Interview with David Sylvester – Jasper Johns

The present interview was recorded by the BBC in the spring of 1965, and was broadcast on 10 October 1965.

DS: What was it first made you use things such as flags, targets, maps, numbers and letters and so on as starting-points?

JJ: They seemed to me pre-formed, conventional, depersonalized, factual, exterior elements.

DS: And what was the attraction of depersonalized elements?

JJ: I’m interested in things which suggest the world rather than suggest the personality. I’m interested in things which suggest things which are, rather than in judgments. The most conventional thing, the most ordinary thing -it seems to me that those things can be dealt with without having to judge them; they seem to me to exist as clear facts, not involving aesthetic hierarchy. [. . .] But one also thinks of things as having a certain quality, and in time these qualities change. The Flag, for instance, one thinks it has forty-eight stars and suddenly it has fifty stars; it is no longer of any great interest. The Coke bottle, which seemed like a most ordinary untransformable object in our society, suddenly some years ago appeared quart-sized: the small bottle had been enlarged to make a very large bottle which looked most peculiar except the top of the bottle remained the same size – they used the same cap on it. The flashlight: I had a particular idea in my mind what a flashlight looked like – I hadn’t really handled a flashlight, since, I guess, I was a child – and I had this image of a flashlight in my head and I wanted to go and buy one as a model. I looked for a week for what I thought looked like an ordinary flashlight, and I found all kinds of flashlights with red plastic shields, wings on the sides, all kinds of things, and I finally found one that I wanted. And it made me very suspect of my idea, because it was so difficult to find this thing I had thought was so common. And about that old ale can which I thought was very standard and unchanging, not very long ago they changed the design of that,

DS: So the flashlight you wanted was an ideal flashlight, without particular excrescences, a kind of universal flashlight, and in reality it was peculiarly elusive.

JJ: Yes, it turns out that actually the choice is quite personal and is not really based on one’s observations at all. [. . .]

DS: Obviously each new move is determined by what is already on the canvas; what else is it determined by?

JJ: By what is not on the canvas.

DS: But there is a great number of possibilities of what might go on the canvas.

JJ: That is true, but one’s thinking, just the process of thinking, excludes many possibilities. And the process of looking excludes many possibilities, because from moment to moment as we look we see what we see, at another moment in looking we might see differently. At any one moment one can’t see all the possibilities. And one proceeds as one proceeds, one does something and then one does something else.

DS: But the marks you make are not made automatically?

JJ: But how are they made?

DS: That is what I would like to know. Are you conscious of the different ways in which you are making them?

JJ: At times, yes. At times I am conscious of making a mark with some directional idea which I’ve got from the painting. Sometimes I am conscious of making a mark to alter what seems to me the primary concern of the painting, to force it to be different, to strengthen, to weaken, in purely academic terms. At times I will attempt to do something which seems quite uncalled-for in the painting, so that the work won’t proceed so logically from where it is, but will go somewhere else. At a certain moment, a configuration of marks on the canvas may suggest one type of organization or one type of academic idea or one type of emotional idea or whatever. And at that moment one may decide to do two things – to strengthen it, by proceeding to do everything you can do to reinforce it, or to deny it, by introducing an element which is not called for in that situation, and then to proceed from there towards a greater complexity.

DS: So you are aware that the painting has taken on a certain dominant emotional idea?

JJ: Emotional or visual or technical – one’s awareness can be focussed on any kind of idea. I guess it’s an idea: it is a suggestion.

DS: You are conscious that the painting might have a certain mood?

JJ: Certainly.

DS: Is it often a mood that you intended it to have in the first place or one that has simply evolved?

I think in my paintings it has evolved, because I’m not interested in any particular mood. Mentally my preference would be the mood of keeping your eyes open and looking, without any focussing, without any constricted viewpoint. I think paintings by the time they are finished tend to take on a particular characteristic. That is one of the reasons they are finished, because everything has gone in that direction, and there is no recovery. The energy, the logic, everything which you do takes a form in working; the energy tends to run out, the form tends to be accomplished or finalized. Then either it is what one intended (or what one is willing to settle for) or one has been involved in a process which has gone in a way that perhaps one did not intend, but has been done so thoroughly that there is no recovery from that situation. You have to leave that situation as itself, and then proceed with something else, begin again, begin a new work.

* * *

DS: You were saying before that you wanted to make something that somebody might find it interesting to look at. But what you are making is not simply an aesthetic object.

JJ: Did I say that?

DS: I think so, though you weren’t sure of it.

JJ: If I said it, I would like now to deny it and say something else. I think when one is working, generally, one is not concerned with that sort of result. One goes about one’s business and does what one has to do and one’s energy runs out. And one isn’t looking throughout, but then one looks at it as an object. It’s no longer part of one’s life process. At that moment, none of us being purely anything, you become involved with looking, judging, etc. I don’t think it’s a purposeful thing to make something to be looked at, but I think the perception of the object is through looking and through thinking. And I think any meaning we give to it comes through our looking at it.

DS: By the object you mean the work of art?

JJ: Yes, yes.

DS: But what of the objects you begin with?

JJ: The empty canvas?

DS: No. Not only the empty canvas; well, the motif, if you like, such as the letters, the Flag and so on, or whatever it may be.

JJ: I think it’s just a way of beginning.

DS: In other words the painting is not about the elements with which you have begun.

JJ: No more than it is about the elements which enter it at any moment. Say, the painting of a flag is always about a flag, but it is no more about a flag than it is about a brush-stroke or about a colour or about the physicality of the paint, I think.

DS: Which is why you might as well use again and again such things as numbers or letters as the elements with which to begin, because the painting is not about those elements.

JJ: It is about them, but it is not only about them.

DS: But the process which is recorded as it were in the finished object, this process has an analogy to certain processes outside painting?

724 Modernization and Modernism

JJ: You said it.

DS: I’m asking you.

JJ: Well, it has this analogy: you do one thing and then you do another thing. If you mean that it pictures your idea of a process that is elsewhere I think that’s more questionable. I think that at times one has the idea that that is true, and I think at times one has the idea that that is not true. Whatever idea one has, it’s always susceptible to doubt, and to the possibility that something else has been or might be introduced to that arrangement which would alter it. What I think this means is, that, say in a painting, the processes involved in the painting are of greater certainty and of, I believe, greater meaning, than the referential aspects of the painting. I think the processes involved in the painting in themselves mean as much or more than any reference value that the painting has.

DS: And what would their meaning be?

JJ: Visual, intellectual activity, perhaps: ‘recreation’.

DS: But, for example, I don’t, in looking at your painting, have the sense that I can pin down references, but I feel there are references there, and that these are what give the paintings their intensity, and their sense that something important is happening or has happened. Is it possible that what has happened in the painting can be analogous to certain processes outside painting, for example, on the one hand, psychological processes, such as concentrating either one’s vision or one’s mind on something, attention wandering, returning, the process of clarifying, of losing, of remembering or of recalling, of clarifying again, or that again there might be an analogy to certain processes in nature, such as the process of disintegration and re-integration, the idea of something falling apart, the idea of something being held together?

JJ: I think it is quite possible that the painting can suggest those things. I think as a painter one cannot proceed to suggest those things, that, when you begin to work with the idea of suggesting, say, a particular psychological state of affairs, you have eliminated so much from the process of painting that you make an artificial statement which is, I think, not desirable. I think one has to work with everything and accept the kind of statement which results as unavoidable, or as a helpless situation. I think that most art which begins to make a statement fails to make a statement because the methods used are too schematic or too artificial. I think that one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say. I think one ought to use everything one can use, all of the energy should be wasted in painting it, so that one hasn’t the reserve of energy which is able to use this thing. One shouldn’t really know what to do with it, because it should match what one is already; it shouldn’t just be something one likes. [. . . ]

DS: Apart from any particular suggestion that the paint may make, are you conscious of the total texture of the paint’s having a total general reference to something else? To be specific, do you feel that paint is in some way the embodiment of the quality of your sensations? What is the relation between what is in a painting and what you see when you look about you?

jj: The relation is that there is always something to see and anywhere one looks one sees something.

DS: What is the difference between seeing when you look about you and seeing when you look at a painting?

jj: At its best there is no difference.

DS: So that the painting is then in some way a crystallization or a trapping of the sensation you have when you look about you?

jj: Perhaps, but I wouldn’t want to push that idea. I think one likes to think there is no difference between the experience of looking at a work of art and looking at not a work of art. There probably is some difference, but I don’t know what it is. In the work of art there is probably a more directed sense of seeing, but that is questionable too, because one can face a work and not have that sense.

DS: Of course the way a painting exists is nothing like the way reality exists, so what you are really trying to do is to invest the canvas and the paint with a life that does make the sensation of looking at it resemble the sensation of looking at reality. Is that what you are saying?

JJ: Well, that has perhaps been said, but I wouldn’t like to exaggerate that idea, that the painting is a language which is separated from one’s general experience. I think it is in part, but I don’t think that it should be made too strong an idea.

DS: But the paint is more than the result of your making certain marks and arriving at an order which sometimes satisfies you?

JJ: What is it the result of, if it is not that?

DS: Well it is that. But is that all it is?

JJ: Well all it is is whatever you are willing to say – all it is is whatever you say it is; however you can use it, that’s what it is. I think the experience of looking at painting involves putting the paint to use, taking the painting as something which exists. Then, what one sees one tends to suppose was intended by the artist. I don’t know that that is so. I think one works and makes what one makes and then one looks at it and sees what one sees. And I think that the picture isn’t pre-formed, I think it is formed as it is made; and might be anything. I think it resembles life, in that in any, say, ten-year period in one’s life, anything one may intend might be something quite different by the time the time is up – that one may not do what one had in mind, and certainly one would do much more than one had in mind. But, once one has spent that time, then one can make some statement about it; but that is a different experience from the experience of spending the time. And I think the experience of looking at a painting is different from the experience of planning a painting or of painting a painting. And I think the statements one makes about finished work are different from the statements one can make about the experience of making it.

DS: Again and again you return to the way in which something is posed and then contradicted or departed from, so that you are constantly interested in the way in which intention and improvisation work together. In other words, it seems to me your constant pre-occupation is the interplay between affirmation and denial, expectation and fulfilment, the degree in which things happen as one would expect and the degree in which things happen as one would not expect.

JJ: Well, intention involves such a small fragment of our consciousness and of our mind and of our life. I think a painting should include more experience than simply intended statement. I personally would like to keep the painting in a state of ‘shunning statement’, so that one is left with the fact that one can experience individually as one pleases; that is, not to focus the attention in one way, but to leave the situation as a kind of actual thing, so that the experience of it is variable.

DS: In other words, if your painting says something that could be pinned down, what it says is that nothing can be pinned down, that nothing is pure, that nothing is simple.

JJ: I don’t like saying that it says that. I would like it to be that.

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