"Insight and skill depend on observation as well as thought. And through manual work as well as through art, we realize that there is besides thinking in logical conclusions 'thinking in situations," which is just as necessary as thinking in numbers or figures or verbal terms" --Jasper Johns
One of a radical new series of paintings made in the early 1960s, Paregoric as Directed Dr. Wilder is a unique and highly personal work painted by Jasper Johns in 1962. A self-defining picture that displays within itself the logic of its own construction, Paregoric as Directed Dr. Wilder is also unique among this important series of works in that it both refers to and was created specifically for Johns' friend Dr. Wilder after he had helped the artist through a recent illness.
Including such paintings as Device (The Baltimore Museum of Art), Slow Field (Moderna Museet, Stockholm) and Land's End of 1963 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), the series to which Paregoric as Directed Dr. Wilder belongs was one that marked a significant departure from his 1950s paintings of Flags, Targets and Alphabets, and a widening of their logic into an open exposure of painting as a self-defining, even self-creating entity and object.
Comprised of works that brazenly demonstrate their own material nature and the simple processes by which they have come into being, these paintings are distinguished from Johns' earlier works by having what Johns has described as absolutely "no references outside of the actions which were made." They are a group of works that reflect an intentional move towards creating pictures that were deliberately less "intellectual" than before and more self-referential, "involved with the nature of various technical devices--devices in which the viewer was encouraged to engage more directly to the physical situation" (J. Johns, quoted in Jasper Johns Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 191).
"The artificial construction people make about painting" Johns has said, "is that it is not intellectual, and does not involve much thinking, but involves psychic or subconscious pressures which are released through the act of painting. But I think painting like mine shows obvious kinds of hesitation and reworking which people associate with thought" (J. Johns, "Interview with Peter Fuller", 1978, in R. Francis, Jasper Johns, New York, 1984, p. 48). Marking a significant development in Johns' work away from the systematic and structuring props of the numbers, letters, flags or targets he had used throughout the 1950s, and which had always obliged his apparently free-form manner of painting to refer to, paintings such as Paregoric as Directed Dr. Wilder project a freer and more open form and style--one in which the painting is allowed and encouraged to assert only its own physical self. Continuing the idea of the medium as the message propagated in his earlier works, the early 1960s paintings extend the same conceptual direction he had earlier established into a new area that perhaps also reflected his recent reading of Wittgentstein's Tractatus Logico - Philosophicus and his recent exposure to and interest in Marcel Duchamp's oeuvre. As in Duchamp's consummate painterly statement, Tu'm for example, the manner of Johns' working in a painting such as Paregoric as Directed Dr. Wilder has been to treat the idea of a painting as if it were an assisted ready-made; as if it were an autonomous object that comes into being solely through the almost indirect participation of the artist.
As with works such as Land's End and Slow Field for example, Paregoric as Directed Dr Wilder displays a methodological approach in which the content of the painting is self-assertive and the actions of the artist and the material nature of his means, (the canvas, paint, color and subject matter), manifest themselves clearly and in a non-aesthetic but demonstrably physical manner. Each oil brushstroke is given a distinct and separate material autonomy and several works from this series also carry individual real objects affixed to the canvas. This is reflective, perhaps of Rauschenberg's Combines while also marking a natural extension of Johns' own painted objects (Flashlight, Beer Cans, Paintbrushes) back onto the painterly plane of the canvas from which they originally seemed to have migrated. The affixing of objects from the real world onto the traditionally illusionary surface of the canvas was a comparatively new device employed by Johns in his 1962 paintings like Device or Passage to create the further illusion of their interaction with the illusory painted surface, while at the same time also reinforcing the idea of the painting itself as object. In other paintings such as Slow Field or Fool's House for example, Johns even affixed canvas frames to the surface of the paintings as if to emphasize this point through a kind of pictorial tautology. What the canvas is, is displayed on the surface of the canvas itself. In a similar way, and to serve a similar purpose, in Paregoric as Directed Dr. Wilder Johns has affixed one of Dr. Wilder's prescription forms for paregoric (an opium tintate that Wilder prescribed to Johns during his illness) in the bottom right hand corner of the painting by way of signature, title and dedication.
The title of the painting also forms a part of its composition in the form of a multi-colored vertical strip running through the center of the picture while on either side, a variety of contrastingly free gray encaustic brushmarks articulate, without special emphasis, the inert surface of the work and the flat canvas plane. "I used gray encaustic to avoid the color situation" Johns has said of his predominant use of grey in many of his works from this period. "Encaustic paintings were done in gray because to me this suggested a kind of literal quality that was unmoved or unmovable by coloration and thus avoided all the emotional and dramatic quality of color. Black and white is very leading. It tells you what to say or do. The gray encaustic paintings seemed to me to allow the literal qualities of the painting to predominate over any of the others" (J. Johns, quoted in K. Varnedoe, (ed.) Jasper Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1997, p. 129)
Similarly, the raw existential and material nature of the canvas itself is also deliberately asserted here in the upper right hand corner of the work. In other places he has allowed thinned paint to drip over its surface in a loose and fluid manner that contrasts completely with the tighter and more solid range of brushstrokes on the left-hand side of the painting. As if to articulate the inherently artificial nature of both painting and language, the central title uniting the canvas plane like one of Barnett Newman's 'zips' has been written twice vertically through the center of the work in a series of stencilled letters, each of which differs in color so that each word is broken down into a series of autonomous, colorful but apparently meaningless pictorial component parts. Playing with illusion and meaning in a way that reflects his alphabet or number paintings, in this way Johns also pictorially illustrates the inherent artifice of words and language in the same way that he has deconstructed the traditional aesthetics of painting.
Johns' predominant use of gray in this series of works however may also, as Roberta Bernstein has pointed out, reflect Johns' mood and personal situation at this time in the wake of the end of his relationship with Robert Rauschenberg towards the end of 1961:
"For Johns, gray is a neutral color which gives the painting a more literal or objective quality than any other color," Bernstein writes. "But, like blue, gray is associated with sadness (or gloominess) and Johns often used gray to suggest a mood of sadness (coldness, emotional withdrawal), especially in his 1961 paintings like No, and Water Freezes. The result of using a cool or neutral color to suggest an emotional condition is that the emotionalism is perceived as repressed and hidden rather than openly revealed" (R. Bernstein, Things The Mind Already Knows, Jasper Johns' Paintings and Sculptures 1954-74, New York, 1985, p. 73).
Johns' aims with his paintings of this period was certainly to move away from the more cerebral or intellectual nature of his earlier pictures and to open up the plane of his creativity towards the creation of works that were more personally expressive of the physical actions of the artist and less confined by borders or systematic structuring. It is for this reason that he began to investigate how the skin, surface or extremities of the body along with the body's actions and gestures could demonstrably be shown to interact with the surface of his pictures in many works from this period, most notably perhaps Diver of 1962. The nature and the very fact of Paregoric as Directed Dr. Wilder-made in gratitude for Dr. Wilder's help-is surely also a part of this tendency towards the personal and the interactive in Johns' work at this time.
"The early paintings of mine seem to me to have been about, partly, with what we were talking about earlier, accuracy, and questioning whether there are such things, so that the paintings tended to be a sum of corrections in terms of painting, in terms of strokes. So that there are many, many strokes and everything is built up on a very simple frame but there is a great deal of work in it, and the work tends to correct what lies underneath constantly until finally you quit and you say "It's this one'...The more recent work of mine seems to be involved with the nature of various technical devices, not questioning them in terms of their relation to the concept of accuracy...(and)... the effect ... is that it is more related to feeling or emotion or let's say emotional or erotic content in that there is no superimposition of another point of view immediately in terms of the stroke of a brush, so that one responds directly to the physical situation rather than to a complex physical situation which immediately has to be resolved intellectually. So it seems to me the earlier paintings would tend to appear to be more intellectual because of this. Because everything is very close and variations are slight and the lines and everything that follow are very clear... one only has a dual situation in the early paintings. You questioned whether it is a painting or whether it is what is being represented. I think in the more recent paintings you don't question that. You know what is painting and you know what the objects are that are involved, and you may or may not know what the sense of it is. That's your own business. They are also less arbitrary. However, I think the current idea would be the opposite, because they have no references outside the actions which were made. The earlier paintings refer to specific designs or lines or whatever, which had to be dealt with, and the liveliness of the painting tends to be what I called earlier, corrections, a very complex set of corrections, in relationships to these lines. Whereas the more recent works don't have that involvement, there isn't the constant attempt to do something over and over and over in the more recent works" (J. Johns, "Interview with Billy Klver," reproduced in Varnedoe, (ed.) Jasper Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1997, p. 85).