Jasper Johns

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Although Jasper Johns refused to cooperate with Jill Johnston and even denied her permission to reproduce his art, she has fashioned a compelling account of the biographical sources of his creativity in JASPER JOHNS: PRIVILEGED INFORMATION. Johnston has met the painter on several occasions, though she is by no means a member of his inner circle. This is a plus in her case, because she combines a superb background in art history with a penetrating understanding of the artist’s psychology.

At the outset, Johns seemed like a formalist whose work had little autobiographical content. His signature paintings of flags in the 1950’s, for example, hardly seemed personal, and the artist proved evasive about both his work and his life. Yet Johnston shows that Johns’ attraction to patriotic symbols—like his attraction to Renaissance art—is in fact biographically based. Critics have suspected as much, but as Johnston also observes, the art community obeys a strict code of silence about artists’ personal lives, even though, as in Johns’ case, his homosexuality is well known. There is a “privileged information,” keep-it-in-the-family attitude that Johnston’s biography rejects.

Does a biography have the right to probe Johns’ private life? In what sense is it private? Virtually every facet of Johns’ art that Johnston probes as a critic has its corresponding source in Johns’ life. Why should the biographer look away from the evidence? As Dr. Samuel Johnson said, the biographer’s first obligation is to the truth—not to anyone else’s opinion about how a biography may offend or hurt others. Of course, the biographer must be tactful and subtle—qualities that Johnston exhibits on every page of her fine book.