JOHNS, Jasper
Map
1961
Oil on canvas
198.1 x 312.7 cm (78 x 123 1/8 in)
Museum of Modern Art, New York



Text from Philip Yenawine, "How to Look at Modern Art"


"...Map [combines] a kind of representation, that is, a map of the United States, with many issues more common to abstract painting. Johns visually articulated an intense discussion about painting, arguing the virtues, demerits, and always the pleasure provided by combining representation with conspicuous color, lines, and readable gestures (brushstrokes), as well as letting paint speak for itself on flat canvas surfaces.

"Map is a large painting that uses a limited number of bright colors - the primary colors of blue, red, and yellow, from which all other colors are mixed. We can also find traces of white, sometimes covering up what is below, sometimes blending with colors beneath it. We find black, as well, used to emphasize a line or mixed with existing tones to get darker or muddier ones. Although the selection of colors is limited, both the choice of hues and the way the paint is applied discourage us from comparing Map to the drab appearance and the relatively meticulous brushwork of [Picasso's] Guernica or with the frenetic linearity of [Pollock's] One.

"Like Picasso, Johns has chosen to paint a recognizable subject, but in this case it is a neutral one. His powerful color choices and the aggressive, messy way he painted it are what enliven the painting, unpredictably. If we begin to look carefully at how Johns has rendered individual states - check out ones with which you have some personal affinity - we can legitimately wonder if he is not expressing some kind of viewpoint. Why, for example, is Virginia washed out with white, extending even over Washington, D.C.? Why is California half covered with the blue of the Pacific Ocean?

"A look at the caption tells us this was painted in 1961, which was the year John F. Kennedy took office, following the generally tranquil and prosperous Eisenhower 1950's. The Civil Rights movement was just beginning, with attacks on the Freedom Riders, awakening many to the realities of segregation. The Peace Corps was being formed, the Berlin Wall had been built, and there were confrontations with Khrushchev and Cuba, including the Bay of Pigs. The Twist was the rage, West Side Story took Broadway by storm, and the United States put its first person in space. Were we beginning to take a new look at our country? A look that called for representing it differently?

"Whether or not we try to interpret this painting as a rethinking of America, we discover maps to be an interesting visual subject, because while they are themselves concrete objects, at the same time they are abstract representations of geographical and political boundaries, somewhat arbitrary organizations imposed on the land. A subtle but important conceptual issue arises here: has Johns painted a map or a painting of a map? We might think both, but he felt it was the former, that instead of trying simply to represent something, as most past painters have done, he painted the thing itself. Theoretically, we could use this map in a classroom as easily as another.

"Johns may have chosen to paint a map because it is so familiar. We found it neither threatening nor precious, and thus we can accept it with none of the distance we might associate with painting; we might even be attracted to it. The map's very ordinariness is stressed by the stenciled letters that matter-of-factly label each state. The generic quality of both map and letters (What classroom is without either a pull-down map or a set of stencils, often in these very letter forms?) serves as a comfort mechanism. But, by utilizing them in a painting, Johns also suggests that maybe we should take another look at how we relate to and feel about ordinary things around us. We might come to appreciate them more. We might also decide the ones we have are boring, to be discarded and replaced by other more satisfying.

"But maybe the ordinariness is a trap as well. Lulled by the map's familiarity and the stencil's generic quality, we might take some time before looking carefully enough to observe the many different ways Johns has found to apply paint, to see, for example, that Ontario has been painted with such watery paint as to drip into the Great Lakes. And gorgeously colorful New Mexico is a dishwater color, brushed rapidly with wet paint on top of other wet paint. If we stop to think about it, we might be shaken from accepting this supposedly innocent subject at face value.

"The map provides not only the subject but also the structure of the painting. As noted earlier, stable composition is an issue in most art...For Map, the blocking out of states and provinces provides a grid that divides the painting into readable units. Lines between states, often emphasized either by black or by strongly contrastng colors in neighboring states, divide the whole canvas vertically into three almost equal, slightly rounded sections. Certain state lines are also emphasized to cut the painting horizontally, perhaps creating a horizon for this landscape. The resulting subdivisions combine logically to create a stable whole, which allows anarchic brushwork and a seemingly random, off-balance arrangement of colors to exist without threatening the overall unity of the work.

"A surprising degree of pleasure comes from examining the work for visual minutiae, from musing on such fine points as why Michigan and Pennsylvania are abbreviated and why some other state names are spelled out in large letters and others in small. The subject and structure, seemingly rigid and perhaps and even uninteresting, limit Johns to narrow parameters within which he may test his imagination. Just as any map represents an enormous geographic, political, and social complex, just as it uses lines and place names to render comprehensible a variety of people and places - countryside and town, water and mountain - Johns brings up the many sides of representation, from diagrams to words to the painted language of lines, color, texture, and gesture. By acting within a tight framework, he opens the door to a vast nexus of visual possibilities, as well as ideas."