Jasper Johns at the Whitney Museum of American Art

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Jasper Johns: Spirit / Mirror is the well-deserved but excessive retrospective of the 91-year-old artist’s work over 67 years, with 246 objects at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is also on hand, hosting a simultaneous retrospective of around 250 works by Johns. We are not looking at an embarrassment of wealth. Rather, Whitney’s spectacle is an invasion of sameness and ultimately numbing.

It is the supreme flower of an inability to edit, and a measure of how herald New York critics and collectors are. It is the quintessential pewter ear. A retrospective is a good idea – Johns hasn’t had one in New York for over 20 years. But you don’t want people to leave your show loving the artist you revere less.

Where to start Johns is an important artist. Target with four faces (1955), Three flags (1958) and Card (1961) are striking but strangely beautiful, fresh and detached but dense like the icing on a cake. They are rightly taught in all courses of inquiry into postwar American art. Johns had a passage of creative genius when he combined polish and collage to create surfaces that required a close look.

Usually a big bore, there are sudden moments of intense beauty

White flag (1955) is simply magnificent. It is the counterpoint of the drops of Jackson Pollock and the slashes of Willem de Kooning. Using flags and maps, Johns turned postwar American painting away from abstraction, an attack on the integrity of the subject that the natives found unfair and delicate, towards reality – sort of.

The flags, while ubiquitous, are abstractions, so it’s not like we’re going back to Ashcan School. Johns’ paint is mixed with crumbled newspaper, which gives a special texture but also contains pieces of pictures and words. Many theses have tried to interpret, Johns obliging everyone without denial or confirmation.

John’s 1982 Savarin monotypes and (foreground) Studio II (1966) Photo: Ron Amstutz

To New York critics, he was a gold mine of allusion and sure otherness as well as so prolific that there was always something new to be said about him, no matter how mundane. A southerner, he was quite a stranger. He is gay but above all reluctant about it. Target with four faces would concern the hide and seek that gay men had to play in the 1950s to survive. As targets, they responded with effacement. Liar, a 1961 painting Johns created after his split from fellow American artist Robert Rauschenberg is refreshing and bitchy. It’s on the Whitney show and it’s very good. Otherwise, Johns is not a David Wojnarowicz. Johns longtime dealer Leo Castelli smartly and diligently marketed it. Castelli and Johns developed close relationships with curators at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and with buyers of the Hamptons.

Contrasting visions

The version of Spirit / Mirror in Philadelphia is presented as a fascinating case of doubling the conservation catch, but I think it’s contrived, complacent, and economically inefficient. Philadelphia might feel like it’s been on a great Johns show since its professed muse, Marcel Duchamp, was much admired and revered there. Duchamp is a lot, I know, but a con artist and a tease is part of it, as he admitted. And he eventually found even his own art to be boring. As for Johns, however, I wish both museums threw a coin to see who went first and then decided on about a conservation version. As it stands, both share the same catalog. Only Johns fanatics will see both versions of the exhibit.

From left to right : Pinion (1966), From Eddingsville (1969), Edisto (1962) and Studio (1964) Photo: Ron Amstutz

I am not a nonconformist, but I do not belong to the New York Echo Chamber. As a minority of an art critic from Vermont, I am happy to wish Johns many more years. He burned all his juvenalia in 1954, dreamed of the American flag and, as the Whitney show tells us, a legend was born. He’s had a fantastic few years. After, say, the early 1960s, though, it’s a long, little visionary job. There are cans of coffee, string and things, beer cans, flags, cards, numbers in many media, and more recently figurines and skeletons. Most of the patterns are repeated over and over again.

Large anchoring works such as Studio and According to what (both in 1964), Harlem Light (1967) and Racing thoughts (1983) are not only ugly and bad, they are irrelevant. They do not speak in our time. Johns is an artist whose currency is cryptic, whose cards are never put on the table. Does an artist who disguises himself, who takes pleasure in mirrors, respond to what seems to me to be a need for frankness, for reality?

Spirit / Mirror is mostly chronological. This poses a big problem as the great art is loaded up front, in a wonderful gallery of the first flags and maps. A later gallery of Johns miniatures – small versions of his standard designs – is magical. Castelli made size prices so that the little things went for low prices. They are always exquisite, although a dark wall color and smart lighting give these gemstones wall power.

I really liked the room for one design of Savarin coffee cans, although it is very reserved for specialists. Most visitors to space seemed to have trouble understanding very small differences. I’m a printing specialist, but my own stamina falters at this point. A cafe-bar would have been most appropriate.

Historical context

Vermonter that I am, and proud of my family’s role in defeating the Southern Rebellion, I always wanted to see Johns set as a contemporary of Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee and Eudora Welty. What would Blanche DuBois think of him? In New York in 2021, such a discussion would be unlikely, and would Johns accept it?

While the exhibit is generally boring, there are sudden moments of intense beauty, always dark or gray. Night pilot (1960) stopped me and held me. It is a charcoal pastel and collage. I wish Johns did more pastels, and I wish he did more nocturnes. Gray works for Johns. He is ambiguous and impartial, but he also has authority. He’s calm and reliable, and it wasn’t for nothing that the gray flannel suit conjured up power in the 1950s. Screen piece (1967) is absorbent. The 2007 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition, Jasper Johns: gray, covered his use of this color with 100 works. It went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and, by the way, was a much better show than Spirit / Mirror because of its concentration.

I love going to the Whitney and I admire the director and the conservatives I know, but Spirit / Mirror should be a show of 150 objects. The exhibition is already enriched by the catalog, which I read and which I find great. This will be the definitive book on Johns. The short essays by Alex Nemerov, Ruth Fine, Carroll Dunham, and Michael Ann Holly impressed me the most in my 20s, or at least they don’t gush and write in impenetrable jargon. Has 500 objects, Spirit / Mirror indulges in a New York niche. That doesn’t make a great American artist.

Jasper Johns: Spirit / Mirror, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and Philadelphia art Museum, until February 13, 2022


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