Museum  November 3, 2021  Howard Halle

“Mind/Mirror” Distills Jasper Johns’ Tantalizingly Enigmatic Oeuvre

Collection of the artist. © 2021 Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jasper Johns, Flashlight, 1960 (cast c. 1979). Bronze and glass. 4 3/4 × 7 3/4 × 4 1/4 in. (12.1 × 19.7 × 10.8 cm). Ed. no. 2/3.

At ninety-one, Jasper Johns has been around for so long that it’s easy to forget that he is—well, still around. Halfway through the sixth decade of his career, Johns’s output has been prodigious enough to demand a retrospective hosted by not one, but two institutions: The Whitney and The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A titanic figure in art history, Johns’s achievements are all the more remarkable given his preference for turbidity over clarity. From the start, he’s stirred up cloudy enigmas around the simplest of images (flags, targets, numbers, maps) and objects (silverware, beer cans, lightbulbs), and continued to muddy his work’s meaning even as it grew more autobiographical.

Raised in South Carolina, Johns moved to New York City in 1953, when he was twenty-three. Within five years, he’d risen to art stardom, thanks, in part, to Johns’s lover at the time, Robert Rauschenberg, who introduced him to the legendary gallerist Leo Castelli. Castelli gave Johns his first show in 1958, which nearly sold out. His work became a sensation, eventually pointing the way to the rise of Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism in the following decade.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Gift of Philip Johnson in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. © 2021 Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55. Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on wood (3 panels). 41.25 X 60.75 in. (104.8 x 154.3 cm).

This wasn’t a sure thing back then. NYC’s art scene was still dominated by Abstract Expressionism, the movement that had brought American artists to the dance of art-historical relevance. By reviving Marcel Duchamp’s readymade aesthetic through painting (a medium Duchamp himself disparaged), Johns coolly dissected the broad, gestural psychodrama of artists such as Pollock and De Kooning. He countered their performative sturm und drang with subjects that obdurately concealed as much as they revealed.

Johns’ breakthrough Flag from 1954 (which came to him in a dream), was a particularly provocative riposte to AbEx. Obvious on its face, it is a rendering of Old Glory on a canvas conforming to its shape. But is it an image of a thing or the thing itself? Both and neither: A mute presence, yet also an ironic commentary on America’s superpower status by a gay Southerner obliged to deal with the macho pretentiousness around him. Key to its effect is Johns’ use of encaustic: A mix of pigment and wax, which he applied in short strokes over skeins of collaged newspapers; tantalizingly visible under translucent daubs of color, they’re impossible to read. 

Collection of the artist. © 2021 Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jasper Johns, Painting with Two Balls, 1960. Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects (3 panels). 65 x 54 1/8 in. (165.1 x 137.5 cm).

Nothing, then, could be further from Abstract Expressionism’s eruptions of pigment than Johns’s congealed marks, which some wags compare to ejaculate. Johns would turn this subtext into text with his 1960’s Painting with Two Balls in which the eponymous items, shrunken like walnuts, are wedged between a crack in the canvas.

By 1960, though, Painting with Two Balls was more of a parting shot at Abstract Expressionism than a timely critique, as its relevance had dissipated. Johns busily built on what remained, following his famous mantra, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” The result is amply illustrated by seemingly endless permutations of themes in various mediums—including printmaking, of which there’s an abundance in both shows. While Johns’s insistent self-reflexiveness is more likely to make you go “Hmm” than send a thrill down your leg, unlocking his puzzles has its pleasures.

Kristen and Alex Klabin. © 2021 Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorK.

Jasper Johns, 0 through 9, 1965. Charcoal and graphite pencil on paper. 30 × 22 1/2 in. (76.2 × 57.2 cm).

Long before Gerhard Richter, Johns ruminated on the daily practice of painting, unpacking its formal architecture and the studio life that produced it, monumentalizing both in According to What, from 1964. Johns’ great summa of the period, the piece is a vast compendium of previous ideas folded into a kind of solipsistic history painting that also served as an homage to Duchamp, Johns' greatest inspiration.

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1998. Intaglio. 22 1/4 × 14 3/4 in. (56.5 × 37.5 cm). John Lund/Low Road Studio. Trial Proof. 
Private collection. © 2021 Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1998. Intaglio. 22 1/4 × 14 3/4 in. (56.5 × 37.5 cm). John Lund/Low Road Studio. Trial Proof. 

This artwork also signaled the end of the first (and arguably greatest) phase of Johns’s oeuvre. During the ’70s, he concentrated on abstract, all-over fields of crosshatches, while the 1980s and ’90s saw a gush of paintings, some of which, like Flag, were based on dreams. Oddly surreal, and not always Johns at his best, these compositions comprised more or less conventional renderings of invented and appropriated imagery: brooding male silhouettes; art-historical quotations; reversibly readable figures such as the rabbit-duck illusion and the Rubin vase; and plumbing fixtures at the foot of a bathtub, suggesting the perspective of a meditative soak.

Philadelphia Museum of Art: promised gift of Keith L. and Katherine Sachs. © 2021 Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jasper Johns, 5 Postcards, 2011.

In this century, intimations of mortality (skeletons, depictions of the cosmos) have entered his work, as you might expect from someone his age. His “Catenary” series—so-named for the upside-down curve created by a slack chain or cable hung from two points—is his strongest in this sense. Each features a loose string tacked to the canvas—a sagging form suggesting the depredations of time and gravity on the flesh, or perhaps the arc of life. As usual, though, Johns remains elusive, exiting the stage as he entered it: a master at extracting the intangible from the concrete.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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