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.