Jasper Johns, Chuck Close, Joel Shapiro, Barnett Newman
These four artists explored the interplay between creating a premeditated work of art and its opposite – making discoveries during the act of creation. Their works are task-oriented and process-driven; they emphasize labor, materiality, and a nondiscrimination between part and whole.
Jasper Johns imbued familiar signs (e.g. alphabets, flags, targets) with a combination of personal energy and self-imposed control, repeating his signature mark – simultaneously expressive and deadpan – with meditative absorption. The resulting surfaces are both sensual and withholding. His deep engagement with the task at hand, and with his materials, gives his work a sense of anxiety and restraint, while also evoking a palpable sense of pleasure.
Chuck Close’s ostensibly representational, gridded portraits recall Johns’s simultaneous restraint and expressivity. In spite of Close’s use of a predetermined image – a photograph – each repeated box of the grid is treated with equal attention. The resulting portraits are repeated in various media throughout his oeuvre, just as Johns continually recycled his own imagery; Close even made several portraits of Johns himself. Close deeply admired Johns while studying at Yale – the large White Flag of 1955 was on extended loan to the university’s art gallery during Close’s postgraduate years.
Shapiro’s fingerprint drawings and hand-formed sculptures were similarly process driven, uniting seriality with a uniquely handmade quality. Their expressiveness derives from the subtle variations coming out of a semi-subconscious, repetitive process. Later, just as Johns transformed familiar symbols into objects and works of art, Shapiro would introduce recognizable, legible imagery. Through deconstruction, simplification, and Minimalist materials, he played with associations of the house in his “house-like” cast metal sculptures.
Barnett Newman, as Johns’s predecessor, would have a profound impact on all of these artists. In 1951 and 1952, Johns saw Newman’s solo shows at the Betty Parsons Gallery. The work apparently had a lasting effect on him, as he would later purchase three works by Newman – two 1960 ink drawings and one lithograph, Untitled from 1961, which Johns would directly quote in several of his own paintings, including Ventriloquist and Racing Thoughts. With his anti-illusionistic canvases, Newman eliminated the distinction between figure and ground, dividing the canvas instead into regular fields, with no background, thus identifying image and field as one. His paintings were to be looked at and not into, and this matter-of-fact effect served to create phenomenological immediacy. Newman restrained personalized expressiveness and let paint be. Always open and sensitive to the moment, and to what a medium does, Newman said in 1966, “It is as I work that the work begins to have an effect on me,” evoking the same absorptive practices that would engage Johns, Close and Shapiro.