Today my review of the American Abstract Art show at the Johnson Museum was published in the Ithaca Times.
As a result of yesterday’s news, I have been thinking a lot today about Jasper Johns, and consequently, his relationship to abstract art in America. I will begin by admitting that I generally side with the camp that tends to view Johns’ art as embodying the manifestation of the avant-garde – the Duchampian legacy as it were – when art’s leading edge left Paris and came to NY after World War II. And this is not just because Johns was more of a dandy, like Duchamp, as opposed to the hard-drinking hero-figures that characterized the New York School. But, because his art most closely followed the true spirit of rebellion. Like Duchamp, Johns was not afraid to challenge traditional aesthetic values, carrying on the defiant, inquisitive avant-garde ‘tradition,’ creating art that above all embodied content, while opposing established opinion or structure. Was Flag a painting or a flag? Like Duchamp, Johns worked with form and content.
On the other hand, the Abstract Expressionists, who dominated the American art scene with their grand, sublime gestures favoring form over content, followed in Surrealist fashion the automatic Zen move. Placing total faith in abstraction’s abilities (as advocated by the modernist critic Clement Greenberg) the New York School, working with copies of Zen Buddhism on their studio tables, used abstraction to preserve art’s autonomy against mass culture in a kind of ‘mute repudiation of capitalist values.’ The Duchampian model faced it head-on.
In American art, the post-war avant-garde is perhaps defined by this juxtaposition. Duchamp, the fuel behind every distinct postwar shift in art from surrealism to postmodernism, directly confronted and challenged the maladies of Modernism. Likewise, ‘Proto-Pop’ Johns (and Rauschenberg) also followed an alternate path; remaining rebellious, and open to questioning established structure and opinion. As a result, they were unaffected in a way their New York School contemporaries were not because of the limitations of the form of their expression. Maybe Abstract Expressionism, in its arbitrary subjectivity, simply became too personal to be avant-garde, or to be useful for the future.