Watchman, Spy, and Dead Man:

Johns, O’Hara, Cage and the “Aesthetic of Indifference”

Marjorie Perloff

Modernism / Modernity, 8, no. 2 (2001): 197-223.

How does the flag sit with us, we who don’t give a hoot for Betsy Ross, who never think of tea as a cause for parties?

John Cage, “Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas”[1]

In a sketchbook for 1964, Jasper Johns began to make notes for his paintings Watchman and According to What. On one particularly tantalizing page [figure 1], [2] Johns makes a sketch for what would appear in both paintings as the wax cast of a man’s lower torso, positioned on the seat of a chair, itself bisected vertically to accommodate the depth of the fragmented figure. Torso and chair are inverted so that the long left leg extends upward to meet the word “spy” at the lower margin of the enigmatic text, positioned as a reversed L-shape above it:

The Watchman falls “into” the “trap” of looking.
The “spy” is a different person
“Looking” is & is not “eating” & also “being eaten”
That is, there is continuity of some sort among
the watchman, the space, the objects.
The spy must be ready to “move,” must be aware
of his entrances & exits.
The watchman leaves
his job & takes away
no information.
The spy must remember
and must remember himself
& his remembering.
The spy designs himself
to be overlooked. The
watchman “serves” as a
warning. Will the
spy & the watchman
ever meet? In a
painting named Spy,
will he be present?
The spy stations himself
to observe the watchman.

If the spy is a foreign object
why is the eye not irritated?
Is he invisible?
When the spy irritates, we try
to remove him.
“Not spying, just looking”—
Watchman. (JJWI 59-60)

In the square inside the L-shaped text, Johns has written: “Somewhere here, there is the / question of “seeing clearly.” / Seeing what? According to What?”.

What /who are watchman and spy? “If the artist is the spy (never depicted),” writes Francis M. Naumann in a 1992 catalogue essay, “the watchman is the spectator/critic, a member of the viewing audience. In his capacity as a spectator, the watchman remains momentarily inactive — seated—his disoriented position and fragmentation suggesting that he has, as Johns has predicted, fallen into ‘the trap of looking’.” [3] . And Michael Crichton takes the distinction even more literally: “The notes suggest that this is a picture about looking. They identify the cast of the leg and chair, inverted in one corner; that is the watchman (falling into the trap of looking?).” [4]

But why would Johns, who has always resisted allegorical readings of his work, refer to the “spectator / critic” as a mysterious watchman, in seemingly endless struggle with an equally mysterious artist-spy? And why, to make matters even murkier, would he use an encaustic cast of a leg, unconnected to a body, as a representation of something as specific as this “watchman”? A few pages earlier in Johns’s sketchbook [figure 2] where the cast of the leg (not yet inverted) is outlined in the upper right, next to a hinge picture, we read:

	One thing made
		of another
		One thing used
		as another.
		an arrogant object
		Something to be folded or
		bent or stretched.
		Beware of the body
		& the mind.
		Avoid a polar
		Think of the
		edge of the city &
		the traffic there.	  (JJWI 56)

“Avoid a polar situation”: Johns has always preferred the “traffic” at the “edge of the city– a border situation– to binaries like artist / spy and spectator / watchman. In his Watchman note, an arrow points from the enigmatic phrase “’Looking’ is & is not ‘eating’ & also ‘being eaten,” to the parenthetical comment: “Cezanne?—Each object reflecting the other” [figure 1 and JJWI 59]. The reference is probably to Gertrude Stein’s observation that “Cézanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole.” [5] For Johns, as for Stein, composition must be decentered, non-hierarchical, each part of the canvas as important as every other part.

Thus, unlike, say, Jackson Pollock’s all-over drip paintings of the preceding decade– paintings that, however improvisatory their process of composition might have been, are characterized, in the words of Johns’s friend Frank O’Hara, by their formal “balance, proportion, and controlled emotion” [6]Watchman [figure 3] refuses to cohere. What, for example, is the relation of the three-dimensional body cast (the inverted leg), attached to the chair to the wooden ball and stick at bottom left? How do both these “real” objects relate to the three horizontal brownish-grayish “abstract” sections of the canvas, bearing the partially hidden words “RED,” “YELLOW,” and “BLUE” (only their first letters are visible)—words that—confusingly match not the color fields in which they appear, but the three rectangles on the right, as if to suggest that observation alone is never sufficient for understanding. When I look at Watchman, my eye moves down from the disturbing encaustic leg-cast to focus on the wide orange, white, and green brushstrokes that seem to replace the cast’s missing upper torso, brushstrokes that don’t blend, thus emphasizing the flatness of the canvas. As they cascade downward, they lose their color, giving way to a thin gray-brown wash dripping across a partially hidden newspaper page to the strip at the bottom, evidently made by dragging the stick at the left across the canvas through a layer of wet paint, leaving a black-through-white tonal scale covered with drips behind.

In studying the incongruous objects incorporated into Johns’s paintings of the early sixties—for example, the two letters N and O, cut out of aluminum foil and suspended from a wire in NO, the ruler and tin cup in Good Time Charlie [figure 4], the broom, china cup, and towel in Fool’s House — Leo Steinberg comments that for Johns, the canvas is “not a picture plane, not a window, nor an uprighted tray, nor yet an object with active projections into actual space; but a surface observed during impregnation, observed as it receives a message or imprint from real space.” [7] In Watchman [figure 3], the little wooden ball against which a stick leans diagonally is just such an imprint, a trace of impregnation that alters the surface. But what is the message and who is the spy?

Johns’s own comments only compound the mystery. Interviewed by Yoshiaki Tono in August 1964, after the completion of the painting, he explains that “The idea for this work first occurred to me two years ago, when I visited Madame Tussaud’s, in London. The image of flesh, the image of skin—images I had never used before. . . . . The idea of the leg of a person sitting on a chair came to me about a year ago” (JJWI 96). As for the verbal account of watchman and spy, Johns dismisses it as a “play on words.” “I don’t,” he tells Tono, “want you to associate the essay with the picture” (JJWI 96-97). When the latter presses, remarking that the poet Shin Ooka took the painting to refer to “the trace of something that had abruptly passed away . . . the end of a drama,” Johns replies, “For me the picture implies the fall of something, an interpretation I think is clear from the leg’s position in the overall composition.” But lest we start reading the image allegorically as a fall from innocence or grace or as a wartime execution, Johns adds matter-of-factly: “The leg will naturally fall . . . if you cut the support that attaches the chair to the canvas” (JJWI 97). And, in an allusion to Wittgenstein, whose Philosophical Investigations Johns had been reading with absorption since 1962, [8] he emphasizes his concern for the context within which meanings are made:

For instance, there is the word “red.” But what is “red” out of many shades of red, or which “red” is the real red, this red or that red? When we gradually add yellow, exactly how much yellow. He will turn “red” into “orange”? I find this way of seeing things very interesting. If you take up something, for instance, and you name it “something,” then you and I can understand exactly what the other party means through this naming. This is useful and necessary in our daily life. If we come closer and closer to that “something” to identify it, however, we will begin to wonder whether that “something” is really “something” or not. (JJWI 97).

Precision coupled with a respect for difference, Johns insists, is by no means equivalent to the materialism or objecthood practiced by Pop Art, then coming into vogue. Consider the following exchange, again in a 1964 interview (conducted by Jay Nash and James Holmstrand):

JN & JH: Although you deny being a Pop artist, you sometimes use such things as beer cans, light bulbs, etc. in your work. Doesn’t this seem inconsistent?

JJ: No, I don’t think of myself as a Pop artist. {The Pop movement] is technically more restrictive and deals mostly with images. I am not so much interested in dealing with images as working for form.

JN & JH: A number of painters—not only the Pop painters, but people like [Larry] Rivers and yourself—have concerned themselves with American subject matter (maps of the U.S., Confederate flags and soldiers, portraits of George Washington, etc.). Do you think this reflects an increasing nationalistic pride in artists?

JJ: I don’t think so. I’m merely concerned with looking and seeing and not much else. I’m not involved in patriotism or politics. . . (JJWI 104-105).

Here again is a reference to “looking and seeing” (watchman and spy?), this time in contradistinction to an art of “patriotism or politics.” This seeming political disengagement has been defined, in a much discussed essay by Moira Roth, as the “aesthetic of indifference.” [9] The Duchamp- Cunningham—Cage- Rauschenberg-Johns circle, Roth argues, responded to the oppressive Cold War climate of the fifties and sixties by adopting a stance of neutrality, passivity, and negation. Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, Cage’s Lecture on Nothing and notorious piano piece 4’33, and Johns’s “monotonous” and “repetitious” Alphabets and Numbers–these, she argues, contain “no messages, no feelings and no ideas. Only emptiness” (D/I 41). Indeed, she writes, the work of the Johns circle testifies to “the bizarre disjunction of art and politics that emerged in the 1960s. The radical political movements of the 1960s had virtually no expression in the art of that time, an art that was strangely appealing and acceptable to the very forces—governmental, corporate and middle-class powers—that these radical movements opposed” (D/I 35).

Here Roth is referring to the role the State Department and CIA have been shown to have played in the promotion and dissemination of New York Painting—especially abstract expressionism–in the late forties and fifties. [10] But Johns, as a representative of the next generation and as the youngest member) of the Cage-Cunningham circle, (he was born in 1930), went, so Roth posits, beyond the legendary political indifference and negation she associates particularly with Duchamp:

More than any other artist, Johns incorporated in his early art the Cold War and the McCarthy era preoccupations and moods. This is not to imply that Johns did this consciously or single-mindedly . . . but what emerges out of a collective examination of his work is a dense concentration of metaphors dealing with spying, conspiracy, secrecy and concealment, misleading information, coded messages and clues. These were the very subjects of newspaper headlines of the period, reiterated on the radio and shown on television. . . . [Johns’s] early work is a warehouse of Cold War metaphors” (D/I 43).

The argument for a subliminal presence of Cold War spying / concealment imagery in works like Watchman makes more sense than does the identification of watchman with viewer, spy with artist. But, as Jonathan D. Katz points out in his provocative response to Roth’s piece, published together with hers in Difference / Indifference (1998), her essay (originally appearing in 1977) underplayed the role sexuality played in the artistic choices made by the artists in question. Interestingly, Roth herself referred to Cage, Johns, and Cunningham as models of “a new breed of artist, an alternative to the politically concerned abstract expressionists,” and cites the sculptor George Segal’s description of the “new” artist as “slender, cerebral, philosophical, iconoclastic type,” with “a dandylike elegance of body build and a manner which delighted in cool and elegant plays of the mind” (D/I 37). “Dandy” is of course a euphemism for gay, and Roth acknowledged that the artists in question were predominantly homosexual or, like Duchamp performing as Rrose Sélavy, bisexual (see D/I 37). Katz, with the hindsight of twenty years, adds that, given the extreme homophobia of the postwar era, the “indifference” of the artists in question must be understood less as “passivity” than what he calls the “double duty” of “camouflage and contestation” that characterized “the compulsory Cold War closet.”(D/I 51). “What Roth refers to as ‘an aesthetic of indifference’,” writes Katz, “can be more accurately termed ‘a politics of negation,’ wherein negation functions as an active resistance to hegemonic constructions of meaning as natural or inherent in the work” (D/I 63). The performance of “silence” (or White Painting), in this scheme of things, testifies to the awareness of the possibilities of “a newly destabilized and de-essentialized construction of self” (D/I 55). The “natural,” always a mystification of the social, is replaced by the dandy’s “narcissistic pleasures of performative fluency” (D/ I 59).

This reminder of the role sexual orientation played in the negative politics of the Cage circle is a useful antidote to Roth’s overly schematic distinction between a committed and an uncommitted poetry. But Katz glosses over certain key differences among the artists inside the circle in question. To understand the role of Johns’s “cool” art in the “activist” sixties, it is useful to read Johns’s work against that of a closely related gay artist, or rather poet (and art critic) —a poet who was Johns’s exact contemporary (born 1926) and, like him, a great admirer of John Cage, whose Music of Changes, as performed by David Tudor, he had introduced to a third poet-friend, John Ashbery, as early as 1952. [11] I am thinking, of course, of Frank O’Hara, whose poetry stands behind a number of important Johns compositions and vice-versa. At the same time, O’Hara’s aesthetic, rooted as it was in the fifties, was to prompt Johns’s own radical rethinking, in the early sixties, of what art could be —an art in which the “memory of [one’s] feelings” gradually gave way to the memory of one’s prior works, of what Cage had called, in a brilliant meditative essay on Johns’s work, “structures, not subjects” (JCYM 75, my emphasis). Cage / Johns / O’Hara: the trio makes for an interesting rethinking of Cold War “difference” and “indifference.”

“JOHNS ’63 HELL”[12]

In 1961, as is often remarked, Johns’s work changed dramatically. As Kirk Varnedoe tells it:

. . . a new emotional tone intervened in Johns’s work, chill, dark, and bleak. Titles of negation, melancholy, or bitterness (No, Liar, In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara) underlined this altered mood. . . . Gray, formerly the guise of impassive neutrality, became an expressive cast of gloom and morbidity. This was now an art under pressure, and imagery of imprinting and smearing, along with thinned-out passages of staining paint and crusts of scraped residue, gave it a more troubled material and psychological life” (KV 191).

What had happened? In Off the Wall, Calvin Tomkins reports that Johns’s long-term relationship with Rauschenberg broke up in 1961: “By the time the summer ended they were no longer together. The break was bitter and excruciatingly painful, not only for them but for their closest associates—Cage and Cunningham and a few others—who felt that they, too, had lost something of great value.” [13] Johns began spending a large part of the year in a house he had bought on Edisto Island, off the coast of South Carolina.

One of the first paintings made after the move to Edisto was called In Memory of My Feelings-Frank O’Hara [figure 5]. This is not, as the title might suggest, an homage to a new lover; quite the contrary. Johns and O’Hara had first met in 1957, but they were not immediately friends, possibly because O’Hara’s primary allegiance, in his role as curator at the Museum of Modern Art, was to the abstract expressionists: he was exhibiting (and writing on) Jackson Pollock and William De Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Helen Frankenthaler. [14] Johns, for his part, remained aloof from these painters. Asked in a 1964 interview whether his “stylism” was “a logical step beyond abstract expressionism,” he responded: “I tried to consciously avoid making statements that were already being made well. The 1940s did something valuable with the work of Pollock and others. In the 1950s there was a hangover where they were not producing private [pictures] but painting public pictures and refining statements. I am not interested in refinement. I try to avoid resemblances” (JJWI 105).

There was also the question raised by Moira Roth and Jonathan Katz about the abstract expressionists’ lifestyle: the loud and aggressively macho Cedar Bar scene was no more congenial to Johns than it had been to Cage, who recalls trying to avoid Jackson Pollock “because he was generally so drunk, and he was actually an unpleasant person for me to encounter. I remember seeing him on the same side of the street I was, and I would always cross over to the other side.” [15] But despite such conflicting loyalties, by 1959 Frank and “Jap” were corresponding—O’Hara sent Johns a long, amusingly annotated list of books worth reading, both poetry and prose (see MPFO 15ff)—and it is Jap who accompanies Frank to the Southampton weekend house party given by Kenneth and Janice Koch, where O’Hara and the dancer Vincent Warren become lovers—a weekend memorialized in the poem “Joe’s Jacket”:

Entraining to Southampton in the parlor car with Jap and Vincent, I see life as a penetrable landscape lit from above like it was in my Barbizonian kiddy days when automobiles were owned by the same people for years. . . . (FOHCP 329)

“Joe’s Jacket” ends on a note of pained resignation—‘it will not be need, it will be just what it is and just what happens” (FOHCP 330)—as the poet recognizes the impact his new relationship will have on his long-time companion Joe [LeSueur]. Perhaps Johns related this painful ending to his own break-up with Rauschenberg; in any case, his painting takes its title from O’Hara’s earlier (1956) poem “In Memory of My Feelings.”

Johns’s hinged painting [see figure 5] is divided in half, but the two seemingly matching “halves” are discordant. In the right half, the “abstract” brush strokes—predominantly black and blue with some white and a few color flecks or orange-red—don’t blend: theirs is, in Leo Steinberg’s words, a “ceaseless overlap-interlace of figure and ground; a paint surface like knitting or basketry. Not a shallow space but the quickened density of a film.” The “M-W brushstroke” used here and in related paintings of the early sixties, “functions like the corrugated staples carpenters use” (LST 44). In the left half of the painting, the blue-black paint strokes thin out and drip onto the largely white area near the bottom. In the top half, the strokes are obliterated by a more smoothly painted brown-grey rectangle, reminiscent of Johns’s earlier Canvas [figure 6] and Flags [figure 7]. Suspended on a wire from a screw near the top of this rectangle is an ordinary silver spoon, oddly hung, not by its handle, but upside down, as is the fork whose prongs are just visible behind it. The fork’s shadow, just to the right of the utensils, recalls a hand, with fingers closed. The well of the spoon intersects the bottom edge of the rectangle.

Before we consider the function of spoon and fork, we should note that the lower edge of the canvas is unpainted, reminding us that painterly illusionism is not in order. And right above this unpainted lower strip, we read the stencilled letters of the painting’s title “IN MEMORY OF MY FEELINGS — FRANK O’HARA and, to its right, the signature “J. JOHNS” with the date “[19]61.” This seeming authentication is misleading, for the painting in no way “illustrates” O’Hara’s poem, of which more in a moment. Indeed, as Fred Orton puts it, “the grey brushstrokes that dominate the right, and mark the white ground and turpentine-like-brown greyness of the left canvas are there not as the direct expression of feelings but as signifiers of the expression of feelings appropriated from the pictorial language of abstract expressionism. In the context of Johns’s surface, they refer to the idea of the unmediated association of feelings and facture, but their very identity as appropriated signifiers inhibits our seeing and understanding them as marks directly expressive of Johns’s feelings.” [16]

Brushstroke thus becomes ironic allusion, a kind of distancing device whereby overt emotion, whether the painter’s own or that of the previous New York generation, is kept at bay. The suspended spoon and fork contribute to this sense of displacement. Fred Orton speculates that Johns had in mind O’Hara’s poem “Dig My Grave with a Silver Spoon,” and that there is some private association between these little eating utensils and death (Orton 69). [17] But perhaps, as I have suggested elsewhere, the most important thing to note is that Johns strips ordinary domestic objects like spoons of their normal associations, recontextualizing them so as to “make it strange.” Spoons and forks are to eat with, not to be suspended from wires like stick figures in a game of Hang Man. Spoons and forks are to be held by someone, one in each hand, not bound together as they are here, where the fork oddly hides behind (or couples with?) the suspended, phallically erect spoon, (MPFO xxii). And, finally, the juxtaposition of these ordinary, everyday objects with the bluish-gray paint surface is curiously disorienting, challenging the viewer’s notions of how a visual field should be organized.

The blue-black brushstrokes play yet another role: they almost bury the words “DEAD MAN” stenciled across the lower edge of both canvases: “D on the left, “EAD MA[N} on the right, and then above that, but only on the right canvas, again—this time in smaller letters—‘DEAD MAN’. [18] The thick paint strokes, as Orton points out, “completely cover the human skull that Johns pictured, probably with a crude stencil of his own devising, in the top right of the canvas.” The naked eye cannot make out this skull; Orton is presumably drawing on Johns’s sketchbook for 1961, which contains a page [figure 8], at whose top we read “A DEAD MAN” and right below it:

Take a skull
cover it with paint
rub it against canvas (JJWI 29)

The outlined canvas below (evidently a first sketch for In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara) has a skull and crossbones at the upper right and the words “DEAD MAN” in large block letters at the lower margin. The skull motif reappears in a larger shaded version beneath the rectangle and in the second sketch, this time covered with black calligraphic squiggles, at the lower left. In both cases, the skull also resembles a light-bulb, thus recalling the sculpmetal and graphite renditions of light bulbs of the late fifties [figure 9].

The reference to “DEAD MAN” appears curiously prophetic, as O’Hara met his own death five years later, when he was only forty, in the tragic beach buggy accident at Fire Island. The commemorative volume published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1967 again bore the title In Memory of My Feelings.[20] But in 1961, O’Hara was very much alive, so the words “DEAD MAN” and the outline of the hidden skull must be construed otherwise. A hint is supplied in John Cage’s collage essay “Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas,” first published in the Jewish Museum catalog of the work of Johns early in 1964 and reprinted in A Year From Monday (1967). In this text, in which the italicized passages are taken from Johns’s own writings, Cage tries to recreate the artist’s strange but highly disciplined ways of working and to define his aesthetic. Near the beginning, we read:

Beginning with a flag that has no space around it, that has the same size as the painting, we see that it is not a painting of a flag. The roles are reversed: beginning with the flag, a painting was made. Beginning, that is, with structure (JCYM 74).

But not just any structure: “If it comes to his notice that someone else had one of his ideas before he did, he makes a mental or actual note not to proceed with his plan” (JCYM 74). Here is the fear of “resemblances” I talked of earlier, the need to See It New. And also to differentiate Johns from his contemporaries: “if only,” notes Cage, discrimination “will make us pause long enough in our headstrong passage through history to realize that Pop Art, if deducted from his work, represents a misunderstanding, if embarked upon as the next step after his, represents a non-sequitur” (75). And we recall Johns’s own distinction between Pop Art’s “dealing with images” and his own “working for form” (JJWI 92).

Gay “concealment,” it seems, can mean many different things: witness the obsession with object and image of that other famous gay sixties artist, Andy Warhol. For Johns, perhaps because of the rootlessness and isolation of his childhood, subjectivity becomes a matter of endless self-invention. In Cage’s wonderfully dead-pan “bio” sketch:

He does not remember being born. His earliest memories concern living with his grandparents in Allendale, South Carolina. Later, in the same town, he lived with an aunt and uncle who had twins, a brother and sister. Then he went back to live with his grandparents. After the third grade in school he went to Columbia, which seemed like a big city, to live with his mother and stepfather. A year later, school finished, he went to a community on a lake called The Corner to stay with his Aunt Gladys. He thought it was for the summer but stayed there for six years studying with his aunt who taught all the grades in one room, a school called Climax. The following year he finished high school living in Sumter with his mother and stepfather, two half-sisters and his half-brother. He went to college for a year and a half in Columbia where he lived alone. (JCYM 78))

How do we interpret these “facts”? There is no simple answer. We may surmise, if we like, that Johns must have been lonely and miserable. But this would be to read normative values into the equivocal portrait, whereas it might just be possible, in Johns’s particular case, that the absence of close family ties and a home produced a remarkable self-reliance and resilience. Then, too, as Cage implies, there is, after all, one constant in the nomadic life described—namely, South Carolina, represented, in the present of Cage’s essay, by Edisto.

A few pages later, Cage poses the question, “Does he live in the same terror and confusion that we do?” And he responds in Johns’s own words, “The air must move in as well as out—no sadness, just disaster.” (JCYM 80). This Buddhist note of acceptance (a faith Cage wholly shares and hence can write about so movingly) culminates in the text’s final paragraph, which refers to an afternoon of mushroom hunting in the local woods:
Even though in those Edisto woods you think you didn’t get a tick or ticks, you probably did. The best thing to do is back at the house to take off your clothes, shaking them carefully over the bathtub. Then make a conscientious self-examination with a mirror of necessary. It would be silly too to stay out of the woods simply because the ticks are in them. Think of the mushrooms (Caesar’s among them!) that would have been missed. Ticks removed, fresh clothes put on, something to drink, something to eat, you revive. There’s scrabble and now chess to play and the chance to look at TV. A Dead Man. Take a skull. Cover it with paint. Rub it against canvas. Skull against canvas. (JCYM 84).

How do we reconcile the upbeat references to the evening’s “reviv[al]”—eating, drinking, playing scrabble and chess, watching TV after a hard day’s work– with the death note of the final citation, “A Dead Man. Take a skull. Cover it with paint. Rub it against canvas. Skull against canvas” ? Is man, in Johns’s scheme of things, no more than this? Here it is useful to turn to the O’Hara poem that gave Johns his title, In Memory of My Feelings.


O’Hara’s long autobiographical poem was begun on his thirtieth birthday; the immediate occasion may well have been the crisis of turning thirty and fearing that his vocation might never be realized. Indeed, as Bill Berkson speculates, the poem’s sense of urgency may well have to do with the publication, that same year (1956), of another long poem by a friend of the very same age—Howl by Allen Ginsberg. [21] “In Memory of My Feelings” opens as follows:

My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent
and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.
He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals.
My quietness has a number of naked selves,
so many pistols I have borrowed to protect my selves
from creatures who too readily recognize my weapons
and have murder in their heart! (CPFOH 252-53)

The crisis O’Hara presents so movingly here is that of objectification by the other. At the outset, the poet’s “naked selves” are endlessly victimized and terrorized: “A gun is ‘fired’,” and “pink flamingoes” absurdly crush “one of me” “underneath their hooves,” leaving behind “terror in earth, dried mushrooms, pink feathers, tickets.” (CPFOH 253). A little further along, “My transparent selves / flail about like vipers in a pail, writhing and hissing / without panic” (CPFOH 253). Indeed, memory only increases the pain and humiliation: “My father, my uncle, my grand-uncle and the several aunts”–these become nothing less than “the dead hunting” the “alive ahunted” (CPFOH 253). The poet’s mind, trying to deal with these memories of victimization is “like a shuttered suite in the Grand Hotel / where mail arrives for my incognito, / whose façade has been slipping into the Grand Canal for centuries” (CPFOH 254).

This last passage is characterized by the “performative fluency” Jonathan Katz speaks of, the campy power to construct alternate identities that allow one to survive. A central strategy, in the gay poetry of the sixties, is humor: for much of this poem, O’Hara’s narrator is able to laugh at his past exploits and at “the occasion of these ruses”(CPFOH 257). Many of the “memories,” moreover, far from being actual recollections, are based on various Hollywood films, as in the comic passage about Lord Nelson, where the “meek subaltern writhes in his bedclothes / with the fury of a thousand, violating an insane mistress / who has only herself to offer his multitudes” (CPFOH 255). The resort to imaginary memories that are actually quotations from other works, thus distancing the reader from the poet’s inner turmoil, distinguishes O’Hara from the Confessional poets of the fifties and sixties: “personism,” as O’Hara conceives of it, is not “personalism.”

But in part 4, hallucination and burlesque give way to a moment of transcendence:

		One of me is standing in the waves, an ocean bather,
		or I am naked with  plate of devils at my hip.
		To be born and live as variously as possible. . .  (CPFOH 255-56)

And there follows the now well-known catalogue of assumed identities– “I am a Hittite in love with a horse . . . I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs / in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall / I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole. . . . I am a Chinaman climbing a mountain” (CPFOH 256)—a series of ecstatic identifications in which the poet is able to get outside himself and act in various desirable or comically absurd and hyperbolic roles.

It is a brilliant performance but one that cannot last. The fifth and final section opens with the short line “And now it is the serpent’s turn” (CPFOH 256). How to reconcile the phallic serpent to “the heart / that bubbles with red ghosts, since to move is to love”? Fantasies of domination give way to a reprise of erotic / masochistic dreams, whether of “being shot / by a guerrilla warrior or dumped from a car into ferns,” or a moment in which

        The hero, trying to unhitch his parachute,
stumbles over me.  It is our last embrace.
“The fancy,” in Keats’s words, cannot cheat so well / As she is fam’d to do.”  Hence the poignancy and pathos of the poem’s ending:
			I could not change it into history
	And so remember it,
and I have lost what is always and everywhere
		present, the scene of the my selves, the occasion of these ruses,
		which I myself and singly must now kill
						and save the serpent in their midst.  (CPFOH 257)

The integrity of the self—this time, a “real” or natural self—is preserved, but only at a very high cost.

There is much more to be said about this complex poem, [22] but here I want to focus on its relationship to Johns’s painting. In both cases, meaning is created by juxtaposition of unlike items in an intricate network of metonymic images. In the poem, for example, the various unrelated scenes of hunting and war—whether remembered incidents or allusions to World War II films, or even pure inventions—play on the fear and paranoia of the poet, or again, the great-aunt’s “blood vessels [that] rushed to the surface/ and burst like rockets,” can be related to the Grand Canal scene in Venice, where “rockets splay over a sposalizio” (CPFOH 254), and then to the “fury of a thousand” in the Lord Nelson scene. In the same vein, the painting has no focus or vanishing point, no figure silhouetted against a ground, no symmetry between left and right halves, and yet the shape of the spoon handle is metonymically related to paint shapes throughout, and the brushstrokes, as I have already noted, create structures of great intricacy. Or again, in Watchman [figure 3], the little red stick at bottom left echoes the line of the chair back in the upper right, even as the black and white strip with its drips at the bottom of the frame carries on the rhythm of the vertical strip above it to create a T-shape. Each part of the canvas is as important as every other part, the principle being, again in Stein’s words, to “use everything.”

Both poem and painting create tension between formal abstraction and the introduction of ordinary, everyday objects. “My quietness has a man in it,” gives way to the particularism of O’Hara’s absurdist catalogues, even as Johns’s painting projects the suspended spoon and fork against a backdrop of thick and separate brushstrokes. The curious tension between the abstract and the “real,” also produces a marked eroticism: in a comic allusion to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, O’Hara’s “ardent lover of history hides, / tongue out / leaving a globe of spit on a taut spear of grass / and leaves off rattling his tail a moment / to admire this flag” (CPFOH 255); in the painting, that “spear,” in the form of spoon, reappears as a blue, black, or white brushstroke, in many places “hiding” something reddish orange.

But what about Johns’s hidden “DEAD MAN”? How does this reference relate to the “man” in O’Hara’s first line — “My quietness has a man in it”– or to those multiple selves” who must, in the end, be “killed” so as to “save the serpent in their midst”? It is, I would posit, in their treatment of death that O’Hara and Johns part company. O’Hara is still very much a post-Romantic poet, yearning for presence, for a particular palpable self that is anchored in a particular body. However much his “I” clowns around, playing self-deprecating games with what Katz calls “performative fluency” however much he can laugh at his own past and present inadequacies and postures, the driving force of the poem is anxiety (which is also the title of one of his most moving poems—see CPFOH 268), a free-floating fear whose ultimate object, death, is never far away, as in “A Step Away from Them,” where not even the “beautiful and warm” avenue can dispel the thought that “First / Bunny died, then John Latouche, / then Jackson Pollock” (CPFOH 258), or as in the last two lines of “Music,” where the poet’s buoyant mood is dispelled by the thought, “But no more fountains and no more rain / And the stores stay open terribly late” (CPFOH 210). O’Hara’s most famous poem, let’s remember, is the elegy “The Day Lady Died.”

For O’Hara, death and petrifaction (as in the Medusa’s stare in “In Memory”) are omnipresent, threatening at every moment to dissolve the fragile self. Evidently, Johns recognized this vulnerability: in In Memory of My Feelings-Frank O’Hara, he writes “A DEAD MAN” in big block letters, only to “cover it with paint. Rub it against canvas. Skull against canvas. John Cage, visiting Johns in Edisto Beach, where the latter had evidently undergone a bout of depression, [23] catches this mood perfectly in Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas. Contemplating Johns’s map and flag paintings, Cage remarks, “Stupidly we think of abstract expressionism. But here we are free of struggle, gesture, and personal image. Looking closely helps, though the paint is applied so sensually that there is the danger of falling in love” (JCYM 83).

This subtle distinction between personal gesture and the sensuality of the paint itself refers obliquely to the distinction between the gesture painting (or gesture poetry) of the fifties and the more conceptual art of the sixties (Cage’s present in the essay), when the erotic became, so to speak, a source of ideation rather than personal image. Indeed, to come back to the title, unlike O’Hara’s memory of his feelings, Johns’s “memory” is not of former “feelings” or the specific incidents, real and imaginary, that generated those feelings; the memory, rather, is of his earlier art works: flags, canvases, numbers, letters, targets. It is this particular continuity that gives comfort.

Cage, who declares himself somewhat intimidated by the “enigmatic aura of his [Johns’s] personality” (YM 73), understands this perfectly. “A Dead Man,” he knows, could be used as well as anything else to give life to a given painting: “Take a skull. Cover it with paint. Rub it against canvas.” The shape of a skull, as Johns depicts it, is not, after all, all that different from a lightbulb. Indeed, the skull-rubbing exercise was soon to be taken quite literally. In May of 1962, Johns made Study for Skin, a series of four drawings made by pressing the artist’s lubricated face on paper and then rubbing charcoal on the paper to render the oiled surface visible [see figure 10]. The resulting images are strangely indeterminate. On the one hand, we can see them, especially No. I [figure 11], as images of an eyeless face, flanked by hands spread on a pane of glass, behind which the man to whom they belong is somehow trapped. On the other, they are, in John Cage’s words, “Structures, not subjects” in their successive transformation of recognizable object into abstract form (JCYM 75). “He sometimes,” says Cage, “introduces signs of humanity to intimate that we, not birds for instance, are part of the dialogue. . . Finally, with nothing in it to grasp, the work is weather, an atmosphere that is heavy rather than light . . . in oscillation with it we tend toward our ultimate place: zero, gray disinterest” (JCYM 76). The “scene of my selves,’ to use O’Hara’s phrase, is gradually occluded.

The “zero” drawing process culminates in the lithograph Skin with O’Hara Poem of 1965 [figure 12]. Here the imprint of hands and face is placed on the semitransparent, brittle drafting paper used by engineers, which, as Riva Castleman tells us, “provided an unusual and anonymous surface for the artist’s uninhibited embrace of the [engraving] stone. The poem by O’Hara was added to the composition two years after the imprint was made, and remains the sole example from what was intended to be a portfolio of prints on unusual papers in a variety of shapes and sizes incorporating new works by the poet.” [24]

The relation of O’Hara’s text to the picture in which it is embedded is itself quite strange. Reproduced as typescript above the very graphic and ominously black, extended right hand (the hand imprints have the look of X-rays), [25] the poem “The Clouds Go Soft” is barely visible. If it weren’t for the title Skin with O’Hara Poem, one would hardly notice it. Given the title, however, the viewer looks for the text in what is a game of hide of seek. Here is O’Hara’s poem:

	The clouds go soft
					change color and so many kinds
		     puff up, disperse
						sink into the sea
	the heavens go out of kilter
                                            an insane remark greets
						             the monkey on the moon
			in a season of wit
						it is all demolished
	or made fragrant
			       sputnik is only the word for “travelling companion”

	here on earth
			at 16 you weigh 144 pounds and at 36

		the shirts change, endless procession
					      but they are all neck 14  sleeve 33

			and holes appear and are filled
	the same holes			                anonymous filler
				  no more conversion, no more conversation

		the sand inevitably seeks the eye
							  and it is the same eye
(CPFOH 474-75)

The poem, dated 11 July 1963, belongs to O’Hara’s final years and is as dark as anything he wrote. Even its lines trail off inconclusively, one line never quite anticipating the placement of the following. The poet who had always celebrated change, motion, vitality, and openness, here cannot get beyond his obsessive death thoughts. Like Johns’s charcoal “skin” rubbings, the clouds are said to “go soft”—an absurd remark since clouds are by definition soft, constantly change color, and inevitably sink, whether, as here, into the sea or behind mountains, trees, or buildings. The references to the moon launch and Sputnik in line 5-11 only serve to intensify the poet’s own isolation: “Sputnik,” after all, means “travelling companion,” wryly suggesting, in an echo of Philip Sidney’s famous sonnet “With how sad steps, oh moon. . .”, that even in outer space there must be more companionship than here on earth. Down here, even as the years tick off inexorably (“the shirts change, endless procession”), everything remains the same (“they are all neck 14 sleeve 33”), the armholes imperceptibly turning into graves. “No more conversion, no more conversation”: nothing but the “zero, gray disinterest” Cage discerns with reference to Johns’s drawings.

The last two lines of “The Clouds Go Soft” are especially arresting. Here it is not, in the words of the popular song, smoke that “gets in your eye” but sand that “inevitably seeks” it. Smoke is ephemeral whereas sand can cause permanent damage to the eye. And yet O’Hara’s reference is also an in-joke, an allusion to the actual sand at Edisto beach. Just a few months earlier, in a letter-poem called “Dear Jap,” O’Hara had written, “When I think of you in South Carolina I think of my foot in the sand.” The reference is to Johns’s Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara) begun in 1961 [figure 13], made by placing a rubber cast of O’Hara’s foot into the hinged lid of a small pine box, so that, when the box is closed, the cast foot makes an imprint in the sand in the top drawer. [26]

Barely legible in the visual field of Johns’s Skin with O’Hara Poem, “The Clouds Go Soft,” is thus an apt analogue to the composition of body fragments– helpless, extended hands, palms against an invisible surface, flanking a smudged black facial contour, rather like an image of the Crucifixion or perhaps Veronica’s Napkin — in the lithograph. But why did poet and painter never complete the originally projected portfolio of collaborations, of which Skin with O’Hara Poem turned out to be the only exemplar? My hunch is that the personal anguish expressed in this and related O’Hara poems of 1963[27] was one that Johns, having undergone a similar personal crisis, had schooled himself, probably with Cage’s help, to submit to the discipline of formal structuration, thus depersonalizing the visual field. Skin with O’Hara Poem is a bleak, unsettling picture, but the source of pain is not specified: it might relate to war as readily as to the sorrows of lost love. “I’m interested,” as Johns was at pains to tell David Sylvester shortly after exhibiting Skin with O’Hara
, “in things which suggest the world rather than suggest the personality” (JJWI 113).

By 1964, in any case, Johns was spending more time than ever with Cage, Cunningham, and David Tudor. In March, en route to Hawaii and Japan, he traveled with Lois Long and Cage to San Francisco, where Cage performed with David Tudor at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. It was at one of their performances, that Johns noticed the spot of light on the ceiling—a reflection from the mirror in a woman’s compact—that gave him the idea for the reflective light he was to use shortly in the painting Souvenir [figure 14]—a painting that incorporates a penny arcade self-portrait placed on cheap souvenir plate. After vacationing with Cage and some others in Hawaii in April, Johns left for Tokyo, where he painted Watchman. A new phase had begun.
In the notebook sketch for the painting, let’s recall, Johns distinguishes between a watchman who “falls ‘into’ the ‘trap’ of looking,” and a spy who “must be ready to ‘move’ must be aware / Of his entrances & exits.” The watchman “leaves / his job & takes away / no information,” whereas the spy “must remember / & must remember himself & his remembering.” And further: whereas “The spy designs himself to be overlooked,” “the watchman ‘serves’ as a warning.”

But a warning of what? Perhaps that the poetry of immediate presence of a Frank O’Hara, especially fetching and brilliant as it was in those poems of the late fifties like “Why I Am Not a Painter” or “Khrushchev is coming on the right day!”, was no longer sufficient: “The spy stations himself / to observe the / watchman.” Indeed, one way to understand such Johns works as In Memory of My Feelings-Frank O’Hara, Skin with O’Hara Poem, and Watchman, is as covert critique of O’Hara’s “Personism,” [28] with its potential “fall ‘into’ the ‘trap’ of looking” and its “tak[ing] away” of “no information.” Against this particular posture, this “occasion of my ruses,” Johns puts forward a “cool” Conceptualism that takes the mode of the painter’s earlier Flags, Targets, Numbers, and Alphabets to their logical conclusion. But “cool” is of course itself a cover: the very absence of “personal” references or images of human life is itself a sign of pathos. And would could be more “emotional” than the sense of disjunction and mismatch (of letters with colors, and so on) displayed in paintings like Watchman?

Does the “information” Johns speaks of relate to McCarthyite surveillance and the Cold War discourse of spying, as Moira Roth thinks? Perhaps these notions are subliminally present. In a larger sense, however, the distinction is between warm and cool, between the gestural expressivity of the second-generation New York painters and poets of the late fifties, and the more ideational, philosophical, and distanced art that inevitably came into being, whether consciously or not, in response to the political climate of the sixties. For the autobiographical “imprint” found in such poems as “Joe’s Jacket,” Johns substitutes the rubber imprint of O’Hara’s actual—but in the context, wholly anonymous–foot. Were it not for the title Memory Piece [Frank O’Hara], the viewer of Johns’s box construction could not possibly identify this foot’s owner. “The spy,” remember, “designs himself to be overlooked.” Thus, in the ambitious According to What, painted later in 1964, the self-portrait of Souvenir has been painted over and replaced by the work’s title, even as the painting itself contains oblique references to all of Johns’s earlier work, specifically, the leg and chair, hinged canvas, sign letters, color chart, newspaper, coat hanger and spoon, the primary color abstraction and tonal scale. [29]

Accordingly, when Johns becomes the director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1965, he “designs” scenery that involves no painting or drawing on his part at all, but is, on the contrary, a conceptual set based on Duchamp’s Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare of her Bachelors, Even) . It consists of the seven components of the Glass as Duchamp had designated them in his diagrams: The Bride, Milky Way, Nine Malic Molds, Glider and Water Mill Wheel, Chocolate Grinder, Oculist Witnesses, and Sieves or Parasols.[30] In an interview with James Klosty, Johns explains how, having obtained Duchamp’s approval, he painted the images on plastic in a friend’s Canal Street loft, and then transcribed them onto seven vinyl boxes of varying shapes and sizes. [31]

The resulting dance piece, Walkaround Time (1968) was not entirely successful and is infrequently performed, probably because, as Merce Cunningham recalls, “the seven objects of the Glass . . . limited very much what one could do in the space; it meant that all of your traffic had to be lateral from one wing to the other. [32] But despite its choreographic problems, Walkaround Time is a brilliant conceptual work, testifying to the role intertextuality can play in the process of “stationing [one]self to observe the watchman.”

In a 1967 page of Johns’s sketchbook we read:

		Distinguishing one thing from another
		(Duchamps “2 like objects”)

Making distinctions where
							       { none has existed
                                                              	       { none has been said to exist
                                                                      { none has been made
How does the (eye) make such distinctions
Linguistically, perhaps, the verb is important.
But what about such a case in painting?                 (JJWI 61)
Making distinctions:  Johns may well be alluding to the following lines from O’Hara’s “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul”?:
		and Joe has a cold and is not coming to Kenneth’s
		although he is coming to lunch with Norman
		I suspect he is making a distinction
		well, who isn’t                           		(FOHCP 328)

But O’Hara’s good humored and self-deprecating gesture of tolerance becomes, in Johns’s own writing, a pressing metaphysical question. And such questions, themselves inevitably political in their implications, proved to be central to the “new art” or “new poetry” of the sixties and to their legacy to the increasingly pervasive Conceptualism of the nineties. [33] As Cage, put it:

There are various ways to improve one’s chess game. One is to take back a move when it becomes clear that it was a bad one. Another is to accept the consequences, devastating as they are. Johns chooses the latter even when the former is offered. Say he has a disagreement with others; he examines the situation and comes to a moral decision. He then proceeds, if to an impasse, to an impasse. When all else fails (and he has taken the precaution of being prepared in case it does), he makes a work of art devoid of complaint.
(JCYM 74).

A work of art devoid of complaint. “A painting,” as Cage interprets Johns, “is not a record of what was said and what the replies were but the thick presence all at once of a naked self-obscuring body of history” (JCYM 79). The personal now becomes inseparable from the political. “The spy,” let’s remember, “must be ready to ‘move,’ must be aware of his entrances & exits.” In this way, what was perceived by contemporaries as indifference can now be understood as an oblique but necessary form of intervention. In Johns’s words (JJWI 54), “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”


John Cage, “Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas,” A Year From Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), p. 77. Subsequently cited as JCYM.

The sketchbook notes are reproduced in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, ed. Kirk Varnedoe, compiled by Christel Hollevoet (Museum of Modern Art / New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), pp. 26-77, including 21 plates. Figure 1 (p. 37) reproduces Book A, p. 55; it is transcribed on pp. 59-60. The book is subsequently cited in the text as JJWI.

Francis M. Naumann, Jasper Johns: According to What & Watchman (New York: Gagosian Gallery, 21 January-14 March 1992), pp. 16-17. Subsequently cited as FMN.

Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns, revised and expanded edition (1977); New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), p. 49.

Gertrude Stein, “A Transatlantic Interview 1946,” in A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein, ed. Robert Bartlett Haas (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1976), p. 15.

Frank O’Hara, “Jackson Pollock” Art Chronicles 1954-1966 (New York: George Braziller,Inc., 1975), p. 30.

Leo Steinberg, “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford, 1972), p. 51. Subsequently cited as LST.

See Lillian Tone, “Chronology,” in Kirk Varnedoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, with an essay by Roberta Bernstein (Museum of Modern Art / New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), p. 195. “Before Johns paints Fool’s House,” Tone records, “David Hayes introduced him to the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He reads the Philosophical Investigations and borrows the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus from Hayes. He will later read all of Wittgenstein’s published writings, as well as a number of books about the philosopher.” Cf. Roberta Bernstein, Jasper Johns’s Paintings and Sculptures 1954-1974: “The Changing Focus of the Eye (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985), p. 92; Rosalind Krauss, “Jasper Johns” Lugano Review, 1, no. 2 (1965): 84-113.

Moira Roth, “The Aesthetic of Indifference,” Artforum 16, no. 3 (November 1997): 46-53; rpt. in Difference/Indifference: Musings on Postmodernism, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, commentary Jonathan D. Katz (Amsterdam: G & B Arts International, 1998), pp 33-47. The book is subsequently cited as D/I.

See Max Kozloff, “American Painting during the Cold War,” Artforum 11, no. 9 (May 1973): 43-54. Kozloff argues that the U.S. government used the Abstract Expressionists so as to destroy the hegemony of the School of Paris and make New York the power center of the art world. In the process, the individualistic values of the artists themselves were co-opted. Cf. Serge Guilbault, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art : Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

See John Ashbery, Introduction, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (1971; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), p. ix. This edition is subsequently cited as FOHCP.

The third of three large Map paintings (1963), painted in heavily grayed-down hues, bore this signature: see KV 191.

Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of our Time (New York: Doubleday, 1980), pp. 197-98.

See my Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters (1977; revised ed. with a new introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), Chapter 3 passim. Subsequently cited as MPFO.

John Cage, Interview with Lars Gunnar Bodin et. al. (1965), in Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988), p. 177. Of Pollock’s painting itself, Cage remarks (p. 177), “It seemed to me to be taken from the human body, and that immediately made my interest diminish. . . It was easy to see that, from observing a large canvas of Jackson Pollock’s, he had taken five cans or six cans of paint, had never troubled to vary the color of the paint dripping from the can, and had more or less mechanically—with gesture, however, which he was believing in—let this paint fall out.”

Fred Orton, Figuring Jasper Johns (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 64. Subsequently cited as Orton.

Orton, 69. Cf. Francis Naumann, who comments on a similar suspended spoon in According to What, refers to Johns’s own Watchman note– “’Looking’ is & is not ‘eating’ and also ‘being eaten’”—and equates the two metaphorically, which makes both watchman and spy eaters of sorts. (FMN 52).

Marshall Brown has noted (email to me, 12 June 2000) that the surface behind spoon and fork resembles a Cézanne table surface and that hence Johns’s representation of eating utensils may be read as a kind of dislocated nature morte: here the fork and spoon, far from resting on a table as in a ‘normal’ still life, are hanging, thus alluding obliquely to the words ‘DEAD MAN’ below.

Aside from his sculptures and drawings of isolated light bulbs, Johns also made important drawings of hanging light bulbs: see Nan Rosenthal and Ruth E. Fine (eds.), with Marla Prather and Amy Mizrahi Zorn.), The Drawings of Jasper Johns (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1990), pp. 140-41. These suspended light bulbs (the first is dated 1957) , dangling from wires, look ahead to the spoon and fork in In Memory of My Feelings. This volume is subsequently cited as Rosenthal.

See In Memory of My Feelings: A Selection of Poems by Frank O’Hara, ed. Bill Berkson, with “original Decorations” by thirty artists, a preface by René d’Harnoncourt and an Afterword by Bill Berkson (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1967). Johns provided the illustrations—or, more properly, “decorations” for the title poem; his main drawing is a double-page spread depicting a place setting, fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right, the area between covered with charcoal calligraphy.

The birthday circumstance was related to me by Bill Berkson, email of 20 July, 2000.

For a fuller analysis, see MPFOH, 141-46; James E. B. Breslin, From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 240-49.

It is interesting to note that Cage himself experienced a similar crisis in the mid-forties, when his marriage to Xenia Kashevaroff ended, paving the way for his partnership, both personal and artistic, with Merce Cunningham —the period when he wrote his emotional Perilous Night. See, on this point, David Revill, The Roaring Silence,John Cage:a Life (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992), p. 84.

Riva Castleman, Jasper Johns: A Print Retrospective (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1986), pp. 19-20. Cf. KV 227. Skin with O’Hara Poem won the Prix du Musée d’Art Contemporain à Skopje at the “VI International Exhibition of Graphic Art,” held at the Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia in June 1965.

Note the small chart in the upper right of the lithograph which is indeed a replica of that found in the standard x-ray.

CPFOH 471. For an excellent discussion of Memory Box and the related drawing Edisto (1962), see Rosenthal, pp. 25, 166.

Between ’63 and O’Hara’s death in ’66, the Collected Poems includes only thirty poems as compared to forty-six in the year 1961 alone.

See O’Hara “Personism: A Manifesto,” FOHCP 498-99. This famous manifesto is of course tongue-in-cheek, as in the assertion that Personism “puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky-Pierre style,” but its critique of abstraction, which “involves personal removal by the poet,” is, I think, quite serious and shows a certain divergence between O’Hara and Johns.

See, on this point, FNM, pp. 19-52. This book also contains excellent reproductions of this large painting.

See Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), Figures 76-77.

James Klosty (ed.), Merce Cunningham (New York: Limelight Editions, 1986), p. 86.

See Merce Cunningham, The Dancer and the Dance: Merce Cunningham in conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve (New York and London: Marion Boyars, 1985), pp. 114-15.
The piece is 49 minutes long; it has two parts and an entr’acte based on Erik Satie’s Relache. The music is by David Behrman and, as Cunningham notes, it “was made also with Carolyn Brown very clearly in mind.” The film of the performance was made by James Atlas.

In a recent issue of the New York Times, Arts & Leisure section (25 April 1999), pp. 1-2, Roberta Smith has an article called “Conceptual Art: Over, and Yet Everywhere,” that makes the case for the ongoing vitality of Conceptualism as the movement of the second half of the century.


Figure 1 Jasper Johns, Sketchbook Notes, Book A, p. 55, 1964, in
Jasper Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 37.

Figure 2 Jasper Johns, Book A, p. 49, 1964, Writings, p. 37.

Figure 3 Jasper Johns, Watchman. 1964. Oil on canvas with objects. 215.9 x 153 cm (85 x 601/4”). Collection Mr. Hiroshi Teshigahara, Tokyo.

Figure 4 Jasper Johns. Good Time Charley. 1961. Encaustic on
Canvas with objects, 96.5 x 61 cm (38 x 24”). Private collection.

Figure 5 Jasper Johns. In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara. 1961. Oil on canvas with objects, 101.6 x 152.4 cm. (40 x 60”). Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Figure 6 Jasper Johns. Canvas. 1956. Encaustic and collage on
Canvas with objects. 76.2 x 63.5 cm (30 x 25”). Collection of the arist.

Figure 7 Jasper Johns. Flag on Orange Field. 1957. Encaustic on canvas. 167.6 x 124.5 cm (66 x 49”). Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

Figure 8 Jasper Johns, Book A, p. 18, 1960-61, Writings, p. 29.

Figure 9 Jasper Johns. Light Bulb. 1960. Bronze. 10.8 x 15.2 x10.2 cm (4 1/4 x 6 x 4”). One of four casts. Collection Irving Blum.

Figure 10. Ugo Mulas. In Edisto Beach, S.C., 1965. Ugo Mulas Estate.
In Kirk Vardenoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), pp. 196-97.

Figure 11 Jasper Johns, Study for Skin I. 1962. Charcoal on paper, 22 x 34”. Collection of the artist.

Figure 12. Jasper Johns. Skin with O’Hara Poem. 1963-65. Lithograph. 55.9 x 86.4 cm (22 x 34”). Edition of 30. Published by Universal Limited Art Editions.

Figure 13. Jasper Johns. Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara). 1961-70.
Wood, lead, rubber, sand, and sculpmetal. 6 x 6/14 x13
(closed). Collection the artist.

Figure 14 Jasper Johns, Souvenir. 1964. Encaustic on canvas with objects. 73 x 53.3 cm. (283 3/4 x 21” ). Collection Sally Ganz, New York.