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The Dutch Wives, by Jasper Johns (on view at Harvard’s Sackler Museum)

Sebastian Smee. How did Boston get so lucky? Having him at the Globe has made all the difference for me. No wonder my friends down under are still bemoaning his loss (Smee wrote for The Australian in Sydney before relocating here.)

His recent review of the small show at Harvard on Jasper Johns has a few passages that capture the quixotic nature of Johns’ work with an insightful ring of truth that I had to share them here. I have had a long and complicated relationship with Johns’s work, but Smee artfully circles up those diverse feelings into a view that feels balanced and accurate. He hits it directly, even in his intro paragraph:

Jasper Johns is an artist one finds difficult to love, and then, on reflection — and often against a backdrop of crisis or doubt — comes to love wholeheartedly, soberly, sincerely. He is an artist for grown-ups. He might seem reticent, puzzling, at times willfully tangled up in himself. But if you are struggling to make sense of art, life, or any conceivable combination thereof, he is not the bafflingly forked path he can seem, but rather a guide, one who won’t take your hand but will instead send you back out on your own, your sense of the mystery renewed and expanded.

And it just keeps coming. Referring to Johns’s work as “difficult to write about—so tender to the touch,” this passage is also memorable:

One of the reasons Johns’s work is so difficult to write about — so tender to the touch — is that it is stuffed with allusions and clues that amount to a kind of secret order or logic, and thence to what might be thought of as “meaning.” And yet, frustratingly, it goes out of its way to obscure meaning.

That’s because Johns is not interested in clear meanings. Clear meanings are for children and lawyers. He is interested instead in life, and is rightly contemptuous of critics and academics who try to act as village explainers of his work.

When, in a 1965 interview, the critic David Sylvester followed up on an answer to an earlier question by asking, “Do you know why?” Johns said, “No, but I can make up a reason.” It was not a cantankerous joke, I think, but an honest answer, full of gentle forbearance.

Smee goes on to quote Johns from the same David Sylvester interview: “The final suggestion, the final gesture, the final statement [in a work of art] has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement.” Johns is just as interested, Smee points out, in the “inevitable collapse of meaning, and what is left in its wake — the “helpless statement.” This is a graceful way to engage with those hard won concepts like humility, vulnerability, and getting to the essence that does stand up, all the way through to the end.


“Surfaces seduce and entities evolve: It is exquisite getting lost in the mysterious pageant of the making.” (Close up of a recent piece)

I spend a lot of time alone. But being isolated for most of the day doesn’t mean the mind stops chattering. It chatters constantly, but the dialogue is either internal (between entities whose identities are still undetermined IMHO) or with that object in front of me, the WIP (work in process.)

Is there such a thing as a dialogue carried on with a painting? This is hard to describe to someone whose thinking is precise and linear. But for many of us, the objects we make are conversational and they do engage in a back and forth of ideas, tensions, directionals, outcomes. No, they are not sentient beings. But maybe they are something else. Maybe they are a something that has its own dynamic arc of aliveness. Like I said, this is hard to describe.

Something that showed up in a conversation between painter Philip Guston and art critic David Sylvester touches into this if just obliquely. Here is Guston talking about the picture plane:

We were talking yesterday at the studio about the picture plane, and to me there’s some mysterious element about the plane. I can’t rationalize it, I can’t talk about it, but I know there’s an existence on this imaginary plane which holds almost all the fascination of painting for me. As a matter of fact, I think the true image only comes out when it exists on this imaginary plane. but in schools you hear everyone talk about the picture plane as a first principle. And in the beginning design class, it’s still labored to death. Yet I think it’s one of the most mysterious and complex things to understand. I’m convinced that it’s almost a key, and yet I can’t talk about it; nor do I think it can be talked about. There’s something very frustrating, necessary, and puzzling about this metaphysical plane that painting exists on. And I think that, when it’s either eliminated or not maintained intensely, I get lost in it. This plane exists in the other arts, anyway. Think of the poetic plane and the theater plane. And it has to do with matter. it has to do with the very matter that the thing is done in.

And later in the conversation, Guston shares a few more painterly insights:

It’s terrible to rationalize about painting because you know that, while you’re creating it, you can have all sorts of things in your mind consciously that you want to do and that really won’t be done. You won’t be finished until the most unexpected and surprising things happen. I find I can’t compose a picture anymore. I suppose I’ve been thinking about painting structures for many years, but I find that I know less and less about composing and yet, when the thing comes off in this old and new way at the same time, weeks later, I get it, and it arrives at a unity that I never could have predicted and foreseen or planned.

Ah, the love of uncertainty. The thrill when “the most unexpected and surprising things happen.” Surfaces seduce and entities evolve: It is exquisite getting lost in the mysterious pageant of the making.