Jasper Johns's Device
The following is a 2003 essay by Contemporary art curator Charles Wylie, published__ in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years.
Like traditional iconographic art of the Middle Ages, Jasper Johns's Device uses a series of symbols, signs, and objects that point to the internal logic of its meaning. Unlike medieval art, however, Johns's work depends not on commonly recognized symbols but on the artist's personal system that we as viewers must puzzle over, perhaps forever. Many works of contemporary art elude us by their extreme abstract forms, but Johns's Device cannot be considered purely "abstract": we see two stretcher bars attached to either side of the upper portion of a rectangular, roughly human-scaled vertical canvas. We also see that the stretchers have been smeared with paint, and that they in turn have smeared a pair of half circles onto the wet surface of the painting as they were rotated on the "device" of the butterfly screws by which they are attached. At the bottom of the painting, the word "device" is stenciled on the surface of the canvas. So, in fact, there are "real" elements in this work that may at first appear to be completely abstract. Like Robert Rauschenberg during the same period, Johns introduced objects with heft and profile into the traditional flat plane of the painting, disrupting the idea of illusion upon which painting had more or less rested from the time of the Renaissance until the end of the 19th century, with the arrival of artists such as Manet, Monet, Cézanne, and van Gogh.
One may fairly say that Device invites meditation on what constitutes a work of art. At its simplest, doesn't a painting consist of the three primary colors - red, yellow, and blue - the colors we see first when glancing at Device? Or is it a combination of these, such as we see in the subtle secondary colors-green, purple, and orange that Johns has hidden in plain sight for us to discover? What has made the brushstrokes in this painting? A human hand? The bars themselves?
Furthermore, what happens when one mentally connects the two halves of the circle on either side of the painting? It looks as if both are part of the same circle, cut in two- but how could they be, having been created by the two stretchers? Is the painting really a cylinder that has been flattened? Which came first, the painting surface or the smears, the cylinder or the rectangle? Is Johns saying here that it is impossible to make the three-dimensional into the two-dimensional, as painting has traditionally attempted to achieve? And if it is impossible, what are we to make of Johns's flags and targets - objects that can be considered either the things they represent, or the things themselves.
And there is more. Does a work of art depend on a title, and is this title important to this painting? We see the letters spelled out, but they are stenciled, not hand lettered, removing any sense of expressive human gesture. Is this a hint that the work is of a purely intellectual rather than sensual nature, or do the lush colors and vibrant, energetic brushstrokes belie this interpretation? Is a device a symbol or a machine?
Emerging in the wake of the abstract expressionists in the mid-1950s, Johns was aware of new attention being paid to the role of the artist in American society. Conscious, for example, that the artist was expected to "bare his soul" in works of agitated abstract paintings of outsized scale, Johns turned to common small-scale sculptural things that spoke of a more deliberate and introspective search for meaning. In doing so, Johns seized on the idea of the flag and the target as perfect vehicles for his philosophical investigations into how language, sign, and symbol converge in our minds to create the meanings that accompany us in our daily lives.
Since the acquisition of Device by a group of farsighted patrons, the Dallas Museum of Art has hosted three exceptional exhibitions of the work of Jasper Johns, demonstrating the public interest in this crucial artist's engaging yet ever-mysterious work. In the 1980s, the Museum hosted an exhibition from The Museum of Modern Art surveying Johns' use of the Savarin coffee can image. In 1998 the Dallas Museum of Art again hosted a MoMA show, this time a complete survey of Johns' career as a printmaker - a role in which he is considered the preeminent artist of the last fifty years. In 1999 the Museum was the final venue of a tour organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on the artist 's most recent work, which, interestingly, saw the return of wooden slat elements attached to the sides of the paintings. Such an engagement with the work of one artist may seem redundant, yet it is a testament to the variety, richness, and profundity of Jasper Johns's art that viewers have been able to delve further and further into the total achievement of one of the great artists of our time.
Charles Wylie, “Jasper Johns' Device,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years , ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 36.