Thursday, August 9, 2018

Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns in Context 

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg are inextricably linked by art historians. Most likely Johns and Rauschenberg were lovers. We know that they lived in the same building and socialize with each other extensively, we also know that Rauschenberg made some comments about his relationship to Jasper Johns which is pretty strong evidence that they were.

They also shared the context of knowing the same performance artists, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and they also worked together doing projects, such as window displays in New York City. Like the abstract expressionists, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, we know that Johns and Rauschenberg socialized and hung out in the New York art scene of the 1950s. Most likely being in the right place at the right time contributed largely to all the artists above. It seems very likely that Rauschenberg also helped to further Johns career by introducing him to his gallery.

Many of the artist who lived in New York during the 1950s sought to make their reputations by coming up with a new type of art or technique for making art. For example, Robert Rauschenberg, used found objects and combine them together to make his “combines” that are a kind of sculptural collage. Andy Warhol also borrowed images that he changed and printed on canvas and wooden boxes. Both Rauschenberg and Warhol were major players in the style that developed at that time called “Pop Art.” The movement of Pop Art is slightly different than what the abstract expressionists were doing because the abstract expressionists were making paintings that really didn’t have a subject. As in the case of Jackson Pollock, the act of painting was called by critics “action painting.” The process of making the art was an active process that had to do with gesture and movement and very little to do with any type of representation. Pop Art is kind of an opposite to this.

The so-called pop artists of the 1950s into the 1960s often took a strategy lifted from the DADA artists such as Hannah Hoch and Marcel Duchamp. Most notably Duchamp and Hoch would take printed images and collage them into works of art. Duchamp even took things like a urinal from a bathroom and placed it on a pedestal in a gallery. This strategy was known by Duchamp as the “ready-made,” in which you would take something from one context, such as the urinal, and by placing it in a gallery he would “recontextualize it,” which is a kind of buzzword in art history, and transform it into art by changing how it was presented. For Marcel Duchamp it was kind of a joke, however, it became a kind of gold standard in terms of how to think about art and the role of artists. The pop artists of the 1950s use this strategy of taking ready-made for preprinted things from mainstream or commercial culture and changing its meaning. Also kind of joke, but, when artists like Warhol did it with his famous painted Brillo boxes, critics described it as a criticism of American consumer culture. Essentially then pop art criticizes the art world and consumerism in the modern world of the 1950s.

In the case of Jasper Johns, several of his works reappropriate or borrow symbols from mainstream culture and are used in a way that might change the symbols meaning. For example, Johns uses targets and flags in his work. I’ll discuss how John’s use of flags and targets might be interpreted but first it’s important to understand some things about how the paintings were made and the materials used.

In most of Johns more famous works he used traditional artist’s materials from much earlier periods. In these two paintings Johns uses a type of paint called encaustic. Encaustic paint is a type of paint that was used as far back as in ancient Greece as well as during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Encaustic is basically a medium in which pigments are added to melted wax and applied to the canvas or some other support, such as a wooden board, and when it hardens it becomes a paint layer with the particles of pigment suspended in the translucent wax.

Johns also used found stuff, especially newspaper, underneath the encaustic layers. This is kind of a combination of using Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made strategy combined with ancient or Renaissance techniques. This is important because it’s one of the things that historians have used to interpret what Jasper Johns paintings might mean. In one of the paintings, which is very close to the spirit of Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines”, Johns uses some plaster casts of faces and places them within boxes above the canvas painted with a target.

Analyzing the symbolism or meaning behind Jasper Johns works is kind of hard because he didn’t explain his work in any real depth. This is also kind of strategy that many artists use to make the viewer engaged with the work. In some ways one could view it as being a not very genuine way of making the work more interesting because it’s not clear what the work is about. There are various interpretations of why many of the artists from the 20th century would not or did not explain their work and you can look at the various theories or ideas by art critics and art historians that explain why they believe this is so. It is usually a matter of opinion rather than fact. What we do know about Jasper Johns is that he said he had a dream in which she saw a flag and the next day he decided to paint it.

The formal elements such as the use of encaustic medium in Jasper Johns paintings of the American flag has been theorized as being a type of “anachronistic” or out of time kind of element. In the same way that René Magritte used the words “this is not a pipe,” underneath an image of a pipe to create a kind of confusion or cognitive dissonance about what the painting is, for example, art historians often say about Magritte’s painting that it’s not a pipe it’s a painting of a pipe, and that’s why Magritte titled the painting “The Treachery of Images.” Henri Matisse, said something similar about one of his paintings. When Matisse was confronted by someone looking at his painting in which they said something along the lines of, “that’s not a woman!” Matisse replied, “it’s not a woman it’s a painting of a woman.”

When Jasper Johns paints the American flag it’s not an actual flag, it’s a painting of a flag. In this way, he is really representing or making us think about whether or not a painting of the flag is the same as an actual flag. It’s also possible that Jasper Johns was trying to make us think about what the American flag means to us as well and or to him. By using some old-fashioned techniques such as encaustic he’s also probably making a reference to how we think about things in terms of art history and the traditions presented by art history. I phrase these things as probabilities because we haven’t been able to really get evidence from Jasper Johns as to his intentions. Most students of art history then count on the interpretations of their professors or art critics to make sense of what the painting is supposed to mean to Jasper Johns and to the audience that viewed it.

detail of flag painting showing newspaper under the encaustic
Another element that adds to the interpretation of what Jasper Johns flag paintings mean is that underneath the encaustic are layers of newspaper from that time. Several of my professors and other art historians have suggested that Johns was deliberately including the layers of newspaper as a way to suggest the history or culture behind or underneath the flag almost as if the painting was an archaeological dig.

Given the interpretations better the most popular by critics and art historians, usually Jasper Johns flag paintings are interpreted as a type of symbol of America and the things that lurk underneath the surface of American culture. Again, this is not what Jasper Johns said this is how art critics and art historians have interpreted the flag paintings.

Extrapolating from this, the target paintings can be seen in a similar way. Since we don’t know what Jasper Johns intention was historians have suggested that Jasper Johns was a closeted gay man felt like a target. The layers of newspaper underneath the target again become a sort of archaeological dig into American culture and society and the small closets with plaster faces embedded in them could represent Jasper Johns feelings of being a targeted gay man who is in the closet. Again, these are extrapolations and interpretations suggested by others and not necessarily verified by Jasper Johns himself.

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Saturday, August 4, 2018

I make art for other people, not for myself. (Not a misquote.)

I grew up with so many of my art friends and educators telling me, 

“A true artist always make art for themselves."  

"Artists do NOT make art to for other people." 

"Self-expression and artistic integrity are more important than selling your work."

When confronted with these clichés I always wondered why I couldn’t have "artistic integrity" AND make a good living making art.  

I have also wondered what was so wrong with making art directed towards a particular audience or client and still be a respected or good artist.  

I think I started to sell my art when I related to or collaborated with real people whose values I respected.  In essence, when I turned the focus of my art as something I was making for other people and not solely as personal expression I became an artist who sold work consistently enough to quite my day job and become a full time artist.

As a young artist just out of graduate school I made art about my personal history and experience, often focusing on imagery that was personal and also fit the criteria that I could draw and paint it well.  I painted portraits of my classmates film noir images in black and white and figures done in the Bay Area Figurative style.  I was consistently interested in expressing personal ideals, motifs, often people didn't get what I was trying to tell them and I often thought they were idiots for not understanding my intensely personal vision of the world.

When I hit my mid 40's I started thinking about what kinds of things I thought my friends might like to have as gifts.  I have a friend, David, who liked looking at nude men and I made him a series of drawings and paintings of nude and semi nude men that I knew he was attracted to and gave them to him as gifts for holidays.  I really enjoyed making art that I thought of as a gift for someone else.

Over the next couple of months and years, David told me how his friends kept trying to swipe my art and he encouraged me to make more art about men mainly because I enjoyed drawing and painting the male figure.  I guess you could say I started making art that that I thought David would like not art that I thought of as personal expression but rather a collaboration between a real person and myself.  My sales and my reputation really took off when I started to expand the circle of people I thought about making art for.

My art career really took off when I started thinking about my art as gifts for people I like and care about.

Now, when I make art I have an audience of people who I imagine my art is for.  Some of the people who are looking over my shoulder are imaginary and real friends with whom I share tastes with and this ranges from movies, to books, to even what kind of people they are attracted to.  

Example, I make art about Leather Daddies because I think they look cool and I also know that other people think so too.  

I make a lot of paintings of older hairy men, “Bears,” because I know that there is a demographic of men and women who find this attractive and want to engage with the subject, I love the subject because that’s how I look and it makes me feel good to paint men who look like me, and I love painting the male figure, mainly because I’m better at painting them than almost anything else.

Recently I started painting and drawing human rights and political heroes.  I wanted to make pictures that I could share on Facebook that I thought might friends might get some inspiration from.  I was hoping that my pictures would counteract the negative stuff going on in the world and express a hopeful alternative.  I actually did not start making them to sell, they were meant as disposable art that I would put in storage.  When I put them up for sale I was surprised at the popularity. 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Dancing on My Own, 8x8 inches oil on canvas panel by Kenney Mencher

Why is Robert Rauschenberg’s art important?

Context is probably more important than the actual work in terms of Robert Rauschenberg’s art.  Like many artists who became famous in the mid-20th century, De Kooning, Pollock, Warhol, there are scores of them, all began their careers living, working, and most importantly socializing in New York City which was the center of the “Art World” in the 20th Century.  

When you dig deeper into many of the biographies of artists who “made it” in the 1930’s to 1980’s, perhaps even earlier going back to the first decade of the 20th century with the Ashcan School and the Armory show, you should notice that after the Paris, New York becomes the city in which artists moved to to establish their careers.

Rauschenberg ran in many of the same circles as some of the abstract expressionists.  He knew and worked with a famous choreographer, Merce Cunningham, and there is enough compelling evidence to make it reasonable to believe that his downstairs neighbor and artistic partner Jasper Johns was also his lover.  The two worked together as window decorators and it’s clear that Rauschenberg introduced Johns to his gallery.

The physical or formal properties and working method that Rauschenberg, and Johns incorporated owes quite a bit to the earlier Dada movement and more importantly the reuse of found objects, often found by dumpster diving and collecting trash.  Duchamp called this the “ready-made.”  Picasso and other artists also used this technique quite a bit, especially in his synthetic cubist art and this validated the practice.

Using repurposed junk and found objects became so much of a staple in terms of artists’ practices that it hard to visit any college artists’ studio without noticing something the artist has found in the street, dragged back to their studio and somehow repurposed and redecorating it to call it art. 
Rauschenberg used this technique extensively in the majority of his work from the 1950’s but instead of using Duchamp’s term “ready-made,” Rauschenberg named his technique the “combine.”  Yeah, he combined stuff he found to make art.

Rauschenberg’s “Canyon,” from 1959 Combine on canvas 81 3/4 x 70 x 24 inches uses layers of newspaper that have been painted over along with other found printed stuff.  He combines these things with a stuffed bird, a pillow and other found things.  

The work is not really a collage as is this case with Picasso’s synthetic cubist works or the earlier Dada artists’ collages such as those by Hannah Hoch.  His work is not as organized as Picasso and Hoch, in fact it’s not really organized at all but rather has the appearance of being assembled in an unplanned way.  When one looks at Picasso’s “Still Life with Chair Caning,” or other works, they are clearly organized in some way to represent something.  To portray or make a facsimile of something that Picasso is rerepresenting.  In Hoch’s work the work appears randomly organized because it doesn’t give the illusion of space but it does represent for Hoch the fragmentation of the world.  Rauschenberg’s “Canyon” is harder to figure out.  It’s almost like a kind of Rorschach or thematic Apperception test.  Each person who looks at it and tries to figure it out will focus on different things and even the title doesn’t give us much of a clue as to how we are supposed to interpret it.  We don’t know what it’s really about.  I think that maybe the point.

I’ve looked through many essays and texts that are designed to “teach” or “explain” this work in particular.  I’ve been looking at this “combine/artwork” for almost more than 25 years and I think it may be an instance of the artist being very similar to the tailors in the children’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Some of the things written about it are more about the individual writers attempts to figure out what it symbolizes rather than really explaining what it really means.  Even the stuff written about it is hard to understand and it makes the viewer and student, well kind of feel “stupid” because we don’t get or understanding what’s going on here and I suspect that was both Rauschenberg’s intention and the people who have written about it are buying his invisible suit.  It’s probably like Duchamp’s claim in his manifesto on Dada, “Dada doesn’t mean anything.”
You decide for yourself, here are two extensive quotes from sources that are designed to explain what the work means but I’m afraid they may be flights of fancy:

Mark Robinson, at the Baltimore Museum of Art 
A work that epitomizes Rauschenberg's combine theory is Canyon. Created in 1959, this piece combines fabric, cardboard, paper, photographs, metal, paint and other elements with collage work and several striking 3D elements -- namely, a stuffed bald eagle perched on a box and a suspended pillow. The most striking elements of this work are, obviously, the eagle and the pillow. Upon first seeing the work, the viewer is immediately drawn in it, his or her curiosity sparked by this odd inclusion of "non-artistic" elements. By attaching the eagle and pillow to the piece, Rauschenberg is making a statement about the acceptance of everyday objects as possible materials for art (he was no doubt influenced by Marcel Duchamp in this respect).  The incorporation of the eagle, perched and ready to attack, makes a bold statement about the often-confrontational nature of Rauschenberg's work. The bald eagle itself is an already loaded image, as it is often seen as a symbol of patriotism. This eagle, however, is by no means patriotic -- it is a fierce creature, recontextualized by its surroundings. The pillow, on the other hand, places an emphasis on the more symbolic nature of Canyon. Visually, it seems to give weight to the piece, almost pulling it down off the wall. More importantly, however, it adds a sexual symbolism to the piece. It evokes images of male and female sexuality -- namely the male genitalia and the female breasts. Because it is a pillow, it is soft and comforting, a stark contrast to the confrontational eagle. While the three-dimensional objects dominate the lower part of the piece, the top is comprised primarily of a collage of many different types of media. This collage, in fact, takes up nearly two-thirds of the canvas. Although easily overlooked because of the visual dominance of the eagle and pillow, it provides both a background and a context for the lower part of the piece. For example, the photograph of the small child reaching upward is a direct reference to the perched eagle below.  Many of the elements included in the work make references to popular culture -- a magazine spread, found domestic photographs and a picture of the statue of liberty, to name a few. This further emphasizes Rauschenberg's theory about everyday objects as art. This is probably the most important theme presented in Canyon and it is shown with both subtlety and excess."  (

Collage Education, Rauschenberg’s Combines, now at the Met, are rich and dense in a way that has to be seen to be believed. By Mark Stevens Published Dec 18, 2005

Rauschenberg's Canyon (1959), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Early in the twentieth century, artists began jumping out art’s window. The Russian modernists soared into the revolutionary sky. The Dadaists, arching an eyebrow, admired the cracked glass. The Cubists couldn’t stop blinking, beautifully agog. At mid-century, Robert Rauschenberg went through the window with American gusto. He had an appetite for the churning street outside, and he seemed full of jazzy slang. He was rude—vitally and impishly rude—in a way no American painter (except the de Kooning of Woman I) had ever been before him. He’d put anything in art: postcards, socks, street junk, paint, neckties, wire, cartoons, even stuffed animals. Especially stuffed animals. The absurdist taxidermy was funny as well as provocative. The goat-and-rooster shtick made wicked fun of both the macho posturing of the fifties and the holy pomposities then gathering around painting. Sometimes, art needs a good rooster squawk.

Once through the window, Rauschenberg had one of the great, decade-long runs in American art, which is now the subject of “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized by Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—Nan Rosenthal oversaw the installation at the Met—the exhibit includes 67 works created between 1954 and 1964. Among them are both famous works (the goatish Monogram) and rarely exhibited pieces. Rauschenberg himself invented the term “Combines” to describe a pungent style of mix-and-match collage. In his oeuvre, this early decade of the Combines, especially the first five years, matters the most. It anticipates much that came later, and it raises an important question: Are the Combines less than meets the eye, a slapdash everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style that ultimately just celebrates energy for energy’s sake?

They’re more than meets the eye. My first impression of the show—before looking at the imagery—was one of a controlled, formal richness. An artist in love with the hot and messy splash of inspiration, of course, but also one who’s knotty, thoughtful, and considered. Rauschenberg mostly worked with what Rosenthal calls a “syncopated grid,” a formal structure within which he weighted and composed lights, colors, and shapes. In an image like Canyon, for example, he calculated how the weight of the hanging bag sets off the strength of the eagle’s wings as it pulls upward into the image-laden sky. Reproductions don’t convey the tactile feeling of Rauschenberg’s color. His surfaces are rich, steeped, time-marinated.

As you draw closer to a Combine, its imagery begins to come into focus, and everything starts to connect and connect and connect. You find that not only do the blacks in Canyon rhyme with the bird’s wings; so does that ribbing in the upper right, which mirrors the tips of the outstretched feathers. (And there’s wt., the abbreviation for “weight,” within the same ribbed black.) Canyon takes its inspiration in part from a Rembrandt Ganymede that depicts an eagle pulling a heavy, bawling boy into the air, one who looks rather like the child in the snapshot in the Combine; the hanging bag evokes the boy’s buttocks. Connections zigzag across mental boundaries. Weight, for example, can be literal or illusory, a matter of words, images, colors, and shapes.
There’s an argument that art should probe deeply, that it should rigorously edit experience in order to reach some bedrock essence. Nothing wrong with that. Rauschenberg’s endless connections, some lighthearted and some not, do something else. He celebrates the floating textures of consciousness—the way the mind moves, wanders, and joins together. One of my favorite Combines, Hymnal, contains (among much else) a book, a piece of paisley that looks the way hymns sound, and some ill-tempered graffiti. It can be good to concentrate on the hymn alone. It can also be good, as you pick up the hymnal, to acknowledge the message scratched on the pew.

Robert Rauschenberg: Combines 
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
December 20 through april 2.

Okay, had enough?  Here’s what I think it really probably means.

Johns and Rauschenberg, like Warhol, were part of a movement more popularly known as “Pop Art.”  In art school students are often taught that the movement of Pop Art was in some ways a criticism of consumer culture of the last couple of decades. By making discarded junk that was mass produced into one of a kind works of “fine art” artists were pointing out the flaws in how we perceive things as valuable.  If this sounds familiar, it because Duchamp and the Dada movement had already done something like this decades earlier, but more interestingly and possibly with a bit more humor and fun thrown in. I think that Rauschenberg was sincere and was serious when he made the same kinds of artistic statements in the 1950s.

I think Rauschenberg wasn’t really making an image but rather making an object that was designed to change how art viewers thought about art.  Even though earlier artists like Duchamp, Max Ernst, Picasso and others were making art that reacted against or rebelled against earlier art techniques and meanings.  Rauschenberg is doing something very similar, however he has raised the stakes by making something(s) that are actually pretty ugly and therefore they are meant to challenge us and to make us think about our ideas about what art is.  I think that the actual meaning or symbols in the piece might be irrelevant to the idea that his art is making us think about what art is, and what is precious about “art” even if made of junk hanging on our walls.  What’s kind of funny about this is that by the time he did this, artists such as Duchamp, Hoch, Kirchner, Pollock, Franz Kline etc, had been doing this already for close to 50 years.