'Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye' at SFMOMA
by Sura Wood
For Jasper Johns, the wily modern artist credited with laying the foundation for Minimalism and Pop Art, subject matter takes a back seat to his primary interest, which is sight – the phenomenon of how and why we see the way we do. A master of multiple mediums, he has employed the visual languages of sculpture, painting, drawing, illustrated books and printmaking in an ongoing process of reinvention, taking familiar subjects and reconsidering them in a variety of media and from diverse perspectives over the course of his prolific 60-year career. Think of Johns as versed in the art of possibility, a composer investigating variations on a theme. What I'm doing may look like repetition, he seems to say, but look again. The opportunity to do just that is offered by Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye, a new overview at SFMOMA that includes 90 artworks produced from 1956 to the present. The show also highlights the artist's special relationship with the Bay Area, especially SFMOMA, to whom Johns gave Richard Serra's lead Splash sculpture, a piece with a permanent installation and a room of its own at the museum.
If there's any doubt as to whether Johns has truly arrived, note that he has achieved the pinnacle of success: he played himself on "Mom and Pop Art," an episode of The Simpsons, and architect Philip Johnson designed one of his houses. Still going strong at 82, he grew up in the South and moved to New York City, where, in 1954, he met Robert Rauschenberg, who became his longtime lover. Johns was discovered, the story goes, when art dealer Leo Castelli met him at Rauschenberg's studio, and soon after gave the younger artist a crack at his first solo show. Johns was also shaped by his friendship with another power couple, choreographer Merce Cunningham and John Cage, the visual artist, composer, theorist, writer and exponent of so-called "chance operations." All were part of a lively Neo-Dada scene in New York during the late 1950s.
A step ahead of fashionable trends, Johns turned away, early on, from the then-prevailing infatuation with Abstract Expressionism and its chokehold on postwar art, opting instead for conventional pop-cultural symbols like targets, alphabet letters and numbers that he appropriated for his own purposes. Yes, that's the Mona Lisa enigmatically smiling, swathed in a sea of orange and peering out from underneath the diagonal stem of the number 7.
The American flag, his seminal, best-known work, is a favorite ritual image he often revisited (several incarnations are on view here). He once said that as he wasn't required to design it, he had plenty of room to toy with layers of meaning. The same could be said of his lead and bronze sculptures of flashlights and light bulbs divorced from their power sources.
Subscribing to the theories of Marcel Duchamp, Johns places the onus on viewers to complete a work, and makes them complicit in giving it meaning. These esoteric explorations of knowing, seeing and believing, and the relationship between language and image can come off as a detached intellectual exercise and leave one cold. They engage the mind and remain remote. That impression is reinforced by the Jay DeFeo retrospective, which by coincidence or design opened on the same date and on the same floor. Contrasted with the sensual, earth-moving art on the walls of the DeFeo galleries just across the way, the Johns exhibit seems oblique, cerebral. Given the proximity of the shows, the impulse to compare them is inescapable.
There are areas of Johns' work, though, that hint at the personal and psychological, like the series of paintings and works on paper (1962-63) that ruminate on the life, writing and untimely death of gay poet Hart Crane, who committed suicide by jumping from a cruise ship in 1932. In "Land's End," a large oil on canvas, an outstretched arm with a raised hand reaches upward, suggesting Crane's drowning and the last moments before he was swallowed by the ocean. Words, the poet's tools of the trade, are used in unexpected ways with letters reversed or falling off the edge of the canvas.
Johns meditates on the life cycle in "The Seasons" (1989-90), a trio of prints inspired by Picasso's painting "Minotaur Moving his House." Originally created as paintings, they reflect on the ephemeral, fluid nature of time. A tall, shadowy, faceless figure, an intimation of mortality, or perhaps the artist, is a constant in the changing tableaux. A rendering of a partially obscured Mona Lisa (and a flag) appear in "Summer"; a profile of Johns' patron saint, Duchamp, has a cameo in "Fall"; and, in the cool lavender light of "Winter," childhood memories of snowmen stalk the memory in old age.
Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind's Eye, at SFMOMA through Feb. 3.