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Seeing Jasper Johns: Blockbuster exhibition reveals a brilliant but bleak legacy

Jasper Johns’s “Map,” 1961, on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror” in New York and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Museum of Modern Art, New York/© 2021 Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York)
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NEW YORK AND PHILADELPHIA — Something sad, even tragic, haunts the work of Jasper Johns. Now 91, the American artist is the subject of a mammoth joint retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including more than 500 works from almost seven decades of artistic production. This is the first genuine, must-see blockbuster exhibition to open since the pandemic began in 2019, and it might be an occasion for euphoria. No living American artist has been so productive and so influential for so long. But for all its brilliance, the work of Johns is bleak. Almost everything you want from art is present: cogent ideas, flawless execution, a sweeping sense of history and a personal stamp that identifies every piece as unmistakably the work of a unique and capacious mind. But where are love and generosity?

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In 1953, after military service in Japan, Johns moved to New York and, several months later, began a romantic relationship with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg. Within a year, Johns had destroyed all of his earlier work and began his first flag painting, using thick daubs of encaustic to reproduce a familiar, everyday object with the surface drama audiences associated with the older generation of abstract expressionists. Thus began Johns’s career-long fascination with signs and symbols — not as a subject for representation, but as a goad to pure painting. And thus, too, began his lifelong strategy of effacing himself from his work.

The results were electrifying, at least at first. Johns’s paintings of flags, targets, maps and numbers would inspire pop artists to turn to commercial and advertising imagery. His incorporation of sculptural elements and everyday objects — wires, rulers, tableware — also spurred other artists to break down the remaining lines between painting and sculpture. His incorporation of words, visual puns, serial images and semantic games opened up whole new fields of conceptual art. But in his work, and apparently in his life as well, Johns lived out a hard, self-denying ethos that is common among artists who stress formalism over all else: that the artist must disappear into the work.

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“Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror” is designed as a single exhibition with two equal, and self-sufficient, parts. Both the Whitney and Philadelphia venues survey the full arc of Johns’s career, from the early material focused on a limited repertoire of motifs to key exhibitions in the 1960s, his exceptionally bleak canvasses of the 1980s and ’90s, and work made in the past few years, in which death is a comically grotesque or macabre presence. Curator Carlos Basualdo in Philadelphia and Scott Rothkopf at the Whitney stress the idea of doubling, or mirror images, and Johns’s fascination with horizontal and vertical bifurcations. His enigmatic and minimalist titles make his interest in doubling clear: “Two Maps,” “Two Flags,” “Painting With Two Balls.”

But the most pervasive doubling is the image and its haunted alter ego, paintings that generate their own erasure or blackout or dissipation in seas of gray paint.

At the Whitney, visitors are greeted by a wall of 34 prints and works on paper, a colorful cascade and breezy overview of Johns’s key ideas and themes. Then they turn left into a gallery called “Disappearance and Negation,” and things go gray quickly. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, visitors are greeted by his first flag painting, made in 1954-1955, a groundbreaking work that is also his most substantial statement of purpose and identity. Then they turn right to confront a gallery of things that speak of closure, refusal and reticence — a drawer shut tight and covered in gray, a fountain pen rendered mute and inert by yet more thickly applied streaks of gray paint.

In both museums, the curators juxtapose a first encounter with what we think we know about Johns — bright, bold things full of signs and symbols we instantly recognize — with the reality of Johns — a career-long pursuit of what a friend, the composer John Cage, called his “signature of anonymity.”

Johns would have us believe that his work stands beyond the realm of emotions and self-expression. It doesn’t lack soul because it doesn’t aim to express soulful things. But throughout the nearly 30,000 square feet of exhibition space at two major museums, in room after room full of almost all his essential and trailblazing work, one keeps stumbling over the same question: What went wrong?

Perhaps he told us, decades ago. “I have attempted to develop my thinking in such a way that the work I’ve done is not me,” Johns said in 1973 in ARTnews. And in a 1977 monograph by the novelist Michael Crichton, he explained: “When I could observe what others did, I tried to remove that from my work. My work became a constant negation of impulses.”

The denial of self, the pursuit of originality and the negation of impulses. This is a hard doctrine, but perhaps it worked for Johns. He has been productive, and one can’t help but admire that productivity. His use of numbers has yielded totemic sculptural blocks of metal (on view in the Whitney’s stunning river-front gallery), bright, poster-size prints, clotted drawings of numbers superimposed on one another, painted grids of white and gray numbers, and riots of abstract expressionist brushwork like 1960’s “0 through 9” on view in Philadelphia. In one gallery at the Whitney, we see a 1982 series of monotypes based on John’s classic, painted bronze Savarin coffee can sculpture, and the effect is pure music to the eyes, a visual composer running an unpromising theme through every technique in the book, major and minor, forward and retrograde, harmonized in every key and none at all.

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The catalogue for the exhibition includes short essays by other artists, critics, writers, curators and scholars. A common theme emerges among some of their contributions: deep admiration for Johns’s work, and deep frustration with its hermetic closure. The artist R.H. Quaytman, who describes her essay as a “Dear John” letter, expresses ambivalence — respect for the work and its philosophical challenge to the viewer, but resistance to its Cold War aloofness and the oversize shadow it has cast on an art world that has for too long lacked diversity. “Your paintings were in sync with your time and demographic, and really, what else can we ask?,” Quaytman writes.

Even Basualdo, the Philadelphia curator, says of Johns’s often layered and encrypted work, “Their seductiveness is revealed as opacity, and the opacity as sheer weight and density.” Like a Bruckner symphony, the work is monumental, mesmerizing, cumulative in its impact and mostly lacking in air, light and sex.

Wall text in both exhibitions is open about a subject Johns has been particularly unwilling to engage with — his sexuality, his relationship with Rauschenberg and the impact of their breakup on the artist’s emotional life. Catalogue essays broach the topic more courageously than the Museum of Modern Art was willing to venture four years ago in its mammoth Rauschenberg exhibition. The subject is particularly dangerous for Johns, and not just because of his personal dislike of using autobiography to give context to the work. As demonstrated in the Smithsonian’s 2010 exhibition of gay themes in portraiture, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” Johns’s reticence and denial were essential mechanisms for gay artists to hide in the open during the 1950s and ’60s. As curator Jonathan Katz wrote in the exhibition catalogue, Johns’s work gives “form to the play between secrecy and disclosure that is the essence of the closet.”

It doesn’t take more than a cursory knowledge of LGBT history to see how so much of Johns’s work is fundamentally queer. Body parts are fragmented and fetishized, he returns again and again to a photograph of an American soldier grieving alone in a room for lost comrades, and he references closeted and openly gay precursors and contemporaries, including Hart Crane. In late works from 2019, a skeleton holds an oversize skull over his groin, and in other works, based on a string draped into a catenary curve, the repetition of the motif creates a veil.

And so, there’s the danger, and perhaps also the tragedy of Johns. What if decades of work is simply a living trauma, a repetition year after year of pain that should have been sealed up in history, wounds that should have healed, losses that might have been mourned and then dissolved in time, distance and the ether of memory? What if this work isn’t just visually brilliant, but also a document of the closet, and its corrosive effect over time?

Nothing is that simple, and no life or body of work can be reduced to a single choice, event or cause. But whatever it is that propelled Johns down the path of self-abnegation, the denial was never absolute or complete. Here and there, in rare flashes, one senses if not love, then the loss of love, and if not hope, then the place where hope once dwelled. In an untitled 2013-2014 work at the Whitney, the silhouette of a boy is seen in front of two glowing orbs against a black background. He stands before a ladder leading somewhere, perhaps up and out of the gloom. Is this the beforetime for Johns, a memory of a time before he decided to be an artist, before he turned inward and began to live almost entirely in his head?

It isn’t his greatest painting, but it may be one of the most honest in either exhibition. And that’s enough to break your heart.

Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror Through Feb. 13 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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