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Jasper Johns's Optics

Jasper Johns, Moratorium, 1969

Offset lithograph; 22 1/2 x 28 11/16 inches

© 2023 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

For today's blog, we invite scholar Miguel de Baca to write about Jasper Johns, Moratorium, 1969. Between December 11 - 13, 1969, Castelli Gallery hosted Art for the Moratorium, a benefit exhibition organized in collaboration with the Moratorium Committee to raise funds to ask for a moratorium for the War in Vietnam. Jasper Johns, Moratorium, 1969, was created by the artist for this occasion. 



The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam was the first antiwar protest in the United States to have reached the level of a nationwide mass movement. Richard Nixon promised in his 1968 presidential campaign to end the war in Vietnam. However, after the inauguration in 1969, he escalated pressure in the theatre of war with no consistent troop withdrawal strategy in sight. Whereas the antiwar movement had been earlier associated with the hippie counterculture and the New Left, especially on America’s progressive college campuses, the Moratorium appealed also to discontented moderate, middle-class people, exposed to the violence of Vietnam on television, who grieved the war and were disappointed by Nixon’s actions. The first Moratorium march in DC was held on October 15, 1969, starting at the Capitol, and ending at the White House. Candle-bearing demonstrators were led by Coretta Scott King, the recent widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., implying an alignment between the antiwar movement of the later 1960s and the peaceful Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Nationwide, about fifteen million people participated in Moratorium marches and teach-ins.  


The Nixon administration responded with venom, vowing to be unaffected, and doubled down on the war effort. While the president stoked American patriotism and support for the war, shocking news from the battlefield inflamed protestors once again. Notably, news broke of the My Lai Massacre, the mass murder of unarmed civilians by the United States Army, including the gang rape and mutilation of women and children, that the government had tried to hide from the American public. From that point on, the Vietnam War was identified with unchecked brutality. Largely in reaction to this disturbing revelation, a second Moratorium march in DC was held on November 15, 1969. It was largely peaceful and featured a Woodstock-style music festival to draw crowds and rally for the cause of peace. 


To support the two well-attended demonstrations and future local and national activities of the organizing Moratorium Committee, Castelli Gallery held a benefit exhibition from December 11 to 13, 1969. Artworks were contributed by sixty prominent artists, luminaries of American art of the 1950s and 60s, ranging in style from abstract expressionism to post-painterly abstraction, pop art to minimalism, and more. The wide-ranging cooperation of these artists and their dealers to come together urgently for a common cause indicates the depth of support to end the war.


On this occasion, Jasper Johns designed a poster to benefit the Moratorium Committee. Above the word MORATORIUM, it reproduced the green, black and orange flag that appears in the upper portion of his 1965 painting, Flags, and which, in retrospect, became one of the unifying visuals of the antiwar movement. Johns had deployed American flag imagery in his practice since 1954, a watershed moment in American art history probing the opposition of a painted object versus a subject that has been painted, asking: is it, itself, a flag? Is it about, or an image of, the flag? Some of these paintings were rendered with wax encaustic, relating the brushstroke to the texture of a painting’s surface and therefore the sense of touch. The sensuous quality of these early paintings implies the time in which it takes the beholder to see and think about them, which is in tension with the instantaneously recognizable symbol of the American flag. As the critic Barbara Rose has argued, “the durations required to read the elaborate surface that Johns built up while painting them creates a tension between optic mental cognition and haptic sensuous experience… it is the key to the enigma of Johns’s art.” As is typical of his works, Johns asks the viewer to slow down comprehension even when the content is seemingly plainly apparent. Through such reimagining, Johns asks us once again to decipher, wonder about, or even reinterpret a conventional marker of American cultural identity.  


Flags, and the Moratorium poster that followed, is no exception. It depicts two American flags: in the upper register, Johns inverted the recognizable color motif of red, white, and blue to its opposites, green, black, and orange, with a small, white dot at the center. The second flag beneath it is in greyscale with a black dot instead of white, not reproduced in the Moratorium poster. Johns’s complementary color scheme estranges the American flag as it is normally seen, but at the same time confirms it in reverse. The color inversion belongs to a category of optical illusions called afterimages, in which an image continues to linger in the eye even after looking away from the original stimulus. A common example of an afterimage is the floating dark spot one sees after having been exposed to a camera flash. Prolonged, intent viewing of an image can also induce an afterimage in the complementary color scheme. In the case of Flags, looking at the American flag in green, black, and orange, and then looking away will cause the colors to reverse (or re-reverse) in the eye to red, white, and blue. In this case, the American flag remains momentarily and intensely visible outside what can be seen in the artwork itself. That begs the interesting question of what correlation, if any, exists between the optical afterimage of Flags and the Moratorium movement that it came to represent? 


In today’s parlance, ‘optics’ can mean either the science of sight and the behavior of visible light, or in news and politics, the outward appearance of personal or policy decisions. This ‘optics’ of public relations was not a term in use in the 1960s—most likely this definition entered our everyday language in the late 1970s—but the role of public opinion in politics has always been important, and the Moratorium is a key example. The entering of antiwar disenchantment into the mainstream was one of the leading issues of the Vietnam war era, what we would today call the ‘bad optics’ of Nixon’s unmoved resolve to win and the government cover-up of My Lai.  


Sending up a political commentary was likely not overt on Johns’s part. The Moratorium poster was not, for instance, as explicitly activist as the Art Workers’ Coalition’s Q. And babies? A. And babies. (1970), a poster designed by Frazer Dougherty, Jon Hendricks, and Irving Petlin, which reproduced army photographer Ron Haeberle’s now-iconic image of slaughtered civilians at My Lai. The red text emblazoned on the poster came from a news interview with PFC Paul Meadlo who was present at the attack and confirmed the murder of children. As was the case for the Moratorium poster, Art Workers’ Coalition printed copies to be distributed freely to demonstrators. The Moratorium poster was also not, for instance, Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971), a performance piece in which the artist had a friend shoot him in the left arm with a rifle at the range of fifteen feet. Quickly the performance was comprehended as a critique of the war’s brutality. Although Burden’s bullet wound in the artwork and a bullet wound sustained on the battlefield are both potentially lethal, they are socially quite distinct. One is an act of collaboration, and the other of aggression, and Burden wisely distanced himself from making an equation between the two. 


That Q. And babies? A. And babies. and Shoot both signify dissent derives from the beholder’s ability first to identify the subtext of these images as a particularly American brute force. For example, as the art historian Frazer Ward perceptively argues, Shoot’s implications must be taken “in the historical moment in which it occurred… in relation to a backdrop of representations of violence, and particularly of the Vietnam War.” It is more than the impact of a single bullet, but rather, in Ward’s words, “questions of consequence and responsibility. If the identifications that Shoot attracted emerged from a specifically American cultural subconscious, that realm of fantasy and projection must also be seen in relation to the same historical context.” For Ward, this context is the glorification of violence embedded as a cultural trait, magnified by entertainment and mass media, and confirmed by the spectacle of an unending war in Vietnam.


What these adjacent artworks help us comprehend is the mechanism of how the Moratorium poster resonated with the wider antiwar movement. From this perspective, it is not difficult to see how the central white spot on the flag was perceived popularly as a bullet hole or flesh wound. In the afterimage, it is the American flag and the hole seen together that the viewer experiences residually in the eye even after looking away. Whether Johns intended it to represent a shot does not much matter. The ubiquity of the war in American everyday life of the late 1960s, and the concomitant widespread understanding of the particularly American nature of its dehumanizing violence, claimed precedent. 

Just as Flags, and the Moratorium poster that followed, reach back to an established motif in Johns’s practice—the American flag—it also, as I hope we can understand now, serves as a preface to the sinister feel of his four-part polyptych Untitled 1972 (1972). This slightly later work was rendered at the peak of national attention directed both at an expanding war in Southeast Asia and the increasingly confrontational protests against it. Although Untitled 1972 neither references the war nor announces itself as an activist artwork, in Rose’s words, it pictures a “world… of violent disruptions and terrifying intimations of slaughter.” The first panel of the polyptych seems inoffensive, featuring a painted crosshatch pattern reminiscent of the diagonal lines printmakers use to suggest volume, attesting to the longstanding importance of print to Johns’s artistic development. The two central panels depart from that design but remain abstract, suggesting tissue cultures, fibrous lattices of roundish shapes in red, black, and white, with a splatter of pink on the third panel. The fourth panel is in relief, with cast-wax body parts—hands, feet, arm, chest—attached to wooden floorboards interlinked across the surface.  

Untitled 1972 visualizes dismemberment and disillusionment. The dismemberment is not only portrayed literally in the fourth panel, as body parts torn apart, but alluded to metaphorically by the overall artwork, which refuses to cohere aesthetically from panel to panel. The fourth panel also achieves pictorial and thematic agreement with the poster Q. And babies? A. And babies. and Shoot, all of which share the sense of dread, not only about the war, but also the responses to it. Although the Moratorium was largely peaceful, the government responses to subsequent antiwar actions became increasingly vehement, including the infamous Kent State massacre in Ohio on May 4, 1970. Chaos and murder reigned in Vietnam, and within the United States, against its own civilians, as well. 


Then, as now, Johns is regarded as an artist for whom there is permeability between art and everyday life. Whether it is the alphabet, bits of newspaper collaged onto a surface, body parts, or the pattern of a national flag, Johns asks the beholder to examine familiar images anew with each glance. The enduring success of the Moratorium poster was not only the critique implied by inverting the color scheme of the Stars and Stripes, but also crucially the afterimage effect of how it lingers even when looking away. In this context, a self-contradictory America is manifest optically everywhere—in its coming together, its inertia, and its catastrophes.  

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