take an object, do something to it


Johns also talked about art in different ways from the Abstract Expressionists. Barnett Newman once claimed that if “read…properly my work would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.” But in a sketchbook note from the early Sixties, Johns wrote, “Take an object, do something to it. Do something else to it.” At a time when the collectors John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Mark Rothko to paint monumental triptychs for their nondenominational chapel in Houston (1965–1966), Johns decided that “looking at a painting should not require a special kind of focus like going to church.”

Whereas Rothko’s floating expanses of dark color seemed to offer the possibility that art can provide transcendental spiritual experience, Johns’s work was down to earth. A flag or target by Johns is a real object occupying a real space, which the artist made by using certain procedures in a certain order. In his paintings you don’t find anything that Johns didn’t deliberately put into them—and that the viewer can’t see that he put into them. This is the moral center of his art. It doesn’t lie, it doesn’t deceive, and it doesn’t signify anything other than what the viewer can see in front of his eyes.

more from the NYRB here.