Friday, October 24, 2008

What's in a Symbol?

Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns wanted to be an artist from the time that he was a kid growing up in Allendale, South Carolina. Since there were few artists living in his small southern community, and little opportunity to take formal art classes, Johns had very little idea of what it was like to be an artist. When it came time to go to college, he attended the University of South Carolina but didn’t stay long before moving to New York City. When Johns arrived in New York in the early 50s, he found work as a window designer for Tiffany’s and became friends with another southerner, the artist Robert Rauschenberg and the composer John Cage.

Even with all the artists and artwork at his disposal in New York City, it was a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the work of Marcel Duchamp that proved to be pivotal for Johns. Duchamp literally stood the art world on its head with a series of what became known as Readymades; everyday, ordinary objects presented as pieces of art. These Readymades proved to be the starting point for works that would bring Johns early recognition and later cement his reputation as a principal figure for both the Pop and Minimalist art movements and as one of America’s most recognized and acclaimed visual artist.

Here are two examples of Duchamp's Readymades:

Bicycle Wheel, 1913


When Johns arrived in New York in the 1950s, the Abstract Expressionist movement, a style ofpainting that disapproved of direct reference to real subject matter, was firmly in control of contemporary painting. Johns and his colleagues were looking for a new statement and it was the works of Duchamp that provided Johns with the inspiration he was looking for. Johns started to paint ordinary, everyday objects. American flags, targets, numbers and maps were where among the first paintings to appear. He had no intentions of making high art or an intellectual response to the Abstract Expressionist, for Johns the simple act of painting things was the art. He said of his new object paintings, “there may or may not be an idea, and the meaning of the painting could be that the painting exists”. Even though Johns had learned the craft of painting well, and painted lush and richly textured surfaces, his subjects remained simple and ordinary.

Three Flags

Target, 1958

Figure 4

In the mid and later 1960s, Johns moved his work into sculpture and became a very proficient printmaker. His subjects continued along the same simplistic roots adding objects such as paint brushes, light bulbs, beer cans and plaster casts of body parts to his visual repertoire. For Johns, there was no hierarchy between the mediums, and he easily moved his subjects in and out of both two and three dimensional compositions and constructions.


Untitled, 1977

Throughout his long and prolific career, Johns remained true to his early vision of following in Duchamp’s love and respect of the ordinary. The appeal for Johns everyday subjects were broadly recognized by art critics, historians and people from many walks of life. Whether or not his chosen catalog of objects served as symbols and metaphors for other meanings remains vague and left open to personal interpretation, and for us to judge for ourselves if, in fact, the everyday and ordinary is worthy of being real art.


Jasper Johns: Wikipedia Encyclopedia

Jasper Johns: About the Painter

Marcel Duchamp: Wikipedia Encyclopedia

Philip Guston

For nearly two decades of his career, Philip Guston was well entrenched and held in high regard as one of America’s best and brightest painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The paintings that earned him high acclaim were constructed of layer upon layer of thickly painted lines that crossed over and under each other in somewhat of a loose woven pattern. Generally, his color palette was limited to a range of pinks, grays and muted primary colors.

Here is an example of one of Guston's Abstract Expressionist works:

To Felleni, 1958

Then, suddenly, in the fall of 1970 Guston’s turned his back on everything that had won him fame and respect and exhibited an entirely new body of work that stands as one of the biggest stylist changes of any well known American artist. It was if he had committed artistic treason. Many of his closest friends and colleagues were so confused and angry that they severed their relationships with him. Many well known art critics had a field day tearing down and mocking his new works prompting Guston to leave New York City in favor of more reclusive and quieter confines in Woodstock, NY.

Here are two examples of his dramatic stylistic shift:


The Problems of a Painter

Philip Guston was born in Montreal in 1913, making him 17 years older than Jasper Johns. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he remained until, like Johns, he too moved to New York City. While in high school, he met and became friends with Jackson Pollack. He won a one year scholarship to the Otis Art Institute but was generally a self taught artist. Like many young artists and students of his time, his early works were figurative and representational. When he arrived in New York City in 1936, he went to work in the WPA Program, painting many large scale public murals. His references at this stage in his artistic development were mostly Renaissance masters such as Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and Giotto. He also admired painters from the American Realists movement and some Mexican mural painters.

The primary reason behind Guston’s surprising stylistic shift seemed to come from a necessity to stay the things that he could not through his abstract, non-objective work. By breaking the rules of Abstract Expressionism, Guston was able to liberate himself and return to what he labeled as the “world of things”. With his new style, he was able express his feelings about the struggles of the time: sentiments against the Vietnam War, violent and bitter tragedies of the civil rights movement, political scandals of the Nixon administration as well as offering up a critical review of himself.

The Three

Untitled, 1973

Multiplied, 1972

The images and symbols that filled up Guston’s new canvases included crude, cartoon-like Klu Klux Klan figures influenced out of his admiration for the work of Philadelphia based cartoonist Robert Crumb. The Klansmen are often see riding through his paintings in a beat up jalopy as if out for a comical and casual joy ride. Guston also employed a hooded figure in the role of his self portrait. Beyond the cartoon Klan figures, cars and clumpy cityscapes, Guston, like Johns, painted familiar, everyday objects, many of which inhabited his Woodstock studio. Paint brushes, palettes, stretched canvases, clocks, shoes, cigarettes, French fries, cherries and light bulbs serve as minors and major supporting characters. Piles of spider-like severed limbs, large eyeballs, trash can lids and a scorching sun make many reoccurring appearances throughout his final creative burst. The work that initially lost Guston friends and artistic acclaim would eventually earn him a rightfully deserved place as an internationally recognized artist who summoned the insurmountable courage to risk everything in order to say what he felt needed to be said.


Philip Guston: Wikipedia Encyclopedia

Philip Guston: The Man, His Life and His Work

Robert Crumb: R. Crumb, the Official Website

Discussion and Activity:

What do the subjects / symbols in the works of Johns and Guston say or mean to you?
What associations can you make from some of their images?

Do you think there is more meaning behind the symbols that Johns and Guston painted or are they simply reflections of common objects?

What similarities are there between Johns and Guston? What are some differences?

Because the subjects matter for both artists is common and simple, does this have any reflection on the importance and value of their work and their contributions to contemporary art?

In the spirit of Johns and Guston, think about objects that have a special significance to you. Construct a composition which combines a minimum of five forms or objects. Consider different arrangements and scale of the objects. Ink, charcoal, graphite, the use of collage elements and mixed media techniques can be used. The use of color is optional.

1 comment:

Mr. Rice said...

I really enjoy your eLecture. The content is right up my alley (I'm quite fond of 20th century art and art making). Johns is such a prolific artist and Guston is one of those painters who seems to breath 'soul' into his works (quite tragic in an awe-inspiring way). Sorry for the confusion about my electure, I think my link is posted in the Discussion portion of sakai; it is also linked on my wish you were here blog (professor rice). In any case here is the link below and you certainly do not have to actually carry out the procedures I have laid out. It can be quite tedious and really should only be undertaken if you truly want to experiment and/or develop canvas preparation techniques. Thanks for your comments on my piece and I would greatly appreciate any comments you might have for my lecture.

~ Bryan