The poet Paul Valery once said that he only wrote half of his poems and his reader wrote the other half. Matisse apparently made reference to this while looking through reproductions of Jackson Pollock and Francois Gilot overheard him. When she in turn repeated the words of Valery, Picasso flew off the handle. Why ?
The notion that Painting would open itself up to multiple possible interpretations was abhorrent to Picasso. To the father of Analytical Cubism who took the structural work of Cezanne to its formal apogee while revolutionizing our understanding of art as both the sum of its parts and also the creative field upon which it stands, this was a repugnant scenario. Work that opened itself up to other viewpoints also opened itself to ambiguity and the Spaniard had no interest in this sort of relativism. The Maestro depicted women with simultaneous views built-in , views construed and presented to us, not views to discover for ourselves. Picasso's disdain for mystery is one trait which situates him with painters who painted for an elect viewership (Matisse, Gilot ) . Their order is Apollonian , strenuously in charge of their medium and its message, as opposed to the (Dionysian ) camp of makers who were happy to be critiqued at length , happy for the press. While Picasso's life was flush with intellectual artists of various genres and politics, it was his own private theater that held his interest , Pablo and his Bull , within the larger amphitheater of his surrounding fame and famous friends.
Picasso and Duchamp were together at the far frontier of Synthetic Cubism . Junk sculptures made from ready made materials . An important distinction lies, however, in how the men opened their work up for interpretation. Duchamp was a performer and his sculpture was to a large degree contingent upon its reception , upon people getting it. Joseph Bueys once said that thinking was art . Bueys himself built a certain amount of pedagogy and exposition into his work. With Duchamp, the text was meant to be implicit, either you get it or you don't. And by 'you' I mean both art world insiders and also everyday museum goers. Duchamp made work that everyone could be amused or challenged by and then await his next slight of hand. His pairings of mismatched objects , divorced from their original contexts and rendered inutile ( a chair no one can sit on, a wheel removed from its axle ) were gestures of upping the ante in a very public game of testing how far the boundary line lay between a random coupling of mundane objects and feats of great wit and social commentary executed with show stopping panache .
Said the masochist to the sadist : 'Hurt me ! ' Said the sadist to the masochist :' No.'
When Diaghilev said : 'Etonne -moi, Jean!' Cocteau tried to oblige , but when the art world expected Duchamp to astonish it yet again ; Duchamp said no.
This is an excerpt from David Sylvester . Sylvester's take is that once Duchamp had arrived at a dramatic climax , all that was left to him by way of a radical turn was a disappearing act. Contrast this with Late Picasso and we have further reinforcement for the idea that one man painted to be received and the other painted for his own largely internalized gods and demons.
Many of the artists who came to fame on the other side of Abstract Expressionism made their daily bread in sales. Rauschenberg, Kelly, Rosenquist, Warhol and Johns among them. The early sixties saw the elevation of the ready-made object and the assembly line product , and this happened via a shift in emphasis. The original object be it a bike wheel or a stool began , in the hands of painters like Johns, to lose it's banality or prosaicness or whatever intrinsic market value it was allotted. Now the onus was upon it's handling as demonstrated in variations upon a theme.
Wallace Stevens also had a foot in the world of sales. Educated at Harvard and later N.Y.U Law, Stevens spent most of his years working as an executive for an insurance company in Hartford, Conn. His " Thirteen ways of Looking at a Blackbird " is a perfect expression of the idea that while a flag is a flag is a flag , it also has plasticity . If we are going to enjoy a riff , then we'll need to know the original score. If we don't know the standard , we won't appreciate the departure. Why not choose from the standard songbook in that case ? Why not choose the National Anthem ? But what makes Johns' performance style so different than Duchamp's is that he didn't truly care if we got it.
Again Sylvester ," He (Johns) doesn't operate as if he owned a style ". Whatever was most important to Jasper Johns , he didn't parade it overtly . He wasn't concerned with inaugurating new methods or if he was he kept quiet about it. While his subject template was invariably iconic, archetypal , and every man's , be it a flag, a map, a target or the tarot deck ( his late "seasons ), the universality of the template served mostly to highlight and carry his handling of it . Johns handled paint as if his subject was heroic : richly layered, brushwork that was vigorous and disciplined . The standard stencils he famously used were placeholders; rhythmic markers that would later be overlaid with ellipses and smudges, with dings and scratches , all placed with apparent discernment. A Johns doesn't read like a Warholian knock-off so much as an allegory. The face of the target is the face of the artist. Or is the canvas the actual target and this is the painter hitting his mark? Or is the target, hung like Duchamp's wheel standing at eye-level , actually the social /mercantile mask of the artist showing us what he is willing to show ? While the plaster cast faces above the target are individualized the face of the target itself is a one eyed stand in , a Roulette wheel in a side room with players, albeit blind-folded ones.
In my twenties I worked at gallery on Houston Street. On sunny days Leo Castelli would come out and have his expresso on the iron stoop of his Broadway space. (Castelli famously challenged John's to make a beer can. ' Make a can of beer and I'll sell it '. John's obliged , making two , and the cans are now part of modern art history.) The first show of Johns' work I saw was at Castelli's gallery and it was" The Seasons" show, work that somehow seemed to be both a compendium of the artist's own iconography and an anthology of the 60s and 70s in American Art , fairly comprehensively . I found it breathtakingly beautiful , the sheer painterliness of it, and the evenness of mood which was poignant but also distanced. The distance someone might have from a snow globe watching the flakes settle , close enough to see but on the other side of an invisible wall. Despite an abundance of imagery, figurative as well as abstract patterns and forms that extended past the 4th wall ( a paper mache' arm extending from the stretcher bar) none of the referents seemed to be autobiographical . There are no allusions to Johns' own life beyond the world of his studio and yet it felt like a very personal show , verging on the sentimental. Johns' was a painter like Picasso who was scrupulous in his command , whether the medium was encaustic or oil his works read like collage where every constituent part was part of a narrative that he kept close to his vest. In contrast to Duchamp, our enjoyment of his work is not contingent upon gleaning some subtextual meaning nor-insider's joke. Despite the public-ness of his chosen theme and symbols, his art was a private affair . One feels that it wouldn't have mattered to him whether we got it or not.