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Seeing Jasper Johns: A seminal artist’s career is celebrated and illuminated in two cities

Jasper John’s “Flag,” 1954-1955. Encaustic, oil and collage on fabric mounted on three wood panels. (Museum of Modern Art, New York/© 2021 Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York)

NEW YORK AND PHILADELPHIA — What would it be like, I wonder, to traverse the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art with a blindfold but permission to touch every work; and then to go to the show's second venue, in Philadelphia, complying with the "no touch" rule but with eyes wide open?

An idle thought experiment. But something about “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror” invites it. Organized by Scott Rothkopf, chief curator at the Whitney, and Carlos Basualdo, curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it’s a brilliantly conceived show about the limits of vision, the limits of knowing, the fallibility and finitude of the body.

How did this teenager’s drawing wind up in a Jasper Johns painting?

Seeing it in its two venues — the Whitney and the Philadelphia Museum of Art — over two days was one of the strangest, most stimulating experiences I have had as a critic. Both exhibits are full of similar things presented in similar ways, just a little differently.

Johns, 91, is one of the most influential artists of past 100 years. “Mind/Mirror” is the culminating retrospective of his long career. He became famous in the 1950s for his deadpan paintings, often in encaustic (hot colored wax) over newspaper, of American flags, targets, numbers and maps — “things the mind already knows,” as he famously put it.

Attaching everyday objects to his paintings (spoons, brooms, thermometers, string) and employing body casts, photographs, stencils and every other variety of reproductive technique, Johns has been cast as a bridging figure, a hinge, linking the sincerity of abstract expressionism to the irony of pop art.

But as his career progressed, it became ever clearer that Johns was sui generis: a patient, dedicated maker with a gorgeous touch who was also a sort of philosopher poet, immersed in questions of love, loss and mortality.

His work can feel clotted with clues and complications, like muttered, middle-of-the-night musings. But they retain an aura of proud and fastidious beauty, like a swollen-eyed boxer who awaits the judges’ decision with a steady gaze and his chin jutting out. From the beginning, he wanted to rid his art of falseness and redundancy, so that what remained was not a deliberate but a “helpless statement.” Something arrived at, in other words, after repeated testing and interrogation — after the full 12 rounds.

Johns’s best-known credo is “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. [Repeat].” He has stayed true to the credo’s emphasis on art as a mechanical process — even as his work sheds “helpless statements” like dead skin.

I thought of seeing the show blindfolded partly because Johns made a wry sculpture called “The Critic Sees,” which places a mouth inside each lens of a pair of eyeglasses, but also because Johns’s oeuvre has always reminded me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant: Having never encountered an elephant, the men try to conceptualize it by touching it. Feeling different parts, they come to wildly different conclusions and, suspecting one another of bad faith, come to blows.

Similarly, anyone who has seen Johns’s works (many of which happen to be elephant-gray) has a different idea about what his seven-decade career amounts to. The disagreements can get heated. The revelation of this show is that the body of work as a whole, though it may be as surprising as any elephant, is startlingly coherent.

The tissue that holds it together is Johns’s abiding preoccupation with love, loss and death. His works investigate the pressure exerted by all three on the task of forming and maintaining a self. Johns’s famous credo could be restated as: Take an object (yourself in love); do something to it (loss); do something else to it (death).

Love, of course, is not an object but a relationship, and Johns, as he pursues his solitary path, is constantly feeling out the implications of this. “Painting has to do with, in a sense, connections, doesn’t it?” he once ventured, as if delivering a rhetorical question in the midst of a soliloquy.

Marisol lost her mother as a girl. She never sold ‘Mi Mama y Yo.’

A feeling for connections — and missed connections — undergirds his whole sensibility. His oeuvre is dotted with works that can be read as haunted memorials not only to specific individuals, but also the many souls lost to war in Vietnam and to the AIDS crisis.

Johns’s approach has been influenced most profoundly by Marcel Duchamp — inventor of the ready-made, lover of chance, gadfly skeptic. But Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso have been almost as crucial. So mounting one half of this retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — which has not only the world’s best Duchamp collection but Cézanne’s grandest painting (“The Large Bathers”) and several Picasso masterpieces — sets up a poignant homecoming.

Like those three artists, Johns has always worked in series, linking motifs, ideas and overlapping techniques. In both venues, the exhibition follows a similar logic, plucking different examples from the same series. The doubling effect, uncanny in itself, is redoubled within each gallery, where works painted in color appear alongside the same motifs painted in greyscale.

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Various forms of doubling also occur within each work: Stenciled writing appears in reverse, as if mirrored. Objects attached to the paintings appear alongside the names of those objects. Beer cans and flashlights are cast in bronze or plaster, then painted to resemble lost originals — or left unpainted. The techniques of printmaking and sculptural casting, with their complex choreographies of replication and mirror reversal, presence and absence, are everywhere in play.

“Becoming a painter,” wrote the critic Leo Steinberg in a famous essay about Johns, “is like groping one’s way out of a cluttered room in the dark. Beginning to walk, he tumbles over another man’s couch, changes course to collide with someone’s commode, then butts against a worktable that can’t be disturbed. Everything has its use and its user, and no need of him.”

Johns grew up in South Carolina. His father was an alcoholic, his parents divorced when he was 2, and he was passed from relative to relative. It was an unhappy childhood, spent bumping, as it were, into other people’s furniture. So one can perhaps imagine the force of the impact on him of his first meeting with Robert Rauschenberg.

Rauschenberg, who was almost five years his senior, was charismatic. He was the son of fundamentalist Christians from Port Arthur, Tex. He had attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He had recently abandoned his marriage to Susan Weil after returning from travels in Europe and North Africa with Cy Twombly. (The amorous and creative connections between this trio of southern male artists constitute one of the most beguiling chapters in American art.)

Johns, who had spent two years in the Army (part of it stationed in Japan during the Korean War), moved into the studio downstairs from Rauschenberg and for a time the two were inseparable. As they tried to go beyond abstract expressionism, they imbibed the ideas and experimental practices of their friends, the choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage (who were creative partners as well as lovers) and via them, Duchamp. Johns and Rauschenberg introduced found objects, text, photographs and the operations of chance. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in the process, they changed the course of modern art.

You would never mistake a Johns exhibition for a Rauschenberg exhibition. But it is fascinating to see how many threads connect their work. “At a certain point I would say, ‘Here’s an idea for you,’ and he [Rauschenberg] would say, ‘Here’s an idea for you,’ ” Johns told Julie L. Belcove, who wrote a 2005 profile of him in W Magazine.

As personalities, the two were — or at least appeared to be — polar opposites. Where Johns was guarded, introverted, damaged, Rauschenberg was gregarious, openhearted, charming. The relationship ended in 1961, and the breakup produced, according to one wall label, “some of the most bitter and despairing works of Johns’s career.”

Johns continued to look back wistfully at this astonishingly fecund period in both their lives. According to Belcove, “it was a connection so intense that Johns, in a rare moment of candor about Rauschenberg, says it has been impossible to replicate.”

Drenched in light

The admission, with its implication that he very much tried, is telling, given Johns’s obsession with replicating everything, and his evident fascination with the paradoxes at the heart of sameness and difference. (“What I lack is this me that you see,” wrote the French poet and essayist Paul Valéry. “And what you lack is the you I see.”)

Ever since Johns first introduced mirroring devices into his work in the mid-1970s, he has been preoccupied with a dynamic of replication and loss. Many of his paintings are divided, often with hinges, implying that, like eyelids, they could be opened or closed or that the image on one side was created by pressing it against the other side.

Mirror images are unlike other representations because they are literal: There is nothing in the reflection that is not also there in the original. But the forms of mirroring in Johns’s work are different. Press paper against an inked-up image (or even a face, as Johns has done) and you get a copy; but something — some quantity of ink, some visual “static” — always escapes. And the more you replicate from the same original, the more the copy deteriorates.

What seems identical becomes subtly different: marked by loss but generative too, in that it provides an escape from narcissism and induces an awareness of what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the strange unlike, whence springs/ the difference that heavenly pity brings.”

Johns dwelled on loss, but also on pity and on love. Some of his most poignant works address the death of his friend, the poet Frank O’Hara (knocked down by a jeep on Fire Island in 1966) and of the poet Hart Crane, who jumped off a boat in the Gulf of Mexico after being beaten up by a sailor he had propositioned. Other works address male relationships — between Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, for instance (“Regrets”), or between Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas — which hinged on dynamics as creatively generative and emotionally fraught as Johns’s relationship with Rauschenberg.

Grace Hartigan painted the love of her life, Frank O’Hara, after his tragic death

Johns’s entire body of work, to go by this elephantine show of more than 500 works, is akin to a trove of Nabokovian love letters — obscure and thwarted, but also punning, mordant, full of life. As with Nabokov’s language, there is enormous pleasure to be had in the physical stuff of the work, its almost inexhaustible beauty. That pleasure is continually replenished by Johns’s unflagging intelligence.

Theoretically, you could toggle back and forth indefinitely between Philadelphia and New York without ever tiring of it. But Johns reminds us that there is no such thing as “indefinitely.”

At some point, the interest palls. At some point, the show shuts down. And at some point, our eyes close permanently.

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

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Jasper Johns grew up in North Carolina. He was born in Georgia but raised in South Carolina. The story has been updated.

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