In response to:
A Flag Is a Flag Is a Flag from the March 22, 2018 issue
To the Editors:
Your beautiful Jasper Johns cover—the painting “Summer” from his “Seasons” series of 1985–86—is part of the retrospective currently at the Broad museum in Los Angeles that Jason Farago writes about [NYR, March 22]. But there’s a problem with the way that series is displayed.
As Farago suggests, Johns’s paintings of the Eighties displayed “a new engagement with death, one that deepened amid the first awful years of the AIDS epidemic.” In the richly symbolic series, the artist (in shadow) has packed up his belongings in “Spring,” and hit the road in “Summer”; everything “falls” in “Fall,” and “Winter” brings snow and stasis. But at the Broad (and before that at the Royal Academy in London), “Spring” is hung last, suggesting that the artist was thinking about returning to life and youth after his inevitable decline. That seems unlikely.
Ever since the four paintings were first shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1987, “Spring” came first and “Winter” last—at the 1988 Venice Biennale, and now with the prints in the collections of the Met, the Tate, and MoMA. When I asked the show’s curators, Edith Devaney at the Royal Academy and Joanne Heyler at the Broad, why they hung “Spring” last, they agreed that it changed the meaning of the series, but said they did it because of chronology: he painted “Spring” last. But as Farago says, the principle of this show is the rejection of chronology in favor of a thematic organization. I wish they would hang them the way they always have been hung.
Professor of History Emeritus
University of California, Irvine