The light bulb is a light bulb.
Jasper Johns: poker-faced, prolific, a now-canonical giant among art historical re-makers of the mundane. Well-received, well-theorized, not abstract expressionist, not pop... shining a flashlight down waxy trails, Jasper Johns, painter/sometimes sculptor, draughtsman of real thing as real thing, and representation or impression of real thing as real thing. There is something to “Jasper Johns: Light Bulb”, now at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.
“Jasper Johns: Light Bulb”, is most marvelous as Johns exchanges material for material for material investigation. The light bulb remains constant, and changes slightly, through prints, sketches, drawings and sculptures, through hobby store sculp-metal, hardware store wire, through lead, graphite wash, notations and additions. A slippery pencil on plastic film, clay stains in plaster, a revision for a small bronze, a stamp as a light bulb label... Johns is an able scientist, voracious in his light bulb research: bulbs on crude bases that look like they are cut from basement shelves, an English bulb washed up on shore.
I value the historical place of this work, the cold break with conventions of gestural abstraction. I value the evidence of the maker, making. In writing on Jasper Johns in Artforum last year, the artist, Carroll Dunham pointed to “the care [Johns] takes in making things (while avoiding nostalgic and regressive conventions of representation)...”
The light bulbs are gorgeous.
I like to think of Francis Picabia’s Dada machine drawings in relation to John’s light bulbs. The San Diego Museum presents a show to compliment “Jasper Johns: Light Bulb”, that includes sympathetic work by Ruben Ochoa, Miguel Angel Rios, Cornelia Parker, Haim Steinbach, and others.
Johns’ light bulbs are poetic. In 2007, another artist, Allen Ruppersberg, reflected: “One of the elements of traditional poetry that we initially respond to is the verse forms of the words, the rhyming of the syllables or the various sounds we hear—versification, in other words. In visual arts maybe we respond to the correspondences or connections found within the work itself. Reflexivity. Where one thing mirrors another.” (Artforum, March 2007)
In 1954, Wallace Stevens wrote the poem, “Anecdote of the Jar”. In this poem, Stevens measures a gray and bare jar placed on a hilltop. Stevens speaks to reflexivity by observing the relationship of the messy world to this jar. Stevens places the jar in nature. Stevens’ jar is less wild, less active, less than Tennessee where Stevens chooses his hilltop. Like a light bulb, the jar is one thing, nothing really to the surrounding world. Then, somehow, the jar changes everything, just by its presence.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
(Stevens, Collected Poems)
I pull the chain connected to the light bulb above my stove. Think of: not emotions, but not hiding either; not genius exactly, certainly not illusion—basic things placed just so, so that they will grow into equivalences, simultaneously rising out of separate spaces into more specific spaces. Reflect on: negation of impulses, impulses like thinking. Articulate skin. Articulate material in the hands of unconscious artist.
A light bulb is a light bulb—neutral, small. A light bulb’s conventional form: an oval sphere, with a stub and apparatus. We know the light bulb in volts, watts, glass. Rendered into aesthetic objects, Johns’ light bulbs lie around and lie around with their parts; they are cast. One or two hang. I would bring character to each of these light bulbs. To me, these light bulbs represent all the wonderfully bizarre, grubby, worn things—the bolts, for example, with exact number of sides that hold together fire hydrants. These light bulbs are the common tools only dockhands know how to use the way they must be used to spare your back on the dock; these light bulbs speak to each other the code of cooks, the counting of knitters, the language of assistant engineers about jets. Yet, the majority of these light bulbs merely reflect; they are dull now; newer models are in training.
The light bulb connotes all kinds of real things.
I could see these light bulbs as symbols of inspiration and innovation—Edison, say, the photographer’s flash—if only they weren’t everywhere, objects from 1958 through 1976, markers for times when inspiration was called for—needed, even—but did not arrive. There’s a joke here. I see Johns mocking all of the past and future failures of big ideas, jibing at the artists and intellectuals who would search for the next big idea, for the sake of the next big idea... Though never in school for long, Johns studied. In reaction to his immediate predecessors in painting, Johns refuses to shoot hot air. Johns has ideas too, but Johns wants his ideas to be concrete ideas. I admire Johns, making no huge claims, yet consistently upending our expectations, putting things where things shouldn’t be, thereby questioning why anything should or shouldn’t be, anywhere.
On the other hand, we desperately need thinking. We have problems, and we need inspiration to solve them. We can solve them. I say: Yes to ALL kinds of thinking and inspiration, anything to help us with our banks, our schools.
I think of Giorgio Morandi and his bottles. I imagine Morandi, obsessed, painting endless hours, varying similar arrangements. While Morandi is painting, WWII Europe is literally crumbling around him. How could Morandi sit so still and observe the same bottle in so many different positions, when outside, the face of the planet was being re-arranged?
Now, with Johns’ light bulbs, I believe it is our job to imagine their whole wild world. We must re-invigorate these light bulbs.
I am thankful for Johns’ humor. I am thankful for air, ground, incremental change. The light bulb is a light bulb. To me, the light bulb is also all of its connotations.
For more on Jasper Johns, see Marjorie Perloff’s excellent essay, “watchman, spy and dead man”, which traces Johns artistic and social circle and maps part of Johns’ contribution to this elaborate conversation. See also Jonathan David Katz’s work on the importance of Johns’ identity as a gay man. Available on the internet is a recording of John Cage’s reading of “Jasper Johns’ Statement”.
Marcus Civin, 2009