The exuberant America of Jasper Johns

·5 min read

Jasper Johns, likely the most renowned living American artist, was born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930 and grew up in South Carolina. He now lives in a small town in northwestern Connecticut, not far from my hometown in western Massachusetts. In between his stints in New England and the South, he was part of a group of artists in New York who, in the 1950s and 1960s, rebelled against the modernist establishment and pushed American painting in more popular, postmodern directions.

Frustrated with the abstraction and formalism of the modernist avant-garde, and with the reigning belief that painting should strive to depict the purity of forms, colors, and shapes rather than any actual objects in the real world, Johns and his fellow postmodernists reintroduced recognizable subject matter into their art. Johns set about painting objects and symbols that we encounter in everyday life: words, numbers, maps, signs, silverware, beer cans. But Johns’s favorite object to paint, and the one for which he became most famous, was the American flag. By making only the subtlest of changes, altering the texture through carefully placed pigments and liquid wax or making a few light charcoal smudges along the red and white lines, Johns was able to show us the beauty of the American flag anew.

Johns’s flags, and much else, are on display in “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” an ambitious exhibition being held simultaneously at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Feb. 13. This giant retrospective, billed as the most comprehensive Johns exhibition ever staged, contains a wide array of the artist’s work in a variety of mediums and from different stages of his long career. Described by curators Scott Rothkopf and Carlos Basualdo as “a whole but displayed in two distinct parts,” the exhibition is split between the two locations. This split is an homage to Johns’s careerlong relationships with both museums that also allows the curators to reflect on Johns’s preoccupation with doubles and doubling. Each museum presents paired, mirroring images of Johns’s seven decades of work — the works displayed in New York are similar to those being shown in Philadelphia so that each collection reflects the other. Although both halves of the exhibition can be appreciated on their own, those who can make the 90-minute train trip between cities can get a fuller glimpse of the man and his work.

In New York, the show begins with a series of Johns’s paintings and prints from the 1950s. In this era, Johns often worked through a unique method of collage combined with “encaustic,” a pre-modern manner of artistic production that involves creating, and then painting with, liquid wax. The fineness of the hardened wax, in concert with the segments of newspaper scraps Johns used, allows for a particular kind of layering not available in conventional oil or watercolor painting. One of the first and most prominent examples of such an encaustic, on view in this first gallery, is Target with Four Faces (1955), a blue and yellow target over a solid red background topped by a photograph collage of four eyeless male faces.

Not all of Johns’s work is bright and colorful. In the 1960s, especially, Johns occasionally explored the sort of modernist abstraction that he had initially attempted to break away from. In his giant 1962-63 charcoal, pastel, and paint Diver, Johns challenges us with an obscure image of something dark and mysterious that we can’t quite identify. The grim reaper’s sickle? A vision from a nightmare he once had? A torture contraption out of Kafka’s "In the Penal Colony"? In his 1961 Water Freezes, Johns presents us with a black, white, and gray two-paneled image of seemingly haphazardly arranged splotches of encaustic and collage that is far more evocative of Jackson Pollock than it is of Andy Warhol. We have to strain mightily to see what the curators tell us is there: a thermometer, with the number 32, the temperature at which water freezes, scrawled somewhere nearby. In Memory of My Feelings — Frank O’Hara (1961), dedicated to his friend, is a similarly dark and gloomy work that is almost Miro-like in its reduction of any representational content to a few elemental forms, with the exception of a spoon in the center-left of the canvas.

The majority of Johns’s work, however, is not so abstract, moody, and monochromatic. His 1965 encaustic Two Maps, a collage of two maps of the United States on yet another two-paneled canvas, is saturated with earthy tans, chalky grays, and limestone browns. And his 1961 oil painting Map is an exuberant celebration of the continental U.S. The deep orange of Montana spills over into the sky blue of Wyoming, the royal purple of Utah drips into the fiery oranges of Colorado and Arizona, and the soft pink of southern Alabama trickles into the green of Florida and spills into the sea. This painting shows America as a land of sunny vigor and buoyant energy, each state drawing from the particular color and spirit of its neighboring states while infusing them with its own unique hues.

“Mind/Mirror” also highlights Johns’s relationships with other artists of his era, including Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg, the poet Frank O’Hara, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the composer John Cage. These connections are interesting, but after a while, this visitor started to think, “I get it, Johns was friends with a lot of famous people.” (Although you do have to admire someone who was able to call Willem de Kooning “Bill.”) But for all of its emphasis on Johns’s social life, the show does little to explain its emphasis on, and Johns’s interest in, doubling. Why are the motifs of mirroring and doubling so predominant in Johns’s art? Where did this predilection come from? Is it merely an artistic choice, or are there biographical and psychological reasons for his fascination with repetition and replication? It would have been enlightening to learn something about this, not just that Johns had friends in high places.

Daniel Ross Goodman is a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Salzburg and the author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema and the novel A Single Life.

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Original Author: Daniel Ross Goodman

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