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

With Her Myriad and Sunken Face Lifted to the Weather

Here’s Faulkner’s physical description of Dilsey Gibson from The Sound and the Fury, Dilsey, the Black caretaker of the fucked-up[1] Compson clan, as dysfunctional a collection of kin you’ll find this side of the House of Cadmus. 

She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child’s astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.

A remarkable human being, Dilsey, transcendent in her morality. She stoically endures subjugation, poverty, and the day-to-day depredation of having to tend to the Compsons[2], all the while doing her best to raise her own grandchildren and by proxy provide damaged teen Quentin Compson some desperately needed love. Dilsey’s just passing through this vale of tears, her degradation a temporary burden before the everlasting glory commences. She’s seen the first and the last, she says.

Like the woman in Douglas Balentine’s painting Cargo II.

Cargo II

When I saw the painting for the “first time in the flesh” at Douglas’s home last Saturday night, I thought immediately of Dilsey. There she is in the center of the canvas, transplanted from Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. She’s traded her Mississippi ratty Easter Sunday purple for something more African, but the expression is hers, Dilsey’s, “with her myriad and sunken face lifted to the weather.”  She, too, has seen the first and the last.

The freighters on the right side of the canvas heading to the harbor follow the path that brought Dilsey’s ancestors to Charleston as beachcombers loll about, attempting to darken their skin. The woman lying on her stomach between the two freighters seems to be developing a sunburn. These folks remind me somewhat of Edward Hopper’s People in the Sun, though they’re much more rigid than Balentine’s more relaxed and fleshy beachgoers. 

Cargo II is truly a beautiful, thought-provoking painting. I absolutely love it.


[1] Generally I’m not one to lob f-bombs, but the phrase “the fucked up Compson clan” sounds so right you can almost dance to it, and I can’t think of a more apt word to describe their situation. . 

[2] Okay, let’s start with Benjy, the thirty-three-year-old castrato with an IQ in the teens; then there’s his banished sister Caddie and her neglected way-damaged teenaged daughter Quentin, named for the Compson son who drowned himself at Harvard. The youngest brother Jason makes Bull Connor look broadminded. And, lastly, maybe the worst mother in American literature, the matriarch Caroline Compson, lying in dark rooms huffing on camphor day and night in a wallow of self-pity.

Different Planets

Someone who goes by the appellation “arsidubu” has finally answered the graphical question, “What do you get when you cross Norman Rockwell with Edward Hopper?”

Ta Da!

Certainly, the two artists share a comic book illustrator aesthetic in their depiction of the life in mid-20th-Century America, and both cast their paintings in similar venues; however, their denizens inhabit different planets – at least when it comes to mood and human interaction.

Paying the Bills

 

Room in New York

In Rockwell, a Protestant deity smiles upon a beloved middle class who in turn smile and wink their way from cradle to grave.  Even coal miners seem bemused by their lot in life.

Conversely, in Hopper’s world God is dead, and as poet Victor Enyutin has observed, the people’s shadows seem more alive than they do.

 

Here’s Enyutin’s take on the painting People in the Sun:

People depicted here by Hopper cannot just relax in the sun. Instead, they project to the situation of taking sun their rigidities and stresses, and their business oriented energies over-stimulated by science fiction – poetry of entrepreneurial world. In their solemnly frozen poses we feel their unconscious intention of taking trip… to the sun – we see that they are as though physically moving/traveling towards the sun while sitting in a kind of starship (may be, with a dream of starting a business there of getting some of the sun’s “natural resources”).

Both artists hailed from New York and enjoyed prosperous childhoods, though Edward Hopper grew up in a strict Baptist household, i.e., in a fallen world.  Both embarked upon their careers early, worked for magazines, employed their wives as models, and enjoyed public affirmation.

The first Mrs. Rockwell

Mrs. Hopper

On the other hand – and given the mood of their paintings/illustrations, the following statement seems profoundly counterintuitive – Hopper’s biography seems the saner of the two.  Thrice married, Rockwell’s second wife spent time in a psychiatric hospital and Rockwell himself received psychiatric care from Eric Erikson, who once told Rockwell that “you paint your happiness but don’t live it.”

Though much more restless and slower to gain recognition than Rockwell, Hopper enjoyed 44 years of a happy marriage, despite possessing the temperament of a curmudgeon.

Given the sunshine and shadow of their paintings, guess which one of these artists voted for Roosevelt and which for Hoover.

That’s right.  It’s a trick question.  The lefty painted this clown:

And the righty painted this one:

Perhaps we have forgotten that traditionally conservatives like Swift, Pope, and Johnson have been the world-weary gloomsters and liberals the naive optimists.  Whatever the case, I feel much more at home in Edward Hopper’s world.