“We worked for years to get rid of all that,” the painter of abstract color fields
famously quipped after seeing figuration on display in Johns’s solo show. The conceptual differences between the two artists are pronounced. If Abstract Expressionist painters like Rothko produced deeply personal works and theorized heavily as to how they were thick with hidden meaning, Johns created figurative works out of instantly recognizable symbols, then rejected the idea that they had any defined meaning.
While Johns continued to produce paintings that incorporated Abstract Expressionism’s gestures and color blocking, he shifted the focus from the finished image to the concept behind it.
In the 1960s, influenced by the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Johns pushed further into questions of language and signification in art. In Map
(1961), Johns incorporated a technique he termed “brushmarking,” which entailed placing large brushstrokes like quasi-linguistic elements on the canvas to structure the image, not unlike the “constructive brushstroke” of the
In Map, Johns used brushmarking to render the map of the United States of America, complete with abstract drips, scrapes, gestures, and a stenciled label for each state. A familiar interplay comes to mind: What does the map of America represent? Whom does it represent? How do its parts communicate with one another, or with the whole? Again, Johns takes us to a place both familiar and unfamiliar, full of conceptual and semiotic possibility.
While Johns never allowed his conceptual pursuits to sour him on painting (Duchamp famously “quit” painting around 1913), he did make objects that experimented with the idea of the readymade. Playing with a throwaway joke made by de Kooning that Castelli could sell any object, even a couple of beer cans, Johns sculpted two cast-bronze cylinders on a base and painted them as Ballantine Ale cans.
With one can “opened,” belying its emptiness as a beverage and, perhaps, as a symbol, Johns turned the readymade on its head, carefully handcrafting two highly realistic cans.