Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Proust Meets Jasper Johns

It is customary for the back page of Vanity Fair to be a questionnaire addressed to a celebrity. It's called "Proust Questionnaire." Usually I don't personally know the celebrity being questioned. However this time I did: Jasper Johns. Seeing him there, staring at the camera the way he always does if someone insists on taking his picture, wearing a red and green plaid shirt, reminded me that, for many years when I was young, and even into middle age, Jasper was the person in whose company I was always the happiest. I met him before he got famous, when I was only 18, and he was living on Pearl Street at the bottom of Manhattan, working as a salesclerk in a bookstore midtown, and, of course, painting. It was hard not to be drawn in by his luminous melancholy, the icicle wit, and outrageous laugh. I have never laughed as hard or as much with anyone.

The back-page questions tend to vary, but some are always the same, like "What or who is the greatest love of your life?" Inevitably people say "my spouse" or "my family" in answer to this particular question. Jasper's response was striking: "no one, no thing." Did he really mean it? Or was he being sarcastic? Always the conundrum with Jasper. I'll hazard that he really meant it.

Once I was visiting him for the weekend at his country house in upstate New York. He went outside late in the afternoon, gathered up a clump of ratty looking mushrooms from the base of a tree stump, and cooked them for dinner, together with a baked sweet potato. "That's dinner," he announced somewhat petulantly. Jasper just loves eating and is a great cook, and he was mad at me because earlier I had vetoed the purchase of a packet of pork chops when we were at the supermarket. So it is not really surprising that when "Proust" asked him "What is your most treasured possession?" he answered, "my refrigerator."

Another time, in France, we were hunting for mushrooms (morells) in the forest of Fontainebleau with our friend Teeny Duchamp and her daughter, Jackie. I was arm-in-arm with Jasper, who doggedly recited the whole of Edith Sitwell's "Facade" to me by heart, imitating perfectly her rapid falsetto voice and making me laugh so hard I could hardly stay on my feet.

In Vanity Fair, Proust asks Jasper: "If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?" His answer: "my inability to sing or dance." Yow! me too, although I've had pretensions in both directions, but never together at the same time.

Questioner: "What is it that you most dislike?" Answer: "seeing fish with silver skins marinating in cream." Another thing I know for sure Jasper disliked was a jacket I owned many years ago, when I lived in London. Once, he was visiting me there in 1978 for his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, and I put on my prized purple and blue wool string jacket to accompany him to the opening. He took one look at me and rolled his eyes. Then, his face wreathed in smiles, he told me I looked like an orangutan.

Other people got an even worse dose of icicle wit. A friend in those days, Eddie Schlossberg (who later married Caroline Kennedy) once told Jasper that he loved him. "That's your problem," came the terse answer, and the eyes rolled again. Although to me all those years Jasper was the most attractive, amusing, and dearest friend anyone could ever have, I knew better than to ever say the words out loud.

Vanity Fair question: "What is your current state of mind?" Jasper's response: "something like very slow panic." Me, too. Boy, can I relate!

Meanwhile Virgil, my alligator muse, has noticed me scribbling on my notepad in cyberspace and sashays over. "I really enjoyed your last piece about that libertine artist with a sweet tooth for dead animals," he says, referring to my previous blog about Damien Hirst. "Now I have a question for you, so just pretend for a minute that I'm Vanity Fair. "If you knew you had to hit the road, what would you hit it with?"

Truth is, I've never been any good at questionnaires, and I have no intention of getting sucked in to this one.

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