Secret Lives in Art.Jill Johnston's latest essay collection makes a strong case for the impact of the artist's biography on his or her art. The author of Lesbian Nation, and of some of the most adventurous criticism of the '60s, Johnston is obsessed ob·sess
v. ob·sessed, ob·sess·ing, ob·sess·es
To preoccupy the mind of excessively.
v.intr. by biography, and, as she makes clear in the introduction to this collection of pieces, which originally appeared in various publications including Art in America Art in America, published since 1913, is an illustrated monthly art magazine covering the visual art world both in the US and abroad, but concentrating on New York City. and The New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of Review of Books between 1984 and 1993, this obsession is itself fueled by autobiography: her own search for the father she never knew. In the case of a long-term project of hers involving Jasper Johns, she makes the autobiographical inspiration quite explicit: "Fate," declares Johnston, "had drawn me toward an artist whose drive to suppress information . . . has been as exsanguinating as my mother's was to make a mystery out of my father, turning me into a vocational detective."
The book's first section and part of the second are devoted to stories of women searching for their lost fathers. Here, it is not so much the impact of life history on art that is the issue, but the desperate need to discover the lost parent per se. Johnston seems to feel that if you don't know who your father is, or have been given false information about him, you don't know who you are; your most intimate identity is lost. Well, maybe: certainly this is the current wisdom, and Johnston's reviews of Germaine Greer's Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, Wendy Fairey's One of the Family, and Angelica Garnett's Deceived with Kindness, among other texts, do bear out her thesis to some extent.
But what about those of us who would gladly have exchanged their fathers for more exclusive rights to their mothers? Johnston never considers the advantages fatherlessness may bestow on the child--the case of Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, and of Frank Lloyd Wright. And not just male children: there may have been a father in Colette's family, but his dim presence scarcely counts against the vivid one of her mother. I myself remember with nostalgic ecstasy my tenth summer, mythic in its plenitude plen·i·tude
1. An ample amount or quantity; an abundance: a region blessed with a plenitude of natural resources.
2. The condition of being full, ample, or complete. , when I had my mother to myself on a trip out West, first to La Jolla, where we lolled in luxury at the Hotel La Valencia, and then on a tour of the national parks--Bryce, Zion, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon: a summer of perfect, cloudless bliss. My father, alas, came back, and it was over. But surely fatherlessness, or misinformation mis·in·form
tr.v. mis·in·formed, mis·in·form·ing, mis·in·forms
To provide with incorrect information.
mis about the nature of the father, isn't always as devastating dev·as·tate
tr.v. dev·as·tat·ed, dev·as·tat·ing, dev·as·tates
1. To lay waste; destroy.
2. To overwhelm; confound; stun: was devastated by the rude remark. as Johnston claims.
Johnston's take on the relation between art and life provides a perfect antithesis to that of Roland Barthes in S/Z. For Barthes, every realist text is a pastiche of previously written fictions, without possible reference to "real" events not only in the world but in the life of the creator; for Johnston, every avant-garde text holds a life story struggling to get out, yet frustrated by the artist's formal strategies of concealment. For Johnston, the critic plays detective, sniffing out childhood injury beneath the artwork's imperturbably im·per·turb·a·ble
Unshakably calm and collected. See Synonyms at cool.
imper·turb opaque surface. And the artist's role is that of deflector, setting the critic off on false trails, or firmly shutting the door on clues to personal history.
Johnston's tracking efforts are most persistent in three of her best essays: one on Robert Wilson and the two on Johns. In the case of Johns, what set her off on her indefatigable detection work was two repeatedly used images he derived from Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece. As Johnston piquantly pi·quant
1. Pleasantly pungent or tart in taste; spicy.
a. Appealingly provocative: a piquant wit.
b. puts it, "The burial of two bodies [one of a fallen soldier, the other of a plague victim] in his work of the 1980s has given source hunting a new meaning. People at large can't see or identify the bodies--don't even know there are bodies there to see. . . . They are striated striated /stri·at·ed/ (stri´at-ed) having stripes or striae.
having streaks or striae, e.g. striate retinopathy.
see brush border. , patterned areas, interlocked like flat pieces of a jigsaw puzzle." Although Johnston doesn't quite say so, it seems to me that the reduction of human bodies to "pieces of a jigsaw puzzle" itself provides a sardonic commentary on the very possibility of a readable, easily available iconography for the advanced art of our time. Maybe Johns' reduction of the meaningful (i.e., the referential) and the personal to the unrecognizable is itself the meaning of this imagery, its hiddenness being simply a tantalizing tan·ta·lize
tr.v. tan·ta·lized, tan·ta·liz·ing, tan·ta·liz·es
To excite (another) by exposing something desirable while keeping it out of reach. irrelevance. Johnston, however, sees the act of concealment itself as primarily biographical in its implications: "The identity of the image concealed is surely biographically important, but the act of concealment itself is biographically more significant. And what would the artist be concealing if not his biography?"
At times, Johnston's literalism lit·er·al·ism
1. Adherence to the explicit sense of a given text or doctrine.
2. Literal portrayal; realism.
lit , her insistence on reading biographical implication from the opaque surfaces of contemporary creation, becomes annoying. It seems both simplistic sim·plism
The tendency to oversimplify an issue or a problem by ignoring complexities or complications.
[French simplisme, from simple, simple, from Old French; see simple and reductive re·duc·tive
1. Of or relating to reduction.
2. Relating to, being an instance of, or exhibiting reductionism.
3. Relating to or being an instance of reductivism. . Yet on the whole she is pretty sophisticated in her approach to the facts of life and their function: she knows the pitfalls in her approach and often sidesteps them with aplomb and a refreshing frankness about her own motives in the enterprise of biographical detective work. And she certainly makes the reader look carefully and think critically about whatever she is discussing. Perhaps our very resistance to her approach, our collusion with the techniques of combined seduction and occlusion perfected by her artists, has to do with our own fear of autobiography, of self-knowledge.
Linda Nochlin is the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts The Institute of Fine Arts, commonly called the IFA, is a graduate school of New York University and is one of the world’s leading graduate schools and research centers in art history, archaeology, and conservation. .