Jasper Johns, Owen Lee, and I-and-I

Racing Thoughts by Jasper Johns, 1983

Jasper Johns’ half-sister, Owen Lee, and I were acquaintances, not quite friends, in the very late 70s or very early 80s. We both taught Developmental Studies English[1] at Trident Technical College in North Charleston, South Carolina. Between classes, we’d yuk it up and trade cynical witticisms like a couple of podunk Dorothy Parkers and HL Menckens.  

One night after classes, she invited me to join her at the Garden and Gun, a gay bar that had recently opened to cater to the Spoleto crowd. Weeks earlier, she had dropped her famous semi-sibling’s name, but the sad truth is all I knew of Johns’ work were the targets and flags, and in keeping with my late-twenties ignorance, I was not overly impressed. [2]Anyway, Owen invited me to her place for a nightcap and showed me some original Johns works hanging in her apartment. After the drink, I headed home to Limehouse Street.

Fastforward thirty-five years. The week of my son Harrison’s marriage in DC, the Hirshhorn was staging an exhibition of Johns’ work, so we hopped the Metro to check it out. Now, I was duly impressed. Of course, we saw the iconic flags, targets, and maps, but also large arresting canvases with strings and flatware and shadows, works that I found emotionally moving.

However, it wasn’t until last week until I really came to appreciate Johns more fully after taking in his current exhibition (October 2021 through February 2022) at the Whitney. Thanks to my brand-new hearing aids paired with my iPhone, a website dedicated to the exhibition guided me through eleven gallery rooms. Chief curator Scott Rothkopf and others talked about the paintings and sculptures. John Cage read Jasper’s words excerpted from a documentary. He said early in his career he attempted to create impersonal works but that ultimately “was a losing battle.”[3] Nevertheless, he remains reticent about his art because he believes that the viewer must bring his or her own life experiences into the mix.

The thematic division entitled South Carolina particularly interested me. Johns, like Truman Capote, spent much of his childhood being shuttled off to various aunts and cousins. How disorienting it must be to be passed around without a permanent home. Here’s a painting based on his childhood called Montez Singing.

Montez was Johns’ step grandmother, and the song she sings is entitled “Red Sails.” The web-based tour guide notes the red ship and offers interpretations on the Picasso-like cubist body parts.

Another of my favorites is “Spring” where we encounter Johns’ shadow and the rigid arm that appears in many of his paintings. Also note the child’s shadow, below the adult’s shadow. How remarkable to produce such stunning objective correlatives to your vaporous memories.

The Seasons (Spring) 1987 Jasper Johns born 1930 Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Judy and Kenneth Dayton 2004 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P12997

Owen Lee ended up moving away after a stint in Edisto.[4]  Around the turn of the century, out of nowhere, I received a message on my voice mail on my landline. She had moved back in Charleston to a downtown apartment and suggested we get together, which never came about. I did see her one last time at our friend Ted Phillips’ funeral. We sat together in a back pew, and because she had walked to the service, I gave her a ride to her apartment when it was over. She poured me a scotch and reminisced about a period when she worked for Jasper and Andy Warhol. This apartment had originals as well, and I worried a bit because Owen repeated stories, lost her way in conversation a couple of times, and explained these lapses by claiming that she had received a blow to the head as a child. 

She was still a lovely person, fascinating to listen to, despite having entered an early stage of dementia. 

Here’s a link to her obituary: Owen Riley Lee.


[1] Known as “remedial English” in a previous, less sensitive era.

[2] I wouldn’t go so far as call myself a philistine. For example, unlike the babysitter in Flannery O’Connor’s “The River,” I wouldn’t say, “I wouldn’t have paid for that,” [the babysitter] said, nodding at the painting, “I would have drew it myself.” 

[3] Actually, it was John Cage reading Johns’ words.

[4] The voice on the guided tour pronounces it ed-DEES-toe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s