Jasper Johns and Gray

Jasper Johns is perhaps best known for his flag and target series, both meditations on signs, both exploratory in technique. In Johns’s pictures, surfaces are multi-layered, often encrusted; stenciled letters, actual objects like forks, or collage fragments appear; the pictures are often bright and primary in chroma. Alongside that body of work is another, now on display at the Metropolitan Museum until May 4th, one that explores the nuances of subtle color, “Jasper Johns: Gray.” Johns made sketches after paintings rather than before; he worked through formal problems by painting or drawing the same painting, modifying elements or not, again and again. In his work we see the intersection between a compulsive temperament and masterly craft. Every piece in the show has a vitality; many of the 119 works have beautiful passages, but only one or two in any room are majestic. The show thus reminds us that in order to create a major work it’s necessary to falter or fail at least three times and usually more, and the only solace lies in the act of working—painting, writing, whatever.

The show opens with False Start (highly colored) next to Jubilee (roughly the same but in grays). In Memory of My Feelings, which takes as its title a poem by Frank O’Hara, broods on the work of Hart Crane. Both poets died untimely deaths: O’Hara in a freak accident on Fire Island and Crane as a suicide jumping into the sea. The pictures accordingly are elegiac, conflating death, art, eros, and water. Near the Lagoon is made of salvaged fragments and layers of unpigmented wax; it invokes Manet’s Execution of Maximilian as an ellipse is transformed, in a series of elegant permutations, until it evokes a noose and a shroud. Fool’s House comically deflates the rarefied notion of the artist by showing an actual broom making a broad sweep as if it were a paintbrush.

Johns is an admirable artist and it is wonderful to contemplate his devotion to craft, as well as his stamina. The show is accompanied by an excellent catalogue that collects essays on Johns’s work. Especially worthwhile is one by James Rondeau who examines Johns’s “production of meaning.”

The exhibition was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visit the Met’s Web site to see more at www.metmuseum.org. “Jasper Johns: Gray” was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from Nov. 3, 2007 through Jan. 6.

Image above: Jasper Johns, Fool’s House (1962, oil on canvas with objects, 72×36)
Collection of Jean-Christophe Castelli, on loan to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo: Jamie M. Stukenberg / Professional Graphics Inc., Rockford, Illinois.

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6 thoughts on “Jasper Johns and Gray

  1. Avenir

    I really enjoyed it. You have done a great job.
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    With respect :-), Rory.

  2. Anonrobt

    This is a sure showing of someone who blindly went without forethought – in otherwords, a lesson to be learned and avoided…. to say or show something, one must first have something to say – that is one must first have in mind what is which is fundamentally important enough to bother with, not react like a mere animal and spew paint like a mindless bull pawing the dirt…. that this being is even accorded any acolades is itself the obscenity…..

  3. Maureen

    This morning I started to write about Poussin, whose work is also on display now at the Met and is gorgeous and green. I’ll write about him tomorrow, so we’ll get to look at something bright!

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