Jasper Johns: Divide and Conquer

Opening next Wednesday, “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror” will feature the largest collection of the artist’s work ever assembled in one place. The show is expected to break attendance records and earn over $2 million.

The previous East Coast survey of the American artist was held in 1996 at the Museum of Modern Art, and featured 225 works; the new one features 500.

The previous exhibition took up two levels of MoMA; the current one spans the collections of both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It seems differently beautiful at each.

Should You Try to Split Your Time Between the Two Parts?

Absolutely. They’ve been built as separate but complementary experiences, and each, albeit different in material and emphasis, tells a full Johns tale. Their combined narrative, however, is the more accurate one, for it is this narrative that makes what is actually a very complex work of art seem fresh and exciting.

Even though Johns has an undeniable place in history, there is still no solid critical agreement on him, thus a more nuanced perspective is clearly warranted. In all likelihood, such was the case in 1996.

One popular theory about his career at the time was that after a brilliant and rapid start with his flags, maps, and targets, he became bogged down in fruitless experimentation and eventually fell into decades of hermetic and monotonous work.

After establishing himself as a groundbreaking innovator in the fields of Pop and Conceptualism and Neo-Dada, he shifted gears to become a master of baffling paradoxes.

One Look at the New Retrospective Reveals You that Take was Dead Incorrect.

Repetition? In fact, it’s the foundation of his artistic practise. It’s also strategic and creative. His career, which spans six decades (he’s 91 and he’s still a studio rat), remains a dynamic intellectual spreadsheet and a generative memory machine.

Personal? It’s what I value most about his work. Mortality, spirituality, human closeness, and the dread of it seem to be topics that he has always been drawn to or, at the very least, fearless of.

This two-venue retrospective, organised by Scott Rothkopf, senior deputy director and chief curator at the Whitney, and Carlos Basualdo, senior curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum, provides a full overview of his career, from early to late, “major” to “minor,” allowing visitors to get a sense of his commitment to these aspects of his work.

One Set of their Paired Subject Installations is a Basic Historical Reconstruction.

Philadelphia re-creates a Johns solo show from 1960 at Leo Castelli Gallery, which still seems like a parody of “action painting.” The ethereal painting “Harlem Light” from the 1968 Whitney solo show that this installation references attests to Johns’s transition to mural scale.

The Whitney Museum in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art both dedicate entire galleries to the now-iconic works “According to What” (1964) and “Untitled” (1972). It is the same with collections of prints that display exceptional skill.

Great monotype series from 1982 based on the artist’s 1960 bronze sculpture of a Savarin can line the walls of a Whitney gallery. The Philadelphia gallery features big, vibrant etchings from the 1990s that are stuffed with quotations from classic works.

Parts of the show that are less obviously focused on displaying masterpieces are the most interesting to me because they seem to bring us closer to an artist who, though secretive about his personal life, has consistently embedded autobiographical data and personal emotion into his art, the traces of which can be traced through “Mind/Mirror.”

A Few Details of His Life are Generally Recognised.

Though he spent his formative years in the Palmetto State, he was born in Georgia in 1930. He split time between his mother and his grandparents and an aunt after his parents’ divorced when he was 2. He dropped out of school after a year or two and headed to New York City to pursue his dream of being a famous artist.

He had been in Japan before, when he served in the Army during the Korean War. Returning to New York in 1954, he met Robert Rauschenberg, an upcoming art world star who was five years older than him.

In Lower Manhattan, they were a gay couple who hung out with another gay couple, John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Johns made headlines at this time with the creation of his iconic American flag painting, which is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art and serves as the exhibition’s opening piece in the Philadelphia section.

Compared to the Abstract Expressionism that dominated New York art at the time, this painting was quite revolutionary. It was everything that AbEx wasn’t; realistic, impersonal, populist, and intrinsically political. Johns’s studio also produced paintings of other “found” imagery, such as stencilled digits 0 through 9 and targets depicting the United States.

They Deserve the Attention that the Show is Giving Them.

From the 1950s to the 2000s, the Whitney has an entire gallery filled with flags and maps of all shapes, sizes, and mediums. Philadelphia’s “Numbers” gallery replicates this format.

The simultaneous installations establish the concept of the eternal return of images in Johns’ art, while also honouring formal variety and philosophical depth.

Like memories and emotions, they keep coming back, with varying weights and meanings at different times and in different circumstances, always the same, never the same.

However, American Art as a Whole was Altered Forever by the Debut of Johns’ Flags.

They started to make abstract gestures seem too dramatic and sentimental, and so unfashionable. Like NFTs do today, they walked a fine line between representing flags and actually being flags, which pushed the art-life split and the values attached to it into crisis.

Some people saw the flag paintings’ lack of emotion as a negative, while others saw them as a solution to an existential crisis. These paintings don’t appear to give much away, either expressively or emotionally.

Even art historian Moira Roth, writing about the harsh politics and widespread homophobia during the 1950s, characterised works by artists like Johns as exhibiting a “aesthetic of indifference” as a means of protection. In the context of this exhibition, even the earliest works reveal an emotional undercurrent of concern, if not outright dread.

Besides, it Wouldn’t be Possible to Keep Intense Emotions out of Art Forever.

Rauschenberg dumped Johns in 1961, and Johns, the celebrated anti-expressionist, infused his work with pain and wrath. In that and the following year, he painted predominantly in grayscale, and the names of many of them were clearly autobiographical.

A glum artwork from 1961 at the Whitney has the word “Liar” written across the top. The title of another is “Painting Bitten by a Man” because it has the telltale marks of a bite. A third, Philadelphia’s “Fool’s House,” is equipped with a broom, as if to sweep the floor.

There’s No Way the Numerous References to LGBT Cultural Leaders in Works from this Era is a Coincidence.

One of the most stunning works by Johns, “Diver” is a big, black charcoal and paint on paper from 1962–1963, and it pays tribute to the poet Hart Crane, who committed himself by jumping off a ship after being caught cruising a sailor. (Crane used to live in Brooklyn Heights, which was visible from the building in Lower Manhattan where Johns and Rauschenberg resided.)

Johns’s friend and fellow artist Frank O’Hara wrote a poem about a lost love that inspired the title of his wistful 1961 painting, “In Memory of My Feelings.” At one of the most obviously autobiographical displays in the Whitney’s retrospective, titled “South Carolina,” you can find this photograph.

Johns went to a beach house in his home state after breaking up with Rauschenberg, and his work became more playful as a result. One example is “Studio,” a mural-like painting from 1964 that features a full-size imprint of a screen door, an image of a palmetto frond, a brush, and a string of paint-splattered beer cans (real ones).

The related installation in Philadelphia records another crucial place in Johns’s life and art, Japan, where he travelled in 1964 and where, thanks to artists he met there, his interest in printmaking deepened.

One of his most known assemblage paintings, “Watchman,” from 1964, is a highlight of this exhibition, along with two works that contain a photograph of the artist, the only one that appears in his art. The true masterpieces, however, are a group of abstract prints that Johns created in collaboration with Japanese artists in New York and Tokyo between 1977 and 1995. (he is seen in action in an accompanying film by Katy Martin).

These prints are titled “Usuyuki,” or “light snow,” after a Kabuki performance from the 18th century that Johns has described as being about “the ephemeral aspect of beauty in the world.” His late work, which I have come to admire the most, is not occult or hermetic; it is fully felt and reality-grounded, and this awareness has always been a part of his art.

I am referring to works such as “Perilous Night” (1982), which was inspired by a John Cage composition and featured casts of bruised limbs and was created on the brink of the AIDS crisis. My mind wanders to “The Seasons” (1985–1986), a show about taking pleasure in the world, remembering the past, and the passage of time.

(In all the images, Johns is represented by a vague grey blur.) The “Catenary” paintings from the late 1990s immediately come to mind; each features a string strewn across its canvas, representing the pull of gravity and, who knows, maybe even the thread of life itself. So, I’m thinking about the artist’s recent fixation on skeletons, a sobbing soldier, and spiral galaxies.

And I’m considering the show’s central premise, which is that creative people can see themselves reflected in their work. True? Johns has been saying this for a long time, and he still hasn’t told us how to reach him.

Perhaps this contributed to his poor signal strength. Like the rest of us, critics hate it when you tell them you know something important that you won’t tell them. I believe we have finally solved the issue. This is due in part to Johns’s apparent maturation into a more candid person. (Deborah Solomon is working on a biography.) Also, the retrospective serves to show how approachable his most recent work is.

Perhaps My Perspective on the Situation and on Him has Changed.

I will defer to art historians to categorise his formal accomplishments, which are vast given that he is largely self-taught. What I’ll let them do is make a count of the artists he’s influenced and the artists who have influenced him. (For the second list, a research firm’s help is needed.) I will put my faith in them to find the answers to the puzzles he has posed.

And basically, I’ll stick with the feeling I had, as I strolled around the displays in Philadelphia and New York, that I was reading a rigorous but impassioned personal journal, a six-decade chronicle of work, need, love, fury, rejuvenation, perspiration, fear, and resolution.

It’s being documented by a creator who, for the better part of a quarter century, has consistently charted the psychological terrain of ageing through his work, and who, in his current body of work, takes the stance of a deer in the path of oncoming headlights (far off at first, drawing closer, almost here), and stands his ground and stares them down.