A socio-psychological piece of detection that attempts to put the painter Jasper Johns and his work on the couch. Without the artist's cooperation (Johns refused to allow reproduction of his work) Johnston (Lesbian Nation, 1972; Paper Daughter, 1985; etc.) has fashioned a book that is part critical study and part biographical exploration. At the heart of Johns's art, Johnston argues, is a father-son struggle, expressed in the symbolic paternity most associated with flags, but which emerges more specifically in two partially repressed figures that have appeared since 1981. Inspired by GrÅnewald's 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece, one is a soldier present at the Resurrection; the other is a mangy, suffering, slightly demonic figure adapted from The Temptation of St. Anthony. The two figures embody, for Johnston, imagery suggesting the loss Johns suffered as an infant, when his mother abandoned the family and his father, an alcoholic, withdrew from his young son. This is not purely reductive work: Johnston's writing is engrossing, and she is always willing to try a new approach rather than succumb to any one rigid method of interpretation. The art critics who have written about Johns's work in the past, Johnston argues, have been all too happy to accept and reflect the artist's unwillingness to talk about influences and intentions. ``The two interlocking components in the progress of America's wealthiest artist--a powerful dead father and a helpless driven son--are the very sorts of circumstances the art world conspires to help its practitioners forget and transcend. The commodity is art.'' However, we err, she suggests, in ignoring the life behind the art. This is a rich, provocative, satisfying book, filled with gorgeous descriptions of paintings and offering a fascinating dissection of the art scene, as well as a subtle portrait of one of its most elusive stars.