On ViewPhiladelphia Museum Of Art
September 29, 2021 – February 13, 2022
It is difficult to visit Jasper Johns with a beginner’s eye, because we have already assimilated these things the mind already knows. It is difficult to recognize that at one time Johns’s works were not yet embedded into the world and had not affected it so dramatically, drastically, and historically.
Two years before the release of Robert Lebel’s 1959 monograph on Marcel Duchamp, Johns and Robert Rauschenberg came to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to view the newly installed Arensberg Collection. They knew of Duchamp from Manhattan but had not been privy to his objects in person. Seeing Duchamp’s items and recognizing the ideas behind them was a revelatory experience for both artists. Hence, the Philadelphia Museum’s participation in the Mind/Mirror retrospective is most appropriate; Johns’s hatched brushstrokes resonate both with the museum’s Cézannes and his ideation of Duchamp.
Johns’s objects have a kind of blunt poetry to them, addressing the viewer succinctly. They project denotive images of a rather self-evident nature but refuse to stop there or exhaust themselves like a readymade. They are both readymade and not. Indeed they are finely crafted artifacts, made of paint, wax, canvas, wood, plaster, Sculp-metal. Shared like a potlatch from the artist to the viewer, these materials beg us to understand the why of their existence. They elide the states of being a thing and an image. What that image suggests, what that image might mean, as Leo Steinberg so aptly argued, is part of the viewer’s reception of the work.
Johns is like an Imagist poet; images don’t exhaust meaning, they just provide a vehicle for contemplation. The reason an image fixates us is that centering. Johns never provides ultimate answers, he just provides the opportunity for engagement. Like Beckett, he is stuck but he goes on. Going forward is the only way there is. Let’s start at the beginning. What is it we know? An elemental primer: the single digit numbers from 0 to 9, the English alphabet, a ruler, a map of America, the American flag. The numerals are arranged in a sequence like a calculator ticking off time. A system determines mechanical order. A ruler doesn’t always have to measure; it can act as a brush pushing paint in front of it. A yardstick is like a piece of lath. A string must hang in a graceful arc determined by gravity.
The contours of these signs give form to Johns’s works. He doesn’t have to create images but only present them in his own way. Gestures can be contained by the limits and anonymity of a stenciled template. Who are we? A target then, a man with two balls. Are there critiques? Yes, in so many ways. A critique of the facile automatism and private subjectivism of Abstract Expressionism. A critique of American jingoistic politics. A critique of toxic masculinity. A critique of direct observational realism and retinal painting.
But are we projecting these meanings through our received knowledge and familiarity with Johns? Can we look at the things themselves, as if for the first time? Can we look at the objects as singular things, exquisitely made, as shocking as when they first appeared on 77th Street? A simple palette then: instead of the marvelous miasma of Rothko’s hues, Johns works in primary colors, gray, or the blanched white of encaustic. The color is rarely localized except in the flags. The images are flat but the painting isn’t; textured layers of encaustic or oil often obscuring collaged newspaper grounds, appended with plaster casts or actual objects when necessary. What are we (not) to read? The newspapers are not random. They bear witness, report events, provide added content. And yet there is simultaneously an open-ended denial of specific resolution; questions beget questions. They remain, perhaps providing private asides, a literal commentary on Johns’s inner self.
A mirror provides an image, but it is just that. By mirroring a reflection, it inverts it. What we see then is not what others see. A reflection is a reverse analogue, neither true nor untrue but as virtual and evasive as the truth itself. A photograph provides another way to secure images, but even those are somewhat equivocal. The painterly quality of Johns’s strokes are vestigial artifacts of Abstraction Expressionism set to obfuscate or render clarity impossible.
It must have been exciting yet daunting to assemble this retrospective, the most comprehensive to date. And made more complex and complicated by two venues 90 miles apart involved with conflicts of identity, disparities of gallery space, institutional wealth, and the competition of egotistical donors. Problematic too for the viewer: to grasp the totality of the curatorial endeavor required a pilgrimage in time and an encyclopedic eidetic memory. The curators had to come up with novel premises, the various raisons d'être of the enterprise, other than the artist’s 91st year.
By the vast quantity of objects and the blunt nature of its bifurcation, Mind/Mirror becomes experiential rather than definitive. This is not merely a survey of paintings, sculptures, drawings, or prints. By incorporating all media, we can observe Johns’s universal mastery. Just as there is not one objective Jasper Johns (but rather the artist evolving over time), this seemingly exhaustive exhibition and catalogue allows for multivalent viewpoints which, in toto, must suffice.
Johns’s formative years in Japan are showcased in Philadelphia with his abstract “Usuyuki” series, the “Souvenir” constructions, and Katy Martin’s accompanying film Hanafuda/Jasper Johns (1981). Rendered fuzzy from 8mm to digital transcription, the film eloquently captures Johns’s thinking through the working serigraphic proofs of associated imagery. Usuyuki or “light snow” derives from the name of the heroine in an 18th-century Kabuki play Johns was reading. These intricate and rigorously systemic works, reflecting mirrored patterns both vertically and horizontally, are arguably the most abstract of his career.
With the unprecedented opportunity to view so many major works, any curatorial critique would be mere quibbling. We can only meekly ask, for example, how was Star (1954) at the PMA separated from Untitled (1954) at the Whitney, when the works are so closely linked by Johns’s relationship with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal? In the summer of 1954, Rosenthal and Johns secured lofts in a Pearl Street building in lower Manhattan; Rosenthal commissioned both her untitled portrait and Star after seeing Johns’s Cross, while her mother Mara bought Johns’s Untitled (Green Painting). Similarly, as the PMA represented Johns’s early affiliation with Cage, why couldn’t Construction with Toy Piano (1954) be secured? Why wasn’t the enormous Dymaxion Map (1967–71) mural from the Montreal World’s Fair attempted for the Whitney’s map section?
All these questions pale to insignificance, however, while among the works of America’s greatest living artist. A major achievement.