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Jasper Johns and the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein Higginson, Peter


The influences upon Johns' work stem from varied fields of interests, ranging from Leonardo to John Cage, Hart Crane to Duchamp, Marshall McLuhan to Wittgenstein. The role that Wittgenstein's philosophy, plays has never been fully appreciated. What discussion has occurred - namely Max Kozloff's and Rosalind Krauss' - shows an inadequacy either through a lack of understanding or a superficiality towards the philosophical views. An in-depth analysis on this,, subject is invaluable in fully comprehending the ramifications of Johns' painting of the 60's. The intention of this paper is to examine Wittgenstein's influence and assess how his method of seeking out meaning in language is used by Johns in his paintings to explore meaning in art. Johns' early work could perhaps be nutshelled as a reaction against the egocentricism of Abstract-Expressionism. Through the Flags, Targets, Alphabets and Numeral pieces he has suspended the formal issues that were prevalent in the early fifties in an attempt to provide all sides of the argument rather than some facile and unsatisfactory reconciliation. Johns saw that the problems in painting lay not in wrong answers but in the lack of understanding the nature of visual communication. It is impossible to present the artist's self since the 'success' of the art object involves an equally important member, the audience, and it is within this dialogue that meaning lies. The object-paintings of this early phase ask, what is painting? and pose different suggestions with each being feasible and relevant without being conclusive. Johns insists on keeping the situation incapable of any final resolution. In 1959 Johns discovered Duchamp and his broader idea of art that moved away from retinal boundaries into a field where language, thought and vision acted upon one another. False Start, 1959, reflects this interest and can be seen not as any radical change from former work, as Barbara Rose and Sidney Tillim suggest, but as a development of previous ideas, now taking into consideration the role language plays in the reception of a painting. Wittgenstein began to interest Johns in 1961. His analysis of meaning in language set down in the Philosophical Investigations not only shared a close affinity to the 'art is life' maxim of Johns, Rauschenberg and Cage but more importantly presented Johns with a methodology to clarify the definition of art. Like Duchamp, Wittgenstein saw the establishing of meaning lying outside the problematic - there is no solution since there is no problem. The Investigations -a complete reversal of the earlier Tractatus Logico Philosophicus which claimed that language is a logical picturing of facts - essentially poses that the meaning of language lies in its usage, that there is no one authoritative definition of a word but as many as there are uses for it. Wittgenstein saw the role of the philosopher not as one of providing new information but of clearing up misconceptions through reviewing what we have already known. Philosophy is 'a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language'. Johns' paintings from 1961 on become such where he sees the role of the artist as a battle against the bewitchment of our sight by not simply language but more specifically, criticism. The Critic Sees, 1961 and its attack on writers whose motives are very different from extending any visual awareness sets the stage for a collection of paintings that questions the whole aspect of schools of criticism with their polemical discussions as to how we should see. This interest in meaning with a bias towards New York criticism is understandable since it was from here that the most intriguing and muddled ideas of Johns' work came and in addition, he was painting at a period when the artist's aim was becoming more and more prescribed by what the critic proposed. Johns' largest canvas to date, According to What, 1964, is an apologia of the notion of perception that he shares with Wittgenstein rather than a grand homage to Duchamp. A Wittgenstinian analysis of Johns' post-1961 paintings not only gives an explanation of the imagery employed but reveals to us two fundamental issues inherent in them: looking is relative with the only common denominator being life, which in turn shows criticism, in the controversial from Johns was used to experiencing it, as more concerned with reinforcing individual claims rather than any desire to evolve a total awareness. As with Wittgenstein's philosophy of anthropocentrism, Johns does not advance any one theory. He does not, unlike the formalist interest, regard the problems of contemporary painting as empirical but as a blindness to the numerous inherent and unavoidable visual aspects in any one work.

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