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Jasper Johns could well claim to be the most successful artist ever. It is not simply the conventional trappings of success he has earned: institutional and commercial take-up from the get-go; sustained interest and astronomical prices paid for his work at auction; broad historical influence across generations. More impressive than all these is the way he successfully sustains his own artfully disguised intentions. Setting out to be so, he is a perennial enigma.
With most artists, you can turn to graphic works for a solution, or at least a clue, to their thoughts and ambitions. A neat distinction between mediums has little bearing, however, on this artist’s modus operandi, as the hermetically sealed, densely cerebral drawings from the last decade, on view at Matthew Marks largest gallery space, on West 22nd Street, make clear. This show augments the survey of his paintings, sculptural reliefs, and works in graphic mediums in “Jasper Johns: Gray” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
With other artists, you might expect drawings to be exploratory, open-ended inquiries, whereas large canvases and wood constructions would be polished, resolved images. With Mr. Johns, regardless of the medium he works in, his busy, agile yet weirdly reticent hand presents an oxymoronic mix of attributes, being at once tentative and emphatic. Every mark he makes has quotation marks around it. What look like expressive gestures are imitations of expressiveness; what strike, at first, as bright colors are signifiers of themselves rather than sumptuous color experiences per se. He is the master of “as if.”
His Met show, on view through May 4, is something of an apotheosis, and has achieved greater critical favor than his problematically sprawling 1996 Museum of Modern Art retrospective. The focus on a use of gray throughout his career gives probity and rigor to his project, but it does not make for a likeable exhibition. If a thesaurus were to take hold of his banner on the Met’s façade it might read: “Jasper Johns: Gray, Dull, Dreary, Overcast, Compromised, Ambiguous.” Without actually detracting from the experience of the work, none of these adjectives would be out of place with so willfully obtuse an artist as the awkward, ungenerous Mr. Johns.
The drawing show at Matthew Marks is, nonetheless, a gentler, kinder way into Mr. Johns’s steely artistic heart. This is, perhaps, because it is selected and installed to demonstrate the variety of projects filling his mature years, whereas the museum show is focused on finding a unifying thread through his career.
And yet, Mr. Johns is still the most solipsistic of artists, and never more so than when playing with a variety of materials. He seems forever lost in the act of fiddling and fumbling through possibilities, and as befits his sensibility, those possibilities are as likely to be past as present or future images.
The display in the main gallery opens with “Usuyuki” (2002), a tall, vertical work in ink on paper whose format recalls Japanese pillar prints. Its subject is one of Mr. Johns’s most familiar, almost trademark motifs: the crosshatch. This device typifies the artist’s occupancy of a gray area (there you go again) between abstraction and representation, as the cross hatch is an appropriated thing in the real, observed world, and yet it does not depict a thing so much as a way of describing — hatching is a means to an end, a way to give volume or definition to an area. Mr. Johns introduced hatching in the early 1970s, so this drawing thinks back to an early discovery. Or, put another way, avoids thinking, and is like practicing scales, a painterly kind of calisthenics.
An untitled piece from 2004 in acrylic, oilstick, pastel, and both graphite and colored pencil explores another familiar Johnsian device: crazy paving. In Johns, the motif is a kind of conceptual support rather as paper is physically. Something the artist can take as a given and then push up against. Here, the different mediums are deployed in a way that suggests a screen partially covering the field of irregular shapes in orange, blue, and green, set against a white ground. A vertical division, cutting across shapes, has one half filled in neatly, in solid paint, with the other scribbled in, in more frangible mediums like pastel.
When he restricts himself to a singular drawing implement, the graphite pencil, in “Map” (2005), for instance, he does the opposite of what you might expect. Instead of linear, exploratory marks, the lead generates evenly modulated all-overness. Again, the map is an early Johns motif — like his targets, numbers, and flags, it is an almost universal signifier, a recognizable quantity. Rich with associations yet equally humble in its ubiquity and banality, it finds a corollary in Mr. Johns’s practice, in markmaking that is handmade and yet undemonstrative, distinct but not inimitable, registering the nervous system of the artist without expressing emotion.
Just when you think you are getting the hang of Mr. Johns’s attitude towards subject matter, however, he surprises with a goofy, complex kind of imagery that intimates that motif matters after all. That there are thoughts and feelings behind the choice of what to fuss and fiddle with, even if the fussing and fiddling themselves remain emotionally undirected. Several untitled drawings of the late 1990s, for instance, explore a deposition theme with loose, schematic figures negotiating a cross form from different angles. These relate to an untitled work (1992–95) in MoMA’s collection that graced the cover of his retrospective there.
Finally, a series called “Bushbaby” collides several Johnsian motifs — depictively rendered rulers, a harlequin diamond pattern, a paddle-like structure — in what seems a purposive, symbolic composition. In some of these drawings, he uses ink on plastic or Mylar paper so that the medium seems in a permanent state of fluidity; in “Bushbaby” (2004), by contrast, the use of a soft, rubbery commercial material, Permalife, commonly used in sports facilities or children’s playpens, provides a brittle support for scrubbed away flourishes of dried out brushtroke. This work has a range of color, texture, and mood that belies the artist’s habitual reticence. It is “as if” he really does mean something.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 25, 2008 under the heading “Jasper Johns’s Modus Operandi”