Craig F. Starr Gallery is pleased to present an exhibition of major works by the American artists Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, two of the most important figures of the second half of the twentieth century. The Visible and the Legible: Johns and Twombly explores their concerns with the conventions of language and representation through a selection of drawings, prints, and sculptures beginning in the 1950s and surveying the first four decades of their careers.
Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly are the most kindred and unalike artists. Born in the South two years apart, the record of their early years reads like the catalogue of their generation’s experience, carried from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War, with an increasing dissatisfaction for the values and traditions of American society. They were each itinerant, moving from school to school—Johns, from family to family; they were each precocious and daring; and their lives were touched by an intimate relation with the towering figure of Robert Rauschenberg.  In their twenties, they were each drafted to the Army and moved in and out of New York where they exhibited in the same circles, often one after the other. Although no direct record exists of their exchanges, they knew each other's work.  Most importantly, they shared a similar desire to make apparent the medium of language in the broadest sense, the systems and conventions through which ideas and emotions are conveyed. Johns and Twombly are key figures in a paradigmatic shift in sensibility, a movement away from the most important assumptions and goals of Abstract Expressionism and modernist art at large.
When Johns and Twombly arrived in New York in the 1950s, they had to confront the predominant New York School of painterly abstraction and their pursuit of apparently spontaneous and intense feelings through fluid and open shapes, endless tangles and irregular curves, and evocative combinations of color. Both Johns and Twombly disciplined these attitudes and techniques beneath the enigmatic character of language and symbols, giving them their own emotional impulses. Instead of the loosely controlled calligraphic handling of Pollock or de Kooning, their applications are masterfully austere and evanescent; in place of Rothko’s chromatic densities, their pictures are more neutral intonations charged with a mute passion. Pierre Restani once wrote that Johns’s essential gesture was to bestow uniqueness on what is commonplace.  We can equally say that Johns and Twombly stir a feeling of the mundane and the ordinary into what was previously considered most unique and personal: the archaic, child-like expression of symbols and the representation of nature and the human body.
For Twombly, painting is often synonymous with writing. Between 1967 and 1971, he made an important series of dark-ground pictures where he developed his characteristic style of abstract writing. In 1967, inspired by a visit with Robert Rauschenberg to the workshop of Tatyana Grossman in Long Island, Twombly made two ambitious series of prints related to these “blackboard” works at the renowned publisher Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE): the Note series and two Untitled aquatints. Both Note III and Untitled II, on view here, feature a block of densely worked rows of lines centered on the paper in imitation of manuscripts, letters, and handwriting practice books for children. To make the aquatints, ULAE Master Printer Don Stewart prepared a number of aquatint plates on which Twombly drew directly with an open-bite liquid, making each example a different spontaneous response to the medium.  Their irregular typology has often been compared to the exercise workbooks of the Palmer method, a penmanship instruction system developed around 1888 and taught to adopt a simplified, uniform format of cursive writing for business purposes.  This educational style shows Twombly foraging in the long-standing modernist fascination with children’s art. But while artists such as Klee or Kandinsky before him treasured the idea of children’s spontaneity and unbounded imagination, Twombly’s impatient language invokes here a strangely structured childish disorderliness.
In their fine articulation and design, these works record the tremulous variations of the artist's hand, from timid slowness to headlong impulse and casual meander, within a clear geometry and firm rhythmic configuration. Twombly scratched the rows of endless loops from left to right in the cooper plate; its reversal through the printing process further insisting on his ironic deviations from the motif. Roland Barthes referred to Twombly’s unreadable scrawl as “the gesture of writing,” calling up the atmosphere but not the act of written communication.  Unlike his modernist predecessors, Twombly markings do not elicit the smooth, uninterrupted flow of spontaneous and unconscious emotions, nor the overt traces of personality observable in handwriting. Rather, they disrupt and transform this intimate impulse under a more restrained and enigmatic treatment and play on the conventions of language.
Johns is most famous for the interruption of the evocative qualities of Abstract Expressionism through the emblematic clarity of his flags, targets, alphabets, and numbers. The rough veil of marks that covers the surface of Johns’s Alphabets, 1962, on view here, is as thoughtful and detached as it is emotional. Inspired by a chart Johns found in a book, this remarkable drawing is arranged in the rectangular grid of sequential letters he first used in his painting Gray Alphabets, 1956 (Menil Collection, Houston). The regularity of the grid is obscured by painterly gestures and touches of color, as Johns holds in tension the conflicting techniques of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. He further breaks up this interplay by the scattered impressions of letters visible throughout the dense surface. Words do not offer meaning, graphic gestures and order do not merely express emotions. Pictorial and linguistic systems are called into question, transforming their aesthetic dimension.
Like Alphabets, the flag is one of Johns’s paradigmatic objects, things “seen and not looked at, not examined.” Johns first painted the American flag in his breakthrough painting Flag, 1954-55 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), which inaugurated his mature practice. Since then, he has returned to the symbol in a variety of media, like in the present example of a delicately etched flag rippling over a field of orange aquatint. The experience of Flag on Orange, 1998, is not only the revelation of its ordinary design nor simply our delight in its painterly treatment. To observe its standardized form is also meant to slow down, to arrest, almost to freeze, the familiar flutter of our relationship with aesthetic objects. Like Twombly’s writing, Johns’s surfaces are an investigation into the “gesture of painting,” summoning the appearance but not the exchange of painterly expression.
Regardless of interpretation, any representation of a letter is still a letter, just like a representation of a flag is also a flag. Its likeness is never like the simulation of a landscape, a street, or a person on canvas, but the thing itself. The collapse of the sign—the signifier, the signified, and the referent—the image, the idea, and the object, is a foundational component of Johns’s and Twombly’s work. This is evident in the interplay of language and abstraction present in the quasi-romantic images of flowers, landscapes, and mythical scenes Twombly began to paint in 1980s. Although at first these pictures seem closer to the evocations of traditional abstract painting, when looked at closely, neither the curves of red sprouting from a tangle of pencil colors in Sylvae, nor the clouds of pink over black in Naumachia necessarily stir the profound memory of a forest or the deep feeling of the naval battles that entertained the Roman patricians. The inscription of the titles as texts within the images seems in fact intended to short-circuit that kind of emotional experience. The more we work through the evocations of form, the more we feel the painter has intercepted the picture mid-way and stopped it before it can lay claim to a specific sentiment. What is presented rather is a combination of systems battling each other and transforming the creative proposition into a reflection on the play of words, images, symbols, and gestures.
Through his mixture of pictorial and sculptural elements, Johns has also often explored this back-and-forth between reality and symbol. In 1973, he made two drawings, one on view here, after the far-right panel of his seminal four-panel painting Untitled, 1972 (Museum Ludwig, Cologne). The Ludwig painting is Johns's most ambitious work of the 70s, a summation of his thoughts and ideas of the previous decade. The far-right panel is composed of seven crossing wooden slats over which are attached life-size body parts, casts made from the artist’s friends. Each slat is numbered and accompanied by a color code of red, blue, gray, yellow, green, purple, and orange. In the present drawing, the flesh-colored fragments are converted into transfers of apparently Johns’s own body. The words “buttock,” “knee,” “torso,” “foot,” “leg,” “face,” and “hand,” are stenciled over them, giving the impression that the body and its name are equivalent and thus replaceable. Neither our perception of the body fragments, nor that of language here is transparent, but mediated. Johns takes the body apart into components, whether the casts or the texts, and uses them as relational sign systems. In fact, words and objects are altered and repositioned between the different mediums recalling Johns’s relentless playful and skeptical vision, constantly setting traps for the viewer to fall into.
The indexical aspect of these works is key to their meaning and aesthetic dimension. Neither the plaster casts, nor the transfers, nor the inscribed words are mediated projections of the real world on a window-like canvas. They are not imitations of nature, but are indexical imprints, direct copies, of their models in reality. When Johns first used life-cast fragments of body parts in his work (at top of Target with Four Faces, 1955. Museum of Modern Art, New York), he apparently wanted to know whether he could use the human body and remain as emotionally indifferent to its meaning as to the evocations of painterly expressionism in his work.  But like Twombly’s landscapes, there is a unique emotional relationship we have towards the human body and nature, charged with sentiments and personal memories. The casual, literal quality of their representation as fragments gives them a ghastly and dispassionate feeling, a lifeless eroticism not unlike the studies of guillotined corpses made by Géricault in the morgue of Paris in 1818.
Untitled (Rome, 1997) is Twombly’s version of Johns’s body-parts in the Ludwig painting. It is a bronze cast of Untitled (Gaeta, 1993), a found-object assemblage made of a dried flower mounted on an iron pot. Like all his bronzes, it is finished in a roughly applied chalky-white patina, leaving an impression of preserved decay that has often reminded critics of the archeological troves of antiquity. Johns creates a similar feeling of embalming in pictures like White Flag, 1955 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) through his use of the ancient method of encaustic: heating beeswax and pigment, and layering it onto the canvas to preserve like a corpse the textured surfaces. In a related way, Twombly’s antiquity is not that of artists of the past. For whereas traditional artists imagined antiquity as a mirror of potential—the clear light of reason and beauty or the passion and high imaginative powers corrupted by our civilized present—Twombly's antiquity is an act of doubt, a celebration of illegibility, unloveliness, and erasure. It is a desire, like Johns's, to disavow ownership of a withering world. Or as Roland Barthes has beautifully described it, an impulse “to link in a single state what appears and what disappears; [not] to separate the exaltation of life and the fear of death” but “to produce a single affect: neither Eros nor Thanatos, but Life-Death, in a single thought, a single gesture.” 
In art history, Johns is often considered a cool, taciturn, and literal artist, the painter of “things the mind already knows.” Twombly, in turn, is chivalrous, erudite, and mythic; his style always drifting, as Barthes noted, “between desire and politeness.”  But what is most apparent often obscures their shared energy and impulse, what lies underneath and constitutes the essence of their work. Like Johns, Twombly is driven by an obsessive interest in the conventions of signs and writing as well an analytical and deconstructive spirit. And there is a highly archaic and sensuous quality to Johns’s handling of everyday motifs that even critics like Robert Rosenblum marveled at his ability to invest them with “the ritualistic beauty, symbolism, and discipline once provided by standardized classical and Christian iconography.”  The slow, methodical pace of Johns’s encaustic strokes and the linear wanderings of Twombly’s pencil displace our habits of looking and aesthetic experience. They compel us to set aside our settled practices of seeing and understanding, engaging in their unclassifiable play of shifting allusions and quiet inventions. Their pictures and sculptures are “situations,” as Leo Steinberg once wrote of Johns, “wherein the subjects are constantly found and lost, submerged and recovered,” a “perpetual oscillation” between object and emblem, gesture and system, picture and subject. 
Additional captions in order of appearance:
Cy Twombly, Naumachia (detail), January 28, 1992. Acrylic, pencil, 30 1/16 x 23 7/16 inches, sheet.
Cy Twombly, Untitled II (detail), 1967. Intaglio in one color with etching, open-bite with aquatint (one plate) on White J. Green hand-made paper, embossed with printer's dry stamp, 23 1/2 x 28 3/8 inches, plate; 27 1/2 x 40 3/4 inches, sheet.
Jasper Johns, Untitled (detail), 1973. Charcoal, opaque white, and graphite pencil on paper. 41 1/4 x 29 1/2 inches.
 Twombly met Rauschenberg in New York around 1950-1951, when the two were students at the Art Students League. On Rauschenberg’s advice, Twombly spent two summers and a winter at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. They exhibited together in New York at Samuel Kootz’s gallery in 1951 and traveled through Italy and North Africa in 1952-53. Upon their return, Twombly and Rauschenberg had a show at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in New York and kept in contact after Twombly married and moved to Italy in 1957. Johns met Rauschenberg on a winter night of early January in 1954. Between 1955 and 1961, they had an intense personal and artistic dialogue that by now is almost legendary. Rauschenberg would remember years later, “He and I were each other’s first serious critics… Cy was first, but Cy and I were not critical. I did my work, and he did his. Jasper and I literally traded ideas. He would say, “I’ve got a terrific idea for you,” and then I’d have to find one for him.” Tomkins, Calvin, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (New York, NY: Picador, 2005), 108.
 See Jasper Johns, Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews. Edited by Kirk Varnedoe. (New York: Abrams, 1996), 107 and passim. Also, Cy Twombly, “‘I Work in Waves.’” Interview by Nicholas Serota, The Guardian, June 3, 2008, sec. Art and Design, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/jun/03/art1.
 Pierre Restany, “Jasper Johns and the Metaphysic of Common Place,” Cimaise 8, no. 55 (October 1961): 90.
 Esther Sparks, ed., Universal Limited Art Editions: A History and Catalogue: The First Twenty-Five Years (New York: Abrams, 1989), 277-9.
 See Varnedoe, Kirk, and James Leggio, Cy Twombly - A Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994), 41-3.
 Barthes, Roland, “Cy Twombly works on paper”, in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 160.
 Steinberg, Leo, “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art (New York: Oxford U. P, 1972), 37.
 Barthes, Roland, “Cy Twombly works on paper”, 165-66.
 Barthes, Roland, quoted in Anne Caron, “A Rustle of Catullus”, Cy Twombly: Making Past Present (Boston, Mass.: MFA publications, Boston, 2020), 227.
 Martin, Katrina, Elizabeth Armstrong, and James Bash Cuno, Jasper Johns: Printed Symbols (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1990), 11.
 Steinberg, Leo, “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art”, 25.