Jasper Johns’ Fool’s House (1964)

A real broom, itself partly painted, hangs from a hook in Jasper Johns' 1962 painting known as Fool's House. The household broom has clearly "painted" a large part of its own canvas as the arc of its brush-stroke, visible on either side of its bristles, makes clear. It is Johns' "paintbrush" even though labeled "broom" in the artist's handwriting near the bottom of its shaft.1 Below  it too are other studio objects - a towel, stretcher and cup - all similarly labeled with arrows pointing to the corresponding object.2 The labels have generated much discussion about the use of names in art, a subject too complex to repeat here, but at EPPH we are as much concerned with what has not been seen as with what has been.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Jasper Johns, Fool's House (1962) Oil on canvas with objects attached. Collection of Jean-Christophe Castelli, on loan to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

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Just as the motion of the broom is described in the curved "brushstroke" so Johns' own face is roughly suggested in the paint, tone on tone as well. It is just to the right of the broom's shaft (lower left) and as usual consists of only some features, not all. In this poor-quality reproduction it is also difficult to see. A large "eye" stares outwards with the long curve of his thick eyebrow above it. His nose tip and nostril are delineated along with the crease stretching from his nostril to the right corner of his mouth. Most reminiscent of Johns' face is the long, straight line of his broad, thin lips which, lined on either side, appear much longer on the left. This veiled "face" is part of a little-known self-portrait tradition going as far back as the early Middle Ages [See others on Veiled Faces]. It has, like most others, never been noted before. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

L, top and bottom: Detail and diagram of Johns' Fool's House
R, top and bottom: Irving Penn, Jasper Johns, detail (1983)

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One expert writing on Fool's House made a passing reference to Johns' use of a real broom in contrast to the "meticulous picturing" of brooms by the 17th century Dutch painter Vermeer.3 He called it "a jokelike act" but Johns, like all true artists, is serious. He must know what I have shown on EPPH that Vermeer's broom, in The Love Letter for instance (left)is intended to represent Vermeer's paintbrush in the doorway to his studio with the scene through the doorway as his "painting" inside the painting. [See EPPH on Vermeer's The Love Letter (c.1668-9)]

In the 1980's Jean-Michel Basquiat, another American painter, also represented an alter ego with a broom (below) in yet another intentional reference to a paintbrush. The figure has, for instance, the extended arm of a painter in front of a canvas. Basquiat would have known both Johns' painting and Vermeer's. What's more, the first names of all three artists start with the same initial - J - while Johns' last name is the English equivalent of Vermeer's first name and Basquiat's too, in the plural: Jan and Jean (from Jean-Michel) respectively. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Vermeer, The Love Letter (c. 1669-70) Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Bottom: Basquiat, Ashes (1981) 

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Is it coincidence then that Vermeer (top) imagined his broom as the letter "I" (the shape of the J in his monogram, inset) over the broader form of a bristle-like M (top) to indicate Jan Meer? It expresses that the brush/broom feels like an extension of Vermeer's own body just as a musical instrument does to a musician4.

Johns, clearly familiar with Vermeer, did likewise (bottom). If Fool's House is inverted horizontally as though seen in a mirror (the mirror of Johns' mind, of course), the bristles of the broom-in-action bend to the left like the curve of a giant J. Placed in the center of the composition the J is similar to the R in Raphael's Sistine Madonna (1512) which has already been explained on EPPH. All these themes are deeply embedded in art's long tradition and artists know that. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Vermeer's broom in The Love Letter with his signature monogram from the painting inset.
Below: Johns, Fool's House (1962), detail

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The links between these paintings (Johns', Vermeer's and Raphael's) may even be why the paint forms the prominent shape of a (Vermeer?) on the left of the broom's handle and an R (Raphael?) on the right directly above his diaphonous self-portrait. 

Lastly, as is often noted, the words "Fool's House" begin at top on the right side and end on the left as though the canvas was cylindrical in a metaphor for cyclical time.5 The brush, however, - and this may not have been noted - hangs from the hook like the pendulum of a clock placing emphasis on historical time and the exact moment the painting was created. The brush is still "painting" it. Both forms, the sequential time of external reality and the cyclical time of consciousness are valid. One is the body's time; the other that of the universal Self. It is of such common interest among artists that I revealed its appearance earlier this week in a quite different painting, Van Eyck's Holy Face (c.1430).6 It should not, though, surprise. Despite changing styles and the apparent development of subject matter in the long history of art, true art never really does progress. It repeats itself while the sequence of individual artists and their lives goes forwards.
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Diagram of Johns, Fool's House showing the position of the letters V and R in the background paint.

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Notes:

1. The label "broom" describing the object depicted as a "broom" highlights the blindness and uncreative perception of those who live by names. Once an object is named or labeled, one stops looking because it has been "identified". In the poetic thought of art, though, nothing (or, at least, very little) is what it seems. See the EPPH theme Brush and Palette for further explanation of how superficially unconnected objects are actually, through a different way of thinking, brushes, palettes and the tools of the craft. 

2. The relevance of the cup has nothing to do with coffee or tea. Such items are often used in studios to hold paint, oils and other liquids necessary for painting. Like Mary Magdalene's cosmetic container in art, cups often represent paint-pots. Towels and other cloths are used to wipe paint off canvas or smear it on. See my blog post "Bless you! It's Art" (11th Jul. 2012) for further explanation and examples.

3. Philip Fisher, "Jasper Johns: Strategies for Making and Effacing Art", Critical Inquiry 16, Winter 1990, p. 332

4. Luc Nijs, Micheline Lesaffre and Marc Leman, “The Musical Instrument as a Natural Extension of the Body”, Ghent University, Belgium. Undated conference presentation available at www.academia.edu/1586533/The_Musical_Instrument_as_a_Natural_Extension_of_the_Musician. Retrieved 19th Dec. 2014. See also EPPH Blog post "Great Engravers are Dogs" (3 Dec. 2014).

5. Kirk Varnedoe, "Introduction: A Sense of Life" in Jasper Johns (New York: Museum of Modern Art) 1996, p. 28

6. See EPPH blog post "Van Eyck's Alpha and Omega" (10th Dec. 2014)

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 15 Dec 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.