Johns made two paintings entitled Souvenir in Tokyo in the summer of 1964 (fig. 1). The first painting (fig. 2), still in the artist's collection, is in encaustic. The second, the Ganz version, is in oil. Both versions include a flashlight, attached vertically to the right edge of the canvas, which points to a rear-view mirror angled to reflect the light from the flashlight onto a ledge containing a ceramic plate. In both versions, the plate is printed with a photo of the artist and the names of the primary colors: red, yellow, blue. All the elements in the first version are essentially black or white, including the photo and the color names. The second version is more colorful and complex: the plate is printed in polychrome, the black canvas is relieved with touches of gray and red, and the introduction of a second, smaller, canvas attached facedown to the first adds a strong note of reddish amber to the color-composition. Johns made four drawings and two lithographs after Souvenir and three drawings and a lithograph after Souvenir 2. The Ganz Collection includes one of the drawings after Souvenir 2 (Lot 27).
Johns's contemporary notebook and some of his published recollections permit us to reconstruct something of the genesis of this extraordinary work. In 1966, he recounted to Charlotte Willard:
After a concert at the Tape Center in San Francisco I saw spots of reflected light moving on the wall.
In a store window I saw plates upon which had been printed some photographs of Japanese baseball players, wrestlers and family groups.
In 1950 or 51 a painter whom I admired said that he was to have an exhibition of eight or ten canvases which were turned face to the wall in the kitchen where we were talking. He said the works were very new and good and that he would not show them to anyone before the scheduled exhibition. When he left the room, another friend looked at the fronts of the canvases and found that they had not been painted.
Thinking anything could be a souvenir of something else, not specifically meaning a self-portrait. Ego was not clear. Maybe, just another way of dishing up a Johns. (J. Johns, Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, pp. 128-129)
Among the jottings in his notebook from the summer of 1964 are the following ideas (fig. 3): "In WHAT use a light and mirror. The mirror will throw the light to some other part of the painting" (ibid., p. 57); and "Some clear souvenir--a photograph or a fisherman's den or a dried corsage--a newspaper clipping caught in the frame of a mirror" (ibid., p. 56 and pl. 8).
How Johns initially conceived of assembling these disparate elements is indicated in a page from his notebook that contains a preliminary sketch for the project with many ideas written out (fig. 4). Among these are the following key comments:
mirror wire holder flashlight
dish with photo & color names
Determine size of ptg from plate size--objects should be loose in ptg. space. Fill (?) the space loosely. (Ibid., p. 58)
The notes also include several possibilities that the artist abandoned in making the paintings. For example, he seems to have considered stenciling the word "Souvenir" behind the plate, and taking the flashlight apart so as to leave the batteries exposed.
Moreover, at the top left of the page he wrote "NONO?", and near the center of the page he wrote "JAPANESE PHONETIC 'NO'/POSSESSIVE 'OF'". In both cases, these notations seem to relate to the work's title, Souvenir. In other pages of this book, Johns wrote alternate titles for works at the top of the page, and perhaps he even considered naming the piece No (or a variation of No), a title he used later that summer for another painting. Johns even drew the Japanese character for No at the center of the sheet, and it is interesting to observe that the planned path of the light across the plate mimics the forms of the character. Johns appears to have been fascinated by the fact that the same phoneme, (No), in different languages, conveyed both possession and negation.
This points to a central concern of Souvenir. All aide-memoirs, whether sacred relics, civic monuments, tourist souvenirs or painted portraits, entail both presence and absence. On the one hand, an event, place or person is evoked and given material form; it is made present. On the other hand, distance is also declared: the portrait is not the person. Indeed, the tension between absence and presence is a fundamental condition of representation in the visual arts. Alberti, in De Pictura, identified the power of physical evocation as the first principle of painting: "Painting contains a divine force that makes absent men present [and] makes the dead seem almost alive" (L. B. Alberti, On Painting, New Haven, 1966, p. 63). Souvenir 2 is a meditation on this power.
Each of the objects that Johns appended to the Ganz version of Souvenir 2 adds significantly to the work's emotional charge. The flashlight, of course, brings to mind Johns's sculpture of the same name (fig. 5), and may also allude to the idea of illumination. Bernstein has suggested:
In the Souvenir paintings, [the flashlight] provides an internal light source, like candles in traditional still lifes. Because of the emphasis on memory in these Souvenir paintings, it is possible that Johns intended the flashlight--a contemporary version of the candle--to be interpreted, like the candles in vanitas still lifes, as symbols of transience. (R. Bernstein, op. cit., p. 116)
The mirror, as has been pointed out, is a rear-view mirror; one looks into it while going forward to see where one has been and what is behind. Mirrors have many metaphorical meanings that may be relevant to Souvenir. They are a standard symbol in traditional accounts of the nature of painting. Moreover, for centuries, the word speculum--Latin for mirror--was a common title for exemplary biographies, e.g. speculum prinicipi. Speculum was also often used in the titles of books about moral and spiritual reflection (and mirrors are a symbol of the virtue Prudence).
The canvas attached facedown recalls Johns's 1956 Canvas (fig. 6). In the Ganz picture, a primary aspect of the attached canvas is the enigmatic power of the hidden. Again, Johns told Charlotte Willard in 1966 that the idea came from a friend who had turned unpainted canvases to the wall and lied that they were major works for an upcoming exhibition. In August 1964, when asked why the wrong side of the canvas is visible, Johns responded, "I've drawn too much, and I just wanted to conceal it" (Quoted in ed. K. Varnedoe, op. cit., p. 101). But, of course, the idea of concealment was part of the original conception of the piece: he initially thought of hiding the title behind the plate. The present placement of the word Souvenir, on the back of the face-down canvas, suggests that it is the title of the painting facing away from the viewer, adding to the complexity of the image.
Johns's portrait on the plate is the focus of the work and it is the component with the greatest emotional force. It is the only recognizable self-portrait by the artist. Johns took the photo in a photo-booth at the Takashimaya department store, and then baked it on the plate. Bernstein has suggested that it "is close in sensibility to Duchamp's depersonalized self-parodying portraits with photographs: Wanted/$2000 Reward, 1923 and Monte Carlo Bond, 1924" (R. Bernstein, op. cit., p. 115). Perhaps. But something less ironic and more profound seems to be going on. Johns's stiff pose and impassive expression, combined with the cheap photo process and the hand-tinting, strongly recall portrait photography from the nineteenth century (fig. 7). As so often in such images, the photograph of Johns is full of intimations of poignancy, anonymity, remembrance and death. Moreover, portrait photographs share four of the eight defining characteristics that Leo Steinberg identified in Johns's early work: 1) they are man-made things; 2) they are commonplaces of our environment; 3) they are flat; and 4) they are associable with sufferance rather than action. Johns's portrait, in its mute expressiveness, is also strongly reminiscent of painted funerary portraits from Roman Egypt (fig. 8). Johns certainly knows about these pictures; they are the most famous group of works in encaustic in the whole history of art.
Johns's conception of Souvenir is intricately connected to that of Watchman (The Sogetsu Art Museum, Tokyo), another of his masterpieces from the summer of 1964. Both projects evolved from earlier plans for a large polyptych that was to contain "some clear souvenir," and was to include a panel clearly identifiable as Watchman. Moreover, on the back of the page with sketches for Souvenir (fig. 4?) are sketches for Watchman, and the following page includes a drawing for Watchman with Johns's famous remarks about the "watchman and the spy" (J. Johns, op. cit., p. ???). These remarks are enigmatic and poetical, and it may be mistaken to attempt a concrete explication of them. But one possible interpretation is that the "watchman" should be identified with the viewer, and the "spy" with the artist and with Johns. As Field and others have noted, the remarks may also help us to understand Johns's purpose in making Souvenir, especially the following passages:
The spy must remember + must remember himself + his remembering... Somewhere here, there is the question of "seeing clearly."
According to what? (Quoted in ed. K. Varnedoe, op. cit., p. 37)
Throughout his career, Johns has fashioned beautiful, complex images that pose difficult questions about meaning and memory, reality and representation. Souvenir 2 is one of his most compelling, enigmatic and poetical meditations on the power of memory and the nature of art.
(fig. 1) Jasper Johns in Tokyo, 1964
(fig. 2) Jasper Johns, Souvenir, 1964
Collection the artist
(fig. 3) Jasper Johns, sketchbook notes from Book A, p. 49, 1964
(fig. 4) Jasper Johns, sketchbook notes from Book A, p. 53, 1964
(fig. 5) Jasper Johns, Flashlight I, 1958
(fig. 6) Jasper Johns, Canvas, 1956
Collection the artist
(fig. 7) William Lewis and William Henry Lewis, Sailor, ca. 1848
Collection Matthew R. Isenburg
(fig. 8) Fayum portrait of a man, ca. 225-250 A.D.
Collection A. Benakis, Cairo