Circling around the truth

Jasper Johns web

Jasper Johns (pencil on A5 sketchbook page) 2018

In February, I sat on a friend’s couch in upstate New York and read an article on America’s most prominent artist, Jasper Johns.

Johns can’t be the easiest person to interview: he famously said the book about his work he most enjoyed was by a Japanese scholar – he couldn’t understand a word of it. His renowned flag paintings, which the MoMA was afraid to buy in the McCarthy shadowed 1950s, can be interpreted as either patriotic or subversive. Make up your own mind: all Johns will say is that the idea came to him in a dream. And he won’t even tell you about the dream.

According to Deborah Solomon, the author of the New York Times article, his flag paintings were revolutionary because they didn’t turn private feelings into public statements but claimed public symbols for the realm of inwardness and personal experience. His goal was not to convey a truth, but circle cryptically around it.

I love that idea about circling around the truth. I suppose that’s why I admire those artists who can keep a foot in the figurative but bring a sense of abstraction or mystery to their work. To me, seeing a painting of a vase of flowers that gives, say, their colours prominence over form allows us privileged insight into the artist’s view of the world – not just painting – more than would be the case with a deliberate representation of the subject. If you follow this link and look at the images before you read the bio, wouldn’t you already feel that the artist’s philosophy is something like “living is not just surviving”?

Raye, over at Jots from a Small Apartment, shared this quote from Jasper Johns:

I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.

That’s what makes some artists’ work so essential, I think. Not just Jasper Johns, but anyone making ‘helpless’ statements, statements that they ‘can’t avoid saying.’  I’ve written before about the compulsion to draw or paint, that feeling that it’s something that must be done and, more to the point, must be done in this way. It’s that creative vigour that separates art from picture making, artists from painters.

There is a truth in everything we see and perhaps the best way to tell it is to suggest it rather than say it, to circle around it instead of stating it directly. Just like Jasper Johns.

15 thoughts on “Circling around the truth

  1. Getting to that truth can be a bit of a long road, I think, but worth persevering at I’d guess. For many of us the journey will last the best part of a lifetime. Just got to hope we get there in the end…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree. Just as sometimes what is unsaid, left out, can say more and be so powerful. Negative space, lost edges. And sometimes the kind of stuff you don’t know you’ve done until you’ve done it, because it was something you didn’t understand but had to do, and did it anyway.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Said so much better than Ms. Solomon’s article in the New York Times. Not directly. With an artistic bent. I, too, am circling my appreciation of your mention of my own article, and how much I enjoy your (promised) share of JJ rendering. Isn’t he beautiful. Aren’t his words lovely. Two peas in that pod, me thinks….Raye

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Raye, you’re very kind. I hadn’t done much drawing during my rather busy trip to the US, then I saw that wise, alert and fascinating face staring out of the newspaper and simply had to have a go. Not quite there but it was so exciting to draw the many contours of his face!

      It was so moving to read that he thought the museum was free and the journalist having to point out that not only did one have to pay but there weren’t even concessions…

      Thank you for the quote, for reminding me of the article and for inspiring this post. Mx

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “Circling around the truth” makes me think about my favorite Emily Dickinson poem and one of my favorite poems of all, not so much for its elegant language as its practical use:

    “Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth’s superb surprise
    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind —“

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the part of the JJ quote you included, “… a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.” It reminds me of something I read yesterday that was a paraphrase of something the poet, Rilke, said – Only write (poetry) if you can’t not write poetry.” I suspect artists of all mediums share this pull toward their art.

    Your sketch is wonderful, Michael. You seem to capture the personality of your model.

    Liked by 1 person

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