Friday, May 02, 2008

The Persistence of Johns

Note: the exhibition, Jasper Johns: Gray at the Metropolitan Museum of Art closes this Sunday May 4th.

"The exhibition examines the use of the color gray by the American artist Jasper Johns (b. 1930) between the mid-1950s and the present. It brings together more than 120 paintings, reliefs, drawings, prints, and sculptures from American and international collections." [Met PR]

Two exhibitions I've seen recently, the De Kooning's at the Larry Gagosian Gallery and the Jasper Johns, "Gray" exhibition currently at the Met, have impressed upon me a sense of the personal core of these two artists work.

With DeKooning it was an appreciation of his personal sense of line, a line which flows through the arm to the tip of the brush, a fluid response to muscle decision, a broad sweep from the shoulder, or just a whip from the wrist. The works in the exhibition covered a period from the mid forties to the end of his career. What I came to appreciate was how this sense of line was the backbone of the work throughout his career, not just in the high period of the fifties but in the periods which followed as well. Regardless of the stylistic changes that occurred as his career progressed, this sense of line held it together. I ended up feeling that his later paintings hold up better than many would suggest.

I have always been receptive to the physicalness of Jasper Johns works, the objectness of his paintings and density of marking in his drawings. Iconographically his paintings are generally based upon the simplest of assumptions, a flag, a map, a word, letters or numbers, all taken somewhat literally and put into the service of a painting. One can approach his works from a conceptual viewpoint, but while this is somewhat interesting, there is not really much there. His basic motifs are easy to grasp and I would suggest they are not at the core of what makes his works so important.

After walking through the exhibition a couple of times what truly struck me was the persistence of Johns. This is a quality which underlies all his works over the last fifty years. It is a persistence of will, of the intention to make the painting or drawing physically present in the world.

It has been awhile since I have seen the small painting on paper, "Liar." It has a simple motif, a gray square with the word 'LIAR' centered at the top, flipped up above it is the word LIAR in reverse, as a printing block or stamp. It's all very simple, a nice play on words, liar, lair, and rail. (upside-down and backwards) I could run off a stream of associations ending in caboose, but none of them would make this work as convincing as I feel it is. I picked this particular piece to start because I feel it reveals the conundrum in Johns' work, that the conceptual is the lair for the work, the scaffolding or foundation which Jasper Johns utilizes as a structure for his persistence of vision which ultimately allows him to manifest and see the work for what it is, itself and nothing else.

Everything in "Liar," from the choice of paper, the stains, pencil marks, relief and gray encaustic, build up to a finality which is "Liar," the physical result of the vision and activity of Jasper Johns at a particular place and moment in time. Now I realize that one might say I could say the same thing about any artwork, but this is not the case. There is something else which comes across to us in Johns' work and I think it is our ability to sense his 'persistence,' a desire to take the work to an ontological state, it exists as what it is and is complete. Wholeness. This is particularly difficult to do, for it is not always clear what the final state should be in order to transmit this sense of completeness, Johns works persistently towards this point, successfully or not. It is the sense of this persistence of the quest, which I feel is the true content of his works.

Jasper Johns
Liar, 1961
Encaustic, Sculp-metal, and graphite on cream wove paper;
21 1/4 x 17 in. (54 x 43.2 cm)
Collection Gail and Tony Ganz, Los Angeles

I had not seen the painting "Within" before, I snapped the photo of it shown below. At first I took it to be another variation on the flagstone motif paintings until I noticed it was painted over a cross hatch motif form an earlier period. After the fact I discovered the painting is dated 1983-2005 and I assume it sat around in his studio unfinished for several years, its final state morphing with age, drawn by a fleeting but persistent pressure towards what is finalized here.

Jasper Johns
Within, 1983 & 2005
Oil on canvas and wood with objects
101 1/2 x 72 x 3 in.
Collection of the artist

While the premise of this exhibition is 'Gray,' most of the included works are executed in primarily gray, I have never thought of Jasper Johns' works as colorless, even the gray ones. The gray colors, hues which are desaturated revealing themselves only by close proximity comparison, allow other aspects of the works to come forward, the drawing, elaborate surfaces, brush marks and a sense of luminosity or, as the case may be, the sense looking into lightsink of darkness. "Between the clock and the bed" is one of the paintings from a series based upon a crosshatch motif. The physical presence of these paintings varies based upon the approach taken. In some of the paintings utilizing this motif, the image sits on the surface, as a pattern of marks, as they do in "Corpse and Mirror".

Jasper Johns
Corpse and Mirror, 1974
oil and mixed media on canvas
50 x 68 in.

In others, like "Between the Clock and the Bed" the tonalities of the grays become luminous, as if the painting was illuminated from behind, and glowing through the patchwork of map makers marks. These are not paintings which occurred from an idea, a conceptualization or impulse which lasted for much longer than deciding where to start. Ultimately Jasper Johns' work is about the persistence of vision, about looking, seeing, responding, painting, and looking some more until what he sees is, what is.

Jasper Johns
Between the Clock and the Bed, 1982-83
Encaustic on canvas (three panels
72 x 126 1/4 in.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond

An absolutely great exhibition.

Roberta Smith at the NY Times

1 comment:

Hans said...

I fully agree !