Why Jasper Johns was “misrepresented” as a mysterious artist

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

At 91, Jasper Johns is one of the most important living artists today, with auctions worth tens of millions of dollars and a seven-decade career credited with changing the course of life. twentieth century art.

But the American artist has always been reluctant to engage in interpretations or even presentations of his work, leaving curators to present it as they see fit – and viewers to draw their own conclusions.

His latest retrospective, “Jasper Johns: Mind / Mirror”, is a massive two-city exhibition featuring hundreds of paintings, sculptures, multimedia works and prints, half of which are on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the another at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).

“I’m not very interested in exhibits of my own work,” Johns told CNN via email. “Like I said before, the work is too familiar.”

Johns has spent his entire career changing viewers’ perspectives on the delusional quality of artistic creation, grappling with the plane of the image and the nuance of reproduction.

Jasper Johns’ most recognized motif is the American flag, but it has often reverted to the same symbols and themes over and over again. Pictured: “Three Flags”, 1958. Credit: Jasper Johns / VAGA / Artists Rights Society / The Whitney Museum of American Art

Take a look at his works and you will see the familiar patterns he developed early in his career – an American flag, a target, a series of numbers – but hang out with them and you start to notice them. textures and imperfections. What really makes a flag? It is both a physical object and a concept, a duality that we perceive but may never consciously consider.

A painting of a table littered with papers, one of which represents the speckled white swirl of a galaxy, also plays with our perception. The picture in the picture features a swirling mass of stars that contains the vast mysteries of life, while itself being contained within a web.

Johns 'work has always played with viewers' perception of what an image is.  On the picture :

Johns ‘work has always played with viewers’ perception of what an image is. Photo: “Mirror’s Edge 2”, 1993. Credit: Jasper Johns / VAGA / Artists Rights Society / The Wildenstein Plattner Institute / The Whitney Museum of American Art

Exploring the work of an artist who continually returns to the same symbols and ideas, “Mind / Mirror” is a journey into Johns’ own galaxy of visual touchstones, repeated across time and two physical spaces. The title of the show refers to the themes of the double and the mirror that are repeated in his work.

“Our goal was to make a single show in two complementary halves of each other, and the sum to be greater than the parts,” said Scott Rothkopf, chief curator of The Whitney, who staged the show with Carlos Basualdo, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at PMA. Rothkopf writes in the exhibition catalog that Johns’ approach helped usher in a number of new movements, including Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art.

Time flow

It’s rare to see such a diversity of work by a living artist in a single exhibition (although, as Rothkopf points out, 94-year-old Alex Katz will have a similar honor at the Guggenheim next year). Time is at the heart of any retrospective, but it is particularly powerful in “Mind / Mirror”, which unfolds not only through galleries, but as invisible threads between works created years and often decades of age. interval.

Images appear and reappear, such as the “Mona Lisa”, Johns’ own stray stick figures, and the famous illusionary design that is both a duck and a rabbit. A 2007 sculpture shows a cast of the foot of choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham hidden among a grid of aluminum numbers; the original, sunk 40 years earlier, can be found in the upscale Lincoln Center neighborhoods.

The artist often refuses to discuss the interpretation of his work, or the images he reuses in his compositions.  On the picture :

The artist often refuses to discuss the interpretation of his work, or the images he reuses in his compositions. Pictured: “Racing Thoughts”, 1983. Credit: Jasper Johns / VAGA / Artists Rights Society / Jamie Stukenberg / The Whitney Museum of American Art

“His sense of going back to an image or an object and reconsidering it with the distance of time is an essential driving force of his art,” said Rothkopf, adding that this idea is particularly relevant to those who travel to see both sides. a spectacle. “Between these two cities, some people can have a day between these two places, a week or a month. And so, how memory relates to perception and this passage of time, and this journey between these two places, had a parallel with some of the aspects of Johns’ art. “

“Mind / Mirror” was originally scheduled to celebrate Johns’ 90th birthday in 2020, but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past year, Johns said he had “worked in the studio, for the most part, on a print that took a long time,” as well as gardening when time and time allowed. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently held a large exhibition of Cézanne’s drawings, Johns attended, having loaned some of the works. He recalled that it was “amazing”, saying: “I wish I could have visited it again.” At the time of his own show opening last month, however, he was “at home recovering” from a fall at his home.

“His sense of going back to an image or an object and reconsidering it with the distance of time is an essential driving force of his art,” said curator Scott Rothkopf. Pictured: “In the Studio”, 1982. Credit: Jasper Johns / VAGA / Artists Rights Society / The Wildenstein Plattner Institute / The Whitney Museum of American Art

Although Johns says he has no interest in directing his shows, he was not completely absent from the curatorial process, according to Rothkopf. In preparation for the exhibition, Rothkopf and Basualdo visited the artist every few months.

“We would tell him about his new work, we would share ideas, we would ask questions, we would review his archives – and he was the main lender of the exhibition,” Rothkopf explained. “Where he was less involved was that he didn’t make any specific recommendations or decisions about the content of the show, or what ideas to explore. So he really observed this notion that he is. the artist; he does his job, and we are the curators and our job is to put on the show. “

“He was misplaced”

British artist Cecily Brown, who first met Johns in the 1990s and later joined the board of a foundation he co-founded in the 1960s, believes the media often misunderstand his work.

The artist’s designs can prompt guessing games – they come from art history, everyday objects, media, and his personal life, such as floor plans of the house of his grandfather or a photograph from Life magazine showing the hunched form of a devastated soldier. There has also been a lot of speculation about “the green angel”, a form he returned to in his paintings over the decades but refused to explain the origins.

“I think the problem with people who think there is a mystery to be solved is that then there will be a point where they feel like they’ve figured it out,” the artist said. Cecily Brown, “So what happens next?” Pictured: ‘Summer’, from ‘The Seasons’, 1987. Credit: Jasper Johns / ULAE / VAGA / Artists Rights Society / The Whitney Museum of American Art

“I feel like he got a little bit wrong that he’s so mysterious, like he’s some kind of Holden Caulfield character who refuses to commit,” Brown said at the time. a telephone interview. “I feel like the job itself is what he wants you to get involved with… I think the problem with people who think there’s a mystery to be solved is that then there’ll be a time when they feel like they’ve figured it out. And then what happens? “

The Whitney exhibit makes connections between Johns’ art and his personal life – the works may refer to the late artist Robert Rauschenberg, with whom Johns had a romantic relationship in the 1950s, while the silkscreened details in newspapers may allude to crimes of his former studio assistant, James Meyer, who stole and sold his unfinished paintings. Works of art that evoke an acute sense of loss and grief fill the rooms, Johns’ own shadow silhouetted as a spectral figure in several of the paintings.

“(There’s) this obsession with doing and redoing and getting back into things, whether it’s printmaking or just doing dozens of paintings on the same subject,” Brown said. In the photo: “Painted bronze”, 1960 (cast and painted in 1964). Credit: Jasper Johns / VAGA / Artists Rights Society / The Whitney Museum of American Art

Brown said it relates to the “hustle and bustle” and “obsession with doing and redoing,” and that, even with Johns’ most iconic works, the search for clues through his visual lexicon is not the point.

“The meaning is always changing,” she said. “The target or the flag is really almost just a motif to contain that shifting meaning. And it’s a mistake to try to pin it (down).”

Johns first painted the American flag just before the Vietnam War, two years after being honorably discharged from the military. Its depictions of flags have been continuously undermined for political significance. But for a viewer in the 1950s, a visitor to “Mind / Mirror” today, and Johns himself, the flag almost certainly has different implications.

Brown summed it up simply: “I think it’s all there to watch.”

“Jasper Johns: Mind / Mirror”, airing simultaneously on Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is visible until February 2022.

Top image: Jasper Johns pictured with his work at the Whitney in New York, October 1977.

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