On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
September 29, 2021 – February 13, 2022
At the Whitney Museum of American Art, Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror starts off with such a strong installation that it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite piece. Arrayed roughly chronologically along a gently concave wall, the 40 or so multiples tell the story of Johns’s entire career themselves, from the “Targets” to his “Regrets.” Along the way, we see potent examples of the artist’s interest in the deadpan and radical material exploration (stunningly sometimes demonstrated in the same print, as in the trompe l’oeil Bread , a laminated lead relief), hints of physical intimacy and maybe even the erotic in two paper versions of Painting with Two Balls (1960), and in suites like the cross-hatched Cicada (1981), his commitment to serial investigation. It’s all here. But if I had to rise to the challenge and pick a single print to take home with me, I suspect it would have to be Target with Four Faces (1968) which, in exploring the motif of the 1955 painting of the same name, returns Johns to the earliest moments of his official career. The print repeats that famous painting’s primary color scheme, adding black squiggles on top of the color to suggest impastoed encaustic brushstrokes in a two-dimensional medium. It’s iconic, and not just that, it’s aniconic, too. The hinges that connect the depicted box’s lid over the four faces are not depicted themselves: rather than portraying a hinge, Johns has written “HINGE” in two spots, right where they would be. It’s everything you would want from a Jasper Johns in a single print.
I will admit that I practically staggered away from that wall, my mind full of Johns’s image and language games and my eyes, if the above paragraph is any indication, full of my mouth, the only time I have felt sympathy for the critic of The Critic Sees (1962). The first painting we encounter is Targets (1966), one of the artist’s experiments with after-image effects. It’s a clever decision: even if we were to turn away at that point, our eyes could still only see Johns.
The curators’ (Scott Rothkopf at the Whitney and Carlos Basualdo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) framing devices of Mind/Mirror are elastic enough that viewers are easily able to develop their own reflections. The mind of the artist could be his intellect and cerebrality and/or it could be his mind’s—and that of his art’s—workings. I so appreciated becoming acquainted with the young painter in the rooms beyond Two Targets. Of course, we’re familiar with these paintings already—Target with Four Faces is owned by MoMA—and we know them as important 20th-century art history. As the solo subject of twin retrospectives, Johns is represented as a major figure here, but we’re surrounded by so much of his work that we’re able to become intimates with it. I was surprised by how much of it I felt: the metal letters spelling “NO” of the gray Bartelbian No (1961), hanging from a wire in front of their painted counterparts—not painted darker as shadow, but rather lighter, as wear. The … what? frustration? yearning? of Painting Bitten by a Man (1961) in which Johns scrapes the wax of his encaustic medium away from the canvas with his teeth. Or young Johns taking casts of his friends’ feet, using the surprisingly large, muscular foot of Merce Cunningham in the towering Numbers, 1964 (1964), now hanging at Lincoln Center, or memorializing a wistful day at the beach with a comrade died too soon in Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara) (1961–70). Frank O’Hara makes several appearances in this exhibition, attesting to a sense of companionship as well as to the artist’s love of poetry. In the elegiac lithograph Skin with O’Hara Poem (1965), taken from an earlier drawing, Johns inks his hands and face and presses them to the surface, adding lines on aging and care from the poet: “the sand inevitably seeks the eye / and it is the same eye.”
Throughout the exhibition, too, I was struck by Johns’s continuing fascination with aspect seeing, the possibility that we might read an image in multiple ways. Johns’s first explorations of this come with False Start (1959), represented at the Whitney in the lithograph False Start I (1962), in which he stencils color names sometimes in their affiliated colors and other times in different hues. In cognitive tests like this, viewers are asked to name the color they see, not the color they read—the mind is tasked with sorting a seeing aspect from a reading aspect; Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom Johns read in the 1950s, delved into these “dawning aspects” as a means to question certainty and how we know what we know. In later work, Johns takes up optical illusions pulled again from Wittgenstein: duck/rabbits, vases/faces, and the young woman/old witch. Aspect seeing “works” not because the motifs are mutually exclusive—they are not opposites or oppositional—but because they are held in tension, and it is this that seems to perplex and intrigue Johns: there is an indispensable, functional gap between one aspect and another.
The questions of aspect seeing might help us, as well, to navigate Johns’s iconography or those themes to which he returns again and again. A powerful example of this is demonstrated in Ralph Lemon’s catalogue essay, in which he reads the South Carolina of Johns’s childhood against that of his mother’s. They grew up only miles away from one another, but living in the segregated South was distinctly different for people of color. As I walked through the gallery of maps, I kept noticing the personal (though not cartographically precise) Mason-Dixon Line that was consistently carved or painted or otherwise demarcated on Johns’s paintings. If we take the concept of the mirror seriously, then it is not merely a pictorial strategy or only a reflection of the artist. The paintings themselves can act as mirrors and apparatuses for seeing new aspects; the maps echo a pre-Brown v. Board of Education America. The aesthetic map, the historical map, the political map are not oppositional: they are parallel aspects of the same image.
That curving line is not just repeated in the maps. As Johns’s work continued past the 1960s, the line reappears as one half the diameter of Diver (1962–63) (Spring and Fall [both 1986]), the swooping bottom of the optical illusion vase (Untitled, 2010), as the tether to a gigantic Picasso balloon in the watercolor and ink drawing Untitled (1987), and in his recent, plaintive “Catenary” drawings and paintings. The curve might then itself be multiplied in a single image into drapery, sometimes compared to a shroud, but to my eye closer to the mantle of the Virgin in Leonardo’s drapery study (ca. 1470). It also retraces the deliberate and deliberative arc we make as we move through the show, looking with the same eyes but seeing anew.