by Cat Dawson
Jasper Johns’s 0-9 (1960) is an example of a classically Johnsian conceit, in which an impersonal system – in this case, a series of numbers – is constituted through highly expressive gestural brush strokes. The tension between these seemingly opposed formal strategies is immediately evident: the former is associated with the universal, void of a particular authorial inflection, while the latter connotes both individuality and emotion. Johns came onto the art scene in New York in the post-war period, during which time Abstract Expressionism was the dominant avant-garde mode in American art. Abstract Expressionism linked the expressive stroke to personal freedom, and Johns’s early success as an artist was due in large part to his thoughtful testing of this paradigm in a series of images that read almost like philosophical treatises. For example, by deploying a gestural line within the uniform format of a stencil, Johns asks whether these two dissimilar forms of expression are in actuality the same: both part of a cultural system that lends every mark its particular form of significance. By this light, a gesture is no more expressive than a stencil, in that both originate in the same given cultural context. Thus Johns suggests that no one system can lay greater claim to freedom than any another—that all meanings are necessarily born of shared social dictates, no matter how expressive or individualistic they may appear.
Johns’s criticism of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries grew at least in part out of his social status. As a gay artist working during one of the most homophobic decades in American history, Johns did not enjoy the same privilege that allowed the Abstract Expressionists – a group of predominantly heterosexual artists –to make their private desires publicly visible. For Johns, to do so would have been to expose himself to social and legal repercussions. Instead, he camouflaged his inability to be transparent by critiquing Abstract Expressionism’s seemingly inherent link between gesture and emotion. This set the stage for a generation of Minimal, Conceptual, and Pop artists to explore working methods that similarly replaced the expressive presence of the artist with more impersonal systems that articulated, even amplified, a lack of emotional or authorial trace.
Artists of the generation after Johns were working at a time defined by even greater social upheaval and political struggle; their approach to criticism thus took a different tack. A case in point is Carl Andre, whose Untitled (1960) is a work on paper featuring a grid of nine squares, each of which is composed of a single digit typed repeatedly to complete the shape. The digits assigned to each square begin with 0 in the upper left and continue in ascending numerical order until 9 in the lower right. A paradigmatically Minimal artist, Andre focused his practice on the reduction of visual elements to their most basic forms, and here he addresses the numerical system, eliminating all external referents from the work—particularly his own hand. The absence of the autographic trace establishes an unusually democratic relationship between viewer and artwork; the artist’s presence within the work is not privileged above the viewer’s reading of it.
Untitled bears a striking resemblance to a series of floor pieces that Andre began in 1962, just two years after making this work on paper. Whereas traditional sculpture establishes a hierarchy of viewing by requiring viewers to gaze up at it, Andre’s sculptures consist of flat metal squares in varying finishes installed on the floor, so that viewers can walk over them. To further foreclose on the autographic, Andre chose not to make these sculptures by hand, but rather to have them executed by machine, much like their typed antecedent. Part of the process of viewing Andre’s floor works includes walking over them—and the viewing experience becomes one of bodily movement through space and time, replacing the traditionally optical, deeply hierarchical relationship between a viewer and a sculpture. This attempt to banish the hierarchy between the (often literally) elevated sculpture and the viewer was very much in step with the culturally and politically democratizing efforts that have come to define the 1960s.
In 1967, Andre refined the conceptual framework behind his floor pieces in a work on paper called now now. A roughly square sheet of paper is divided into four quadrants, within each of which is typed the word now. The word now is a shifter: its meaning is based upon a subjective location and temporality, and thus “now” differs from person to person. We tend to think of language as a cohesive system, and we apply to it the expectation of communal recognition and legibility. Yet Andre’s near-haphazard repetition of now emphasizes the multiplicity of “nows” possible in any given moment, exposing the profound individuality of a collective term. Whereas Johns’s 0-9 holds the expressive and the systematic in a kind of stasis, in Andre’s Untitled, there is only the exposure of formal convention, absent the second dimension of expressive intent. Andre likely would have understood Johns’s ironic challenge as a partial formal departure from Abstract Expressionism that nevertheless carried forward a reliance on the indexicality of the gestural to the emotional. Andre’s floor pieces, which literally level the playing field so that all bodies are on the same plane, also flatten notions of difference to a matter of spatial subjectivity.
Mel Bochner’s Misunderstandings (1970) is a portfolio of ten five-by-eight-inch notecards containing quotations about photography. Each quotation is attributed to a source, and one of the cards features not a quotation but a photocopy of a man’s arm. While some of the quotations are correctly attributed, others are completely fabricated; all of the statements offer what seems to be valid commentary on photography and its representations. While the photographic process is often associated with truth, a photograph never yields a truly faithful representation of its subject. At best it captures one specific instant from a singular vantage point. Bochner deploys photography as a vehicle for conceptual inquiry into the nature of representation. Once one understands that a certain statement may have value beyond the shifting veracity of its attribution, what further comes into sharp relief is the idea that truth itself is a construct that functions — much like numbers or the gestural — as an amalgam of privileged social notions.
Upon moving to New York in the early 1950s, Johns quickly joined a social circle that included Cy Twombly, whose Untitled (1971) is a stark departure from the anti-authorial work so often associated with Minimal and Conceptual art. A ruler, roughly articulated in graphite, cuts across the center of a surface almost entirely covered in gestural marks in white and light-colored gouache, oil, and crayon. Shapes and letters seem to emerge out of the otherwise illegible scrawl and lines. The ruler is segmented into horizontal dashes, above or below which numbers and letters appear. The dashes are irregular in length and placement, labeled according to a variety of different systems of signification including numbers, symbols, and the mysterious formulation “2 of 8, 4.” This amalgamation of systems of signification — writing and drawing, letters and numbers — poses a challenge to normative mechanisms for the organization of meaning. Indeterminate scribbles are the visual equivalent of noise. Neither overtly meaningful nor empty of meaning, they are instead immanent, perched at the edge of significance. Thus the signs in Twombly’s Untitled are full of potential but have yet to be subsumed into a system of signification.
Both Twombly and Johns open up systems to challenge, but they approach the same problem from opposite sides. Each artist exposes systems of signification as the product of repeated association, but whereas Johns uses the gestural stroke as a way to undermine impersonal systems, Twombly uses impersonal systems to query the gestural. As both artists illustrate, rejoinders to categorization – and, therefore, to systems of power – are most potently available at the interstices of signification. The great complexity that Johns introduces is the production of artwork that marks its distance from what came before by holding its antecedents in tension with their opposites. By exposing the constructedness of each claim in such specific ways, Johns inaugurated the practice of making work that perpetually deconstructs any privileged relation to truth in favor of a continuous questioning of first principles. Rather than supplanting one system of meaning with another, Johns and his allies, such as Twombly and Bochner, made art’s claim to fidelity in representation, emotion, or any other standard an open-ended question. To see such complexity in any work of art, one need only look for it.