Welcome to the second installment of the Tank, into which we drop a published work or a work-in-progress and see what happens when the water starts churning.
The point of the Tank is to provoke, by making visible both the terms of a given debate and the commitments that are (or are not) available with it. We present here Anne M. Wagner’s A House Divided: American Art since 1955, and specifically its opening chapter on Jasper Johns’ icon(oclastic) Flag. While we offer the following opening pages of the book as a sort of prompt (the same offering we presented to our respondents) the spread (or lack thereof) of chapters considered was an artifact of a moment that had envisioned or anticipated a wider set of choices. We extend our thanks to the five respondents Frazer Ward, Michael Leja, Charles Palermo, Lisa Siraganian, Rachael DeLue, and Brigid Doherty.
America’s military misadventures have taught us, if nothing else, that the United States flag, as both sign and image, has staying power. It is not neutral. It provokes. Its display both transcends and summons party politics; it invokes the violence of history but still claims to survive the worst that history can do. Hence to represent the flag is to convey the ambiguous powers of the nation-state. What it means depends on how and where it appears. Does the Stars and Stripes mock its subjects? Veil them? Erase them? The flag did all this and more in The Americans, which Robert Frank published in 1955-56, the book in which, Jack Kerouac wrote, the “EVERYTHING-ness” of America appears—an everythingness based on difference as much as inclusion, as Frank well knew.1
To image the flag is inevitably to open the question that lies at the core of this chapter, as well as others in this volume: What is the individual’s ongoing relation–how does she belong–to the national culture she may serve or criticize, but which has also helped shape her life and thought? This is the question embodied by Jasper Johns’s Flag. It has never been more relevant than in the new millennium–a political moment that is the backdrop to the themes of this book.
Why study Flag? I made the choice carefully. I guess that is the best word, though polemically also comes to mind. The decision arose, not from any absence of earlier studies, or from any longstanding allegiance to Johns as an artist, but from his flags themselves, which seemed to give access to exactly those questions that any present-day citizen ought to have on her mind. As so often, the key issues engage politics while also defining an art form, painting. They do so directly, as Johns’s first Flag, laboriously manufactured in 1954-55, aimed to declare. To be even more specific, I am concerned with the coming together, within a single image, of politics and painting: Flag provides an immediate and local instantiation of both terms. It also volatilizes the question of art’s role within what we often too blandly term context: at issue is the national and political culture to which art belongs.
Much of my account depends on getting in place at least a bare-bones description of this object—how it looks and was made. The process was elaborate. By now it has been carefully inventoried by others, especially Fred Orton, whose findings I have relied on, but also been able to expand.2 Here is what Johns did: using a bed sheet as backing and pencil marks as guidelines, he built up the familiar pattern using small pieces of cloth and newsprint he had torn or cut into bits. We know from a photograph taken by Robert Rauschenberg that at least within the field of stars, the process obscured an initial layer of drawing: sub-cubist geometries which at one point, whether accidentally or otherwise, came together to suggest the cheek, jaw and mouth of a glamorous female face—the sort of visage de Kooning saw as epitomizing the seductions of Woman. Yet all this was soon enough covered by bits of fabric or paper that were dipped dangerously in hot wax—blue, white, or red—and pressed into place within the penciled scaffolding of lines. Rauschenberg’s photo records the tins and tubs of Johns’s homemade apparatus, as well as the requisite wax; the process seems so makeshift that Johns’s comment in the mid 1960s that “it’s sort of in bad shape; it tends to fall to pieces” makes perfect sense.3 Sometimes the printed snippets were obscured by the wax or the layering, but at many places they can still be read by the naked eye: ads, cartoons, headlines. The familiar press repertoire is sampled, with each utterly ordinary fragment–real estate promotions; the help-wanteds; stock reports; mentions of the Middle East and the State Department; advice from a “Famous Hollywood Figure Telling you How to Reduce”–speaking to and of the texture of everyday life: Kerouac’s “everythingness” in metonymic form. There is even a recipe, not for apple pie, granted, but for applesauce, which when comfortable normalcy is to be signaled, can certainly serve as second best. The result is that time and place seem both present and muted; each scrap has its own message, yet also stands in for its origin elsewhere, at another quite ordinary moment and site.
It bears repeating that not all of this is easily or directly legible, for the waxy coating means the scraps lie beneath the actual surface of the image. And even though the snippets are physically layered, they are also handled as oddly disembodied and conformist bits of color: they stick to the drawn guidelines, like dogs come to heel. In fact, just as a fabric flag is stitched together from separate pieces, likewise Johns’s red and white stripes, and the stars in their blue canton, are fabricated as separable elements—a procedure also insisting loyally on the “flagness” or “flaglikeness” of the painting itself. Yet the wax, newsprint, and bed sheet all say otherwise: though new to Johns, they have their origins deep in avant-garde painting and making, from cubism on. Which is to say that the many visible touches of brush and palette knife evidence process, just as the submerged paper snippets are what in another context–in either cubism or dada–would be called collage.4 This term seems to fit no better than “painting,” even though the surface is repeatedly marked and inflected by both brush and knife. Each touch, whether direct or delicate (Johns’s surfaces were promptly credited with ”sensuous presence,”5 is preserved, even memorialized, in quasi-funereal wax: its main advantage, Johns said, was that though starting out molten and dripping, it dries fast and hard.
Much of what I have said so far summarizes what has interested other critics in Flag: its surface, dispersed but unified, patently—and rather inventively—hand made, though fitting a fixed pattern borrowed for the job. The advantage of the flag, said Johns, was that it offered a design that could be easily measured and transferred; the claim belongs to his general refusal of the semblance of invention or originality, not least as these were conveyed, according to conventional wisdom, by the abstract expressionist trademark: a spontaneous stroke of the brush. Flag was made, not in the wake of abstract expressionism but directly in its midst; it constitutes a refusal of invention for convention–this is clear. Yet John’s declaration, which presents the flag as a simple convenience, is not convincing, for it runs oddly counter to the artist’s other claim about Flag: that painting it was a random idea, which came to him in a dream. That story places Flag’s beginnings in Johns’s unconscious, a far-from-random repository, and thus puts the flag there too. Is there something personal in Flag? For now, simply note that this whole string of contradictions, as it runs from the look of the painting back to its origin story, leads to what seems to be the greatest contradiction of all, on which most critics dwell. Built into the work a tension between its presence as an image and its role as a sign. A dilemma results: “Is it a flag or is it a painting?” Alan Solomon was the first to put the question, as far back as 1964. The answer being considered undecidable then and since, Flag continues to be seen as both a flag and a painting, and there matters stand. Flag, so Orton has concluded in Figuring Jasper Johns, “works in the space of difference . . . Neither positive nor negative, but both positive and negative, Flag cannot be resolved.”6
But what happens now, more than a decade after the publication of Orton’s landmark book? Should we retreat to safer ground, asking if this a modernist painting or a postmodern one? After all, invention and individualityultimately docede to a sign that could hardly look less original: the postmodernists get this right. Yet even so, Johns’s borrowings have never undermined the general confidence in his originality. If the standard question, flag or painting, points efficiently to the unsteadiness of Flag’s double identity, that unsteadiness was never so consequential as to give rise to mistakes. The artist’s very first critics seemed to know exactly what to do when face to face with the work. The rules are clear inside the art world’s galleries, as Robert Rosenblum grasped at once in responding to the painter’s first solo show: “Johns is dedicated to images which outside picture galleries evoke non-aesthetic reactions. There is the American flag, which one respects or salutes; targets, which one aims at and hopes to hit; numbers, which one counts with: and letters, which one uses to make words to be read. To see these commonplaces faithfully reproduced in sizes from large to small is disconcerting enough, but not so bewildering as the visual and intellectual impact they carry.”7 And so, with Rosenblum’s immediate understanding of Flag as a painting—with its ability to generate “visual and intellectual impact” from non-aesthetic sources—the critical game begins. It places viewers inside a picture gallery, where aesthetic rules apply. No counting, reading, reverence or violence, please: no respect, no salutes. What occurs instead is the first mention of the “sensuous presence” of Johns’s paintings, with their “elegant craftsmanship” and “fine nuance.” John’s artistic reputation starts here, as Rosenblum resonates to the “added poignancy of a beloved handmade transcription of unloved, machine-made images.” This is not the last time a critic will say there is love in the look of Johns’s paintings. Nor is such a comment surprising, given the waxen warmth of their much-touched surfaces. Rosenblum knows what he is looking at and how to respond.
By now, however, many art critics have become accustomed to thinking of the arts as locked in a life-or-death struggle with at least some constitutive aspects of the system for which the flag of Flag has come to stand—the system of the commodity and its objects, technology and rationalization, and all that follows from them. In a recent contribution to contemporary aesthetics, the literary critic J. M. Bernstein has spelled out the oppressive list: “the abstractions of exchange value, technique, means-ends rationality, functionality, structural domination.”8 For Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, this same list is more or less the text of John’s paintings in the 1950s. It is both what they enact and what they are about. “Johns’s painting committed itself (in the way one is ‘committed’ to an institution) to the tautological rigor of mapping the canvas”—with a matrix or template—“which hermetically enacted the order of total administration in which any hope for the renaturalization of gesture, chroma, and composition had been lost altogether.”9
Most readers of these pages can doubtless look at Flag and grasp what Buchloh means by the “hermetic enactment of total administration.” His phrase names a visual performance, a literal and constitutive visual effect: painting and image are physically coextensive, sign and surface are one—with their unity miming the totalization of power itself. The question of the picture’s hope or hopelessness about the future of an individualized or personalized painting (what Buchloh terms the “renaturalization of gesture” and so on) is a different matter; for what Buchloh sees as irretrievably lost in Johns’s painting is precisely what Rosenblum thinks he has found. Buchloh’s renaturalization is Rosenblum’s poignancy; where Buchloh speaks of gesture, chroma and composition as utterly artificial, Rosenblum finds “elegant craftsmanship” and painterly nuance—terms suggesting that, Buchloh notwithstanding, “renaturalization” was going on apace.
Yet Buchloh says something else in these dour remarks. His parenthetical phrase–his odd, perhaps unconscious declaration that “Johns’s painting committed itself (in the way one is “committed” to an institution)”–is enough to stop the reader in her tracks. Then come his claims about “tautological rigor,” “the order of total administration” and the rest. How is one committed to an institution? Which institution is in question: painting, the asylum, or the nation state? In which does the lunacy lie? Does painting offer refuge, or the straitjacket? Is one’s commitment madness? Is it involuntary? Buchloh’s phrase is so provocative because it conflates painting and person, between Flag and Johns: the former actively accomplishes what the latter passively engages; we are left wondering about the intentions of paintings and painters, and how to tell them apart.
Here is what should be done with Buchloh’s parenthesis: it needs a new position, right at center stage. There it may be able to perform some of the passions and worries that Johns’s Flag brings on. We have gotten the key question wrong: what matters is not whether the work is a flag or a painting, but why the two—the symbol and the practice—have been so intimately married, till death do them part. These are the proper questions: Why turn the American flag into a painting? And vice versa: Why turn a painting into an American flag? Not only does this rephrasing ask for an explanation, it also insists that Johns’s flag, as a painting, takes a posture towards the nation: it presents itself as the very emblem of a national school. As a flag, however, it offers a demonstration of how that sign can behave towards whatever—whomever—it governs or rules. On the one hand, Johns’s painting opens itself up to the flag utterly, abjectly; on the other, the flag can be said to dominate, physically saturate, the image field. Its colors stain the traces of the daily papers; they comprise a surface that may well be sensitive, even impressionable, yet is also waxy and artificial, like a false flower or a tricked-out corpse. Johns’s painting, in other words, yields to complete identification with its chosen symbol, but also produces an utterly artificial proxy for it, through an improbable aestheticization achieved by the most technically marginal of means.
As always, the means are what count. Johns’ painting is clearly assertive: what does it say? Again, why turn the American flag into a painting? Why turn a painting into an American flag? For Johns, the impulse was not just some passing fancy, a short-lived whim. On the contrary, he did so insistently, repetitively, year after year: more than ninety times in all. Yet the other two versions of 1955 do most to bring Flag itself, the catalyst of the series, clearly into view. The first is Flag Above White with Collage. Here encaustic again transforms snippets of newsprint into stars and stripes. Now, though, two elements are added: the white field or ground that supports the flag, and the found strip of I. D. photographs of a unknown white man visible in the stripes along the right edge. Unlike Flag’s half-buried snippets, its presence is overt. As Johns said of it, “that’s a very deliberate kind of thing clearly left to be shown, not automatically used, but used consciously.”10 If we ask what Johns was consciously using—what is represented by the field and the photographs—the answer, as so often with Johns, takes shockingly literal form: whiteness and male identity. We might even take the unknown man in the photo strip as a figure of the citizen, its quasi-ideal.
The other painting of 1955 is the colossal White Flag; it is double the size of Flag. What makes this version different? The title telegraphs what is new. Now being white defines every step in the logic of the image, starting with its surface and moving out from there. Now the noisy must be hidden, safely plastered flat. Now there is no avoiding the work’s assertive ambitions, as if whiteness demands an increase in scale. And now there is a decided loosening in the handling of the newly blanched surface, with the result that at certain crucial junctures in the images–the points of several stars, for example–drips occurs, as if the design itself is leaking or bleeding or weeps. Where a national whiteness is concerned, not least for a state in the throes of an endlessly belated racial integration, all these terms might seem able to assert their claims.
Both these images lead directly back to Flag. What no one has so far noticed about this much-studied painting is the origin or purpose of ten raised white letters that curve along the lower right arm of the bottom left star. Large enough to read, they spell out “ITED STATES.” What matters even more is how they were made, and what the blue wax surrounding them conceals. They are raised letters on an embossed government seal lying just beneath the surface, and that seal seems to sit on a passport page of an unknown white male, who, we learn, is married and weighs 182 pounds.11 He too is a citizen—the citizen, duly inscribed and certified—a national ambassador authorized to leave the country, and then return “home”. His presence seems essential to Flag. So is his place within the fabric of the painting—precisely where, in this national image, we would expect him to be.
Of course Johns did not—could not—stop painting the flag; with each new version its rhetorical complexity becomes clearer. In Three Flags (1958), the flag appears in triplicate, with the reiteration being built up in three dimensions, until it takes on the force of an expansive hallucination, an image replicating or echoing itself. This is the version that Hans Haacke parodied in 2000, in a piece addressing the hard-fisted response of the Giuliani administration to the staging of the Sensation show by the Brooklyn Museum. Haacke responded with an installation dubbed Sanitation, built (of course) around the assertive presence of the flag. I think his choice of this Johns to emulate gets what is visionary or dreamlike—even nightmarish—about the triplicate image precisely right: peel away one flag, and there’s an even bigger one behind. But to speak of the visionary leads directly to another flag in the sequence. In 1964, while in Japan, Johns imagined, and then, in 1965 painted, a flag of black, green and orange, with the thought that rather than attack or undo the nation’s banner, the work, when stared at fixedly, would summon a haunting afterimage: the flag would live on retinally in regulation red, white and blue, its persistence a physiological effect that no one willing to look long enough—the devoted connoisseur, say, or the dedicated patriot—could possibly fail to see.]12 This is the canvas that most directly remembers Johns’s decade-old dream of painting the flag, only to transform the initial spectral image of a dream-flag into the unexpected and involuntary response a flag painting can wring from its beholder, against her will.
Why turn the American flag into a painting? Why turn a painting into an American flag? To ask the question this way breathes new life into the old flag-versus-painting debate. Here are the rudiments of an answer to both. Johns’s complete giving over of his painting to a national symbol is as declarative as it is equivocal, a literalizing restatement of what was then a current critical claim. If you want American-type painting, well, here it is: decisively testing its status as painting, certainly, able to be looked upon with enjoyment, maybe, but also declaring the conceptual limits—what is simultaneously parochial and aggressive—built into the very concept of a national American art. Those limits have less to do with technology and its rationalizations than they concern the complex and irrational affect that accompanies—that still accompanies—this ultimate American sign. Johns’s painting acknowledges the hegemonic position of American painting in the mid 1950s, but, more to the point, also acknowledges American hegemony itself in some wider and more crucially affective way. Hegemony, remember, is a dualism—it requires both force and consent.
Force and consent: these two words were chosen by the British scholar Perry Anderson, the editor of New Left Review, as the title for an essay published in 2002 to examine current US policy in light of international objectives in place since World War II.13 Anderson reminds us that, in his words, “it is essential to bear in mind the formal figure of any hegemony, which necessarily always conjugates a particular power with a general task of coordination.” I am not pretending my own small inquiry into Flag and the flag—Anderson’s “formal figure of hegemony”—answers to the scale of his analysis, but I do want my effort to stay true to his essay’s main force, which is to grasp how American hegemony works, the peculiar, shifting, often-toxic balance between the particular and general, between ideological invitation and brutal bringing-into-line. And as Antonio Gramsci’s initial propositions on hegemony sought to demonstrate, such power operates both nationally and locally, deep in the fabric of everyday life. Hegemony, Gramsci writes, defines the state’s role in enlisting the allegiance of its citizens: “how each single individual [will] succeed in incorporating himself into the collective many, and how educative pressure [will] be applied to single individuals so as to obtain their consent and their collaboration, turning necessity and coercion into ‘freedom.’” I am suggesting not so much that Flag references the operations of hegemony, as that it condenses and enacts them: it makes them its own, as a constitutive aspect of the view of painting—of American-type painting—that it defines. In fact I think Flag might best be described as a realist work: I have already, I hope, suggested why.
What Flag quite pragmatically thus imports into the sphere of our discussions is the need ourselves to attend to dualities of meaning with more political realism. When we speak, for example, of “the order of total administration” or of “the abstractions of exchange value” or “structural domination,” we erase a whole register of the exercise and legitimation of power, not least locally, within the body of the nation itself. That process operates through persuasion, loyalty, allegiance, belonging; its signs are visceral and ubiquitous—“unflagging,” we might say; the responses it solicits or mandates saturate the texture of the ordinary, just the way Johns’s hot and dangerous colors soaked into the snippets of newsprint they so perilously affix. What is most instructive about Flag—what in the end makes it a realist work—is its terrifying, inevitable, ambivalence in the face of the kinds of commitment demanded by the United States. Robert Rosenblum was right to find Johns’s imagery bewildering: never more so, I wager, than at an historical moment when the flag, if ever more tattered and threadbare, is still dominant, still flies so high. It still provides the scrim through which its supporters, and maybe even its detractors, continue to see the world. The long-ago themes of The Americans do not go away. Their relevance will remain, moreover, for years to come. What this will mean, both globally and locally, has yet to come fully into view. But one thing is certain: both the flag and the national mindset will continue to be figures by artists who, like Johns, recognize the fatal power and persuasiveness of Americanism as a mode of representation and perception—as a form of political speech.
With this in mind, consider one final flag image: a work by Haacke, made public in time for the election of November 2004. Titled Star Gazing, it portrays, in a conventional portrait format, a young man in a T-shirt—an ordinary citizen—whose head is shrouded in and erased by the flag. The hood brings the torturer’s work back home. As at Abu Ghraid, the victim’s utter isolation and blindness are the point. Though a victim, however, he is also a citizen—heir to John Heartfield’s cabbage-head, the reader of bourgeois papers, but also the offspring of the hidden man embedded in Johns’s star. We are not used to thinking of Johns as an activist artist; in Haacke’s case the opposite is true. Nor do we necessarily expect from Haacke, as we do from Johns, meditations on the ontological or perceptual status of the arts. But even granted these differences—and others I have not articulated—it is easy to see that both are concerned with the impact of nationalism, with the implications of the persuasions and forces to which, all too willingly, both persons and paintings give themselves up.
A final question presents itself: why study Flag in the first place? I have done so because I am a US citizen, because the US, backed by its allies, continues its engagement in murderous warfare at enormous human and ethical cost, and because, as Johns implicitly acknowledges, actions carried out in the name of the nation raise the issue of the citizen’s ambiguous belonging to that nation. If those ambiguities are structured into U.S. hegemony—woven into its double logic, the logic of force and consent—it may be time to examine again, with microscopic precision, one’s own belonging to that overarching logic and what it conceals? What are its materials? How deeply do they lie buried? According to what allegiances are they deployed? As I first formulated these questions, I was confident that these were also Johns’ questions while fabricating Flag. I still think so today. Of course he would never say as much. Instead he said, referring specifically to his deployment of newsprint while making Flag: “Perhaps some of the words went into my mind: I was not conscious of it.”14 My point precisely: this is the lesson of Flag. Its taciturn citations speak to how decisively, yet subtly our unconscious belonging to the national project can disrupt the surface of our daily life.
1. Jack Kerouac, Introduction to Robert Frank, The Americans (New York: Scalo, 1993), p. 6.↑
2. Fred Orton, Figuring Jasper Johns (London: Reaktion, 1994) pp. 110-18. I am grateful to the staff of the Conservation Department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and particularly to Jim Coddington, for generous help in examining Johns’s Flag and for making available digital scans of a series of ultra-violet images of the work from 1977.↑
3. Walter Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,” Artforum 3, no. 6 (March 1965) reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, ed. K. Varnedoe (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 106.↑
4. Johns, writing to William Rubin, director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, on February 14, 1977, in response to Rubin’s request for a technical description of Flag, explained why he wanted the museum to change its description of the work “encaustic on newsprint on canvas” to “encaustic and collage on canvas”: “It suggests to me that newsprint is attached to the canvas before the painting is begun, or that the canvas is attached to the newsprint after the painting is finished.” Johns continued, “The actual process in making these works involved dipping pieces of paper and cloth into hot melted encaustic and fixing them to the surface before the encaustic had solidified. In this way, some areas may not include the use of the brush. The two ways of applying paint—with a brush or with the material dipped in the hot medium—have equal value and follow no particular sequence.” Curatorial Files, Department of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York.↑
5. Orton too notices this phrase in Robert Rosenblum’s first review of Johns, printed in Arts, January 1958, and reproduced in Jasper Johns, Leo Castelli: 35 Years (New York: Castelli with Harry Abrams, Inc., 1993) n.p.↑
8. Jay Bernstein, “Against Voluptuous Bodies: Of Satiation without Happiness,” New Left Review, no. 225, September/October 1997: 98.↑
9. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Neo-Avant Garde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, MIT, 2000), p. 252. The reference to Johns’s reliance on a “‘mere’ template” occurs on the page before.↑
10. Hopps, interview, in Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, p. 106.↑
11. In Walter Hopps’ interview of Johns in 1965, Johns recalls clearly the presence of “a few embossed papers with come through,” in the fabric of Flag; see Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, p. 106.↑
12. According to the Japanese critic, Yoshiaki Tono, Johns voiced the intention to execute a work he titled Optical Echo: Two Flags during his 1964 visit to Japan. See Y. Tono, “Jasper Johns in Tokyo,” Bijutsu Techô (Tokyo) (August 1964): 5-8, reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, p. 103. Executed in 1965, this work, still in the artist’s collection, was in the event simply titled Flags.↑
13. Perry Anderson, “Force and Consent,” New Left Review 17, second series, (September/October 2002): 5-30.↑
14. Hopps, interview, in Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, p. 106.↑
WardFrazer Ward writes:
In the introduction to A House Divided: American Art since 1955Anne Wagner writes: “What has it been like—this is the book’s repeated question—to experience U.S. hegemony from the inside,as shaping the fundamental patterns of artistic production, to say nothing of the fabric of everyday life.” Sometimes, it is the most straightforward-seeming moves that can reframe a field of inquiry. Usually, moves like this seem straightforward because of how effectively, even immediately, they clarify your view of the field, and because they seem like they were just waiting to happen: of course, you think, even though nothing you’ve read before actually poses quite the same question. But, of course, they are not really straightforward. It’s one thing to rethink nation as a context for art in the face of globalization, or to analyze the influence of empire on domestic experience even in the awareness of its decline, or to rearticulate politics in relation to artistic production and everyday life via the consensual element of hegemony. It’s another to bring these together and embed them in a methodological driver as efficient as Wagner’s question.
It makes sense that Jasper Johns’s flag paintings should be Wagner’s entry point. A lot is known about them, yet those paintings have maintained a reserve, which isn’t opened out by “critical and complicit,” or by “indifference.” Their abstract expressionist/Cold War contexts, the overdetermined yet commonplace aspect of the flag itself, and Johns’s laborious methods, with their formal elements that meet some modernist imperatives, and their countermanding, domestic elements (newspapers, the bedsheet), seem to require a reading of the flag paintings as political statements, but such readings—where they have not seen the work as a sign of surrender to the “order of total administration”—have remained largely in suspension. Wagner reads the I.D. photo and passport fragments embedded but visible in Flag and Flag Above White with Collage as figuring the ideal-type of the American citizen, the white male, officially documented, able to leave and come home. And she connects Johns’s famous statement about Flag having come to him in a dream with two more direct statements, about the I.D. photo as “a very deliberate thing clearly left to be shown,” and the use of newsprint in Flag: “Perhaps some of the words went into my mind: I was not conscious of it.” Where Johns’s remarks are sometimes read as blague, Wagner matches his play with conscious and unconscious awareness to the white male citizen’s participation in the national project: hegemony, she reminds us, requires both force and consent, and Johns’s flags are recast as signal instances of the examination, “with microscopic precision,” of “one’s own belonging to that overarching logic and what it conceals. What are its materials? How deeply are they buried? According to what allegiances are they deployed?” Johns’s work in this reading is, after Abu Ghraib and while U.S. wars continue abroad, more urgent than ever.
Wagner’s retrospective and admittedly polemical inquiry into Johns’s flags animates and returns a live rhetorical complexity to works that might have been in danger of becoming subject to a kind of art-historical delectation. Perhaps the decline of the U.S. empire and the instability and uncertainty that grips the contemporary body politic is the recurrent if asymmetrical trauma that rearticulates the emergence of American hegemony and the domestic upheavals of the Cold War. A House Divided is certainly driven by contemporary circumstances, and the exigencies of “being at home in an imperial power.” This gives rise to equally elegant, detailed and surprising analyses of works by a range of artists. One of Wagner’s themes throughout, implicit in the essay on Johns, is the status of “home,” where home is often mapped onto the studio, seen “as both laboratory and refuge.” Concomitantly, she sees everyday life, as disrupted “by our unconscious belonging to the national project,” as a political field. The continuity between public and private realms that this seems to require is often, though not only, derived from feminism. Wagner, it strikes me, holds all labels equally at arm’s length, whether it’s “the modernists,” “the postmodernists,” or “the feminists” (though she makes a telling remark in the essay on Louise Bourgeois about the over-deployment of biographical criticism as “a problematic effect of post-60s feminist efforts to revalue artists who are women”). It’s not that Wagner doesn’t generate arguments that can be seen as feminist, or as having feminist implications (or implications for feminism, certainly feminist art history). But it is a hallmark of her writing that she approaches artworks themselves without preconception, and identification with this or that label might undercut her remarkably clear-eyed accounts of the materiality of the works she discusses. Also, I suspect that Wagner is interested in “same,” as well as “different.”
The essays gathered in A House Divided were written over more than a decade, so one can’t quibble with the artists Wagner picked. But her question about living inside U.S. hegemony brought to mind two other artists in particular. One was Sol LeWitt, especially in light of the fact that his first wall drawing appeared in an exhibition in 1968 protesting the Vietnam War. As with Johns, there was the evacuation of “the semblance of invention or originality,” though this was achieved very differently, and now there was engagement with the architectural support: we can certainly see in this the logic of administration, and the critique of the object status of the artwork, but Wagner’s essay on Johns alone (leaving aside the rest of the book), must have us poke and prod at this some more. How was it possible to experience the conceptual grid on the gallery wall as an appropriate form of anti-imperial protest, in 1968? And how so, if we see the early LeWitt, unlike Johns, as also deemphasizing the role of the studio, as either refuge or laboratory (though the studio would subsequently return as central to his production)?
The other figure Wagner’s question brought to mind was Richard Serra. Serra, more or less purpose-built to meet the criteria for white, male, “great artist,” can seem the most imperious of artists: his work is, by any definition, powerful. Yet to enter some of his tunnel-like structures, or the torqued ellipses, can also be to enter a disorienting and unstable-seeming space. The temptation might be to see this as a disorienting experience of a model of public space, inside an object generated by the same order of means as American military machines. As in Wagner’s analysis of Johns’s flags, might Serra’s massive metal sculptures represent Americanism as a form of political speech? I don’t have answers, about LeWitt or Serra, but I introduce them here to suggest one of the ways in which Wagner’s work may prove generative. There will, I suspect, be many.
15. Steinberg, “Jasper Johns: the First Seven Years of His Art,” in Other Criteria, pp. 26, 47.↑
16. Steinberg, “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public,” in Other Criteria, p. 14.↑
PalermoCharles Palermo writes:
Everybody’s Got a Little Light: Johns and Democracy
In her “Jasper Johns’s Flag,” Anne Wagner takes up the breakthrough work of one America’s most crucial postwar artists. I say “crucial,” because he forms a crux—between modernism and postmodernism, most famously, but also between divided impulses toward America. Wagner approaches Johns’s Flag (1954-55) through two readings of it that show off nicely its own ambivalence and its crucial place in American postwar art. Wagner cites Benjamin Buchloh, who connects the conformance of Johns’s collaged and painted elements with the precise and total identity of the flag-image with the painting’s support to advance a conclusion about the painting’s political valence. On this reading, in short, the “tautological rigor of mapping the canvas…enacted the order of total administration.” The totality of the image’s identity with the extension and division of its object-support leaves no room (again, on Buchloh’s account) for expression, freedom, “the renaturalization of gesture, chroma, and composition.”17 On the other hand, we have Robert Rosenblum, who stands in for that contingent of critics who see in Johns’s complicated and patient facture—in Flag and elsewhere in his oeuvre—“a beloved handmade transcription of unloved, machine-made images.” For this camp, it is Flag’s “sensuous presence,” and our aesthetic appreciation of it, that counts.18
I risk oversimplifying Wagner’s view, because she never precisely equates either assessment of Johns with either of hegemony’s horns. But this pair—the “total administration” of tautology and the persuasion of “sensuous presence”—parallel or enact the twin assault of hegemony as Antonio Gramsci described it. One part coercion; one part persuasion. And I think the parallel is crucial to Wagner’s argument. Not that she buys into either account of Johns—far from it. Wagner expresses her reservations about both accounts. She is clearly concerned that focusing on the formal enactment of the “order of total administration” misses (crudely, it might be added, if Buchloh were not writing of Johns in passing) the decisive role of attraction in Johns’s facture. This emphasis on the structural tautology, however, causes us to “erase a whole register of the exercise and legitimation of power” even or especially as it is projected within the nation, among us, its citizens.
She is certainly right to be so concerned. The attractions of “sensuous presence” pose their own dangers, though, by playing on and standing in for all that plays on our sympathies. Sensuous white paint hides, smuggles “whiteness and male identity,” “a figure of the citizen” as a white man, “its quasi-ideal.” Johns’s 1965 black, green and orange flag uses its color “to transform the initial spectral image of a dream-flag into the unexpected and involuntary response a flag painting can wring from its beholder, against her will.” The afterimage is only one form this psychological coercion may take. “Persuasion, loyalty, allegiance, belonging”—these are part of “how American hegemony works.” Tricks of the eye and of the mind and of the heart, with no secure boundary to separate them. The response, almost paradoxical, of the subject seems to be a feeling of desiring that to which one submits by requirement, “the peculiar, shifting, often-toxic balance between…ideological invitation and brutal bringing-into-line.” Hence the play with being “committed,” which Wagner picks up from Buchloh and puts at the center of the question about Johns; and hence the (again, almost paradoxical) play between conviction and confinement. Of course, the question must arise whether this can be true conviction—whether “ideological invitation” can be sincere and whether accepting one can be the right thing to do. Is seeing a ghostly flag after staring at Johns’s black, green and orange specimen the right thing to do?
If this insidious “ideological invitation” is how hegemony works, it must be a mistake, a blindness to militarism, racism, consumerism, and other well-known features of American hegemony. Such an invitation won’t be expression in the sense valued by Abstract Expressionism, for instance, as a vehicle for real meaning; it will be at the best a sales pitch, a rationalization, or a seduction. The unanswerable question—whether Johns’s Flag is a painting of a flag or a painted flag—opens an ontological uncertainty that may leave no room for meaning. Wagner notes the crux—the uncertainty about whether Johns belongs to modernism or postmodernism—but discovers a Johns who buys his centrality to the project of postwar American art at the risk of exemplifying a literalist sensibility (that rigorous, tautological relation of image and object that excludes expression and questions signification) and a mendacious, theatrical one (that uses its sensuous presence to seduce, to distract, to bamboozle).
Does Johns offer a prospect of redemption? A way of being a good American? An American one can mean to be what she is? Maybe. There are other Johns’s, after all. Wagner never denies that there is also the Johns of False Start (1959), in which the mismatch of colors’ names and the patches of color that support them (or articulate their names) replaces the tautological with the arbitrary (or aleatory—the difference doesn’t matter right now) and leaves the sensuous facture in place (along with skepticism about its suitability as a vehicle for expression).19 Different as it looks from the Johns of Flag, this Johns offers just as good a critique of expression—once we see paint-handling as (the work of) a device and see the relation of our propositions to our world as arbitrary, our freedom is trivial, as nugatory as it was in the realm of tautology and sensuous seduction. There is still no viable account of expression in sight and nothing to be convinced of. This arbitrary or “open” relation between the work of composition and the experience of the receiver/beholder/audience is as coercive, as controlling, in its own way as the tautological mode.20
But there’s still another Johns. There is also a Johns who offers a basis for explaining—not an explanation of—the relation of the image and its material expression. (Perhaps this is the Johns whom Frank Stella saw.21) Consider this explanation Johns offered David Sylvester for his 1960 Flashlight:
The flashlight: I had a particular idea in my mind what a flashlight looked like. I hadn’t really handled a flashlight since, I guess, I was a child, and I had this image of a flashlight in my head, and I wanted to go and buy one as a model. I looked for a week for what I thought looked like an ordinary flashlight, and I found all kinds of flashlights with red plastic shields, wings on the sides, all kinds of things, and I finally found one that I wanted. And it made me very suspect of my idea, because it was so difficult to find this thing I had thought was so common.22
Johns makes the relation of his will/intention/meaning to the given shape, that form to which he “commits” himself, a matter of finding a given that responds to his own “particular” idea, one as personal as a childhood recollection and as public as the word “ordinary” suggests. Ultimately, he finds his flashlight, but the difficulty of finding it makes him suspect his assumption of its ordinariness. This, it seems to me, is a little more paradoxical than the combination of coercion and persuasion in which our notion of hegemony consists. This isn’t precisely the Cold War (or current) alloy of arm-twisting and seduction.
Wagner dwells a little, toward the end of her piece, on Johns’ possible unconscious appropriation of meanings from his found materials, which leads her to answer the question she begins with: “What is the individual’s ongoing relation—how does she belong—to the national culture she may serve or criticize, but which has also helped shape her life and thought?” The answer, for Wagner, is that Flag reveals “how decisively, yet subtly our unconscious belonging to the national project can disrupt the surface of our daily life.” America’s hegemony returns unconsciously, like a trauma (though Wagner doesn’t use the word), in the ordinary. In our flags and flashlights, our I.D. photos and our passports. This Johns speaks for a subject—since she is “‘committed’ to an institution,” perhaps we should think of her as a patient—trapped in a mimetic relationship with her nation. Inveigled by ideology or shocked by what is imposed on her or hypnotically recalling the signs that shape her consciousness, how can we say she has a will of her own, a proper voice, something to express?23 Maybe Johns recognizes this condition in his choice of motifs, which, as Leo Steinberg noted, are “associable with sufferance rather than action.”24 But Johns only recognizes the possibility that “some of the words went into my mind.” Perhaps his voice is his, after all, even if his words are readymades.
What Johns indicates by saying he is “very suspect of [his] idea” is that he wants to feel that the model or matrix to which he commits himself is both public and his. But it should be both—that’s the idea. It must be his; if he then subjects himself to it, as if to a rule, it will nevertheless be his own rule he obeys. And that is not hegemony, but freedom. If it is also public—common to us—then it is also ours. And we are a nation.
The trick is to know, first, which Johns we’re dealing with at any given moment, and, second, whether the voice with which he chooses his model flashlight is his own. Can we, in this nation of “EVERYTHING-ness,” find things we can affirm, give our consent, each of us with her own voice? Despite the wars, the injustices, and all the rest? But that is, as Stanley Cavell explains, our American task:
This is a way of formulating the idea that freedom is obeying the law we give to ourselves, which is to say: freedom is autonomy. Formulating this idea rather from the side of what I say (authorizing the law) than from the side of what I listen to (obey, subject to the law) is meant to bring forward the way a compromised state of society, since it is mine, compromises me. This idea is essential to my understanding of Emersonian Perfectionism, that is, a perfectionism understood not only to be compatible with democracy, but its prize. The idea is that the mode of character formed under the invitation to the next self, entering the next state of society, is one capable of withstanding the inevitable compromise of democracy without cynicism, and it is the way that reaffirms not only consent to a given society but reaffirms the idea of consent as a responsiveness to society, an extension of the consent that founds it. This idea takes the public pursuit of happiness, an attestation of the society as a site of this pursuit in the presence of its unexplained misery, as a test of the goodness enough of its justice. The suffering compromises my happiness, but it does not falsify it nor its show of consent.25
I couldn’t have found better words for it myself.
17. She sites Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Neo-Avant Garde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 252.↑
18. Robert Rosenblum, in Jasper Johns, Leo Castelli: 35 Years (New York: Castelli and Harry Abrams, 1993), n.p.↑
19. Harry Cooper discusses this Johns and his tense relationship to the third Johns in his excellent essay, “Speak, Painting: Word and Device in Early Johns,” October 127 (Winter 2009): 49-76.↑
20. See Walter Benn Michaels, “Neoliberal Aesthetics: Fried, Rancière and the Form of the Photograph,” nonsite.org 1 (February 2011).↑
21. See William S. Rubin, Frank Stella (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1970), 12. Rubin cites Stella: “‘The thing that struck me most was the way [Johns] stuck to the motif…’”↑
22. David Sylvester, “Jasper Johns (1965)” in Interviews with American Artists (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 152.↑
23. For a compact account of the relevant notion of a patient in a mimetic relationship, see Ruth Leys, “The Real Miss Beauchamp: An Early Case of Traumatic Dissociation,” in Trauma: A Genealogy (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 41-82, esp. 45-51.↑
24. Leo Steinberg, “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art” (1962) in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (London, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 26.↑
25. Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, Carus Lectures 1988 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 28.↑
SiraganianLisa Siraganian writes:
The Problem with Post-1955 Art as Literature
He who could write, write so well with drawing and with colors, knew very well that to write with words was, for him, not to write at all.
–Gertrude Stein, Picasso (1938)26
Anne Middleton Wagner’s illuminating A House Divided: American Art since 1955 reveals how the literariness of post-1955 art has become its defining aspect. That might not be the book’s primary aim. The artists she examines do not drop literary allusions left and right, nor do they always create art from written language’s invocations (although Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse seem to). What they do is “convey…meanings allegorically” (31), to appropriate Wagner’s canny description of Andy Warhol’s paintings. Analogy, generally conceived, is the deep structure of both post-war art and Wagner’s book, whether we are observing Gordon Matta-Clark’s surgery on an allegorically feminine architecture (62), Dan Flavin’s work’s “metaphorical” qualities (120), Bruce Nauman’s “analogiz[ing]” of himself and his art (149), or Kara Walker’s symbolic transformations of racial narratives (96-7). Analogic thinking prompts the allegorizing of art’s formal properties, now resignified as home and the (divided) nation.
I suppose my perch in an English department orients me to sniff out the literary, even when I’m not sure I want to. Dissecting art objects with a masterful hand, Wagner simultaneously provides readings that suggest, to me, how post-war art’s reliance on the language of literary convention has generated an impoverished language of art. To be clear, I don’t mean the language critics and historians use to talk about art, but the language that Gertrude Stein invokes in my epigraph from Picasso: the writing in which art makes its meaning. A House Divided brilliantly gathers and illustrates evidence to explain this scenario, but—here’s my quibble—glances away from the darker insights about contemporary art that her analysis provokes.
Discussing Jasper Johns’ Flag (1954-55), Wagner describes how, in the original attempt to define the painting (symbol? art object?), critics failed to consider why one would want to “turn the American flag into a painting” and vice versa (17). She suggests Johns wanted to “acknowledge American hegemony itself in some wider and more crucially affective way” (21). Thus, Flag is “a realist work” precisely because it “condenses and enacts” the ideological work a flag performs for (and on) its citizens (22).
In this regard, her discussion of Flags (1965), a later work in which the familiar tri-color flag emerges only as a retinal response—an after image—of a green, orange, and black flag, is the more compelling example (click here for Johns’ lithographic variation on the same theme). Staring at the top flag for a few seconds and then quickly darting your eyes downward, an after image subsequently appears “against [your] will” on the seemingly color-bleached flag (20). Although it would be more accurate to say that the after image appears irrespective of your will—I will come back to this—for Wagner, the optical after image captures the combination of “force and consent” that national symbols both demand and elicit from citizens (21).
Wagner’s account of Johns’ various Flag paintings is deft and compelling; her unexpected label of Flag as “realist” is a revelation. We might push the “realism” designation further. With Flag (1954-55), Johns takes a symbol and transforms it by adding not just another sign or “practice” (17), but an entirely different type of sign: an index. Whereas symbols (letters, numbers, flags) need not resemble what they represent, indexical signs (weather cocks, photographs, smoke signals) bring “to the interpreter the experience of the very object denoted.”27 Contemporary fabric, newspaper clippings, and, as Wagner reveals, passport pages embossed with the U.S. seal, transform into a partial collaged index of American nationhood circa 1954-55. Combining the symbol of a nation with indexical samples of American nationhood (and not just, as Robert Rosenblum would have it, with a different, “aesthetic,” order of value), the painting aims to transform the experience of one sign system by incorporating another.
In other words, two orders of meaning play off one another (as in Synthetic Cubism) for a more disruptive effect (as in Dada). Perhaps this is the source of what Benjamin Buchloh finds so totalizing about Flag, with its “hermetic enactment of total administration,” as Wagner quotes (16). Whereas Buchloh perceives a hegemon firmly secure, Wagner sees performative potential in the work: Flag “takes a posture toward the nation” (17). The inclusion of two sign systems, although not precisely labeled as such, suggests to her the possibility for subversive disunion. But, more crucially, the disagreement between Wagner and Buchloh about the ideological nature of Flag makes clear that interpretative disputes between sign systems must be arbitrated as competing readings of figurative language. Or, to cast out an analogy of my own, index and symbol linked together as Flag either create a constricting net that binds absolutely (Buchloh) or a fabric of slipknots that stretch and release (Wagner). Because figurative language often has two or more simultaneous meanings, critics, whether of the art or literary variety, will invariably dispute one another’s readings of that “net.”
For Wagner, the possibility that symbolic and indexical signs are non-identical, yet both present, enables the work to mount a challenge in an allegorical, national space. The division between sign systems maps onto the split in the house (or nation). Artists in the second half of the book, in the section entitled “A Place of Safety” (Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, and Dan Flavin, among others), might be holed up in the Bowery or decamped to Taos, but those relatively safe places sequester a fifth column. On the one hand, as in Adorno’s version, art’s refusal to mention society surreptitiously dramatizes an unspoken resistance to society, plotting behind the covered up windows of, say, Bruce Nauman’s studio. On the other hand, unlike in Adorno’s version, in which art relies on a tradition of formal debates or a horizon of the now from which an autonomous avant garde can develop, post-1955 art mostly foregoes these aspects. To quote Wagner’s introduction, “without a tradition to inhabit—not even a tradition of the new—their frames of reference are both less bound and more arbitrary than ever before” (5). I wish I had said it first.
But her next statement puzzled me for a while. In this post-tradition scenario, she continues, “the most basic choice of means gains a new eloquence that is fundamental to the semantics of the work” (5). How does that work exactly? Eloquence, as I understand it (less than perform it), is an aesthetic category that relies on value judgments or parameters within which to establish a hierarchy of more or less articulate pronouncements. A boundless choice might have fascinating qualities, but eloquence isn’t among them. That’s because a boundless choice is by definition arbitrary, and probably private, as in Wittgenstein’s or Louise Bourgeois’ sense of a private language game. When post-1955 art abjures the “tradition of the new,” it also forswears eloquence, gaucheness, or anything in between.
Unless—the “unless,” I think, that Wagner’s book hinges on—the “semantics of the work” are largely allegorical or metaphorical, following a “thematics of isolation and not-quite-belonging” (7). In that case, neither a formal grammar (a syntax) nor a set of meaningful idioms (a semantics) is required to make sense of the post-1955 art object. Instead, there exists a “semantics” of the post-1955 art field as a whole. Simultaneously, individual art objects would be essentially uninterpretable, only making sense in so far as they dramatize post-1955 art’s focus on non-belonging. Relying on the semiological notion that signs only mean differentially, Wagner’s version of aesthetic interpretation paradoxically rejects the possibility for any single work to mean. It’s as if the words in Stein’s Picasso—or any other text—couldn’t be read as signs until you had read all of the other writing being produced in English in 1938. Also in French—the language in which Stein originally wrote Picasso. One more thing: you must have already formed a total account of the field. Under these conditions, how could you begin reading, or interpreting, anything at all?
It might be that my imagined scenario of a reading-free world wouldn’t bother Wagner (perhaps our different disciplinary homes are once more responsible for this disparity). Since her book is filled with nuanced readings of art’s complicated signs, I find that a hard sell, but let’s consider the possibility. In that case, in addition to the semantics of the post-1955 art field, the realm she is most interested in is the experiential, bodily, or retinal. Yet language, we know, is not just made up of signifiers in a roughly envisioned field, but also the particular meanings of individual signs. Literary language and ordinary language alike follow the logic of these signs. In other words, once art has turned into a process of figuratively interpreting the experiential play between different sign systems, you’re firmly and unavoidably in the realm of language—my disciplinary home.
By transforming the “semantics of the work” into a “thematics” of the field, Johns’ green-orange-black flag painting symbolically transforms into a performance of national coercion (“against her will”). We play an optical game—instead of observing the formal syntax of painting—when we experience, in our mind’s eye, a red-white-and-blue flag as an after image. Then, interpreting this retinal reaction within contemporary art’s field of meaning, we read our eyes’ response figuratively. Here, we say, is what patriotic coercion feels like. Flags appear everywhere, even when we don’t want to see them. But even when our eyes play tricks on us, our will is only figuratively coerced. Our will to interpret our eyes’ reaction is as free or as forced as it ever is. When we make our retinal experience of those illusory flags mean something, we make that meaning with literary language.
As I hope I’ve made clear, I think Wagner compellingly dramatizes how post-1955 art must be understood. Johns’ painting makes sense because it prompts an optical experience that can then be read, as Wagner does, within an allegorical framework of meaning. But, more generally, searching for eloquence—or vulgarity—won’t solve the broader problems of characterizing or making sense of post-1955 art. Phenomenological experiences have increasingly replaced art’s complicated language of meaning. Borrowed literary conventions and adopted models of interpretation sweep in to make sense of the field. Such art “writing” might be where post-1955 art finds itself, but, as Stein says of Picasso’s literary attempts, “to write with words was, for him, not to write at all.”
26. Gertrude Stein, “Picasso” (1938) in Writings 1932-1946, Volume 2, ed. Catherine R. Stimpson and Harriet Chessman (New York: Library of America, 1998), 530.↑
DeLueRachael DeLue writes:
In the course of elaborating her compelling, counterintuitive account of Jasper Johns’s seminal Flag (1954-55) in the first chapter of A House Divided: American Art since 1955, Anne Wagner twice makes reference to race, in both instances by referring to whiteness. The white field and strip of I.D. photographs featured in another flag painting by Johns, Flag above White with Collage (1955), Wagner writes, literalize whiteness and male identity (18). Similarly, the assertive, demanding whiteness of a third flag work, White Flag (1955), calls to mind “a national whiteness” and “an endlessly belated racial integration” (19). Yet Wagner drops the issue of whiteness as quickly as she raises it, offering neither an explanation of the term nor a full sense of what attending to whiteness (or to the question of race more generally) in Flag might tell us about this particular work or the flag series as a whole. It is clear that whiteness in Wagner’s account aligns with those terms she employs to elucidate the fundamental conditions and operations of Johns’s flag paintings, namely “nation,” “hegemony,” “citizen,” and “empire” (the final term features in the book’s introduction). And Wagner of course does not set out to write about Johns and race. Still, the brief appearance and then hasty retreat of the concept of whiteness produces a disruption or dissonance in the text. For whiteness calls to mind a specific and concrete American history, that of race, an idea and category essential to America’s past and present, one that defined and produced those historical formations and phenomena scholars understand as fundamentally constituting U.S. history and identity: discovery and conquest, Native America, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, white supremacy, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, immigration, diversity and multiculturalism, racism. Wagner’s invocation of whiteness thus introduces a level of specificity or particularity—an aggressive historical materiality—otherwise uncharacteristic of the chapter’s politico-philosophical meditations on the situatedness of the self or subject within a nation, what Wagner in her introduction associates with the experience of hegemony “from the inside” (5).
Put another way, whiteness presses on Wagner’s account of Flag in a manner similar to the pressure exerted, first, by two of the most important and eloquent formulations through which she sets up the fundamental concerns of her book and, second, by a key elaboration of her argument about Johns in the chapter that follows, on Warhol, patriotism, and history painting. In her introduction, Wagner offers one of the most elegant descriptions I have encountered of what an art historian, at base, might (I would even say should) productively attend to when considering a body of work. One reflects, she writes, on what artists have to say about belonging to the world in which they find themselves, as inhabitants and recipients of past and present history. As such, one pays attention, put simply, to what the artist does in the world (6). Obvious enough, this seems, but too often historians of art and visual culture leap to historical or theoretical paradigms and conclusions prior to taking stock of the basic operations of an artistic practice and the relationships to material existence and the public, socio-political sphere established by this practice. Also in her introduction, Wagner makes an essential point about what she calls “historical awareness,” which she rightly insists manifests in multiple guises; paying attention to an artist’s choice of materials, for example, for her counts as historical inquiry just as much as does considering that artist’s historical moment or particular political convictions (7). Finally, in the Warhol chapter, Wagner contrasts Warhol’s use of appropriated imagery with Johns’s by saying that Warhol “made use of the image, not the thing,” unlike Johns, who physically incorporated images, as images but also as bits of constructive matter, into his paintings (28). This is a key distinction, one that opens up a range of new interpretive possibilities for Johns (and for other post-war artists), and which focuses our attention, again, on the material world and on what an individual does in it, that is, on the manner in which he or she interacts with and inhabits it and creates objects in response to it.
Taken together, Wagner’s claims regarding the artist-world nexus, the nature of historical awareness, and Johns’s preoccupation with things or materials as opposed to only images amount to a decisive reconsideration of what might constitute an historical-materialist account of art making and thus point to an essential intervention in the interpretation of post-war art. But, to return to the question of whiteness, Wagner’s account of Johns, despite itself (and despite its intelligence and perspicacity), comes up relatively short on certain historical matters. In her chapter on Warhol, Wagner takes us neck-deep into the muddy waters of American history and describes in detail how she understands Warhol to have imagined himself and other Americans in relation to this history. She does the same in her chapter on Kara Walker, an artist I have written about, in a consideration of her work alongside that of the artist Michael Ray Charles, to whom Wagner also briefly refers. In the Walker chapter, Wagner considers the controversy generated by Walker’s art and she maps the codependent staging of blackness and whiteness in her silhouette works. In both accounts, Warhol and Walker, history and medium (or media) are treated by Wagner as equally material, and her argument consequently and captivatingly resembles the elaborate handwork of Johns, whose snipping, tearing, waxing, collaging, and painting serves, as Wagner writes, as a metaphor or enactment of historical processes but also, I would add, as a template for the work of deep historical inquiry, where grand hypotheses coexist with laborious data-gathering and messy lab work.
So, the question for me is as follows: What would we get were we to pose, insistently, the questions implied by Wagner’s claims about artist, world, history, and materiality to Flag, and to Wagner’s reading of it? If Johns’s work, and his flag work in particular, reflected on his world and on his (or any subject’s) inhabitation of it, what thoughts about race, race relations, and racism ultimately resulted? And to what particular historical phenomena or ideas regarding race does the work refer? What was “whiteness” for Johns or for his viewers in the mid-1950s and how did it signify, in precise terms? How could it signify, exactly, in an age before critical race theory and whiteness studies? And if race was, in the end, not at issue for Johns (for it may not have been, at least explicitly), what did matter for him, or for the work itself, in historical terms and in terms of the material experience of history, alongside the larger concern with figuring the inside position vis-à-vis hegemony? Johns’s very process—its laboriousness, its excessive materiality, its step-by-step prolongation and unfolding—invokes time and the passage of time as much as it does the back and forth between a subject and the nation, which for me suggests that Johns had an eye on history as experienced on the ground, cognitively and phenomenologically or, alternately, that whatever his intention, the flag paintings thrust the very matter of history front and center. The same might be said for the procedures by which Wagner encourages us to engage Johns’s work: slow looking, disentangling of strata, a viewing-cum-archaeological excavation at times aided by technology, including infrared photography, which isolates and directs a portion of the invisible spectrum in order to reveal what the naked eye cannot see in a manner analogous to a historian carving out relevant information and knowledge from the broad sweep of “context” (what Wagner rightly and refreshingly describes as a bland designation, 11). In order to construct the works in question, both Johns and Walker mingled paper and wax, and of course both also cut. Considering in tandem the suspension of paper matter within a wax binding medium in Johns’s encaustic technique and the use of wax as an adhesive by Walker suggests that we would be well served to pay attention to Wagner’s implied claim, one of the most crucial for her reimagining of post-war art history, that artistic process and artistic content or meaning may be indistinct; we need not worry, that is, whether Johns’s Flag is a painting or a sign, an experiment in art making or a comment on national symbolism and signification—if, that is, in speaking about Flag we are speaking about representation or the real. The binding suspension of encaustic eloquently figures the inside position of empire elucidated in Wagner’s argument but also invokes an individual embedded within and materially experiencing his or her world in time and space, while Walker’s adhesive calls to mind what the artist has called the “Muck” of the past, here stubbornly and aggressively sticking to the present and through which we continue to lumber and slog. The binding and containing operations of wax also configure the historian’s charge: to look broadly at the big picture, the topography or sweep of the whole, but also closely and cuttingly, under the surface and inside the guts. Johns, through Wagner’s eyes, encourages us to ask key conceptual questions: what is a painting? Or, what is it that an artist does? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the place of painting in the world? But her account also demands another, more surgical, tunneling set of queries, as yet unaddressed: what is that painting, Flag, doing, contingently and conditionally, in its home or habitat? What are Flag and Johns telling us about those contingencies and conditions, about home and history experienced there and then? What, in the end, does one experience from a vantage point under Flag’s skin—not by dint of an aerial view or through the detached scrutiny of a clinician, but, rather, when mired in that painting’s waxy muck?
DohertyBrigid Doherty writes:
On “How Eva Hesse Named Her Work”
“How Eva Hesse Named Her Work,” the tenth chapter of Anne Middleton Wagner’s A House Divided: American Art Since 1955 (hereafter AHD), “asks how language matters to Eva Hesse’s ambitions for her art” (AHD, 183). Wagner’s emphasis on naming and mattering (and on ambitions) frames her inquiry into the place of language in relation to Hesse’s sculpture as an attempt “to understand the public speech of an art often construed in personal terms.” She notes the consistency of voice across Hesse’s writings and published remarks, from “private journal entries and personal letters” to “the more carefully composed statements and occasional interviews in which she publicly shared her thoughts.” Referring to her own earlier scholarship and to the larger situation of Hesse’s work in the art historical literature, she points to the artist’s written statements as serving “faute de mieux […] as inevitable stand-ins for another body of Hesse’s words now lost: her speech in the psychoanalytic sessions that began in her teens and continued through most of her adult life” (AHD, 183). Not so the titles of Hesse’s sculptures, on Wagner’s reading.
Seen as constituting a distinct “category of language” within Hesse’s body of work, the titles stand out as “the most playful of all” (AHD, 184). Here Wagner signals a wish to distinguish the playfulness of the titles from the sorts of play invoked in psychoanalytic theories of traumatic repetition; she cites in this connection an unpublished article by Naomi Spector that “considers Hesse’s language and titles through the optic of repetition, which [Spector] relates to the artist’s Jewishness and the impact of the Holocaust on her identity” (AHD, 260n4). Wagner considers instead how titles operate as “naming words” that do something other than “specify ‘content’” (AHD, 186). In this she follows Hesse, whose remarks in a much-discussed January 1970 interview with Cindy Nemser come to serve not as a stand-in for the lost speech of psychoanalytic treatment but as a model for Wagner’s approach to interpretation. “Wherever things are to be identified I do title them. I give it a lot of thought most of the time,” Hesse told Nemser, “because I don’t like things being called untitled; that’s a sign of uninterest, and I’m interested. I try to title them so it has a meaning for me in terms of what I think of the piece and yet it’s just like another noun. I use the dictionary and the thesaurus. I use a word for its sound but they don’t have a specific meaning in terms of content” (AHD, 185-186). The title she assigns to a work, Hesse seems to be saying, achieves meaning by engaging her ideas about that work, perhaps even her judgment of the work after its completion, what she “think[s] of the piece.” And yet, even as her typically single-word titles are the product of deliberations that relate to Hesse’s thoughts about or judgments of those works, the titles are also each intended to remain “just like another noun.” It’s hard to know how to comprehend that last remark. Just like another noun in the sense of a word bound to a conventional meaning and function as a part of speech, as the name of some object or concept to be recognized by others in the world, rather than a word to be seen as variously saturated with associations derived from its connection to the work of art, the processes of its making, and the experiences occasioned by it? Maybe.
For Hesse, the invention of a title itself serves as a sign that the artist is “interested” (this is the case since, ipso facto, calling a work of art “untitled” under conditions where it is to be “identified” is a “sign of uninterest”). Titles, including the title Untitled, identify works of art. But only titles other than Untitled present their own meaningfulness as a sign of the artist’s interestedness, her capacity and willingness first to judge the work and then to find (within a dictionary or a thesaurus) a name that will have meaning for her in connection with that judgment. The title is a sign of interestedness, a register of the thought invested in its selection and of some connection between that thought and the artist’s judgment of the work to which the title belongs: Hesse “gives a lot of thought” to the titling of a work, and the title in turn has meaning “in terms of what [she] think[s] of the piece.” The title identifies the work but does not specify its content. The title, that would seem to mean, does not describe the content of the work or an experience of the work. A word to be given as a title—take Addendum as an example—is “used for its sound.” Now, a word “used for its sound” and given as the title of a work and hence as a sign of the artist’s interestedness with regard to that work should, at least, establish a link between what the artist thinks of the work and how the word that she makes its title sounds. Wagner, it seems to me, is right to take Hesse’s remarks in this connection seriously. The language of Hesse’s titles, she argues, “is both ‘intellectual’ and bodily, like the work itself” (AHD, 190).
As it happened, Hesse attached titles almost exclusively to her sculptural work. Drawings and paintings typically remained untitled, even when exhibited publicly, as they occasionally were during the artist’s lifetime. Hesse’s drawings in particular, Wagner suggests, seem to have had no need of titles for the purposes of inventory or exhibition. They display “a certain systematic, even grammatical organization in and of themselves;” indeed “the syntax of some drawings, apparently, rules a title out of court.” A group of works on paper exhibited for the first time in 2006 at the Drawing Center, New York, count for Wagner as “drawing in a conceptual sense” and “are directly connected” to Hesse’s sculptural practice. Composed of “elaborate, often overlapping and sometimes repeated lists of works and words,” those drawings show that Hesse’s sculpture “from the outset was always directed outward toward an actual public life, with viewers (and readers) in mind.” They register something of the conceptual efforts that came into play when, in Hesse’s practice, sculpture “felt the urge to supply its chosen terms of address” (AHD, 184-185). Thus personified in Wagner’s prose, Hesse’s sculptures call upon their titles to “forge a relationship with other minds and selves” (AHD, 200).
Concerning the “claims on space and [the] newly quickened sense of pace” realized in one of a number of sculptures that came to be called Addendum, Wagner notes that the work’s “long stretch—it was long enough (just over 119 inches) to require a full-scale drawing—makes it the first of Hesse’s pieces to match the span of the sculpture to the pace of the body.” “In other words,” she continues, “it asks the viewer to walk in time with its halting step, stopping and starting as each hemisphere erupts in spare bounty, like a parsimonious fountain, and a too-thin line overflows again and and again to pool on the floor.” And then this:
There is one more thing to add, apropos Addendum. Like many additions, it may be the most important thing of all. This is Hesse’s observation that in many ways titles seem to operate much as words might behave in a simple theory of how language comes to be. There are real objects, material sculptures; words come after. They are ‘to be added,’ with that necessity arising—here the theory gets fuzzy—for various reasons concerning absence and necessity—or so those of us with our own interests in language should feel licensed to assume. (AHD, 188)
Wagner’s own interest in language makes itself felt throughout the chapter and nowhere more deftly than in the description of Addendum’s hemispheres as “erupt[ing] in spare bounty, like a parsimonious fountain.” With that simile, itself erupting mid-description, Wagner as it were announces what the title of the sculpture is not: “Fountain,” a word that in this context could never be “just like another noun” because it would always seem to be alluding to to Duchamp, or, worse still, “specifying content” by means of figural language. Instead, as Wagner’s language demonstrates, the sculpture’s parsimony allows for the vision of something like a fountain (and its effects) as precisely that which the work itself does not provide in the form of imagery (and experience). The simile itself takes shape as an addendum, a figure for Wagner’s meditations on how Addendum “has a meaning for [her] in terms of what [she] think[s] of the piece and yet it’s just another word.”
Unlike the words that variously appeared in graphic works by the likes of Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, and Mel Bochner in the period, words in and around Hesse’s art were not called upon to stand-in as “substitute sculptures, miming the work and behavior — the actions and labor — carried out by sculptural things.” Instead Hesse “stuck to material, physical facts, used them, staged them, reasoned with and through them” (AHD,192). We might add that she indicated her interest in the sculptures that resulted by giving them titles whose sound (and, as Wagner claims, whose sense as well) could be linked to that reasoning with and through. Smithson spoke of Hesse’s sculptures as “psychic models”— models, as Wagner puts it, that are “able somehow to epitomize the elusiveness and density of mental and emotional operations—their gaps and erasures, their connections and leaps—by giving them tangible physical form.” Hesse’s titles, Wagner argues, “partake in that complex process” in such a way that “we might think of the pieces […] as speaking to and through and of their chosen word” (AHD, 195).
Wagner’s exploration of the notion of the work of sculpture as “psychic model” supplements the psychoanalytically informed accounts of Hesse’s art offered over the years in her own earlier writings on the artist and in articles, exhibition catalogue essays, and book chapters by Briony Fer, Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, Mignon Nixon, and others. For Wagner, Hesse’s sculptures seem to solicit “idiosyncratic, visceral, and contingent” responses. Her titles “forge a relationship with other minds and selves,” and in order to do so “demand a viewer who takes and uses what they offer, not as translations or synonyms, but as active performances in a tone and register of their own. Her words demand thought.” Wagner’s chapter gives Hesse’s words thought, in the several senses that phrase can signal. The chapter’s closing paragraphs turn to Samuel Beckett’s writings in order to posit Hesse’s interest in language as “intended to keep absence at bay.” “Her words,” Wagner argues, “help materialize the absent or the empty for a moment, so that it might even be given a name” (AHD, 200-201). Hesse, on Wagner’s reading, shares with Beckett a concern to formalize experiences of “the Unnamable.” Of course the Unnamable is Beckett’s term, not Hesse’s. And yet, Wagner’s chapter means to suggest, recognizing the difference between the Unnamable and the Untitled might disclose to us the interest, and the interestedness, in Eva Hesse’s sculptures and the words that identify them.
Lisa Siraganian is J. R. Herbert Boone Chair in Humanities, Associate Professor, and Chair of the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature at The Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life (Oxford, 2012), shortlisted for the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize (2013), Modernism and the Meaning of Corporate Persons (Oxford, 2020), and is Editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Tenth Edition, Volume D (1914-1945), forthcoming later in 2021.