Catalog of the exhibition by James Rondeau and Douglas Druick, with contributions by Mark Pascale,
Born in the American South in 1930, Jasper Johns dazzled the New York art world with his first one-man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958. The paintings of targets, flags, maps, alphabets, and numbers he exhibited in the following decade helped to lead American art away from the then dominant New York School of Abstract Expressionism and to reintroduce representation into American art. By choosing to paint motifs that were instantly recognizable and already flat, Johns could dispense with illusion to focus the viewer’s attention instead on the picture’s texture, color, and brushwork. A superb craftsman, Johns skillfully applied encaustic (hot wax mixed with pigment) to canvas or newspaper to transform readymade images into achingly beautiful works of art in which each separate star, stripe, numeral, or letter is accorded equal importance in the aesthetic whole. Those who first saw the red, white, and blue flags, painted edge-to-edge on a canvas that was the same shape as an actual flag, had to ask themselves whether they were flags, or paintings of flags, or something between the two.
Johns also talked about art in different ways from the Abstract Expressionists. Barnett Newman once claimed that if “read…properly my work would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.” But in a sketchbook note from the early Sixties, Johns wrote, “Take an object, do something to it. Do something else to it.” At a time when the collectors John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Mark Rothko to paint monumental triptychs for their nondenominational chapel in Houston (1965–1966), Johns decided that “looking at a painting should not require a special kind of focus like going to church.”
Whereas Rothko’s floating expanses of dark color seemed to offer the possibility that art can provide transcendental spiritual experience, Johns’s work was down to earth. A flag or target by Johns is a real object occupying a real space, which the artist made by using certain procedures in a certain order. In his paintings you don’t find anything that Johns didn’t deliberately put into them—and that the viewer can’t see that he put into them. This is the moral center of his art. It doesn’t lie, it doesn’t deceive, and it doesn’t signify anything other than what the viewer can see in front of his eyes.
More than half a century has passed since Johns’s first flags and maps. They have been written about so often and seen in so many exhibitions, including an apotheosis of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1996, that you’d think there was nothing new to say about them. And yet a show about Johns’s use of gray that opened at the Metropolitan Museum in February focuses on an aspect of his work that has received little attention before: the large number of pictures in which he uses little or no color.
The show opens with a comparison between False Start and Jubilee, both paintings in oil on canvas from 1959. The first…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.