There’s Yves Klein’s blue, Anselm Kiefer’s black, and Jasper Johns’ gray. Dare one say that Klein’s blue is gloriously French, Kiefer’s black is dismally German, and Johns’ gray derives from the flag of the defeated Confederacy, of which Johns, being from South Carolina, is a native son? No doubt it’s an all too naïve and simplistic interpretation, but it suggests the point I want to make: Johns’ gray is about self-defeat — the self-defeat of modernism, its dead-ending in a hallucinatory whimper. Wearing the vestment of gray, it becomes what Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner called “the Night-mare Life-in-Death.” Johns is an ancient modernist mariner: corroded by gray, his alphabet, flags, maps and numbers decay into hallucinatory oblivion even as they remain charged with nightmarish life by his painterliness.
It is an increasingly rancid, ruthless painterliness: John Coplans once said to me that there was not a gesture of Johns’ that was not full of contempt. But I think it is the angry indifference (and pessimism) of Duchamp, which Johns celebrated as “hilarious” — ironic comedy: Duchamp plus gesturalism — intellectualism plus impulsiveness (Idea Art plus Abstract Expressionism) — is the formula of Johns’ art.
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