Karina Gunadi, University of Pennsylvania
Who decides what counts as “art”? Why do some blank canvasses belong in museums, costing thousands of dollars, while others are left in the back of your studio closet, untouched and forgotten? Jasper Johns seeks to answer those questions. Walking around the Philadelphia Museum of art, Jasper Johns’ According to What (1964) is hard to miss. A formidable 6×17 ft painting consisting of 6 large canvases (and one inverted canvas) joined together, the piece is a collage of painting techniques, objects, words, and colors. While each canvas in the piece is distinct in its own way, wire hanger-like objects connect the canvases, as does a strip of “newspaper” and paint that ignores borders. It is a flat work, with the “3D-ness” of the painting being supplied by actual objects placed on the canvas.
A wash of brown gray paint barely conceals the whiteness of the leftmost canvas. On the bottom, hung by eyebolts, is a canvas flipped such that the wood of the frame is displayed. The title “According to What” is stenciled bottom center on the canvas back, with “J.Johns” and “1964” painted freehand in the bottom left and right corners, respectively. Floating above the black, strong marks are faint penciled words, upside down and backwards, mirroring “According to What”,”J.Johns”, and “1964”. Attached to the top of the canvas is an upside down chair, sawed in half so that the orange wood underneath the white paint is revealed to the viewer. Sitting in the chair is a wax mold of a leg and body, cutting off around the belly button. The mold is also cut in half, like the chair, so that the hollowness of the mold and goopy, thick texture of the wax is revealed. The exterior of the leg is painted a flesh tone, mimicking real human skin. The chair and leg are not separate from the canvas; rather they dictate the paint around them. The gap between the legs is white, gray creeps up to the knee, and orange from the canvas next to it paints around the back of the chair.
Are you exhausted by this masterpiece yet? Because Johns is far from done. The second canvas is covered in large swatches of energetic paint in the colors mauve, royal blue, vibrant orange, cool dark gray, sky blue, burgundy, and red that continue seamlessly onto the third canvas of the work. Between the second and third canvases, popping out, are block letters about the size of a hand each reading “RED YELLOW BLUE.” The letters are oriented on the canvas such that one has to tilt their head to read them and thus engage with the painting. The letters lean one way or the other, and some are bent. They are also painted in colors corresponding to the words, but orange and blue appear on the “E” in “RED” and many other colors violate the definition of the word. The mirror of these three dimensional letters are painted onto the canvases, as if the letter was dipped in paint then stamped down. The words on the second canvas are backwards and sometimes obscured in paint swatches and drips. They roughly correspond to the words (i.e. “YELLOW” is painted in yellow) but like their 3D counterparts, letters are sometimes painted differently. The same applies to the words on the third canvas, except these are “correct” in their orientation and their colors tend to adhere more closely to “RED YELLOW BLUE.” Hidden behind a light blue patch on the third canvas is a gray square with a light pink circle in the center, a part escaping from the strip on the fourth canvas in this sequence.
The fourth canvas eschews the brushy, loose nature of the left half of the painting for clean lines and perfect shapes. Running down the left side of the canvas, approximately in the middle of the overall painting, is a strip of squares with circles in the middle of each one. From top to bottom, the squares go from white to black to gray. The circles are in rainbow order – yellow, green, blue, and so on till white. The gray square with a white circle at the very bottom hangs off of the canvas, the gray square peeling up off of the surface of the canvas and escaping the bottom border. The rest of this canvas is a gradient of paint, white at the top to black at the bottom, save for a sliver of exposed canvas that the black doesn’t quite cover. Horizontal drips of paint disturb the crispness of the gradient. Also disturbing the gray scale is a strip of cream paint with printed black text on top, mimicking a newspaper. The strip originates in the third canvas, emerging from the color patches. It stretches at a slight angle through the fourth canvas to the middle of the last canvas, covered only at one point by the squares and circles strip. The “newspaper” has a clean top edge and rough bottom edge with prominent brushstrokes. The same bit of newspaper text has been printed over and over in a line, inverted so that the text is backwards.
According to What is a collage of paint, wax, wood, canvas, print, and objects. It references traditional art practices as well as Johns’ own work, in the end asking “according to what” is art? The painting has elements of traditional art – a gray scale, a strip of rainbow circles, explicitly stated primary colors, under painting, a canvas, even a model sitting in a chair. However, it also has elements referring to Johns’ own decidedly non-traditional work. There’s a hanger, like in his previous work Coat Hanger (1960); block letters on the canvas and in 3D form suspended out of the canvas, like in Liar (1961); wax body parts, like in Target with Plaster Casts (1955); an inverted canvas, like in Canvas (1956); and furniture rendered useless, like in Drawer (1957). Beyond the objects embedded in According to What, Johns also utilizes his signature techniques of stenciled letters, freely painted patches of color, and simple shapes. Despite the variety of techniques and objects, the piece is cohesive, dynamic, and at times overwhelming. As the viewer moves around the piece, the objects change the look of the painting. The large spots of clean color are offset by tiny details like the text in the newspaper print, bringing in and pushing away the viewer. By masterfully combining traditional art elements and his own art elements, which are typically not thought of as “traditional art,” Johns humorously asks if his art qualifies as art with traditional art elements added. He “puts two flinty things in a picture” like a spoon pierced by wire and a wax leg “and makes them work against one another so hard that the mind is sparked. Seeing them becomes thinking” (Steinberg 54). In According to What, Johns brings together objects not typically combined, but that look good together, and in doing so forces the viewer to think and to question what art is.
Johns not only combines these elements, he also deconstructs and destroys them. Nothing is neat and perfect. The chair and leg are sawed in half; the hanger is bent out of shape. Paint drips everywhere and haphazardly escapes the boundaries of one canvas and splash onto another. The colors of “RED YELLOW BLUE” aren’t red, yellow, and blue. By deconstructing and degrading these elements, Johns breaks down what the elements of art are, rendering them an irrelevant way to judge art and dismissing them as something art can accord to. However, he “[dismantles] the presuppositions of existing art while at the same time redeeming the ground he had laid waste” (Morris 246) by not only destroying but also incorporating in new ways the gray scales and canvases. In the end, Robert Morris says it best when he says “Johns’ work has been seen largely in context of what it did to art: what it closed off and what it opened up” (249). Johns closes off traditional thinking and opens up new ways of thinking. According to what is art when traditional methods of judgment are destroyed and combined with new techniques? “According to what” is art.
Morris, Robert, and Nena Tsouti-Schillinger. Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993-2007. Durham: Duke U Press, 2008. Print.
Steinberg, Leo. Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2007. Print.