Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Jasper Johns' 'Map'



This is Map, a 1961 painting by Jasper Johns, the artist who's probably best known for his iconic representations of the American flag.

I'm not really a big Johns fan, usually, but I like this painting more than most of his stuff. For one thing: it's a map. But besides that, there are a lot of tensions in this work that make it interesting. Like, for instance, the map he's chosen to represent is both iconic and very banal. It's your standard grade-school "These United States" 50-state map that we all resented having to stare at as kids (or that some of us only got interested in when we noticed that there were fascinating little inset maps of population density or what have you in the corner, and which impelled us to go searching out what other interesting sorts of information about the world could be conveyed in maps, which would eventually lead us to start a blog on that very arcane topic some decades later). But of course he's completely slathered over that banality with these really dramatic abstract expressionist gestures, some really bold colors and a lot of dynamic tension between those elements that is, in a word, fun (though also strongly ambivalent: some of those painterly gestures seem almost sneering, even angry). The effect, in my opinion, is that Johns' Map does something that a conventional 50-state map cannot, namely: it says something about our relation to the represented object. That is, our country, and the emotional relationship we have to our country (and of course this goes for citizens of any country in the world) is a huge, messy, incomprehensible thing, which inspires all manner of conflicting passions. That's something that the cold geometry of a conventional map can't capture. But this map, which is especially vibrant, even by expressionist standards, reveals something of that complex web of feelings.

Think of it this way: I think most of us, when we hold an abstract concept in our minds like "America" or "my country," have a visual image of something like a map of the US; but the sort of maps we're used to seeing convey nothing of the emotional content of those abstract concepts, which are indeed among the most potent concepts we have, right up there with "family" and "god." Johns' map is, I think, an attempt to evoke something of that emotional content, to give us a mental image that's commesurate with the concept's punumbra of feeling. It is actually, if you think about it, a rather patriotic thing to do.

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