Covered in scrawled graphite, Map, executed in 1971, evokes the frantic energy of a seemingly fevered artist. It was in 1971 that, after several years, Johns had completed the monumental and multi-faceted Map (based on Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Airocean World). These two different maps strike an impressive contrast in terms of scale and simplicity, and were the last maps that he produced for many years. In Map (based on Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Airocean World), the surface appears to tell of his rediscovered enthusiasm for the reprised theme and reflects his appreciation of its continued validity. In the agitated graphite marks, Johns has created something that recalls Abstract Expressionism in its appearance, and this gives Map great impact. The rich and nuanced surface is intriguing and absorbing, and the visual texture makes this appear to be the product of an 'Action' event. This resembles a product of emotion, art at its most subjective.
And yet lurking underneath these scrawls is a map of the United States. Through the contrast between the unkempt style of execution and the rigid precision inherent in cartography, the viewer begins to perceive Johns' game, by which he mimics and mocks the gestural art of the Abstract Expressionists while examining the entire nature of figuration itself. Playing with our understandings of the world around us, and especially our preconceptions regarding art, Johns has conjured up an image that is a paradox. After all, while the style seems to hint at this being a work of art, a product of personality, the simple factual nature of this recognisable map implies a universality, a simple truth. It is scientific, proven, mathematical, geographical and thus completely objective. However stylised its surface may be, Map is still a map. Where one could never really fly his Flags or shoot his Targets, and while his Numbers and Alphabets were rendered practically abstract by their lack of purpose, Map genuinely shows the various boundaries in the United States. Even the names of the states have been included. This is not an image from Johns' mind, but a traced map of the States, the artist detaching himself from the work's content, creating something that has in part created itself and that can happily exist, outwith an artistic context, in its own right.
Johns' art explores the autonomy of objects, playing with the boundaries of where art - and representation - begin. Although Map has been taken as an artwork, has been shown and appreciated as an artwork, it is and remains a map. It contains the information, the vital components, of a map and, if we wanted to check the locations of Maine, Oregon or Tennessee, we would be able to use this picture to help us. Yet Johns is aware of the artistic purpose that viewers will superimpose on and attribute to his work, and plays to it: 'I am concerned with a thing's not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment, with at any moment seeing or saying and letting it go at that' (Johns, quoted in 'Interview with G.R. Swenson, pp. 323-24, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. K. Stiles and P. Selz, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 1996, p. 324). Johns is exploring the very nature of art: he has created something that, with no physical change or alteration, will metamorphose, will have a new meaning given to it. Discussing this transformation, Johns stated that, 'Publicly a work becomes not just intention, but the way it is used. If an artist makes something - or if you make chewing gum and everybody ends up using it as glue, whoever made it is given the responsibility of making glue, even if what he really intends is chewing gum. You can't control that kind of thing. As far as beginning to make a work, one can do it for any reason' (Johns, quoted in ibid., p. 324).
Through his manipulation of these transformations, Map can be seen as a superbly grounded and cynical attack on the canon of art. This picture of the United States doubles as an incredibly literal landscape painting, but again, this is landscape painting as seen through Johns' clear-seeing eyes. Map is the product of the application of extreme logic to a traditional genre. But this is much more than a mere assault on artistic tradition: Johns' clarity of vision here is the product of the union in his mind of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Marcel Duchamp. The latter's influence is clear in the use of the found image and the playful abuse of the status quo in the relationship between artist, artwork and viewer. However, the influence of Wittgenstein transforms this from a simple mind-game to a philosophical inquiry. Johns' Map questions the nature of the world and of what we see. This picture appears to be a pictorial answer to one of Wittgenstein's most famous statements, that 'What can be said at all can be said clearly: and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent' (L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London, 1922). This works on several levels with Map. For instance, regarding the titles of his works, Johns said, 'With the targets and flags, there is no concern about names; I was simply painting what they were' (Johns, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 147). Clearly, this is also true for the Maps. On a deeper level, Johns has taken the rigid Wittgenstein philosophy and used it to inform his own inspiration. His picture of a map is precisely that. It is accurate enough that it is exactly what it represents - this functional folly is actually art that has been 'said clearly'.
Jasper Johns, Map, 1960, private collection c Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Johns at East Houston Street, December 30, 1970, working on Map based on Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Air Ocean World, 1967-71 Photograph by Hans Namuth c 1991 Hans Namuth Estate, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
Jasper Johns, Target with Four Faces, 1955, private collection c Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY