Friday, February 9, 2007

Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting by Timothy Campbell

The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

January 28 – April 29, 2007.

The work of Jasper Johns is by no means unfamiliar in today’s artworld; many major museums boast a Johns piece (or several) within their collections. His works never seem to be too far out of reach for the curious, whether you are museum-going in New York, perusing a Stockstad or Janson art-history textbook, or gallery-hopping (Johns is now in his 77th year and is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery). Indeed, Johns’ work, famous for its unique blend of seductive touch and blatant self-referentiality, is a standard tune in the contemporary art world.

For this reason, I was surprised and hopeful when the National Gallery of Art announced a show that would focus exclusively on the first decade of Johns’ work, and that would handpick a particular group of paintings from this decade. I have always found Johns’ work difficult and challenging, and I was hoping this exhibition might offer new insight into Johns as a painter. My expectations were admittedly high after the National Gallery’s last show, where curators managed to repaint the work of Constable by focusing on the differences between his large-scale romantic landscapes and his hard-won, rugged oil sketches. Could the National Gallery work the same magic, and highlight new discoveries in the work of this well-known and championed painter?

It was hard not be let down by the show immediately, before entering the galleries, because of the wall-text which announced Target as the sponsor of this exhibition. Fittingly, the first painting on view, fully visible from the hallways, was one of John’s very first Target paintings. Target is well known for its sponsorship in the arts; many of the upcoming shows scheduled at the new ICA in Boston will be sponsored by Target. However, before even entering the gallery, this seemed to be going a bit beyond typical arts sponsorship, and, sadly, I found myself wondering if Johns’ work could withstand such corporate affection and attachment.

Fortunately, the work proved the stronger and I quickly let go of my reservations. While I did not leave with any great, new insight, the show displayed all of the tricks and feats that Johns is known for with a number of his most famous canvases. In this early work, Johns looks at painting as a language and medium for expression; instead of making that medium reflective or transparent, it becomes perfectly opaque in an exploration that is by turns humorous and despairing. Johns asks himself, and the viewer, “Why say anything?” The opacity approaches a near-death for painting, a standstill that is sluggish and brooding. Painting is painting, as brushes are brushes, rulers are rulers, and “No” means “No.”

Things are simple in these paintings, but then again, they are not quite so simple. Johns is able to show us everyday objects in a perfect deadpan light that can suddenly turn on the viewer and ask them to question if they really recognize what they are seeing. This happens because of a wonderful anesthesia, surely discovered by Johns in the work of Duchamp, in which repetition and recognition show us the dark humor of representation’s shortcomings. It is amusing, even funny, when Johns shows us that a broom is a broom. However, there is also a nasty, caustic bite in this work that reminds us that language has a job, and that when that job is jettisoned, important things are left out and out of reach. The paintings, even at their most humorous, do not let go of a certain attitude of futility towards the enterprise of art-making and communication in general.

I was particularly struck by how influential Johns’ work is to the contemporary art world. The long list of influences in Johns’ work and the precedent that he set for countless artists makes him a veritable art-prophet for the latter twentieth century. Johns’ relationship to earlier modernism is not hard to find; the brushstrokes and the literal qualities of his mark are an instant reminder of Cezanne, whom Johns has cited as a major influence. A “Do-It-Yourself Target” painting shows Johns’ affection for Duchamp. In “Device Circle,” Johns hijacks a de Kooning painting and reemploys the primary-color palate and the slashing brushstroke with a vigor that laughs in the face of the New York School and discards their existential jabbering as nothing more than painterly device and noisy bravado.

Then come the predictions of artists-to-come: “Diver, 1962,” prefigures the pop of Rosenquist (think of the large-scale F-111) while the preparatory drawing for that piece, “Diver, 1962-1963” gives a glimpse into the austere world of minimalism. The drawings speak of work yet-to-be-made by Jim Dine, while Johns’ ridiculous practice of naming the object that is painted suggests some of the bizarre video-work by Bruce Nauman in which Nauman repeats words in an endless loop while gazing at the camera. “Voice,” another shockingly austere piece, predicts the assemblage and painterly textures of Keifer. I even found myself thinking of the retrograde romanticism of Jake Berthot’s work from the ‘80s and early ‘90s while looking at Johns’ grayscale paintings of stacked squares. There is a small bit of the romantic, barely detectable, in some of Johns’ work, where the painterly touch offers a minute dose of human forgiveness in the face of dark humor.

One recommendation I have for viewers is that they follow the Johns exhibition with a brief viewing of the painting “Perilous Night” on the bottom floor of the East Building. Johns made this painting in 1982, and the subtlety and honesty in that particular piece is difficult to find anywhere else in the East wing.

While the blatant sponsorship by Target is bothersome, the Jasper Johns show proves that strong work can stand up to the cutthroat business that is at the heart of commercial galleries and our museums. The show offers a great opportunity to see the work of a highly influential artist who knows how to think and paint, and unfortunately, it reminds us that the dollar-value of artwork never goes unnoticed by the art institution and that corporate advertising can bring the kiss of kitsch to anything, including a Johns Target. As long as admission remains free at the National Gallery, they can go ahead and share a slogan with the Target corporation: “Expect More, Pay Less.”

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