Jasper Johns

Noa Baker, University of Pennsylvania

Hanging in a room devoted exclusively to Jasper Johns, in the center of the PMA’s modern art department, hangs “4Leo.” Is it a painting? Yet the monochromatic work hardly has any paint; instead, gray encaustic mostly obscures a collage of newspapers. Perhaps, a sculpture? Its thick encaustic seems almost object-like in its gooeyness, rising off the canvass in a distinct thing-ness. Yet it still hangs decidedly on a wall, looking flat until examined at close proximity. A collage? Yet the collage is mostly covered. An anomaly, then.

Visible under the gray, seemingly randomly dripped and splattered encaustic is a large, raised and centered number four, taking up most of this comparatively small piece. The four is in typical newsprint font. In the corner, Johns has somewhat messily written “4LEO.” Though the smaller type emulates the “4” font, its slightly wavy lines create a more personal affect; the artist’s own handwriting is discernible through the formal typed print. Johns’ play on “4” versus “for” adds a personal touch to the message—its shorthanded note feels intimate rather than formal. I wonder if there is another layer of meaning to the “4”—perhaps an inside joke between artist and Leo. Underneath the smaller words appears the only color in the piece: three primary colors, red, blue, and green, blending into each other in a drippy, haphazard line. The presence of color here, yet lacking in the rest of the work, leaves the piece feeling slightly unfinished. Perhaps the entire canvas was once vibrant with bright primary colors, and was covered up in somber respect for Leo. Who was Leo, and where is he now? The work invokes Leo’s absence.

Barely visible from underneath the encaustic are what appear to be clippings from newspapers. Most words are completely obscured, except for “execute” or “execu,” sometimes accompanied by “2.” Some clippings have been pasted upside down, making the words even more difficult to decipher. The dripped encaustic over the words, rendering them basically illegible, transforms the newspaper from a news vessel to an art object. What is a newspaper’s function when it cannot be read? The illegibility allows our association with the object itself to affect our experience and interpretation of the work. This is typical of Johns encaustics. Says Joselit, “Jasper Johns reframed the readymade by showing that objects may be one thing and do something else” (Joselit 106). The obscured newsprint invokes a greater question: how much can facts change how we feel? And how can our emotional responses affect our openness to facts? The piece is clearly emotional—the subdued color of the encaustic, the subtle theme of execution or death through the partially obscured newspaper cutouts, and the title itself as a dedication all invokes a sense of mourning. It is clear that Leo has passed away, and it is easy to read narrative into Johns’ work. Perhaps that is the magic of it. Does it really matter who Leo was, or for what he was executed, if our emotions can still be manipulated by this work for him?

Johns work often plays on the very thing-ness of objects. His other works include “Coat Hanger” (1960) which contains a coat hanger covered in encaustic, “Book,” (1957) which was a book covered in encaustic, and “Canvas,” (1956) which was a backwards canvass also covered in encaustic. Yet all his pieces are slightly humorous in their irony: once covered by encaustic and hung in a gallery, the items no longer, obviously, serve their intended function as useful objects. His “Book” is illegible, his “Coat Hanger” bent and dirtied, and his “Canvas” backwards. Steinberg notes on this ironic use of everyday items and objects to art historian John Myers’ simplistic understanding of Johns’ nuanced work. Writes Steinberg, “John B. Myers called Johns the “Surrealist of Naming Things,” wrote: “Like a small child who holds up an egg, having discovered such an object for the first time in a hidden nest, and cries, ‘Egg!’—So Johns has made it clear what things are…” Objection: What child holds his breath crying “Egg!” for a year—the time it took Johns to complete his Gray Alphabet of 1965?” (Steinberg, 23). Perhaps in “4Leo”, too, Johns remakes an object in his work: Leo is humanized through Johns’ careful covering of the news clippings on his execution and somber encaustic dripped everywhere besides his colorful dedication in the corner.

Scribbled over the encaustic is white chalk, looking haphazard and almost last-minute. The scribbles at first look like they could be big, loopy writing—perhaps a quick note to Leo, or just as easily, the artist’s grocery list. Yet upon closer inspection, the chalk is also illegible. The intimacy of a hand- written note is still present, though, perhaps more so because we cannot read the note, and can only guess at its recipient and the message it contains. Pasted slightly to the left under the encaustic is what looks like a frayed piece of ripped canvas, entirely concealed by the dripped encaustic.  The white chalk and the pasted fabric add to the incompleteness of the work. Something is missing: Leo.

Johns is an artist for whom the material itself is just as meaningful as what it represents. Says Wagner in her “According to What” essay, “As always, the means are what count. Johns’ painting is clearly assertive. What does it say?” (Wagner, 3) (emphasis my own). Johns’ use of gray encaustic creates a layer of depth and emotion. Though Johns work is almost entirely monochromatic, his work is still dependent on color to deliver a somber message.