Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Jasper Johns at NGA: Smashing Paintings Over Students Heads

The use of the word “inexplicable” in relation to Jasper Johns’ work is a waste of 12 perfectly good letters. Or so I thought, because I didn’t understand Jasper Johns’ work. I recently learned a few things at the Jasper Johns show at the National Gallery of Art. For instance, his early work was “intensely personal, gestural painting of the abstract expressionists.”

Now, that makes sense. His painting about naming colors is obviously intensely personal. Apparently, he was trying to remember the names of the colors he was using, but was having quite a bit of trouble. He kept making silly errors like using red when he wanted to use white. To make matters worse, the students in his atelier were snickering behind his back. To calm his frustration, he went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. There, he spilled coffee on his tie, and also realized that he had forgotten to put up the macaroni from the night before and it was ruined. His frustration grew into anger, and, looking to lash out at anything he could find close at hand, as was his want, he found that he had broken most of the crockery a few days before after a syrup stain sent him spiraling out of control (which led to his painting this). He returned to the atelier in a dark mood, only to find that his students, in the classic tradition of student pranks, had written in big block letters, directly on his canvas, the names of the colors he was supposed to use. This sent him into one of his famous blind rages, knocking over paint cans and smashing canvases over his student’s heads.

Not all of his art was done in the spirit of blind rages. Some of it was done in the coldly calculated manner of, say, an axe murderer. For instance, his target has an obvious message: he killed and beheaded four people (possibly students) and mounted their heads on pikes, and he’ll target you next, buddy, so watch out!

In 1962, somehow he became trapped in his atelier, and desperately tried to escape through a canvas, as this painting attests. I have my suspicions that it may have been his students (the same ones who had canvases smashed over their heads, although not the same ones whose heads were incorporated into his work, for obvious reasons) who barricaded him in a corner, perhaps in an attempt to escape yet another of his blind rages.

Referring, I believe, to this painting, Johns once commented that “a painting should be looked at the same way we look at a radiator.” The last time I looked at my radiator, hot greenish-yellow liquid was exploding out of it, stranding me on the side of the highway. This sent me into a blind rage, much the same feeling I get while viewing his paintings, further proof of Johns’ incredible genius!

It’s a hackneyed phrase: “I could have painted that,” with a hackneyed response: “but the difference is, you didn’t.” Jasper Johns is the truth behind this quip. Although, it should probably be modified to this: “but the difference is, you don’t experience enough breakfast-mishap-induced blind rages to be an artistic genius.”

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