If contemporary art had a book of Genesis, it might well start with the night in late 1954 that Jasper Johns dreamed he was painting an American flag. He was twenty-four years old, a serious but largely untrained artist making scruffy assemblages of found objects, almost all of which he destroyed. Of the dream and its consequences he later remarked, “The unconscious thought was accepted by consciousness gracefully,” though completing the actual painting took months.

However slick and Pop-ish it may look in reproduction, Flag (1954–1955) is insistently handmade: three joined canvases (one for the star-covered canton, two for the stripes) covered with collaged newspaper over which he applied enamel paint and then, dissatisfied, took a crack at encaustic—pigment suspended in melted wax that, like a candle drip, keeps its volume as it cools and dries. (The Roman Egyptians used it for mummy portraits.) Tender and intense, the strokes nudge at and shy from the edges of the subcutaneous collage, executing what Johns described as “a very complex set of corrections.”

In Walter Tevis’s novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, the hero’s extraterrestrial origin is betrayed by his Bayer Aspirin tin, made from platinum, in not quite the right size, with fuzzy lines where the fine print should be—errors that arose from using low-res interplanetary television transmissions as a model. In the mid-1950s, Johns’s Flag must have felt similarly strange: utterly mundane and inscrutably alien.

His first museum appearance was in a show at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1957 titled “Artists of the New York School: Second Generation,” although “New York School” generally enfolded emotive abstraction, and his Green Target (1955) was not abstract (its concentric circles are subtle, but the title is a tell), and its emotions were muffled at best. There was just no better handle for what he was doing. After his Target with Four Faces (1955) appeared on the cover of Artnews the following January, the term “Neo-Dada” enjoyed a brief vogue (prompting Johns to find out more about Dada), but while his arrangement of plaster faces in wooden cubbies was peculiar, it has none of “the waywardness, the irreverence, or the untidiness” of Dada, Leo Steinberg noted.

It can be hard now to fathom the thrill and dismay Johns’s early paintings sparked. We have lived too long in the house they built. But to an art world high on abstraction and existentialist metaphysics (Clyfford Still once defined his paintings as “life and death merging in fearful union”), Flag delivered the gifts of cognitive dissonance and paradox. It was not abstract, nor was it a picture of a flag limp on a pole or gallantly streaming. There was no sky, no space, no illusion. If it partook of “a new kind of flatness, one that breathes and pulsates,” which Clement Greenberg admired in the art of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, it did so within the parameters of a very un-Greenbergian popular artifact. It treated a politically divisive symbol with technical care and editorial indifference.

And yet it ticked all the boxes of good art—it was visually engaging, philosophically provocative, thoughtfully made, and, in its own backhanded way, poignantly tactile, bruised, and guarded. Johns came with no manifesto, no plan for reforming people or society. In conversation he was pragmatic, explaining his work as responses to his own questions about what to make and how. For all these reasons, Flag came to bookmark the chapter break between stereotypical “modern art” (emphatic, high-minded, heroically self-involved) and “contemporary” (skeptical, outward-looking, and prone to question the terms of its own making).

For a century after photography reduced the miracle of objective representation to a trick of the light, modern art had filled the gap with subjectivity, expressing internal experience through distortion and, eventually, abstraction. As Greenberg wrote in the 1930s, the avant-garde strove “to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms…something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars, or originals.” But Johns wasn’t interested in things without similars. He was interested, as he put it in a famous formulation, in “things the mind already knows”—things already familiar to everyone, things read as code rather than really looked at, things that were flat, often printed, and generally not thought of as “things” at all. When he took up numerals as a subject, they were not the swift working ciphers of arithmetic but fondly recreated typographic forms, with serifs and ball terminals and swelling tails. Arranged in a grid, they might retreat into a snowfall of brushstrokes only to pop back into legibility with a slight change of attention. Drawn on top of one another in the images titled 0 through 9, their outlines meet in a comely tangle, part Nixie tube, part gothic tracery. We see numbers all the time, but Johns made us look.

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Cubism had seized upon workaday things in order to break them and reconfigure them like a spatchcocked chicken, but Johns was quaintly loyal to the coat hangers, thermometers, and rulers he attached to his canvases. (He has used fragments of the human figure, mainly casts and imprints, but even then the vibe is more Mr. Potato Head than horror film.) A cast plaster pen shrouded in encaustic on a 1961 canvas commands respect not for the pen as metaphor—smug rival of the sword—but for the pen as impartial familiar presence. “It seems to me,” he said of the commonplace, “that those things can be dealt with without having to judge them.”

Born in 1930, Johns grew up in South Carolina, shuttled between the households of his divorced parents, his grandparents, and aunts and uncles. (His remark that it “wasn’t specially cheerful” has an air of understatement.) A stint at the University of South Carolina was followed by a term at the Parsons School of Design in New York and a string of odd jobs until he was drafted in 1951. Returning to the city after two years in the army (stationed in South Carolina and Japan, he never saw combat), he quickly found a cohort of experimentally minded peers and mentors, including Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. The Johns–Rauschenberg romance ended badly but remains legendary in the art world for its “opposites attract” synergy and for the astonishing profusion of era-defining artworks it produced, among them many of Rauschenberg’s blithe and adventurous Combines and Johns’s object-paintings, with their hints of thwarted revelation—a drawer that does not open, a pen that cannot write.

Cage and Cunningham, meanwhile, offered proof of concept that one could make things in the world without trying to remake the world. To Cage’s benign ideal of composition as “simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living,” Johns added an autodidact’s drive to take a machine apart and build it back up again. He began by eliminating things that had already been done well by other people—foremost, illusion and emotional allegory—not because he disapproved, but because there was no need. (His admiration for the trompe l’oeil painter John F. Peto and for the expressionism of Edvard Munch is acknowledged in the numerous paintings, prints, and drawings to which he added their names or initials.) It is possible to see Flag or Target with Four Faces as idiosyncratic studies in functional design, iconography, tactility, and carpentry.

By thirty-two Johns was, according to Newsweek, “probably the most influential younger painter in the world.” Later it seemed he opened the door for almost everything that followed: Pop art’s embrace of the world in all its prefabricated glory, conceptualism’s inquiries into making and meaning, postmodernism’s philandering in the flea market of historical styles and personal artifacts. In the inventory of twentieth-century art movements—Cubism, surrealism, AbEx, and the rest—Johns, like Picasso, is simply his own chapter.

Now ninety-one, he has received virtually every major honor the visual arts have to offer. His studio note, “Take an object/Do something to it/Do something else to it,” has been an art school mantra for generations. He is famous enough to have had a cameo on The Simpsons (as a kleptomaniac—take an object and run). Every species of scholarly thought, from psychoanalysis to queer theory to iconographic symbol hunting, has been brought to bear on his work. The reference library includes a hefty compendium of his own writings and statements, three catalogues raisonnés of the prints and another of the monotypes, a six-volume catalogue raisonné of the drawings, and Roberta Bernstein’s magisterial five volumes of the painting and sculpture. (The first volume, an essential primer on all things Johns, is available separately as a monograph.)* One might reasonably wonder, What is there left to say?

It is the wrong question. With Johns it has always been about seeing; few artists have been so attentive to the lapses and unreliability of the seeing/saying connection. So the vast two-museum retrospective “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror” is, above all, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use one’s eyes. With more than five hundred paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures spread between the Whitney Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Mind/Mirror” presents a wealth of celebrated objects alongside rarely seen things from private collections (including the artist’s) and a welcome abundance of works on paper. Integrating these throughout, the exhibitions engineer what feels like a natural meander through Johns’s career, enabling visitors to follow an idea or image as it slips from one set of materials to another and from one decade to the next.

The museums are close enough geographically that it made no sense to travel the show from one to the next, though distant enough that most visitors will visit only one. The curators, Scott Rothkopf (in New York) and Carlos Basualdo (in Philadelphia), thus settled on the neatly Johnsian strategy of echoing but not quite repeating themselves. The two shows share the same ten-part disposition of themes (“Constellations,” “Reveries,” etc.) but fill them in different ways: under the heading “Display,” Philadelphia recreates Johns’s 1960 show at the Leo Castelli Gallery; the Whitney recreates his 1968 show at Castelli. Both exhibit casts of his 1960 bronze flashlight sculpture, and each gets two of the four “Seasons” paintings (1985–1986) that marked his half-turn to self-portraiture.

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The first, dream-inspired Flag (1954–1955) opens the proceedings in Philadelphia, positioned to bring you close enough to notice its curious concatenation of parts. At the Whitney, the elevator doors open onto a long, charismatic wall of prints, running from the loosely drawn black-and-white lithograph Target (1960) to a new etching of stick figures gathered around a large skull under a night sky. Printmaking has never been a sideshow for Johns; its logistical permutations—flipping things left-right, switching between full color and grayscale, transferring things from one surface to another—suit his habits of mind and feed into everything he does. Hung in two rows that form a horizontal axis of imperfect reflection, the Whitney’s print timeline advertises the show’s conceptual structure and, like the overture to a musical, introduces the main motifs and hooks to follow.

Given how widely Johns’s art has been reproduced, it can be easy to forget how insistently physical it is, how florid with incidental detail. The paintings can be disarmingly clunky, joined with hinges and metal straps, blanketed in dermal encaustic or paint roughened with sand. Many of the drawings were made on top of his own prints, revealing polyphonic conversations between the given and the remade. In his eerily beautiful ink-on-plastic drawings, puddles become puzzles, and puzzles become pictures built by surface tension and evaporation. A mesmerizing room at the Whitney is filled with small works made throughout his career, each no more than a few inches a side. It is possible to look at the wallet-sized Gray Numbers (1959–1961) for a long time and feel it change in your mind. Even in this tiny canvas there are too many particulars to hold onto, so you are drawn back again and again to the surface, away from the familiar sequence and toward a kind of limitless specificity.

Both shows are strikingly handsome. Johns’s penchant for bilateral symmetry and echoing refrains, for cognates and ghosts, lends a lively cadence to the art’s exposition in space. In all these ways, “Mind/Mirror” is a triumph. And yet…

For a record of the most ambitious exhibition of the world’s most illustrious living artist, the catalog comes with an unexpected whiff of apology. “Today,” Rothkopf writes in his introductory essay, Johns’s work “can sometimes feel more rooted in the past than the present.” He positions Johns as a lens for “understand[ing] an inflection point in history,” undeniably important but pinned in place, “an immovable feature in a landscape against which contemporary life continues to unfold.” Johns’s conceptual innovations, he suggests, have been “outstripped by those of wilder progeny that now perhaps seem more of our time,” while the artist’s continued attachment to painting and “careful humanist inquiry” mark him as “less Prometheus than Moses, someone who led his people to the Promised Land but didn’t go inside.”

The catalog works hard to compensate for this perceived lack of timeliness: its wrapper reproduces eighty-six artworks in the format of a Google image search, and its contributors include “artists, poets, and philosophers, most of whom are writing about his art for the first time.” Some offer historical information and analysis, some present personal reflections, some interrogate the artist’s sexuality, his whiteness, his southernness, and (as always) his lack of interest in declarative position statements.

This is not, however, just a prophylactic mea culpa for having ceded so much real estate to an eminent old white guy. The intimation that Johns is not quite cutting-edge has been around for a good fifty years. He may have concocted a paradigm shift back in the day, but, the refrain goes, what has he done for us lately? It’s reasonable to ask. History is full of artists who made crucial contributions in one decade and then just puttered along through those that followed. Johns, like Picasso again, is unusual in the precocity of his early achievement and in his longevity, but a chart of his “works cited” in the art historical literature would take the shape of a playground slide—flags and targets at the top of the ladder followed by a long downward slope. So while “Mind/Mirror” performs a valuable service in illuminating the shape and texture of that early paradigm shift, it also, and perhaps more importantly, follows the artist into the present. Johns’s last New York retrospective took place at MoMA a quarter-century ago. There’s a lot to catch up on.

Though Johns is known for endlessly recycling earlier motifs, he has never stood still. By the early 1960s, his stable geometries of stars, bars, and circles had grown ganglier and more fitful. In Land’s End (1963, shown in Philadelphia) stenciled color names float over and under an umbrous field of blues and grays; a ruler lies horizontally in the semicircle it has inscribed like a windshield wiper, and a skid of dark paint rises through the center, topped with a handprint. The impression of a storm at sea is inescapable—brief bits of yellow and red at top recall the breaking light in The Raft of the Medusa—but the anthemic thrill is subverted by the onsite list of parts: hand, ruler, red, yellow, blue. It’s like getting a joke and having it explained at the same time.

Untitled, 2017 by Jasper Johns

John Lund/Low Road Studio/Forman Family Collection/© 2021 Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Jasper Johns: Untitled, 2017

This darker, more precarious tone has been attributed to Johns’s breakup with Rauschenberg, but he had also started reading Wittgenstein and looking hard at Duchamp, whose work, he wrote, “brings into focus the shifting weight of things, the instability of our definitions and measurements.” To enact that instability, he created pictures like the boisterous, sixteen-foot-long mashup According to What (1964, at the Whitney) that were stylistically eclectic and overtly linguistic. Aluminum letters on hinges spell out color names; screenprinted pseudo-newsprint runs into smoothly painted gradients and hectic brushwork; a half-body cast hangs in an upside-down chair. At the bottom, a small canvas can be unhooked to reveal a silhouette of Duchamp. Like a scrolling panorama, it has no center; unlike a panorama it changes personality at every seam.

In the 1970s Johns changed approach again, taking up a motif that, for the first time, actually meant nothing. The “crosshatches” (a slight misnomer since they don’t actually cross) are clumps of parallel marks, roughly the length of adult fingers, a pattern he once glimpsed on a car driving the other way on the Long Island Expressway. Repeated in certain formulations, they create rolling, spatially confusing territories. When sufficiently complex and regular, the structure is sensed subliminally long before it can be named analytically. The tessellation might mirror itself, as in the prismatic Rorschach painting and prints Corpse and Mirror, with their ghostly intimation of a hovering figure, or it might roll up and down like icons in a slot machine, as in the Usuyuki series, whose flickering light is as close to elegance as Johns has allowed himself to get.

The snapback to recognizable things came as unexpectedly as the departure from them. Adapting the pictures-gathered-on-a-wall format of American still-life painters like Peto and William Harnett, Johns painted borrowed images in a shallow space. The inventory of Racing Thoughts (1983, Whitney) includes an avalanche warning with skull and crossbones, a jigsaw-puzzle portrait of Leo Castelli, a Barnett Newman lithograph, a Mona Lisa repro held up with trompe l’oeil tape, a trompe l’oeil nail holding nothing. A tub faucet and handles rise from the lower edge, suggesting a bathroom, but what to make of the quirky, puckered pot, the white ceramic in the form of a Rubin face-or-vase illusion, or the tightly scripted interlocking shapes that cover the left side of the canvas?

If viewers once wondered what Johns meant by the images he chose, at least they had known where they came from. That was understood to be the point of “things the mind already knows.” Now it seemed they required footnotes. The odd pot, we learned, was the creation of George Ohr, the self-styled Mad Potter of Biloxi, whose work Johns collects. (“There is something interesting about such a primitive way of making forms, something touching in its fragility. It is all about labor and skill.”) Even more eccentric, the interlocking design was revealed as a tracing of the bloated, scabrous wretch in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece (1512–1516), cropped and inverted.

These developments were greeted with bafflement and a bit of the pique provoked by inside jokes. People who had venerated Johns as the champion of the impersonal and epistemic were aggrieved. The word “hermetic” gained currency. The four “Seasons” paintings brought further autobiographical elements, including the painted shadow of the artist himself. Mirror’s Edge (1992) added a pinwheel galaxy and the floor plan of his grandfather’s house, recreated from memory and pictured as a curling blueprint. There was a sense, Carroll Dunham writes in one of the best essays in the catalog for “Mind/Mirror,” that Johns’s “‘things the mind already knows’ had evolved into things his mind already knows.”

At the same time, however, Johns was inventing some entirely new, completely accessible conceits. A folded, hanging cloth might call up thoughts of Veronica’s veil or Raphaelle Peale’s marvelous Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception (circa 1822), but it can also be understood simply as a pictured cloth. In Montez Singing (1989, Whitney) the features of a face have wandered off to eccentric locations: the eyes stick like limpets to the margins, one in an upper corner, one lower on the opposite side; the lips lounge along the bottom, while a slight squiggle of a nose floats free. Where the brow would be is a small picture of a boat with red sails, suspended from a faux nail. It is a painter’s painting, taking things that everyone has played with and arranging them in a way that is unprecedented yet coherent. There is a footnote here as well: Montez Bramlett Johns was Johns’s step-grandmother and “Red Sails in the Sunset” was a song she sang, though as Dunham points out, the information may deepen empathy, but it explains nothing.

Two decades on, it is easier to see all these pictures not as perverse rebuses but as further adventures in painting and seeing. “The task of art,” the philosopher Emmanuel Alloa writes in another fine catalog essay, “is that of undoing recognition, so as to rivet the gaze to what is far too well known.” So, like the Montez face, we need to point our eyes in different directions, ask them to do different things, while holding onto a sense of connection. The Isenheim tracings (Johns has done many) can be seen as an extension of the crosshatches: How attenuated can a structure be and still register as ordered in the mind?

And while it may feel like a game of “I Spy” played out in someone else’s attic (albeit a beautifully arranged one), this mode also hints at the unconstrained connectedness of the world—the sense, as William James put it a century ago, that

no one point of view or attitude commands everything at once in a synthetic scheme…. Things are “with” one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates everything. The word “and” trails along after every sentence.

One of the things that becomes clear in “Mind/Mirror” is that Johns’s art has never been one with the moment of its making. There was always a backward glance, even in that first flag, with its underlayment of cast-off newspapers, its fresh paint made to look like it had been around the block. He did not paint his first fifty-star flag until 1965, six years after Hawaii joined the Union. In 1960, when he decided to make a sculpture of a flashlight, he found it difficult to locate the right model: “I looked for a week for what I thought looked like an ordinary flashlight, and I found all kinds of flashlights with red plastic shields, wings on the sides, all kinds of things.” Finally, he found one that looked like the ordinary object he had in mind, the kind he had used as a kid.

“Everything I do is attached to my childhood,” he has acknowledged. Beyond floor plans and flashlights, it is tempting to see in his attraction to modest objects and unstable meanings the shadow of a child passed from house to house. (This is not particularly fanciful: the 1986 painting Spring and its many related works feature the shadow of a child and a ladder borrowed from Picasso’s Minotaur Moving His House.) His early subjects were the stuff of the schoolroom: numbers, alphabets, flags, maps, color names, rulers. The vertical hand that erupts through Land’s End may mark the signal of a drowning man, but it is also the urgent gesture of a child who thinks he knows the answer.

Mastery of these symbols is dangled before children as equivalent to mastery of the world, but there are moments when the conventions of the adult world are suddenly revealed as such—when you realize that the border on a map is not drawn on the ground, or when someone tells you that base ten’s zero through nine is just one of a potentially infinite number of ways to represent quantities. Those moments may be terrifying or elating or both, but their message is simple: there is another way to see things.

This is the delight of ambiguous images that pop up so often in Johns, like the face-vase or the duck-rabbit (which drew the attention of Wittgenstein, and which Johns has paired with the child’s shadow). Here instability is limited to two positions, which you can control: changing your mind about what’s important turns one subject into another. As far back as the 1960s Johns had made flags in inverted colors (green, black, and orange rather than red, white, and blue) to invite retinal aftereffects: if you stare at the image for several seconds and then move your eyes, you see a color-corrected phantom, a picture that exists only in your mind and only for a moment. Contrary to the deflating adult adage, you can have it both ways.

Johns has spent much of the past decade tampering with tracings of two photographs of grief—the series titled Regrets is built on a tattered picture of Lucian Freud, posed by Francis Bacon in a state of theatrical despair, while Farley Breaks Down and related works use a Life magazine photograph shot by Larry Burrows in 1965 of a distraught young marine after the death of a comrade in Vietnam. In both bodies of work, the initial photographs are mirrored and doubled, deprived of the expected color values, so the picture initially presents itself as an intricate all-over mosaic of shapes. Let your eye roam, however, and identifiable elements gradually rise to the surface—an elbow first, then a boot, then a head buried in a hand.

Untitled, 1998 by Jasper Johns

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York/© 2021 Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Jasper Johns: Untitled, 1998

In one poised and lovely monotype in Philadelphia, Johns has reflected the central action along two vertical axes, creating unexpected contours: a trapezoidal space between arm and crate blooms into something like a heart, while crumpled fatigues and a boot heel frame an intricate urn-like shape, a face-vase without a face. In the staged Freud/Bacon photo, mirrored negative space conveniently outlines a skull, a stagey Halloween metonym, death at arm’s length. In the Farley/Burrows picture of real and visceral mourning, the mirror produced nothing that can be recognized, just a particular and attentive absence.

What has Johns done for us lately? Pretty much what he did for us in the first place: he continually disrupts the mental shorthand that converts complex visual experience into simple mental categories, with all their buttressing opinions, received wisdom, and personal preferences. In a world (including the art world) where “visuals” are used to simplify arguments and kindle beliefs, Johns reminds us that doubling, bifurcation, and uncertainty are the terms of vision itself. Writing about the fraught confrontation between abstraction and figuration in the 1950s, Roberta Bernstein notes that Johns “bridged the divide by refuting polarization.” It hardly seems necessary to emphasize the relevance to our own moment.

Five hundred objects is a lot to take in, but two works in “Mind/Mirror” in particular remain lodged in my brain. One is the tiny Gray Numbers mentioned above. The other is one of a body of works made around the turn of the millennium, all featuring a length of white string draped across the canvas, dropping and rising in a catenary curve (most familiar from suspension bridges). In Untitled (1998, Whitney) the string crosses a slender canvas that is half covered with the design of a “Chinese” Halloween costume Johns remembered from childhood, half with harlequin diamonds in the colors of midcentury linoleum. The string descends from the top of a wooden slat almost to the picture’s bottom edge before staging a small recovery (see illustration above). As usual with Johns, it is hard to say why this is so affecting—sad, sweet, yet robust—other than to note that the point of a paradox is not to resolve it, but to find insight in being strung between two points.

“Not knowing exactly is something that I find fascinating,” Johns has observed. “Whatever the basis, it probably moves one to see life in an ambiguous way.” It’s a lesson that never gets old.