Jasper Johns: Gray
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through May 5
Medium-dark at the top of the stairs. The Jasper Johns banner gets prime placement over the main portal.
(Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website)
Only in New York, I suppose, could you find running concurrently one big museum show on Color and another on Gray.
I weighed in early on Color Chart at MoMA, but I’m coming late to the party at the Met. The reviews have already been written (see selected links at end of post). Not being a critic, I don’t expect to add anything new in the way of criticism, but I do have observations and a thorough understanding of encaustic, so perhaps I can fill in some of the cracks (literal and figurative) in the reportage.
The concept of this show, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago in cooperation with the Met, is splendid: a career retrospective as seen through the thin slice of one color. Who but Johns could have such a show? He has worked grisaille for his entire career, typically side by side with chromatic compositions, a point made right from the first two paintings of the exhibition, False Start and Jubilee.
Left: False Start, 1959; right: Jubilee, also 1959. Images from The New York Times website; no additional information on medium or size, but I'm pretty sure they were oil on canvas, and at least 60 x 48 inches, maybe larger
From there we leave color behind and enter the shadows. Slipping into this doppenganger oeuvre is strange and kind of wonderful. First of all, like a parallel universe, it's startling that it exists at all. And it's enormous, some 120 works. Here you see richness in ways you might overlook in the chromatic world. There’s the range of materials: graphite, charcoal and ink; Sculpmetal, lead and silver; oil and wax— each holding, releasing, reflecting the light and, more importantly, revealing the effort of the artist’s hand, in its own way. Then there’s the range of texture intrinsic to the materials: the crosshatching of the prints, the velvety lushness of charcoal, the sensuous ooze of dripped wax, the objects embedded and affixed. And, finally, there’s the richness of the repetition. Fifty-plus years of artmaking, fifty-plus years of numbers endlessly traced, of targets limned, of flags painted, incised, cast. Over and over.
To be honest, I find his painted grays leaden, the achromatic version of the Roach Motel—the light goes in but it doesn’t come out. On the other hand, the lead, as rendered in cast flags and numbers, fairly scintillates with light and shadow, warm and cool. That’s one of the surprises of this show. You think you know Johns’s work, and then you get hit with a realization like that.
My favorite grouping is of three small flags, each about 12 x 16 inches, installed in a corner. (I wish I could show you installation shots, but a non-photo policy and hyper-zealous guards put the kibosh on that.) The first is a flag painted in Sculpmetal. (Well, let’s be clear: it’s not actually a flag, of course, and it’s not actually sculptured metal.) Catty corner to it is a relief sculpture in lead sheet, an embossing of that first painting. Next to it is a sterling silver cast of the painting. Three nearly identical objects and each, up close, as different as can be in color, surface and material. And these three are each and all quite different from drawings and prints of the flag, as they, in turn, are different from an ashen version in encaustic. The exhibition could have been called Jasper Johns: Obsessions.
Jasper Johns; The Dutch Wives, 1975, encaustic and collage on canvas (two panels); overall 51 3/4 x 71 inches; collection of the artist. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website
I mentioned earlier that I thought Johns’s grays are leaden. There are some wonderful exceptions, and without exception they are paintings in which the unpigmented wax medium acts as a window to the newsprint that lies below the paint. Newsprint being newsprint, it has yellowed over time, so there’s an amber hue—almost a honey color—that warms and lightens the grisaille, illuminating it, really, from within the painting itself. The Dutch Wives—the diptych, above, whose panels hold almost identical crosshatch markings—is the very best example of a collaged newsprint painting that has mellowed this way. .(I wonder what it looked like in 1975 when it was painted.)
Johns is not a guy who lets much out unintentionally, so those little windows into the painting are almost erotic. As for the waxen drips here and elsewhere, well they're metaphoric in their ooziness.
I’ve used the Johns’s images sparingly, as the Met site carries dire non-repro warnings. So go see the show for yourself. And—shameless plug alert—if you want to know more about encaustic, take a look at my book, The Art of Encaustic Painting. There’s even little interview with Jasper in which he talks a bit about his process.
JM: What is working with encaustic like for you? Is it a struggle or does the wax just flow?
JJ: (Laughs) I wouldn't describe it as either extreme. One proceeds. One watches what happens. Things happen unexpectedly, some that I would be happy to live without. But it has been a pleasure to watch what happens.
I feel pretty much the same way about the show.
Coda: If you're going to visit the show in person or on line, make a detour to the Matthew Marks Gallery on 22nd Street to see Jasper Johns: Drawings 1997-2007. It's up through April 12. There's a greater chromatic range here, since the focus is not on gray but on works on paper. I was allowed to shoot in the gallery, and here's one of my favorite pieces from the back gallery. It's not a drawing at all, but a bronze cast from a number painting. I love how you can see the drips of wax paint. This is the ultimate in wax casting, no? The painting itself is sacrificed to the sculpture.
Recent reviews:. Jasper Johns: Smog Alert by R.C. Baker in the Village Voice
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. Jasper Johns Shows his True Colors by Roberta Smith in the New York Times (with slide show)
. The Gray Areas of Jasper Johns by Carol Vogel in the New York Times (also with slide show)
. Shades of Gray by Lance Esplund in The New York Sun
. Two Coats of Paint rounds up the reviews