The art critic Leo Steinberg has recorded another conversation: "I asked [Johns] about the type of numbers and letters he uses - coarse, standardized, unartistic - the type you associate with packing cases and grocery signs.

Q: You nearly always use the same type. Any particular reason?
A: That's how the stencils come.
Q: But if you preferred another typeface, would you think it improper to cut your own stencils?
A: Of course not.
Q: Then you really do like those best?
A: Yes.

This answer is so self-evident that I wonder why I asked the question at all; ah, yes - because Johns would not see the obvious distinction between free choice and external necessity. Let me try again:

Q: Do you use these letter types because you like them or because that's how the stencil's come?
A: But that's what I like about them, that they come that way."


A Johnsian conversation may seem frustrating, but the artist is not being difficult. Quite the contrary: he struggles to find the plainest way of talking about a situation. His friend, the composer John Cage, recalled sitting on a porch at Johns' house in South Carolina, with "records filling the air with Rock-n-Roll. I said I couldn't understand what the singer was saying. Johns (laughing): That's because you don't listen."

-- Jasper Johns
In 1976, the Whitney Museum asked me to write the catalog text for an upcoming retrospective of the painter Jasper Johns. I agreed to do it because I knew Johns slightly, and he was in those days very reclusive and mysterious. I figured if I wrote the catalog, he would have to answer all my questions.

Before I began writing, I asked people which exhibition catalogs they had read, and liked. It turned out nobody had ever read any catalog. Sometimes people had started to read, but then quit. But then, when I thought about it, I had never read a catalog, either.

So I asked, if you were to read a catalog, what would you want it to tell you? The answer that came back was unanimous, and surprising to me. They wanted to know something about the artist, what kind of a person he was. And then something about the background to the pictures---how they came to be painted, what was going on in the artist's life at the time. And nothing else--- "none of that art interpretation stuff," as one person put it.

It was clear: they wanted information. They'd do the interpretation for themselves.

So that's what I did.

In 1989, the publisher Abrams told me the book was still in print, and that they would like to issue a new edition, incorporating recent work by Johns. I was glad to do it, because I had conceived the original catalog text as something of the moment-something bound to a particular moment in 1976-and not something that would still be around fifteen years later, where its context in time was lost. There were several passages in that book that I considered to be more about me, and the way I think about work, than about Johns. So I took them out, and brought the book up to date.

Now it's twelve years later again, and Johns' work has taken a new direction in the last few years. So I suppose it might be time for a third revision.






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