Jasper Johns is one of the more complex, evolving and sophisticated American painters of our time. Most American painters are voluntarily simplistic. They are proud of maintaining one single technique, working on one single support and keeping one single attitude over the course of their careers. Johns wants to be a complete painter, not a specialist in this or that. He keeps painting total and whole despite the fact that many see it as exhausted and fragmented.
In Perilous Night, Johns shows a complex take on abstraction and representation in the way that he brings together many manners of painting. This painting was executed during the 80’s, the decade of pastiche, irrationality and simulation. Johns answered this with irreducible complexity. His flags and maps from the 50s are great but this painting shows, in a humble way, all of the doubts, questions, and ambiguities he had about America. There are no easy solutions for Johns or any painter with a sense of responsibility to painting. This ghostly piece contains some of the more productive seeds that have been sown in American painting in the last 30 years.
In all of Johns’ work there is this oscillating, transitional brushwork that comes from Cezanne. Johns revives it from the chopping board of Cubism and brings it back as a stuttering pictorial mark, an uncertain way in and on paint. In Perilous Night, this uncertainty is reinforced by the use of double images and visual and tactile paradoxes. Johns confronts us with a pictorial mine field. He thinks through painting, as rationally as a human can, and finds expression in the end. These are not the irrational outbursts of Expressionism. He combines object, negative/positive space, camouflage, and diagrammatic drawing in a special integrational way. The parts that make up the painting are tied together like a chess game in a heterogeneous cohesion.
A rarified atmosphere emanates from the painting, a kind of intra-image, a spectrum rather than simulation. It is as if Johns wanted to investigate darkness and horror but, naturally, he could not. He positions himself as if he is at the gates of some great horror, looking in. He brings from the history of painting a fragment that contains the Stimmung of horror: Grünewald’s crucifixion. He asks Grünewald, “…Can you tell me about this horror?” Maybe, in many years-in-paint to come, we or somebody will get the answer. This is not appropriation. This is an organic, inter-pictorial regurgitation. This is the way painting communicates with painting internally. This is specific to wet pictorial thinking, not verbal thinking.
For the anti-painting critics, Johns is a kind of nightmare. He proves over and over again the relevance of painting, like in the complexity of Duchamp’s Tu m,’ as opposed to the all too easy-to-repeat-for-ever ready-made. Starting from Duchamp and Cezanne, Johns developed the Combine Painting, which brings together a cluster of pictorial paradoxes that are irreducible to conceptualism, formalism, abstractionism or realism. It is the foundation of really complex painting today.