BOOKS / In the Frame: Jasper Johns by Michael Crichton

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MICHAEL CRICHTON? Yes, it is the same person, strange as it may seem: the Jurassic Park man has been a friend and collector of Johns for 20 years, and his new book, Jasper Johns (Thames & Hudson pounds 48), is a revised edition of a 1977 publication that accompanied an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York. The new edition covers the years since then, making an overview of the artist's development and, thanks to the fact that Crichton writes without either condescension or swagger, will probably answer most of the questions the interested non-specialist never dared to ask.

It starts a little unpromisingly, though. The first section, called 'Impressions of the Artist', consists of page after page of dialogue soundbites, like this:

'Jasper is very elusive,' said a critic. 'But he wants to be found out.'

'Have you found him out?'

'I don't think anybody has found him out,' the critic said.

or this:

Q: Do you use these letter types because you like them or because that's how the stencils come?

A: That's what I like about them, that they come that way.

Just as this mimsy tosh becomes completely unbearable, and you are on the point of hurling the book across the room, you get the idea: what we have here is not really a real person at all, but Jasper Johns the legend. The quotes are sometimes silly and often contradictory, and many have the umistakeable ring of a story retailed at third or fourth hand, but that's the point, too: Johns is a man who has launched a thousand anecdotes. As a biographical method it's pointilliste, but Crichton is writer who knows how to package his goods with a sure touch.

After that, 'A Brief History of the Work' might seem a little conventional, except that Crichton begins with the dramatic story of Jasper Johns destroying all his work when he was 24 years old. A cynic would recommend an action like that to every young artist: it makes you look at the few pieces that survived with redoubled interest. Those of Johns were worth such attention anyway.

As Crichton moves through the middle 1950s, when Johns had a New York loft in the same building as Robert Rauschenberg, and was befriended by John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and worked away devotedly at his flags and targets, he makes the story seem like a marvellous adventure - especially the day in March 1957 when a gallery owner named Leo Castelli walked into Johns's studio:

'. . . and there was this attractive, very shy young man, and all these paintings. It was astonishing, a complete body of work. It was the most incredible thing I've ever seen in my life.'

Then came overnight sensation, critical controversy, all the right things. But Crichton is as interested in the later years as in the youthful successes, and keeps our interest on a tight rein as he explains Johns's technical achievements and emotional and stylistic returns and reversals. The last part, 'The Function of the Observer', provides highbrow comment, enjoyable but eminently skippable. The book is superbly produced, with stamp-sized images in the margins to illustrate points in the text, which are reproduced again in the plates that make up the bulk of this hefty volume. There are pull-outs, there are notes, it is exemplary - but it's still too expensive.

(Photograph omitted)