February 10-May 13, 2018
This is the Jasper Johns retrospective that everyone, no doubt Johns himself, has been waiting for—a survey that emphasizes not chronology or studio production or objects or subject matter, (although all these figure prominently) instead, focusing on iconography. When he emerged some 60 years ago Johns rocked the post-Abstract Expressionist art world by making works that did not simply portray things—instantly recognizable things—but works that became those things. Ever since, we have been puzzled and frustrated when his field of vision has opened up to incorporate such things (miraculously keeping their thingness intact) into an expansive but recondite, even hermetic, personal cosmology. Now, finally, that cosmology is presented motivically rather than just sequentially, and what emerges is the artist-as-poet-as-alchemist.
The retrospective divides Johns’ oeuvre according to various conceptual, perhaps philosophical, approaches. It begins with rooms filled with flag paintings, target paintings and number paintings, the segregation of motifs allowing us to comprehend both Johns’ obsessiveness and his seemingly endless capacity for variation; he seems to find infinite ways of faceting the image, or at least the context, of a simple thing like a numeral. The exhibition groups this multi-monomania under the broader rubric, Things The Mind Already Knows (a Johns quote), grounding us at an epistemological null point. Painting As Object is a yet simpler concept, but addresses a more complex aspect of art, the facture of normal painting and that of painting that insists on invading the realm of sculpture—a reflexive condition based in Johns’ exposure to the work of Marcel Duchamp. Words and Voices traces Johns’ relationship with language, from an early fascination with the word itself—an entity at once visual, lingual, and emotional—to a surrender to poetry by the early 1980s. The New York arts scene of his salad days had exposed Johns to America’s literary avant garde, but it was only decades later that he came comfortably to embrace the literary in his own activity, activity he’d maintained as purely pictorial.
If any one characteristic arcs through this survey, it is Johns’ increasing philosophical depth of field. His thing paintings are obdurate in their thingness, but his later work—which he makes sure has the same weighty material presence—displays more and more elaborate motivic, even symbolic, relationships. Time and Transience reveals his crosshatch paintings, with their nervous, fractured dance of colored and muted pinstripes, as a meditation on mortality, and the thingness of the works grouped under In the Studio engages them in a clever dialogue between the momentary—the paintbrushes crammed into a coffee can—and the monumental—the reproduction of those paintbrushes and can in bronze.
Among Johns’ thing references are quotations from art around the world; but his incorporation of Nepalese Buddhist imagery or the Isenheim Altarpiece are no mere admissions of art-historical self-consciousness. Rather, as Fragments and Faces documents, they are personal touchstones for the artist, affecting him subjectively. In Seasons and Cycles Johns puts those associations to even more ambitious thematic purpose, producing in the mid-1980s a Four Seasons sequence bristling with references to other art and artists (e.g. Picasso) and to more vernacular forms of visual experience. In the final thematic section, Memory Tracings, the autobiographical current in Johns’ work comes to the fore in typically intricate but lucid conflations of private references. These are contrasted with a series of “catenary” paintings marked, even bracketed, by erratic curves determined by the looping of strings allowed to sag under their own weight—a reversion to thingness and painting-becoming-sculpture whose formal grace anchors Johns’ now fully self-reflexive art with the gravitas of nature.
A life lived, framed by the natural world: Johns’ may not be a tidy mind, but it is a methodical one. Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth determines that the artist’s method should be allowed not simply to speak for itself but to dictate our comprehension of his work. Without losing sight of his evolution as an artist, the survey concentrates on Johns’ persistent presence in contemporary art as a thinker and a verbalizer. If you enter the show regarding Johns as a thing-maker, you leave it thinking of him as a proposer of circumstances—looking, as it were, for rhymes among images and harmonies among textures.