Robert Rosenblum, scholar, curator, and critic, had a particular prescience for genius. At the same that his revisionist thinking proposed new genealogies for the roots of modernism, he was excavating the landscape of contemporary practitioners who would catalyze his new vision of the art-historical canon. Deeply immersed in the art of his own time and famously open to the new, Rosenblum's insatiable curiosity and unerring eye led him to an encounter with an artist whose work would change the course of art for all time. Jasper Johns' one-person exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958 was a first not only for the artist, but also for the art world. Alfred Barr, the celebrated director of the Museum of Modern Art who at the time held authority over acquisitions for the institution, remained in the gallery space for three hours in a frenzy of excitement, selecting several significant works for the museum. Leo Castelli's preeminence as Johns' dealer over the next thirty-five years was from that day irrevocably established. And Rosenblum, his canny eye and enlightened erudition propelling him forward, the ink still wet on his PhD diploma and decades of stellar transformative scholarship and teaching ahead of him, immediately took possession of the extraordinary present lot, Alphabets.
The importance of this exhibition for dealer, artist, and art-historian-collector cannot be underestimated. Only a year earlier, Castelli had opened a rather make-shift gallery in the living room of his apartment with his first wife, Ileana Schapira, at 4 East 77th Street, in which they had shown now-unremembered second-generation Abstract Expressionists. But the moment of his awakening to the single artist who would transform the contemporary art scene and catapult the dealer's own career, came at the Jewish Museum's Artists of the New York School: Second Generation exhibition where he spied a "green painting" that haunted him for days, one with collage elements that would later roil Rosenblum. In Castelli's words: "I was thunderstruck." Two days later on a visit to Robert Rauschenberg's studio, he discovered that Johns lived a floor below, and from that moment, Castelli was in Johns' thrall: "I saw evidence of the most incredible genius entirely fresh and new and not related to anything else" (C. Tomkins, Off the Wall, New York, p. 131).
That same year, Castelli mounted a group exhibition that included Johns-and Rosenblum, too, was ravaged: "Is it blasphemous or respectful, simple-minded or recondite?" he later queried in print (R. Rosenblum, "Castelli Group," Arts, vol. 31, no. 8 (May 1957): 53). Utterly arrested by its enigmas, he wrote, "[Johns' work] is as hard to explain in its unsettling power as the reasonable illogicalities of a Duchamp ready-made" (Ibid.). A year later, teaching in the Department of Art and Archeology at Princeton University while lecturing at Barnard College on contemporary painting, Rosenblum reviewed Johns' exhibition, writing of the "bewildering visual and intellectual impact" of Johns' subjects-flags, targets, numbers, and letters. He also made the point that such subjects disconcert and "upset preconceptions," because as objects, they were removed from their expected everyday uses-from the ability to "salute... hit... and read" (R. Rosenblum, "Jasper Johns," in Arts, vol. 32, no. 4 (January 1958): 54-55).
Indeed, adding the collage to his own collection would not only challenge the collector, but also the art historian. Not merely dazzled, Rosenblum drew moral implications for the viewer from his deeply empathic response to the letters, imagining that Johns was communicating the moment in time when a type-setter uncovers each grapheme and lovingly pours over their "shapes and the mysterious symbolism." Further, Rosenblum imagines this same printer being so mesmerized with the beauty of the forms as well as their transcendent import that he withholds them, not able to "commit them to everyday use." Compelled by their physicality, he writes of Alphabets' "commanding sensuous presence[its] irreducible potency" (Ibid.) Alphabets is the work that Rosenblum chose to live with, compelled by its mystery and its irreducible essence as a sublime object. The re-imagining of the printers response to each letter only induces further attraction. What compels Rosenblum even more is Johns' "elegant craftsmanship, which lends these pictures the added poignancy of a beloved, handmade transcription of unloved, machine-made images." (Ibid.) As Barbara Rose wrote twenty years on, "Johns's drawings are questions about essences, about how the thing is made" (B. Rose, Drawing Now: The Museum of Modern Art, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976, p. 35) and this question of origins is at the core not only of Rosenblum's powerful response to Alphabets, but also his understanding of the tension between the tactile and the visual-where illusion becomes physical.
The visual impact of the Rosenblum Alphabets far exceeds the prosaically laconic verbal formulation Johns invented for Walter Hopps: that the idea came from seeing "a chart in a book that had that arrangement of the alphabet. Then I of course realized I could do the numbers that way too" (W. Hopps, "An Interview with Jasper Johns," Artforum, March 1965). The radicality of Johns' dense mark-making and collage ideas derives from the artist's incorporation of over seven hundred separate elements arranged in twenty-eight complete twenty-six-letter alphabets, one following the other along the rows of a twenty-seven by twenty-seven-unit grid. Each letter, as readymade as any Duchamp, is obtained from sheets of printed letters available commercially for making file labels and has the same rectangular proportions as the overall composition. Johns used scissors to cut each letter unit separately, none quite the same. At every step, Johns made an effort at perfect shape and order, but he also accepted the slight imperfections involved in handwork. Using a ruler to make guidelines, Johns first drew a vertical rectangular field on a large piece of card stock and filled this field with dark undertones. Then he carefully adhered each of the little rectangular letter units as collage elements in rows across and down. Although regimented in grid fashion, the final image has no straight lines. Instead Johns used the alphabetic elements, separately and in groups, as tiny fields for hundreds of dense little drawings filled with linear strokes, over-drawing in spurts of vacillating markings between the disciplined idea of linear reading and the unrestrained, emotive abstraction that was a legacy of Abstract Expressionist gestures. In obscuring rather than clarifying the ordered lettering, Johns expresses a shadowy new mood of repetition and accumulation that would inspire generations of subsequent artists with its universal themes as much as its adroit inventiveness.
In 1957, however, Johns' was methodically and fastidiously tracing the history of art with his own hand; indeed, Johns' collage alphabet is an act of parsing that paradoxically creates a whole, as each drawn letter becomes for the broken field a "meditation on completeness," (D. Shapiro, Jasper Johns Drawings 1965-1984, New York, 1984, p. 20). Robert Morris addresses this notion of entirety by arguing that works like the Rosenblum Alphabets run through a sequence in a desperate act of completing itself, reading an element of pathos in the works in their "patientmarks across and within the imprisonment of the device[that use] the de-familiarization of these signs through the frame of art [to create] an oblique rhetoric of resistance that is also a form of redemption," a sense the artist reads in this work of entropy or exhaustion (R. Morris, "Jasper Johns: the First Decade," in J. Weiss, Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965, exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, p. 216). While Morris loads such works as the Rosenblum Alphabets with the weight of its political and social post-war moment, there is no question that Rosenblum-and Castelli and Barr with him-saw the work more as opening up, if not disrupting, the field of painterly technique and iconography in an art world dominated by the "vehement, molten brushwork" of the Abstract Expressionists. Now for the first time the everyday world would be summoned up for aesthetic contemplation (R. Rosenblum, "Jasper Johns," Art International 4, no.7 (September 1960), pp. 74-77, in R. Rosenblum, On Modern Art, New York, 1999, p. 148).
Johns' pencil and collage Alphabets insists, as Rosenblum writes, that we contemplate the conventional but in the guise of a single subject-the alphabet-re-imagined in all its "immediate sensuous impact and compelling intellectual jolt" that had literally "stopped [him] in his tracts that day at the Leo Castelli gallery (Ibid., p. 153). In recalling Johns' description of his artmaking process-"Take an object/Do something to it/Do something else to it" (Ibid., p.154)-Rosenblum could well be recalling what Johns'work did to the man himself. Literally "bowled over" by the work on display that day in 1957, Rosenblum saw in Alphabets a new dimension not only of intellectual truth, but of seeing, touching, and feeling. We are as overwhelmed today by its hypnotic power, its immediacy, its relevance to universal themes, and its importance as an icon of transformative force as the young wide-eyed scholar who in its presence "star[ed] and star[ed] again." Our experience of Alphabets reenacts Rosenblum's own first awakening to genius, and his thoughts then could well be our own now: "In short, Johns' work, like all genuinely new art, assaults and enlivens the mind and the eye with the exhilaration of discovery." (R. Rosenblum, "Jasper Johns," op. cit, p. 55).