Jasper Johns, In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara, 1961, oil on canvas with objects, two panels, overall 40 × 59 3⁄4″.
“I always assumed that Jasper Johns painted In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara, 1961, to memorialize the poet whose name is stenciled at the bottom of the canvas and whose poem lends the painting its granite title. But after seeing the work again at the recent Johns exhibition, I checked the dates and realized that the artist finished it five years before O’Hara died. I couldn’t quite believe it at first—so many of the meanings I’d projected onto the work were thrown back at me—and then I had to start scraping off interpretations and understanding the painting according to a new set of terms.This was particularly difficult because, dates aside, the painting has a mournful air (the words DEAD MAN are just legible on its surface), and moreover, it marks a transition in Johns’s oeuvre, leaving behind the flags, targets, and maps—the ‘things the mind already knows,’ as the artist once put it—for a realm equal parts abstract and oblique. Indeed, In Memory shares affinities with Johns’s earlier paintings but only to undercut them: It is shaped and structured like a US flag, except here there are no stars and stripes, and instead of mottled red, white, and blue, the composition is patchy with ashen gray. Where the surfaces of Johns’s previous paintings had been thick with encaustic wax, In Memory’s paint, especially on the left side of the canvas, is runny and thin. One can’t help but feel that a system has broken down, and this feeling is heightened by the two brass hinges in the painting’s middle, which allow the work to close inward, altarlike. The title, too, rings out like an epitaph engraved on a crypt, unknown sentiments stashed inside: Though the curators of the Whitney exhibition claim to know what’s there—evidence of the artist’s breakup with Robert Rauschenberg—as Johns put it in a 1989 interview, ‘I have always thought that everybody would want to explain a feeling. . . . I haven’t done it though.’ So what Johns was doing here was not expression but paying homage to O’Hara and O’Hara’s work, its truck with play and secrets, and signaling an investment in a common project that elides blatant subject matter and ‘open’ content. …”