We featured a photo of Jasper Johns’ Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) a couple of years ago, but didn’t really go into the full story. Here now are three versions:
1. The “two beer cans” story
“Somebody told me that Bill de Kooning said that you could give that son-of-a-bitch two beer cans and he could sell them. I thought, what a wonderful idea for a sculpture.”
The “son-of-a-bitch” in question was art dealer, Leo Castelli—and Abstract-Expressionist painter, Willem de Kooning’s crack about him was essentially saying that Castelli was such a great salesman that he could sell even crappy art—(i.e.: a couple of beer cans).
This was the story most frequently carried in mass-media newspapers & magazines: that in 1960, based on de Kooning’s remark, Johns made a sculpture — Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) — which were, indeed, sold by his dealer, Leo Castelli. The moral of the story as far as the general public was concerned? That art dealers are unscrupulous? That modern art is for suckers? That Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) is a cynical joke? (Because what could be more worthless and debased than a couple of beer cans?)
2. The “Formal Concerns” story
“The Beer cans’ nature as containers, and moreover, as containers for drink, implies they may be full or empty, which Johns make explicit by puncturing the top of one, leaving the other closed. Johns has often worked through a process of negation, making an inquiry and then seeing if the opposite is possible. This thesis/antithesis approach is united in one work in Painted Bronze by including two cans exemplifying the empty/full contrast.
… unless someone picked up the individual cans, which are not attached to the base, the fact that the ‘open’ can is light and the ‘closed’ can is solid bronze and therefore heavy would never be communicated.”
Jasper Johns: Ale Cans and Art
American Art of the 1960s
At a time when abstract art was cool, and representational art not so much so, Johns made a name for himself by finding ways of depicting things that were not exactly “things” at all. More like 2-dimensional symbols — targets, flags, maps, letters & numbers. De Kooning known for doing gestural paintings — sometimes with a wide house painter’s brush — according to Johns, once said to his, “I’m a house painter and you’re a sign painter.”
With his sculpture, too, there was always a question about whether or not they really constituted representational art. Is a cylinder a representation of a can or an abstract form? If you paint graphics and letters on its surface are you then a representational artist? Or more like a sign painter, as de Kooning asserted?
“Jasper Johns has produced a painted sculpture of a pair of ale cans, heavier than the real ones but seemingly just as real (and what’s a Ballantine can anyway and does it depend on who makes it and all that?).”
The Aesthetics of Rock
But if Johns built his reputation on a foundation of flat, non-representational imagery, he then —(like Dylan going electric)— confounded expectations and got pretty damn representational with a series of etchings depicting his own sculptures, Including quite a few based on the “Ale Cans.” (de Kooning, himself, had shifted away from purely abstract paintings, to representational—though still expressionistic—paintings of women.)
Then again, some of these works were based—no longer on two separate cans—but on the front and back of one flattened out can. A mechanical or a press proof version of the original can. In 1968 John’s puts out a limited edition portfolio of these prints, entitled “1st Etchings.”
Johns alerts the viewer that this suite is devoted to his sculpted work by affixing an actual unsoldered Ballantine can to the wooden portfolio cover.
…Thus for the first appearance of Painted Bronze in the portfolio, Johns incorporated a real object but cleverly came up with a two-dimensional version of it.
Jasper Johns: Ale Cans and Art
American Art of the 1960s
(The 3rd story, after the fold…)
Not by Jasper Johns: this photo is of an actual, vintage Ballantine Ale can taken by Alex Itin (via: The Future of the Book)
3. The Drinking and Brand-Preference / Sexual-Preference Story
In this version of the story, Johns was…
…not interested in appropriating the the metaphorics of masculinity that were an essential part of a lot of Abstract Expressionist painting, or the machismotifics of social behavior that went with [it].
… for some artists—such as de Kooning—that also meant living an aggressively heterosexual life and getting drunk both in and out of the Cedar Street Tavern—the favourite bar of the Abstract Expressionist painters and their friends. By picking up on de Kooning’s jibe about Castelli and using it to make a sculpture, Johns differs himself and his practice from Abstract Expressionism.
What painting there is on Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) is confined to the labels where, unlike the painting of Painted Bronze, it is not obviously Modernist painting; it does not effect a maximum presence as a painted surface; the brushstrokes show; but it is punctilious painting… And though Johns was drinking beer at the time, there is nothing in Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) that could be taken as signifying that he was reckless in his drinking habits. He may have been—but one of the cans remains unopened. A commentator who got close to him tells us that “Johns used Ballantine Ale cans, most likely because the brand was a personal favorite”. (She also points out that “the simplicity of the can’s label design and its bronze colour” made it a suitable model.) I wonder what de Kooning’s favourite brand was?
Figuring Jasper Johns
By Fred Orton
And what of de Kooning and his drinking preferences?
“Willem de Kooning was one of two children of Leendert de Kooning, distributor of beer, wine, and soft drinks, and Cornelia Nobel, proprietor of a café bar frequented by sailors.”
The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives (Vol 5)
Notable Americans who died between 1997 and 1999
“After two drinks, a close friend said, de Kooning—usually a shy man—became a brilliant and seductive talker. Before that he was too reserved; later, too drunk. This kind of fine distinction was often voiced in the hard-drinking fifties.”
When de Kooning Was King
by Mark Stevens & Annalyn Swan
NY Magazine, May 21, 2005
De Kooning rarely drank in the thirties and forties. At the Cedar Tavern in 1951 and 1952, he typically lingered over one or two beers, and when Harold Rosenberg brought a bottle to the studio to juice up the afternoon’s talk, Rosenberg himself drank most of it. Now, de Kooning brought a bottle of whiskey into his Fourth Avenue studio. He would nip at the bottle when his heart began racing. The whiskey sometimes helped, loosening the knot in his chest. Sometimes, he also prescribed alcohol for his other main health problem – his difficulty getting going in the morning. A taste in the morning was a traditional home remedy, and in that era was generally regarded as harmless. It helped him, de Kooning said, “sneak” into the day. In this mild and medicinal fashion began the desperate story of de Kooning’s alcoholism. In the future, when friends said drinking would kill him, de Kooning would sometimes respond by asking, “How do you know? Maybe drinking saved my life.”
1953: Willem de Kooning Drinks
(via: Warhol Stars)