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Tag Archives: Jasper Johns

Conceptual art, at its best, is the simplest visual representation of an idea as possible. This isn’t good or bad, and it isn’t necessarily central to text-based art, but it is the as yet undefined ‘goal’ of transitional work of the 1950’s we’ve been discussing. With that in mind, specifically the marriage of Conceptual Art and text-based work still to come, let’s look at Jasper Johns.

gray numbers 1957

Jasper Johns, Gray Numbers, 1957

In its most basic terms, Johns painted a series of random numbers in gray. The big deal here is that Johns chose to ignore both the hidden interior landscape of Ab-Ex painting and chose as subject matter something as clinically abstract as numbers tho he also worked with targets, maps and flags, yer basic mass-manufactured informational products. Thus, post Ab-Ex, distrust language, distrust image, open your eyes to a new nature and… paint it? If Johns had ditched painting altogether and done this instead on cardboard

Numbered Grid

then he might not have become so darn famous. This first cautious step, incautious as it may have seemed at the time, freaked people out as he was using the tools of the past to suggest the direction of the future. Again, I wonder why he didn’t just ditch paint altogether to get to the root of the concept, but Johns’ idea of being an artist meant classic tools like canvas, paint and brush, something that was already in process of being dismantled.

Of which, and before we get to the dismantling via Fluxus, Yoko Ono and a whole new direction in literature, here’s a few innovations from Franz Kline in 1952 (!) that again suggest a new direction though still rooted in painting:

Kline Study for Hight Street 1952

Study for High Street, 1952

Kline Untitled 1952

Untitled 1952

Though both Willem DeKooning and Rauschenberg incorporated newspaper into their work at times, here Kline uses a New York City phone book as the primary surface for gestural painting. The idea is that Kline “cancelled the tedium” of the printed surface, erasing its function. Eh. I find the fact that he’s chosen a phone book, a comprehensive directory of everyone who owns a phone in New York to be far more interesting than what he was theoretically looking to achieve. In other words, negation of an alphabetical, mass-produced, printed, columned sheet of paper freely available to anyone – THAT’S Conceptual Art! And it required a text-based directory to function successfully. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Of which, negation, and to digress a moment, Rauschenberg in the 50’s was a wellspring of ideas that were way ahead of his time. Check out this piece of work:

Erased Drawing Rauschenberg

Rauschenberg’s erasure of a DeKooning drawing. Genius, no? Even more genius to get DeKooning to agree to the collaboration, though not necessarily a collaboration as DeKooning had no idea that the young Rauschenberg, a relative nobody in the art world at that time, would have the audacity to ask for 1. a free drawing and 2. absolutely negate it through erasure. The drawing was a mixture of pencil, charcoal, ink and crayon and took a full 2 months to erase. Another collaboration that took art in a whole new direction was Automobile Tire Print

Automobile Tire Print Rauschenberg John Cage

with John Cage driving his Model A Ford over paper creating the print. Rauschenberg in the 50’s was looking to expand the traditional media of the classic artist. He crushed it repeatedly, and if video had been around back then no doubt he would have dabbled in that too. Warhol later dove into film, doing single-shot sequences that doubled as feature-length films, but by then you could easily fold that into Duchamp’s idea of the Readymade. It was, as with Automobile Tire Print, simply a logical expansion of an idea that will continue to bear fruit long past our lifetime.

All that said, we’re laying the groundwork for the elimination of painting, per se, and the birth of Conceptual Art. In truth Conceptual Art had been around for a long time, but it hadn’t yet had an organized form nevermind manifestos, declarations, collectives and later the all-important retrospectives.

What’s interesting here, going back to the top of the post, is that the simplest visual representation of an idea is often words, ie: a description of the idea itself. Once you learn to abandon paint and most traditional artistic methods, yet still desire to create original art, what’s left to work with? Well, a few new inventions had just come about, much like Desktop Publishing of 90’s, that made the creation of a new cheapo mass-market artform all that much more egalitarian.

IBM Selectric

  1. 1959 – Plain Paper Photocopier (Mimeograph)
  2. Early 60’s – dry transfer lettering (Signs, posters and art)
  3. 1961 – IBM Selectric Typewriter with ‘golf ball’ type element that allowed for variable fonts (Mimeograph, extension of graphic design)
  4. Screen printing – not a new process, but popularized in 1962 by Warhol and yet another method of mass production, but this time with the added benefit of color (All of the above + image/non-image)

All of these methods, compared to painting and sculpture, are inexpensive, thus affordable to the proletarian masses, or any dork with time enough to try his hand at fine art. Key here is FINE ART. Soon you’ll see how even the definition of fine art, as under attack as it was by ideas, was also materially under attack as both critics and an uncertain public had to come to grips with the fact that art could be made on the cheap – and thus cheaply sell. So instead of knockoff prints you could buy originals, which oddly enough were also most likely prints. And maybe even small enough to fit in your pocket. What, had the world gone crazy? The answer to that, apparently, was YES.

So, big picture, text-art wise, from the end of WWII thru the 1950’s it was generally pretty quiet, no? In terms of iconic high text-art imagery, that’s basically true (we’ll get to Johns, Rauschenberg and Fluxus soon enough). However, that got me to thinking. The 1960’s produced an unparalleled explosion of text-based work that continues unabated. In fact there’s an argument to be made that it’s now impossible to tell the difference between text art, advertising and modern kitsch, but that comes later. Here, the question is: What fueled that explosion? I’m not a historian, and I haven’t read the psychoanalytic breakdown’s of each artist’s personal narrative, but a few things occur to me as I look at imagery of the 1950’s:

  1. World War II was just yesterday
  2. There was no time to mentally decompress before
  3. Being told exactly what to look like, what to be excited about, how to live your life
  4. You’re about to die horribly
  5. Go buy something

And don’t get me started on Jazz, literature, integration, expansion of the middle class or the revolutionary youth-centric Rock and Roll. Everything we took for granted prior to WW2 had flipped and much of it for the better. We were an entire nation of Old Boys’ Networks and what the Old Boys took for granted, women as property, elections to rig, Negros to keep down and all decent white fellows wore hats to work and smoked pipes on the weekend, well, images of guard dogs defending segregation, Emmit Till, women’s rights, a burgeoning nuclear nightmare and youth exposed to television and constant, ever more insidious war began to seriously challenge the Old Boys’ grip on things.

Which is where art comes in. I gotta hand it to the Abstract Expressionists, they really made a name for themselves and created some insanely great art, but they were younger versions of more traditional Old Guard artists looking for acclaim, like the many ‘ists’ that came before them. Here’s a nice pic:

abstract expressionists

And yet, as American culture began to freak out and express itself in a bazillion new ways, one small New York-based art club wasn’t nearly enough, nevermind how exceptionally well-dressed they might have been. Something else had to happen, and duh of course it did.

Which is where I started to think about 1960’s text art and what came before it. Specifically, the deluge of text-based propaganda, advertising and comics that young 60’s artists would have absorbed as kids. And whoa wow hello – what schizophrenic messages they were receiving!

As very young kids, having lived thru World War 2, they got this:

Food is a Weapon

Wanted for Murder

Happy Jap

Venereal Disease Covers The Earth

Then as adolescents they got this:

Atomic War Comic

Teenage Dope Slaves

Captain America

Comic America Under Communism

And as they grew into young adulthood, these were their social models:

Lucky Strike Do You Inhale

Ad Coffee Spanking

Ad Campbells Pea Soup

Ad Televison Benefits Children

And somehow managed to balance this:

Nuc Attack Home Split Image

and this

1950s-3d-movies

not to mention

Korean War Headlines

while again this was happening:

Bomb Drill

And eventually this:

civil-rights-march

Which is how it totally makes sense that they ended up producing art that not only reflected the absurdist culture they grew up in, but also used those same images and messages as ground for their work. And some felt the freedom to dispense with imagery altogether and go straight for the message, and permanent hats off to them because once that happened there was no going back. Plus it also got very, very flat, which was very, very interesting.

1960’s next!