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In a remarkable feat of biography and criticism, Jill Johnston shows how the life and work of America's preeminent artist are inextricably linked. As we follow the arc of Jasper Johns's career - from the raw loft he lived in as an unknown artist to the dining rooms of wealthy collectors that he now frequents as a "consummated artist" - we discover an artist who has consistently introduced intensely intimate elements into his work yet is compelled to disguise and deny those very elements.
The book begins with a mystery - Jill Johnston's search for the source of a hidden figure in a number of Johns's paintings. That figure - which she identifies as a grotesquely diseased and dying man - opens a path to the autobiographical core in the work of this most secretive of visual artists. Her discoveries lead us to the Johns family roots in South Carolina, and then to the New York art community of the early 1950s, when the fabulous foursome of Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham challenged the conventions of modern art, dance, and music. As Johnston charts the evolution of Johns's private and public identities, she interviews friends and associates and attends the openings and ceremonies that punctuate Johns's extraordinarily successful career. Along the way are several enigmatic encounters with Johns himself: a downtown luncheon interview, a chance meeting at the Venice Biennale, and a dinner with Johns and a number of his wealthy patrons at Si Newhouse's elegant Manhattan townhouse.
Critics until now have been primarily concerned with Johns's formal strategies, seeing the autobiographical elements in his work as "privileged information," inappropriate for critical comment. But Johnston's achievement is to put this unexpected dimension of intimate information squarely at the center of his work. Readers of her brilliantly original account will come away with a larger, more resonant sense of Johns's art.
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An artist's private life is often reflected in his work. Frequently the private is made public, and often this connection makes the work more accessible and interesting. Critic Jill Johnston has taken on the task of exploring the life and work of Jasper Johns--that most private of contemporary artists--and has succeeded brilliantly. Johnston is not simply out to reveal Johns's gayness but to explore how his sexuality has shaped his life and work. Johnston's critical eye is unwavering, her ability to delineate political and social contexts is unnervingly on-target. The fact that Johns resisted Johnston's efforts at biography gives the book an underlying tension making it even more fascinating. Jasper Johns: Privileged Information is a fine, intelligent work of biography and criticism.From Kirkus Reviews:
A socio-psychological piece of detection that attempts to put the painter Jasper Johns and his work on the couch. Without the artist's cooperation (Johns refused to allow reproduction of his work) Johnston (Lesbian Nation, 1972; Paper Daughter, 1985; etc.) has fashioned a book that is part critical study and part biographical exploration. At the heart of Johns's art, Johnston argues, is a father-son struggle, expressed in the symbolic paternity most associated with flags, but which emerges more specifically in two partially repressed figures that have appeared since 1981. Inspired by Gr newald's 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece, one is a soldier present at the Resurrection; the other is a mangy, suffering, slightly demonic figure adapted from The Temptation of St. Anthony. The two figures embody, for Johnston, imagery suggesting the loss Johns suffered as an infant, when his mother abandoned the family and his father, an alcoholic, withdrew from his young son. This is not purely reductive work: Johnston's writing is engrossing, and she is always willing to try a new approach rather than succumb to any one rigid method of interpretation. The art critics who have written about Johns's work in the past, Johnston argues, have been all too happy to accept and reflect the artist's unwillingness to talk about influences and intentions. ``The two interlocking components in the progress of America's wealthiest artist--a powerful dead father and a helpless driven son--are the very sorts of circumstances the art world conspires to help its practitioners forget and transcend. The commodity is art.'' However, we err, she suggests, in ignoring the life behind the art. This is a rich, provocative, satisfying book, filled with gorgeous descriptions of paintings and offering a fascinating dissection of the art scene, as well as a subtle portrait of one of its most elusive stars. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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