In the early 1960s critic and art historian Irving Sandler began regularly interviewing artists for the Casper Citron radio show on WRFM. On the program listeners could learn about New York exhibitions and hear artists speak with Sandler about their own works on view. On January 28th, 1963, Sandler was joined by Jasper Johns to discuss the latter’s solo exhibition at Castelli. Installed at the 4 East 77th street location, the show took place from January 12th to February 7th. The thirty-minute interview has been transcribed below and is followed by documentation of Johns’s 1963 exhibition.
Irving Sandler: Our guest tonight is Jasper Johns who is having a one man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery, 4 East 77th street. The first time I saw a picture by Jasper Johns was at the Jewish Museum in 1957 or 58. It was a picture of a green target and I remember being just flabbergasted by it. I had never quite seen anything like it before and I wasn’t the only one in New York. This one picture of a target, monochrome green, made a tremendous impression on a great many viewers in New York. Jasper Johns has also painted targets, numbers, letters, American flags, maps of America. Jasper why do you choose these specific objects to paint?
Jasper Johns: Well I don’t know that I ever chose any of them, particularly. The first of those subjects I painted was the American flag and actually the reason I choose it was one night I dreamed I painted an American flag and the next day I got up and began painting it.
IS: Do any of these other subjects come from dreams or do they have other special meanings for you?
JJ: No, they seem to relate in some way to the kind of image suggested by the flag.
IS: But you only choose ordinary objects, commonplace objects. Actually, objects that are pretty visually exhausted. No one today looks at an American flag or at a letter or number or even a map of America. Does this enter into your idea for a subject, this ordinariness?
JJ: I guess it does in some way but primarily I liked the aspect of these subjects that they fill the space with a certain pattern which suggested that it shouldn’t be altered and should be followed.
IS: In other words, the fact that these objects, say, an American flag, is a rectangular object which fits the picture plane, that is a consideration that entered into the choice of that subject?
JJ: I think so.
IS: And also, I would imagine that the idea that the object is flat, a flag is flat, a painting is flat and the two come together—
JJ: Well, a painting of a flag is at once a flag and a painting and there’s no avoiding that.
IS: But you are involved with the ambiguity between the idea of a flag which looks just like a flag and a painting.
IS: Is that the reason that you never paint, for instance, a flag which is furled or waving in the wind? Or have you?
JJ: Well I have painted a flag that is surrounded by a different color, a flag on a ground of a different color.
IS: But you rarely alter your subjects.
JJ: What do you mean by alter? I always alter my subjects.
IS: In what way? Your flag is a flag.
JJ: They’re altered in color and actually they’re altered in design a bit. The proportions are a little different from the actual proportions of the flag.
IS: Why do you do that? For aesthetic reasons?
JJ: I didn’t quite like the way it was. (Laughs)
IS: Liked the way the flag looked?
IS: And yet, were one just to look at a picture of one of your flags it would seem to be a picture of a flag almost as is.
JJ: I hope so.
IS: Critics have labeled your work Neo-Dada. What do you think of this name with regard to your work?
JJ: Well it’s as good as any other name, I guess. When I had my first show critics identified my work as being Dada or Neo-Dada and I didn’t know what it was at that time. So, I went down to Philadelphia to see the Arensberg collection and in particular to see the Duchamps and it still didn’t inform me as to what Dada was. (Laughs) I’m still in the same place.
IS: But you don’t consider your works as subversive? You don’t mean to undermine conventional values, either social, political or artistic?
JJ: Well, I think it’s nice if work can undermine one’s own artistic values.
IS: But you don’t mean them as a kind of political weapon?
JJ: Not at all.
IS: In other words, this idea of shock the bourgeoisie that the Dada’s delighted in doesn’t enter into your concept of art.
JJ: No, I should think that would be very nice if it happened but that wouldn’t be an aim of mine.
IS: I was really curious about two sculptures of beer cans that you once made. These were cast cans, one was a full can of beer, the other was an empty can. They were cast in bronze and then you painted the labels, I believe they were Ballantine labels, onto the beer cans after you had them cast. This struck me as a kind of dialogue that you were carrying on with Duchamp.
JJ: In what way?
IS: In that Duchamp took commercial objects, put them on a pedestal, proclaimed them as sculpture—these were readymades—and raised the question, and I don’t think this question’s ever been resolved, as to whether these works were art or not. You went one step further, you took readymades, two beer cans, but you cast them in the material of art. You lavished the craft of art and the paining of the labels and you put them on a pedestal and presented them as sculpture. They were beautiful, they were magical.
JJ: But I also made the actual sculptures. They weren’t just casts of beer cans, they were made.
IS: But if one just went into the room and looked over these beer cans it wouldn’t immediately be discernible that they were not Ballantine beer cans.
IS: Did this idea of were they or weren’t they art enter into this kind of riddle that these works pose?
JJ: Well art seems to be whatever you’re willing to use as art and if that’s the case then it can become a question of exactly what is it that you can use as art and exactly what is it that you can’t. I like that kind of question and I like approaching it and moving away from it. I thought there was some element of it in that piece. Actually, there’s kind of a joke about that piece. Previous to that I had done some sculptures of lightbulbs and was attempting to find other subjects to deal with when a certain well-known painter in New York became angry with my dealer and said, “That man, you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them.” So, I thought that this was a marvelous subject for a sculpture and I made the sculpture based on that.
IS: This kind of ambiguity was carried out in another way in a series of paintings that you did which I felt involved the problem of seeing. For these paintings you stenciled the names of colors over colors so that at one point, for me, anyway, it became impossible to figure out just what I was looking it. Was I looking at the names of the colors, say, R-E-D? Or the color red on which the R-E-D was placed? Or at times you would place the “RED” on a blue or yellow, you also used “YELLOW” and “BLUE” stenciled letters. In one of your pictures you just had an entirely grey painting in which the stenciled letters seemed to evoke colors. But this problem of seeing, what is seen, I guess that would be also a matter of interest for you?
JJ: Yes, well it’s always a problem to know what you see and what you know. It seems to me that you don’t have any purity in either of those situations of looking or knowing so one might as well deal with this complex relationship between those elements as you can.
IS: There have been critics, mostly hostile, who have attacked you for being sentimental about your flags, maps of America… One, I believe, called you Americana like Grandma Moses.
JJ: (Laughing) Yes.
IS: Do your American flags and maps mean America to you? Are they intended to evoke images of America?
JJ: The image is an image identified with America. I don’t see that it need, in my working with it—I mean I’m not promoting America in any way by using the flag, I think. (Laughs) At least not intentionally.
IS: This isn’t the continuation of 19th century historical painting.
JJ: I think not.
IS: Other writers on art, and I’ve been one of them, have been fascinated by the way you take a banal object, almost invariably a visually outworn object that people don’t really look at—like an American flag or a target or numbers or letters—and you make these objects visually fresh again. Is this part of your purpose?
JJ: I don’t know. The banality of any object has less to do with the object, I think, than with one’s attitude toward it. When one’s working with anything one sees it’s best to get rid of all attitudes. Anything you can dispose of then good riddance.
IS: The reason that I’m talking so much about what critics have written about you is that your image is absolutely unequivocal in one sense that you paint an American flag and yet so many critics have come up with entirely diverse and even opposite critiques of your work. For instance, this idea that you make objects visible again, visually exhausted objects visually fresh again. One critic even went so far as to say that you’re involved with an act of love in that you single out one of a huge number of similar objects to paint. I guess it’s almost like choosing a wife out of one billion women in the world. But other writers have written the exact opposite, and they consider the subject in your work unimportant, and that they are banal in order for you to play up the quality of the painting itself. Do you intend this? Do you mean for your objects to be banal in order to point to painterliness? The painting experience itself?
JJ: No, I think if you’re looking at painting you look at painting and if you’re looking at the object you look at the object. Then I think one can have the situation where one doesn’t exactly know which to look at and if one can include those two possibilities, that seems better to me than including one. That’s it.
IS: Before we continue with Jasper Johns, whose works are currently on view at the Leo Castelli gallery, 4 East 77th street, a word from these galleries, and it does not matter when you do them as long as you get to the eight and particularly to Jasper Johns at the Castelli gallery. Through February at the Gallery Chalette, 1100 Madison avenue, drawings by European contemporary artists. Recent sculptures by Judith Brown, through February at the Albert Landy Gallery, 111 East 79th street. Ben Johnson continues through February 9th at the Kornblee Gallery, 1018 Madison avenue at the penthouse. James Harvey opens next week at the Graham Gallery, 1014 Madison avenue on the third floor. Lee Gatch opens next week at the Staempfli Gallery, through February 23rd at 47 East 77th street, that’s 77th at Madison. Idelle Weber’s first one man show at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery, 32 East 57th street; this continues through February 16th. Jim Dine’s new paintings will open next week at Sidney Janis for the month of February. And also opening next week, Nicolas Marsciano at the Howard Wise Gallery, 50 West 57th street. And now back to Jasper Johns, whose works are at the Castelli Gallery. There have also been critics—again we have one of these contradictory situations—who considered your work a reaction against abstract expressionism and hence a new realism, and I understand there have also been critics who have considered your work essentially abstract expressionist in your loose brushstroke and in your concern with painterliness. Do you consider your works a reaction against abstraction and a return to realism?
IS: Not at all? Doesn’t the realistic aspect of your work interest you? For instance, one of the things that you do do is to make immaterial symbols like numbers and letters more material than they are in real life. Or a similar process, which is a kind of super realism, when you cast an American flag in bronze so that the flag is actually more substantial than it really is.
JJ: Well, I don’t think any one aspect of my work interests me any more than another aspect of my work. I don’t think any of the questions you’ve raised there involves anything more than one attitude or one aspect or one idea. I see no reason to go in any one direction in that sense.
IS: One of the reasons that I do raise this is because reactionary art critics in the past couple of months have been hailing a tendency in American painting called New Realism or Pop Art, artists who recreate commonplace objects or commercial illustrations. I don’t mean to flatter you at all, but you yourself at this point are one of the most influential artists in America, particularly on this tendency called New Realism. What do you think of this work? Much of it was seen at a large show at the Sidney Janis Gallery about a month ago.
JJ: Well I think it’s happening and I think it’s nice to watch what’s happening. I think it’s better to observe the process of painting as it occurs than to make any judgement about it.
IS: Do you at all identify yourself with these artists?
JJ: I identify myself with all artists.
IS: But this tendency in particular…
JJ: I don’t like tendencies.
IS: Well what I mean is that when an artist like, say, Lichtenstein, paints a comic strip, many of the pictorial ideas which he uses have pretty much come from you or were done first by you. There now seems to be a large number of young artists involved in this direction, I just wondered what you thought of these specific artists.
JJ: I’d rather not say what I think of specific artists. As to where things come from, it’s hard to tell where they come from. Frequently we mean that we knew one thing before we knew another and so we think that the second thing we know comes from the first thing we knew. I think that’s not necessarily true but I don’t know what the truth would be.
IS: In your latest work at the Castelli Gallery I felt that there was a considerable change, particularly in the grey pictures. In these pictures you incorporated real cups, paintbrushes, brooms, forks. These objects didn’t seem to me as impersonal—and I would be hard put to define that word—as the flags or the targets. I feel that they have more private meanings for you than either the flags or the targets, that you are now painting out of your own life. Is this so? Do you feel this way about those grey pictures at the Castelli Gallery?
JJ: One always paints out of one’s own life. In that one is standing there doing it where one is doing it, you can’t avoid that.
IS: Do you find them more intimate than the flag pictures?
JJ: Intimate in what sense?
IS: Intimate in that the objects are so much closer to you, just physically, in the room: a cup on a table or a spoon, a knife, a ruler, a paintbrush than, say, an American flag which waves out there.
JJ: How do you know I don’t have an American flag in my studio? (Laughs)
IS: I imagine you have you pictures of them but do you have an American flag in your studio? (Laughs)
JJ: No, I don’t.
IS: But you do have these objects around.
JJ: Yes, but I don’t quite understand the idea of intimacy there. The cups that are used in those paintings are there because when I needed an object there were these cups in my studio. In fact, there were quantities of them because I had given a party once and bought several dozens. But if you mean do the objects have any particular meaning other than their presence or themselves as cups, I think not. Or at least I can’t identify that meaning.
IS: No, I think it would be very difficult to identify it although I felt it very strongly. The difference between one of the great paintings in this show and another great painting you did, Tennyson, which was a grand elegy—And these pictures are melancholy but they seem much closer than Tennyson, which might have been a tombstone to this poet. Or even the way you lettered—
JJ: Well these paintings tend to be less formal and that may account for that feeling. They tend to be less symmetrical and less finished and the objects tend not to be unified with the painting. They’re not painted over which would immediately keep them against the canvas and include them—
IS: You do in the painting write “cup” and then point to the cup.
JJ: But then its written, it’s not a formal lettering as it was in the earlier works.
IS: No, as you used in earlier works when you worked with stencils.
IS: But even there I thought the boldness of the stencil had given way to this—again, I must use this word—intimacy of the writing “cup”.
JJ: My idea was, if I had any idea, to include as many kinds of things as possible in these paintings. So, in some of the paintings there are stenciled words, there are actual objects which have not been touched by paint attached to the canvases, there are also representations of the objects, there is handwriting, and if I could have thought of any other kinds of things to put in I would probably have put them in too.
IS: This is an interesting thing, your choice of objects which happen to be around and available. I’ve heard people many times relate your work to the music of John Cage but I haven’t understood too clearly why. I would imagine that the way that John Cage uses random experiences would be one connection between your painting and his music. Do you feel that such affinities exist?
JJ: I would be flattered by such an affinity, but I can’t picture one.
IS: You both are fanatical mushroom men though.
JJ: No, not I. (Laughs) Mr. Cage is but not myself.
IS: Recently you were one of the originators of a new organization to help musicians and dancers. Can you tell us about it? I understand it’s still in the planning stages but it seems as if it will be a very important thing in a very short time.
JJ: Well, we hope so. We’ve established a foundation for the contemporary performance arts. The function of the foundation will be to assist with performances of works which ordinarily couldn’t survive in our commercial theater. That would tend to be, I suppose, music, dance, poetry, things like happenings, I don’t know exactly what, we’re open to anything. The foundation is raising funds with an exhibition and the sale of works of art donated by artists. About 70 artists have given to the foundation, there will be an exhibition at the Allan Stone Gallery on the 25th of February. This money will be used by us to do what we want to do.
IS: Will there be any other fundraising activities but this show and sale?
JJ: Immediately not but there certainly will have to be others. We don’t have tax-exempt status yet. We will have it, we hope, within a year.
IS: Do you have any specific project in mind? Are you thinking of any specific performance to begin with?
JJ: I think the first thing the foundation will hold is a Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance in the spring. Beyond that no plans have been made.
IS: To my knowledge this venture is a novel one for New York, I know we’ve had many artists who have come onto this program and who have complained that unlike Paris the relationships between various artists, musicians, writers, dancers in New York has been much less than that in Paris. Do you see this organization as an attempt to bring these diverse arts closer together?
JJ: I don’t think it’s particularly that but many painters and sculptors have been involved with dancers, musicians, poets for many years. The economic situation is such that many of these painters and sculptors are able to support themselves by their work whereas the people in the theater, in the terms that I’ve described, have difficulty there. So, a certain kind of split has probably come about. At any rate, because the artists do have a kind of property, it seems very valuable that they should be willing to give this property to help with things where there is no property.
IS: That sounds marvelous. I guess the image of the starving artist will have to change at this point. (Laughs)
JJ: (Laughs) I didn’t mean to make that sound too glamorous.
IS: I’d like to urge everyone to get to the show, which I’m sure will be a superb one, at the Allan Stone Gallery and to help in this project. Thank you very much to Jasper Johns, whose paintings are on view at the Leo Castelli Gallery, 4 East 77th street. And now over to Casper Citron.