, depth of field, light and shadow, time—traditional photographic concerns all come into play in Johns’s work. Consistently and insistently, Jasper Johns: Regrets is about seeing, about looking. In his case, the more things change, the more things change.
We are most grateful to Jasper Johns for not rubberstamping our request for an interview, and for taking the time to respond to some questions in April.
Melissa Harris: In the case of Regrets, does personality matter? Could the photograph have been a portrait of anyone, or was it important that it was of an artist—and particularly of Lucian Freud?
Jasper Johns: I don’t think I was aware that Freud was the person shown in the photograph when I first saw it. I was attracted to the image as a whole, without analyzing it.
MH: What, if anything, about photography interests you?
JJ: Photography is often interesting, but I know almost nothing about it. We may be grateful that photographs offer serious clues to spaces other than those we occupy, and, often, to eyes and minds other than our own.
MH: Does the repetition—the process of reworking the initial idea or image and doing so in different media—denude it of any personal or other meaning? Or does it intensify that meaning?
JJ: I don’t think that the photograph alters the painting or that the painting alters the photograph. I am not sure that there was an “initial” “idea.” The response to the photograph was not a preconception of the paintings, etc., but the activation of an energy that moved toward or through the various works. One might imagine a kind of chain reaction in which each element is affected by the nature of the others.
MH: How much was Regrets preconceived, from the moment you saw the photograph and knew you wanted to use it in some way? Or is it the process that dictates the result?
JJ: Here is a group of works with one title and they seem closely related. But any group of works from a limited period of time is usually closely related by some preoccupation or focus that the artist has been concerned with. Viewers are not always given access to such groups and may not be interested in that aspect of the works.
MH: The archaic use of the word regret is related to “absence.” The more visually dominant space in Regrets is shaped by the missing space in the object of the print—how it was worked, folded, and so on. Were you thinking about that at all? Is it about being there, or not? Positive and negative space—the vase/profile notion, as in your Cup 2 Picasso (1972–73)?
JJ: I would say that, much of the time, I was thinking about what I saw, and much of the time about what I was thinking.
MH: In Souvenir 2 (1964), you used a photograph of yourself. Why?
JJ: I had not seen photographs applied to ceramics before seeing them in a shop window in Tokyo. Wanting to use such a thing in my work, it only occurred to me to use my own image.
MH: Regrets brought to mind your painting Between the Clock and the Bed (1981)—not just the mirroring (with the crosshatches in the earlier work), but also the reference to Edvard Munch, the bed, and a kind of despair. Is there any relationship?
JJ: As you have made the relationship, so have I.
MH: The repetition in the group of works insists that the viewer examine closely. Attention must be paid if we are to notice the nuances, the variations on a theme. . . . I almost felt I saw a ghost of a young man on the left side of the watercolor on paper. I thought I saw one of your skull-like motifs in some of the other works, where the mirroring unfolds. It can be like reading pictures in clouds. We can see, find, interpret anything at some point. Are you interested in the multiplicity of possible readings?
JJ: Yes, it does interest me. Maybe not so much the readings themselves, but the movement among them.
Melissa Harris is editor-in-chief of Aperture Foundation.
Announcing Aperture magazine's fall 2020 issue