he first opportunity I had to see a Johns retrospective—at SFMOMA in 2013—I declined. Instead I spent several afternoons in the Jay Defeo retrospective hung in galleries opposite his. That I preferred Defeo had little to do with Johns, whose work I didn’t know. I associated his oeuvre with the male, white, monied bias of museums, and left it at that. I remain grateful I didn’t give his retrospective my time then—that Defeo show was life-changing! And because by the time I was first asked to consider writing about Johns, I had grown less dismissive, if not less wary. Researching Agnes Martin’s art and writing had introduced me to the art world and milieu of Johns’s early years in lower Manhattan, and had resulted in a book, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven. That might be why Carlos Basualdo, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Sarah B. Vogelman, exhibition assistant, asked me to collaborate.
We met in the PMA’s curatorial offices during the summer of 2019. Carlos envisioned something elaborate that would take place live in the PMA’s galleries during their half of Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, the other half of which the Whitney would host. He wanted poets to write Johns-inspired poems, since some of his most poignant work of the 1960s references either Modernist poet Hart Crane or New York School poet Frank O’Hara, MOMA curator, art critic, and friend. Carlos envisioned readings that would be performative and perhaps even governed by chance, in honor of John Cage, an early interlocutor and another friend. I was about to leave Philadelphia and couldn’t see how I’d pull anything together from a distance; and though I’d started to familiarize myself with Johns’s long career, I couldn’t yet see what his work might mean to me. I said no with some regret.
Two years later I heard again from the PMA, this time from Linnea West, Manager of Adult Public Programs. COVID-19 had delayed the opening of Mind/Mirror, and the museum had decided to move online most of their programming around the retrospective. Would I be interested, Linnea asked, in writing Johns-inspired work, commissioning new poetry from three other poets, and organizing an online reading? This time I said yes, knowing already who I’d ask. Unlike me, Rick Barot, Khadijah Queen, and Cole Swensen have practiced ekphrastic art for most of their careers. I consider myself apprentice to their divergent approaches, the distinctive ways they place poetry in the expanded field of abstract visual art. In bringing us together to work under the sign of Johns, I hoped that our disparate ekphrastic strategies—meditative lyric, gestural collage, lyric essay—might mirror the heterogeneity of Johns’s own career. I was not disappointed.
Mind/Mirror prompted some viewers to ask how Johns, an avowedly apolitical establishment artist, could be relevant now. Our work highlights the fact that poetry at its root—poiein—means to make, and extends the long lively dialogue between painters and poets that includes Johns and O’Hara. Importantly, though, our work expands that dialogue beyond the white gay male coterie that fostered Johns’s early work and includes critical inquiry into the limits of poetic language that mirrors his paint and his canonization. We treat his paintings, biography, and milieu as subject matter, and also treat poetic language as a material with plastic properties like those of paint. Our poems mirror his painting sometimes through traditional representational means—description, figuration, narration—and at other times through radical abstracting tactics—processes of layering, cutting, and scraping—and at other times through their appearance on the page as visual icons.
One kind of ekphrasis, Barot argues in “Cross-Hatch,” “is a catalyst for observation, association, and dream . . . like the flaneur’s arc of walking, seeing, and reverie.” Another kind of ekphrasis, Queen suggests in “Collage, unfinished,” “is to make / a mess—unpolished / or profane,” to engage with “the complex play of destruction.” Another kind of ekphrasis, offers Swensen in “Driving the Dark,” is “always about his hands and about what they’re holding—which is pretty much all art—hands holding something—tool or material—and then beginning to move.” My own sense of ekphrasis is informed by each of these definitions: the associative, often messy movement made only by making, rich in de-, con-, and deconstructive potential. Each of our poems is a chronicle, to borrow a word from Barot, in that we document time spent looking, dreaming, thinking, holding, playing, writing, and making now, always now. Marrying art historical research, the hands-on techniques of collage, the critic’s visual acumen, and a flair for the gestural, our work drives ekphrasis deeper into the present.