Rubber Stamped Regrets: Jasper Johns at MoMA
Jasper Johns: Regrets at the Museum of Modern Art
March 15 to September 1, 2014
The Paul J. Sachs Drawings Galleries, Third Floor
11 West 53 Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City
With the exception of a series of monotypes of the numbers 0-9 done during the same time frame as the rest of the work on view here, and superfluous in this context except for the fact that they remind viewers of the stuff in the history books, all of the ink and pencil drawings, watercolor and oil paintings, and aquatints in this exhibition were inspired by a photograph of a famous painter, Lucian Freud, commissioned by an even more famous painter, Francis Bacon. Along with this, it is also important to know that Johns used a custom made rubber stamp that reads “Regrets, Jasper Johns” in many of these works. This stamp was allegedly used by the artist on occasion to decline unwanted invitations rather than replying to them in more time consuming ways, even though it is hard to imagine that he took the time to ink up a rubber stamp and place it firmly against an unwanted invite rather than simply ignore it.
One has to wonder how the recalcitrant octogenarian, who has rejected critical analysis of his art throughout his career (The Critic Sees, 1964, and many statements made by the artist through the years attest to this), would feel about the curator’s pre-packaged analysis of his works.
The other thing that stands out about this exhibition is that a portion of it consists of copper plates and the earlier states of the final aquatints on display. This tells us that the curators believe that the art going public, the hundreds of thousands of people who will traffic this exhibition before it closes, will want to know all about Johns’ working practice and to see unfinished works of art, as if they provide some insight into the final product, which is a dubious claim. Beyond the wonder and joy we experience while beholden to the targets and flag in the museum’s permanent collection and on display consistently for decades, which is something that is true for an extremely small group of works of art, all of us should want to know how Johns gets there, how he climbs that mountain, regardless of how good the outcome is. Which is another way of saying that all that Johns touches is gold, not only with regards to the market value of his work, but also with regards to the quality of it. The fatal flaw of this exhibition is the notion that Johns can do no wrong, based solely on decades old work that has been neatly and tightly fitted into the mainstream art historical narrative.
Visually speaking, the works on view here that are the loosest and most interesting to look at are the ink on plastic paintings, because the medium used, the pooling of the ink, the controlled drips, the subtle and deftly created gradations separating one section of the fragmented compositions from another, hold our interest thanks to their variety, fragility and luminosity. Art historically speaking, along with Rauschenberg, Johns is known as Abstract Expressionism’s assassin, the cool-headed conceptualist who changed the way artists approach subject matter and their emotional involvement in the art making process. But looking at what still matters to Johns at this point in his life, what stands out are the affinities he has with classic Modernism rather than the differences. If anything holds these recent works, executed in 2012-13, together, it is the artist’s love of subtlety, nuanced handling of materials, creating textures and dense layering and piecing together of disparate gestures and concepts of pictorial space, all of which were part of the Modernist approach to painting. The four specific ink on plastic paintings I am referring to, each measuring 27-1/2 inches by 36 inches, celebrate the fact that the interplay of control and accident could only be the result of many years of doing. Like other works in the show, the figure/ground relationship clearly defined in the photograph that allegedly inspired a host of other works, all but disappears and is replaced by a complicated framework where everything becomes disparate parts, one no more subject matter than the other, and all held together by a unifying technique. In other words, it is the doing that takes precedent rather than the showing. Also, Johns makes abstract imagery in these ink drawings that becomes something new and never seen before, a photograph of a figure in an interior becomes a dense landscape where allegiance to verisimilitude is replaced by the will of the artist, in that intuitive patterning and balancing of compositional elements such as line and tone trump the original inspiration.
The largest work in this exhibition, an oil painting, measuring 67 inches by 96 inches, is particularly static, with a crisply divided foreground and background, one dark, one lighter, with no interplay between the two except a simplistic shifting of what comes before what. It is big, it’s an oil painting, and it’s painted by Jasper johns, but lets be honest—it’s mediocre.
Johns uses doubling, mirroring or reversing, as the wall text notes, and elevates negative empty spaces to a central visual theme by recontextualizing the missing or torn away portion of the original photograph that inspired him, making it the central shape or form in many of these images. The missing piece of the photograph is copied or doubled: the floor in the photograph and the missing portion of photograph become a weird foreground plane. Unfortunately these reversals, doublings, etc., do not necessarily lead to successful compositions. It is handy material for curators and critics to bandy about, but what do they mean if they don’t lead to successful works of art?
A skull, meanwhile, appears in several of the oil paintings and aquatints, resting atop this doubled form, which becomes a tombstone shape. Of course this convenient memento mori fits in nicely with an exhibit of any artist’s late period work. Johns must be thinking of you know what, right?
Overall, this exhibition seems like an exercise in shoring up an artist’s reputation, a way for the museum to convince us that they are right to memorialize Johns’ earlier works in a very codified timeline. Johns use of photographic imagery is also nothing special in that he doesn’t take advantage of photographic effects or things unique to the medium to enhance the drawing, printing, or painting process. Yes, the particular photograph he uses easily provides fodder for writers, including the authors of wall text and reviews, because its provenance is steeped in art history, but otherwise it is thin visual gruel, not interesting in and of itself and hardly worth multiple visitations as a source of inspiration. Johns successfully undermines any narrative or emotional aspects of the photograph, but the inert and monotonous compositions we are left with are nothing much to look at, regardless of the bigger than life icon, forever memorialized in the art history books, they were made by.