Unprecedented 500 Works Exhibition on Jasper Johns Held Simultaneously in Philadelphia and New York
The ability to mean two things at the same time is the essence of irony.
And the doubling is at the heart of “Jasper Johns: Mind / Mirror”, a gigantic retrospective of a virtuoso ironist, presented simultaneously at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Co-curators Carlos Basualdo of the Philadelphia Museum and Scott Rothkopf of the Whitney, assisted by Sarah Vogelman and Lauren Young, have collected more than 500 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by Jasper Johns, and have allocated about half of them to each institution. Many have never or rarely been exposed before.
Twin installations are more fraternal than identical. The same ten thematic categories, variously interpreted, structure the two halves. While Philadelphia focuses on number images in its “Early Motifs” section, for example, the Whitney highlights flags and maps. By describing the content of the shows in a public conversation with Rothkopf (available on Whitney’s website), Basualdo said with a smile: “Everything is unique and everything is part of a series.
Perhaps the most influential American artist of the 20th century, Johns, 91, reached his aesthetic maturity within the network of conceptual and experimental artists in downtown Manhattan that included John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. , who was her lover for a time.
Cage’s interest in chance in the creative process manifests itself very early on in Johns’ intriguing plot. False start (1959), with his randomly placed bursts of color.
Although the artist’s gestural brush and pictorial drops were symbolic ties to his abstract expressionist elders, the mundane and enigmatic images he exhibited early in his career pointed to the emotionally cooler future of art. pop, minimal and conceptual. In Johns’ debut in 1958, a prescient critic noted that his “truly new art assaults and enlivens the mind and the eye with the euphoria of discovery.”
In Philadelphia, “Mind / Mirror” begins with the disembodied voice of John Cage reading Johns’ cryptic texts. Slightly annoying, the sound fades as you approach its iconic Flag (1954-55), among the greatest works of the artist. The idea of painting “something the mind already knows”, in the artist’s words, came to him in a dream.
The flag is both subject and object, a surprisingly simple, infinitely nuanced image assembled from glued stars, stripes of newspaper, and molten pigmented wax called encaustic. The palpable texture and body of the thick, quick-drying encaustic suit Johns well, who enjoys both the world of things and the intangible realm of ideas.
Over the past seven decades, Johns has crafted a working vocabulary of patterns that recur, but never twice in the same way. A favorite subject is the artist’s materials – brushes, rulers and canvases. In Cloth (1956), Johns inserted one stretched canvas inside another, teasingly flipping it forward to block our view of anything that might be on the “right” side.
The color palette is grisaille, that is, white, black and shades of gray. Historically, painters used grisaille to create the illusion of sculpture. In Johns’ hands, this limited palette seems a hidden reference to the literal dimension of space that all flat paintings lack.
Painted Bronze (1960) is a devilishly deceptive sculpture with a hilarious origin story. Each curator inducted a set of Ballantine beer cans on a mirrored perch in the center of their respective “Doubles and Reflections” sections. Because it was cast in an edition of two, it can be in two museums at the same time.
After hearing a reproach that his persuasive dealer Leo Castelli might even sell two cans of beer, Johns made such a sculpture, which Castelli quickly sold.
Relief Feather pen (1962) is a plaster cast of a pen which was a birthday present for the son of the collector who purchased Painted Bronze. He alludes to Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made art objects and pens as stereotypical presentations of the bar mitzvah.
Early in their careers, Johns and Rauschenberg made a pilgrimage to Philadelphia to see the museum’s unrivaled collections of Duchamp’s works. Years later, the PMA installed a group of Johns sculptures in the gallery leading to its Duchamp rooms. These and other long-term loans from the artist’s studio reflect his high regard for the late museum director, Anne d’Harnoncourt, a Duchamp scholar.
For the PMA’s Place thematic section, the curatorial team focused on Japan, a country whose art and culture had a major impact on Johns’ creative life. Its majestic Usuyuki (1977), a three-part encaustic painting, is one of the show’s gems.
Her title refers to a Kabuki princess whose name means “light snow”. Johns, an infrequent explainer, said it was “the fleeting quality of beauty in the world.” It’s a stunning abstract landscape of hatched spots, poignant wax spills, and faint white showers. Nearby is a series of exquisite prints Johns made in Japan, as well as works by his Japanese contemporaries, verifying that the influence went both ways.
Keep an eye out for encrypted references to photographic imagery and art history. Excellent signage signals us when Johns takes off his hat figuratively at Grünewald Isenheim altarpiece. Perilous night (1982), a dark mixture of sculpture and painting, seems a chilling prediction of the AIDS crisis. As the emotional gap between Johns and his art narrowed in the 1980s, themes of loss, mortality, and death became more prevalent.
However, the lightness remains. A series of small metal sculpted reliefs of animated skeletons (2019) wait patiently in the last gallery of the exhibition. They recall the day of the dead in Mexico and that of Durer Death and the young girl. Some wear pork pie hats or hold a catenary skipping rope. My favorite is sitting on a huge skull, his arms outstretched a lookalike of the pose of Christ in that of Leonardo Last Supper.
One of the many reasons why “Mind / Mirror” is unusual is the curators’ decision to integrate the artist’s paintings with his unique prints, more usually presented separately. Johns’ lavish and unique monoprints, his trial proofs which variously test the same design, and the working proofs he added by hand, vividly express his inventive genius.
At the PMA, a long gallery of prints adjoining the main rooms pays homage to John Cage. His unique voice accompanies our journey through the walls of prints edited by Johns whose display is periodically rotated and sequenced in a random fashion. Several are waiting in temporary storage, visible inside a locked chain link cage, presumably a play on words.
There is no wrong way to see “Spirit / Mirror”.
In his first sketchbook notes, Johns envisioned a passive “watchman” who “would fall into the trap of looking” and a committed spy “who had to remember and remember himself and his memory.” Choose your strategy and follow in the artist’s footsteps as you go. It is an exhilarating experience.
“Jasper Johns: Mind / Mirror” runs until February 13, free in Dorrance’s Special Exhibitions Galleries with scheduled museum admission. The museum is closed Tuesday and Wednesday, open Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday from 10 a.m. to 8.45 a.m.