In 1976, the Whitney Museum asked me to write the catalog text for an upcoming retrospective of the painter Jasper Johns. I agreed to do it because I knew Johns slightly, and he was in those days very reclusive and mysterious. I figured if I wrote the catalog, he would have to answer all my questions.
Before I began writing, I asked people which exhibition catalogs they had read, and liked. It turned out nobody had ever read any catalog. Sometimes people had started to read, but then quit. But then, when I thought about it, I had never read a catalog, either.
So I asked, if you were to read a catalog, what would you want it to tell you? The answer that came back was unanimous, and surprising to me. They wanted to know something about the artist, what kind of a person he was. And then something about the background to the pictures—how they came to be painted, what was going on in the artist’s life at the time. And nothing else— “none of that art interpretation stuff,” as one person put it.
It was clear: they wanted information. They’d do the interpretation for themselves.
So that’s what I did.
In 1989, the publisher Abrams told me the book was still in print, and that they would like to issue a new edition, incorporating recent work by Johns. I was glad to do it, because I had conceived the original catalog text as something of the moment-something bound to a particular moment in 1976-and not something that would still be around fifteen years later, where its context in time was lost. There were several passages in that book that I considered to be more about me, and the way I think about work, than about Johns. So I took them out, and brought the book up to date.
Now it’s twelve years later again, and Johns’ work has taken a new direction in the last few years. So I suppose it might be time for a third revision.
Jasper Johns has often been called an “artist’s artist.” In his use of found objects and commonplace imagery, he creates tantalizing, intellectually demanding works of unparalleled orginality and uncommon beauty. His new work, with it pun, optical illusions, and embedded images ranging from George Ohr pots to the “Isenheim Altarpiece” to Picasso etchings, has attracted an unprecedented level of intense critical attention.
Crichton, who has known Johns and collected his work for more than twenty years, offers a dazzling succession of intimate glimpses of John’s potent and seemingly contradictory aspects, many of them highlighted by interviews with the artist, his dealers, and distinguished contemporary critics. He also conducts a powerful, sensitive, and wide-reaching cirtique of John’s work – and in so doing offers an intriguing investigation into the very nature of the artistic response.
Accompanying Crichton’s text are 186 black-and-white illustrations, including works by Johns, photographs of him and comparative examples. Then comes a spectacular display of 231 paintings, prints, sculptures, and drawings by Jasper Johns, ranging from his earliest pieces to his most recent works, some forty years later. Of these, 128 are reproduced in duotone and 103 in full color, including six magnificent foldout pages – the most lavish view of the artist’s work ever assembled between book covers.
Meticulous scholarship supports this presentation of Jasper Johns by Michael Crichton in every respect. Notes, a selected bibliography, and in index of illustrated works complete this extraordinary volume – a book for the layman, for the art specialist, and for all who love contemporary art.
He [Jasper Johns] does very beautiful work. He’s an extremely interesting person to be around and his work I find challenging on many levels—it’s intellectually challenging, it’s visually challenging, and it rewards continued looking. You can have a piece of his work up for years and look at it and keep seeing new things and having new feelings about it. Not all artists are like that—in terms of their work.