Typical of this dissolution of the background into a discontinuous fragmented surface is the 2010 print Fragment of a Letter, in which the artist draws images of a hand gesturing in sign language as the ground on which other images are depicted. In other works, stick figures meme the mariner’s message for S.O.S., which is now a voiceless cry. What is pictured is what cannot be said. This is the point at which language fails, when both artist and critic become silent. In the words of Wittgenstein, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.“ At this point both artist and critic are equally deaf and dumb.
Perhaps Johns’ objective is to bring the viewer to the point of muteness, to silence criticism by overwhelming its capacity to analyse. Indeed, with so many conflicting illusions and spatial paradoxes, the mind ultimately boggles under the weight of excess information. For example, we are always finding out new facts about Johns. The 2007 exhibition, Jasper Johns: Gray, which contained exclusively grisaille versions of his works, revealed that over the course of his career the artist has had a doppelganger lurking in the shadows, a twin who is moody, melancholy and obsessed with death. These grey works as it turns out are often the twins of brightly coloured pieces, their dark opposites suggesting another world on the other side of a mirror. The concept of the evil and dangerous doppelganger was popularised by Dostoevsky in the The Double, the story of a meek, introverted government clerk who goes mad because he keeps encountering his aggressive, extroverted double who wishes to inhabit his persona.
On a lithograph that contains the same portrait printed on a ceramic plate in Souvenir and Souvenir 2, Johns had scrawled "dish”, hinting also at use of the word to describe someone as attractive. But the expression on the face of the photograph is hardly that of self-satisfaction. Labelling the dour self-portrait as a “dish” was more likely an act of ironic self-deprecation. Indeed, Johns has often criticised himself, saying at times that he was not a great colourist or an accomplished draftsman. This is not the portrait of the artist as a successful statesman or diplomat like Rubens, or even as a rakish bohemian like Picasso. It is the portrait of an artist who is deeply self-critical, if not self-rejective, who looks if anything not smug but terrified.
In the dark series of grey works, death constantly lurks. In the series Tantric Detail (1980-81), skulls repeatedly appear as the exuberance of the youth is replaced by the contemplation of death. T.S. Eliot’s description of the playwright Webster – “much possessed by death/And saw the skull beneath the skin” – might describe Johns as well. In Skin (1975), a large work on paper, Johns imprints his own face and torso. Can we not help but wonder if this body, which is that of an artist, is a corpse like Gatsby floating face down in his West Egg swimming pool?
In the course of Johns’ work, there is no progress but there is evolution, change, redefinition, dissolution, ultimately a fading away and decathecting of the original memory as it is transferred and grafted, translated and faded out, until it is drained of any emotional significance or personal feeling. The book, sealed with encaustic in the 1957 object Book, becomes open in Foirades, (1976-2017), a series of etchings made to illustrate five short stories by Samuel Beckett and based on fragments from the disturbing four-part painting Untitled (1972), which includes fake body parts – hands, feet, legs, male buttocks, a female torso – scattered to resemble scenes of carnage. By the time these disturbing images are reconfigured and recycled in a continuous sequence of prints, their identity is so denatured and generalised we can hardly recognise them as human. And although it is true the painting was made at the height of the Vietnam War, Johns has cautioned against giving any political meaning to his work, even his American flag.
So what are we to make of the meaning of Johns’ deadened, silenced objects, contradictory optical illusions that will not remain fixed, casts and images of human body parts, and paradoxical spaces constructed from the remnants of pictorial representation? Obviously Johns, like the fox in Pinocchio, actively tempts the critic to see. But to see what? The answer must be whatever is already in one’s mind. Johns’ friend Susan Sontag wrote an essay titled Against Interpretation. But is it possible to look at the artist’s images without interpreting them, since they are expressly intended to evoke associations in the viewer? No, I don’t think so. On the other hand, each spectator will inevitably have their own subjective interpretation of Johns’ imagery based on personal experience, and their own dreams, memories and impulses. These subjective interpretations provoked by Johns’ use of increasingly overloaded, charged imagery, which he seems to use the way a director uses “stage business” to keep things moving, may also be the artist’s strategy to keep us from noticing what he is actually up to on a more serious level than storytelling iconography.