Jasper Johns

The opening galleries at both the Whitney and Philadelphia were full of people and Jasper Johns’s greatest hits from the late ’50s: targets, flags, numbers and maps. By the end, the crowds had dissipated and one wondered if the same could be said for Johns’s art. I admit that I had struggled, during the latter decades of the last century, to fully appreciate the turns Johns’s art took. It was always tacitly accepted that his new directions were somehow great, because he was such a great artist; and if we weren’t wild about something, it was probably because we couldn’t keep up. Perhaps it was only because we were so familiar with the early, ground-breaking pieces, and had seen them over and over in art history texts, that we liked them more than the new work. But I remember resisting when I saw the first show of Johns’s hatching paintings (“Usuyki”). Then there were works in the ’80s, I think, that struck me as downright ugly. As the years progressed, Johns’s shapes veered from linear to biomorphic, counter to my taste, and he relied less on his beautiful grey in favor of bolder off-colors that also do little for me. His fascination with process has been a constant, but again it appealed more when he was using it to explore numbers, or a Savarin can, than when he was working with a genre subject. The one exception to my declining interest is his Catenary series of the late ’90s, where the subject, again, was simple and one could luxuriate in the rich encaustic texture and subtle gradations of color.
Having two shows that echoed each other was a brilliant idea, not only because it gave us an excuse to visit Philadelphia as well as Lower Manhattan. In the first few galleries I thought I preferred the Philadelphia iteration: it seemed to show me everything I wanted or needed to know about Johns. As the exhibits went on, however, Philadelphia seemed particularly barren. New York continued to have objects of interest–the trouble was, you were just so exhausted by the show’s length that it was hard to muster the interest that Johns’s more obscure ideas required. And unlike, say, Matisse, Johns in his old age got dark and gloomy, if not depressive. It was such a relief, at the end of the slog through the labyrinthine layout at the Whitney, to come upon the final display area, with its floor-to-ceiling windows opening to the Hudson River, and marvel at the sculptural renditions of John’s trademark 0-9 number series in different metals.
My final evaluation, for now, is that Johns will be remembered and revered for his early work based on everyday objects, while everything after will be left to scholars and specialists. And I should add that Johns’s prints are a marvel that will live forever.

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