A Musical Painter (or Two) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

A Musical Painter (or Two) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (where I happen to be at the moment) is a retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns called “Seeing with the Mind’s Eye” that merits a visit (it runs until the third of February); the title of the exhibition notwithstanding, one of its strengths – as if the sheer visual pleasure afforded by Johns’ paintings and wall-⁠mounted sculptures were not sufficient in its own right! – is to focus attention on the musicality that animates several of these works.

Although, as it seems to me, these works themselves already virtually invite the public to listen to them with their minds’ ears, the curators, dutifully and helpfully, have made sure to mention the two facts of the artist’s friendship with John Cage and his longstanding love of the poetry of Hart Crane – and each fact does help to underscore that open invitation and thus to bring the public to understand them a bit better.

In the case of paintings like “Gray Alphabet” or “White Numbers,” much as with the mode of construction of many works of music, the meaning and the beauty emerge from the arrangement of the elements of a fixed system (whether they are letters or numbers is secondary) – and yet without the “skilled transmemberment” (to cite a noteworthy phrase from the third of Crane’s “Voyages”) of those elements, that is, their imprinting in or impression on a material substrate, with the attendant vagaries of outline, the works would not have been Johns’, but those of an artist like Stuart Davis who was fascinated artistically by the essentially graphic in its sheer two-⁠dimensionality. With these paintings of Johns’, the elements of which they’re composed though still intelligible are forms in a phase of decay, and it seems to me that it’s this condition from which the great delight of these works derives – in something of the way in which every so often it’s during the descent into imprecision and echo of passages in a piece of music as they spread acoustically throughout and beyond their venue that one appreciates them the most: so this or some similar analogy between visual and auditory enjoyment is an idea that may well occur to the viewers of paintings like these ones, and it in turn could contribute to an illumination of their nature as quasi-⁠musical compositions.

That’s all well and good, one could object, but it remains on the plane of formal conjecture and hypothesis. Most likely this is true; giving rise to a more substantive sense of yet another quasi-⁠musical dimension to some of Johns’ works, however – by this I have in mind above all the considered impertinence characteristic of several of them, their readiness, so to speak, to whistle a cheeky tune back at the urban environment from which they’ve collected the castoffs – is the fact of the artist’s long familiarity or elective affinity with Hart Crane’s poetry.

(Perhaps the line of influence did not simply flow in one direction: it may be that a couple of decades had to pass if the subsequent developments of art, and in particular the emergence right at the end of the 1950s of pop art, were to catalyse into perceptibility some strata of atmosphere still too defuse to identify in Crane’s lines when he put them together.)

Two stanzas from “Chaplinesque” sound as though they were a translation into poetry of one of the main moods of Johns’ art –

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk

Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb

That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,

Facing the dull squint with what innocence

And what surprise!


The game enforces smirks; but we have seen

The moon in lonely alleys make

A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,

And through all sound of gaiety and quest

Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

– by which I mean, in other words, a kind of light-⁠heartedness concurrent with the frivolity of big-⁠city dwellers who from time to time seek respites of pleasure in odd places. The sound of this attitude may be heard in both bodies of work: it’s marked in the measures of humour that enliven and modulate each of their poetic and pictorial singsongs.

And this likeness between them has a complement in another that comes into play when both the poet and the painter are in a more serious, a more expectant mood, which was nicely put into words in the last stanza of “A Name for All”:

I dreamed that all men dropped their names, and sang

As only they can praise, who build their days

With fin and hoof, with wing and sweetened fang

Struck free and holy in one Name always.

It seems to me that, at bottom, the passion that speaks in these lines is also the one that saves the paintings Johns devoted to Crane and his fate – “Periscope” and “Land’s End” – from descending into an irremediable bleakness (which would in that case have engulfed many of his other paintings as well): whereas actually those two works in their painterly arrangements are scored to an especially buoyant music.

Postscript. One other piece in the museum – but not one of Johns’ – bears mentioning, on account of its marked quasi-⁠musicality as a composition. In the small exhibition “Field Conditions,” there is a very large yet also very detailed abstract drawing by the artist Marsha Cottrell entitled “A Black Powder Rains Down Gently on My Sleepless Night”: it is suffused with visual music that’s as dark as it is delightful.

The title is drawn from the “Phrases” included in Rimbaud’s Illuminations: une poudre noire pleut doucement sur ma veillée.