Master of few words

His reworking of the U.S. flag has become one of the most iconic artworks of the last century and his pieces sell for as much as $12 million. Just don't ask Jasper Johns what any of it means.

Published July 26, 2004 1:40PM (EDT)

In the grounds of his house, Jasper Johns has a studio, a huge converted barn in which the 74 year old does most of his work. From the east, it looks out over the hills of Connecticut; from the west, across a lawn towards the house. The estate is in Sharon, a small town two hours from New York, where the size of the properties makes running into the neighbours mercifully improbable. When we arrive, Johns is in the studio, hunched over an etching. "Just a minute," he says. He moves with a slowness suggestive of irony and has that Jimmy Stewart knack of looking doleful and amused at the same time. On the wall he has pinned a handwritten reminder: "Don't forget the string."

Johns does not particularly like talking about his art. He's aware that by explaining what he means, he risks limiting the meanings that can be derived from it by others. His claim to the title of World's Greatest Living Artist is buttressed by his amazing wealth -- one piece alone went for #12m -- and the iconic status of Flag, one of his earliest works, an equivalent in American college bedrooms to the place occupied in British ones by Matisse's Blue Nude. When he emerged on the art scene in the late 1950s, Johns' tightly controlled studies of everyday objects, his sculptures of coffee tins and ale cans, were read as a rebuke to Jackson Pollock and the abstract impressionists and he has since been called the father of pop art. He haughtily rejects both notions.

"I don't think it matters what it evokes as long as it keeps your eyes and mind busy," says Johns of art in general. "You'll come up with your own use for it. And at different times you'll come up with different uses." We have settled on the first floor of the barn, in a big airy room which I observe would be great for parties. "I haven't had any parties here," he says drily.

Johns is not reclusive, but neither is he forthcoming. He asks me not to use a tape recorder because it makes him tongue-tied. He talks in short, enigmatic sentences, which teasingly deflate all the wind-baggery that has been written about him. Lots of deep things have been said about Johns' use of irony and ambiguity, his talent for suggesting multiple meanings that was evident from the time of his first exhibition in 1958, in Leo Castelli's gallery in New York. But he has also inspired a lot of nonsense. Not untypically, an American critic writes: "By connecting looking to eating and the cycle of consumption and waste, Johns not only further de-aestheticised looking and art-making but also underscored art's connection to the body's passage of dissolution."

An exhibition of Johns' recently opened at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and I ask whether he has much time for modern British artists. "I'm aware of them," he says. "Of course." I'm thinking in particular of Tracey Emin; you can't get much further from Johns' position on autobiography (horror) than Emin's work, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With. Johns lived for seven years with the artist Robert Rauschenberg but is loathe to talk about it publicly. I tell him I can't imagine him ever using a title like Emin's. He smiles. "I'll consider it," he says.

His circumspection might derive in part from his background; like Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, two artists with whom Johns has much in common, he grew up in the south at a time when those with artistic aspirations were advised to suppress them. His father was a farmer and divorced from his mother, and Johns grew up being passed between various relatives. It was not a happy time and he says he was always "dying" to get away from it. "There was very little art in my childhood. I was raised in South Carolina; I wasn't aware of any art in South Carolina. There was a minor museum in Charleston, which had nothing of interest in it. It showed local artists, paintings of birds."

After studying art at the University of South Carolina, he did a compulsory stint in the army and decamped to New York, where he fell in with Rauschenberg and two other big influences, the choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage. "In a sense," he says, "you don't 'start out'. There are points when you alter your course, but most of what one learns, if that's the word, occurs gradually. Sometime during the mid-50s I said, 'I am an artist.' Before that, for many years, I had said, 'I'm going to be an artist.' Then I went through a change of mind and a change of heart. What made 'going to be an artist' into 'being an artist', was, in part, a spiritual change."

The hot movement at the time was abstract expressionism, spearheaded by Pollock and Willem de Kooning. But instead of joining it, Johns and Rauschenberg set up in friendly opposition. This was not, says Johns, a cynical decision; it just so happened that his interests lay elsewhere. He thought of talent in terms of "what was helpless in my behaviour -- how I could behave out of necessity." At one point, to illustrate their differences, Rauschenberg took a drawing of Willem de Kooning's and ostentatiously erased it, a statement made less aggressive by the fact that de Kooning had submitted the drawing for precisely that purpose. Then, in 1960, news reached Johns that de Kooning had criticised Leo Castelli, his art dealer, by saying, "That son-of-a-bitch, you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them." Johns promptly did a sculpture of two beer cans, and Castelli sold them.

Painted Bronze, two cans of Ballantine Ale cast in bronze, was one in a series of sculptures that came to define Johns' theories of reality; like the pop art that followed it, his experiments with context sought to reconstitute "ordinary" objects in such a way as to highlight the power of the perceptual over the physical world. In 1964 he explained, as fulsomely as he ever would, what it was he was trying to do: "I am concerned with a thing's not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment."

"De Kooning," he says to me now, "used to say: 'I'm a house painter and you're a sign painter.'"

Johns' most important work with signs is Flag, one of his earliest exhibits, which he did in 1955. It is a collage of the Stars and Stripes made out of encaustic, a wax-type substance which Johns dropped scraps of newspaper into and allowed to set. Flag's challenge to the notion that symbols of state are fixed and inviolable  that they are not, under any circumstance, open to interpretation -- was received at the time as blasphemous. The bits of newspaper symbolised the conflicting fictions upon which nations are built and the encaustic, an unstable material, was perceived by critics to be a metaphor for the unstable nature of identity. These subtleties have largely been lost through the work's mass reproduction and Flag is now displayed, more often than not, as a straightforward expression of patriotism. "But I wasn't trying to make a patriotic statement," says Johns. "Many people thought it was subversive and nasty. It's funny how feeling has flipped."

Johns has been reluctant to discuss how much of the work's theoretical content was intentional. After a long exchange which yielded no insights, a journalist once asked him, in exasperation, whether he chose his materials because he liked them or because they came that way. Johns thought for a moment and said, "I liked them because they came that way." Today he says, "encaustic was a solution to a problem. I was painting with oil paint and it didn't dry rapidly enough for me, and I wanted to put another brush stroke on it and I'd read about encaustic so that's what I used."

Was he also aware of its potential use as a metaphor?

"The thing is, if you believe in the unconscious  and I do  there's room for all kinds of possibilities that I don't know how you prove one way or another." How does he know when a piece of art has come out right? Does he think it has a moral force to it?

"I think it does. In that [long pause] if in work you're able to be in touch with the forces that make you and direct you, then that's a perfectly reasonable conception of what happens. I'm not sure what 'coming out right' means. It often means that what you do holds a kind of energy that you wouldn't just put there, that comes about through grace of some sort."

I wonder to what extent Johns and Rauschenberg achieved this state of grace through the exchange of ideas?

"We talked a lot. Each was the audience for the other. He had gone into a period where his gallery closed and we lived in relative isolation in the financial district [of New York]. We discussed ideas for works and occasionally we suggested ideas to one another. You have to be close to someone to do that and understand what they are doing."

Johns never thought he would be famous. In a way, he says, he was more gobsmacked when he sold his first painting, than when False Start was bought by the publisher Si Newhouse for #12m in 1988. "I didn't have that kind of imagination. Bob did. I read him a passage from The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas [Gertrude Stein's novel, which plays with reality in similar ways to Johns' work, and which he admits to being influenced by] and Bob said, 'One day they will be writing like that about us.'"

He doesn't believe he has become better as an artist; just different. Some people think he has become worse. For example Montez Singing, painted in 1989, features two eyes, a nose, a mouth and, inexplicably, a dishcloth all jumbled up on the canvas; the mouth is shut, so would seem to be humming rather than singing and who Montez is, is anybody's guess. In such cases, John's belief that "there is no wrong" in art appreciation founders on the assumption that there is any appreciation at all without some kind of helpful explanation.

"Ideas either come or they don't come," he says. "One likes to think that one anticipates changes in the spaces we inhabit, and our ideas about space. In terms of painting, I think ideas come in a way -- I don't know how to describe it -- they come differently than they did when I was young. When you are young the sense of life you feel is inexhaustible and at various times in your life you see the speed of things alter. Your attitude changes towards thought and what it means."

Johns once did a sculpture called The Critic Sees, in which he fashioned a pair of glasses with two mouths in the spaces where the eyes should've been. He said it was a response to a critic who'd jabbered at him incessantly; it was interpreted as a critique of the impossibility of thought without language. I ask if he ever wishes the critics would lighten up around him.

He says, "I never wish for critics."

We go out into the garden. Johns loves ferns, and has devoted a whole patch to them. He shows me around it. "The maidenhair fern," he says. "And the ostrich fern. You can eat the ostrich. But you have to cook it."

On the way back he looks out over the fields and says with sudden vehemence: "Deer: I hate them. They destroy everything."

We walk past a pond, at the centre of which stands a sculpture made up of bronze cutlery: a knife, a fork, a spoon. I have read somewhere that it symbolises sex and death. "Oh yes?" says Johns, wryly. "I shall have to look into that."

I ask if he's ever thought of writing his memoirs. He says, "I don't know how to organise thoughts. I don't know how to have thoughts." He has no plans to reconstitute Flag to confront post-9/11 patriotism. And although he recently auctioned a painting to raise money for the Democrats, he says his interest in politics is only limited to the election; attempts to have a more general discussion about American government are rebuffed, although he will concede "I went to see that Roger Moore film [sic], Fahrenheit 9/11. I enjoyed it very much." We re-enter his studio, where the etching awaits completion. I wonder if it is for anything in particular.

"No," says Johns. "It is for itself."

By Emma Brockes

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