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Sunday Times art critic on Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns: making religious images for a secular age

'Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns / Bless the bed we lie on'

As far as I know, the first modern reference to art galleries being like churches was Julius Meier-Graefe’s. To this maverick German art historian we owe the origins of our estimation of van Gogh, as well as something of the rehabilitation of El Greco. Meier-Graefe was nothing if not in touch with his senses and I think he felt the hushed reverence which galleries were acquiring really rather absurd. I felt the same absurdity when I went to see “The Drawings of Jasper Johns” (at the Hayward Gallery until 3 February).

I come from a generation taught to revere Jasper Johns. The contemptuous conceit of painting a flag made him not only an attractive symbol of rebellion, but an important prototype of the artists, designers and musicians who elevated the quotidian into the monumental. This man, after all, had sculpted two tins of beer! The very first time I wrote an article, wisely unpublished, I felt I was in some way in touch with his aura. I went to interview the Liverpudlian beat poet, Adrian Henri, a Birkenhead Frenchman.

Allen Ginsberg had just been staying in Henri’s spectacularly bohemian house in Liverpool’s postal district number 8, known to drugs police the world over as the Marseilles of the North. Henri told me, his own eyes agape with awe and substances, that he had found it thrilling to get up in the morning and find Ginsberg, the author of Howl, doing the dishes. I found it similarly thrilling to have Adrian Henri tell me this story.

It was about this time that the bard of the East Lancs Road had constructed one of his pleasing little ditties:

Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Bless the bed we lie upon,

which conferred a sort of divine status on the artist. People like Adrian Henri and I used to pray to Jasper Johns. I read Mario Amaya and everything else on Pop Art I could get my hands on.

I frankly never did truly understand what all the fuss was about; I really enjoyed the act of rebellion, rather than its results. But training got the better of honesty and if anyone has asked me “Who is the greatest living American artist?” I would have said without question Jasper Johns. Going to Jasper Johns’s service in the hushed and reverent Hayward last week I questioned my training.

Leo Castelli, the West Broadway impresario, says his man Johns would have been a philosopher if he had not been a painter. However, it is noteworthy that there is less money in philosophy. With old paintings selling for up to $17 million and his new drawings routinely fetching $400,000, philosophy looks as attractive as a hair shirt.

It is appropriate that Johns’s drawings are shown in an ecclesiastical atmosphere because what we have here is, if not philosophy, then religion. To appreciate such an exhibition you have to be an initiate, familiar with the articles of faith. You have to be able to understand that Johns’ high-minded game playing, while not always leading to pleasurable results visually, allows other artists and art historians and critics, the priesthood, to enjoy the rites of history. Just as Johns’s quotes from Cézanne and Duchamp, so all the critics quote from each other and a powerful sense of unity and purpose is achieved. It is a self-generating process. Jolly good that Jasper Johns influenced Hockney and Blake, the fibreglass crew, multi-media hands, collagists hither and yon, but so what?

The idea of painting a flag came to Jasper Johns in a dream. But to describe dreams you have to be awake. In the drawings you find the most completely wideawake expression of Jasper Johns’s aesthetic. They are more likely ends in themselves than preliminary sketches; if they relate to a “painting” at all, it is often because they follow rather than precede it. There is something about the technique of drawing that lends itself to the subtle, allusive ideas about repetition and irony which preoccupy this artist. If you have a mind to, and if you have a Thesaurus, you can go on like this forever about the tense, dense veils that Johns creates across his chosen images, about how the nervousness and delicacy of the graphic line lends itself to an artist’s vision that is complete, but fugitive.

But these are only words. The truth is that, taken by itself, a single Jasper Johns drawing is not always something remarkable. Some of the stuff on show at the Hayward is on the south side of mediocre in technical terms; certainly nothing beyond the mechanical skills of most graphic design students. The meaning is acquired only when all the images are collected and understood in the perspective of history; perhaps this is what it means to be the greatest living American artist. You have created a faith whose individual articles carry little meaning and only acquire persuasive force when the critic or consumer is indoctrinated into the entirety of it all.

People used to agonise about the distinction between “illustration” and art. Illustration was always held to be inferior because its meaning was apparent, while art was less immediate and, therefore it was argued, better. No matter that the “illustrator” was often technically superior, his functional power to communicate an idea denied access to the category of art. Jasper Johns’ drawings are illustrations of ideas, yet they lack immediacy but to be blunt: they do not communicate ideas very well.

This is where modern art became an exercise in futility: by aiming to illustrate an idea, but denying the most effective techniques, Jasper Johns, whatever else his achievements and influence, has created a religion of purposelessness. The greatest living American illustrator would make a better job of it.

That the art critic of The Sunday Times believes Jasper Johns makes religious images for a secular age, says more about the absurdity of our values than the profundity of his art. But we have been talking churches where mysteries make more sense than facts.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns / Bless the bed we lie on'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 4 January 1991