Portrait in Red

John Paul Jones
Portrait in Red
Oil on canvas, 1959
20 x 17 inches
Gift of Helen N. Lewis and Marvin B. Meyer

John Paul Jones made a series of reductive, monochromatic paintings expressing intense isolation and anonymity in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A gunner in the 750th Field Artillery Battalion during World War II, Jones was part of the effort to take out the last stronghold of the Japanese 32nd Army on Okinawa. Particularly horrific and deadly, this involved the use of a flamethrower tank to burn out the underground network of tunnels used by the Japanese and civilians, burning alive unrecorded numbers of women and children in the process. Witness to the aftermath and the charred remains of the victims was a visceral experience that not only indelibly marked John Paul Jones memory but would also crop up in his art for the rest of his life.

Embedded in a burnt red monochromatic field, the subject in Portrait in Red is a ghostly black silhouette that quietly suggests that unimaginable sense of instant incineration. Perhaps a portrait of a young boy in an old-fashioned coat, the features and outline of the figure are so hazy as to suggest a haunting memory from the past or nightmare. The stripes at the right-hand edge of the canvas—are they the stripes of the American flag? Could they be a blurry summons of the military actions underpinning the specter?

Jones’ Portrait in Red is reflective of the existential thought embraced after World War II–that it was the plight of the individual to assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong.


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