Uncomfortable Questions: Jasper Johns at Matthew Marks
Jasper Johns: Recent Paintings and Works on Paper
February 9 to April 6, 2019
522 West 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, matthewmarks.com
What do we expect from the late work of great painters? If you are a Romantic, your proof of greatness might be evinced by a final letting go——a pure abandonment to the id, a total acceptance of the painter’s deepest urges. No second guesses, no capitulation to analytical thinking, no recycling of past successes; just allowing the body, with its supposedly pure inner wisdom, to do what it needs to do. A Romantic might appreciate the arid grace of dementia-afflicted late de Kooning, or the brazen “blend of slapstick idiocy and gallantry,” as the painter Carroll Dunham once wrote of libidinous late Picasso. For a Romantic, this might seem the heroic response to the knowledge that one’s time is about up.
But are we getting something different from the late work of Jasper Johns? Johns has never been a Romantic. Don’t expect to find a “rage against the dying of the light.” Which is not to say there is no passion in these paintings, it’s just that his relentless denials have conditioned us to be circumspect about making any claims about them at all. So how do we react to Johns’s late work? Despite the startling complex simplicity of his initial paintings of flags and targets, he has gradually developed a quality of rigorous self-examination and reflection on the processes through which he has created his work.
Alexi Worth, in his catalogue essay for the exhibition, discusses what he terms as Johns’s “scrupulousness”: writes of how
Johns seems to be allergic to the nervous approximations that characterize much art talk — not to mention ordinary conversation. He would rather say nothing than assent to a banality; would rather deconstruct a question than accept a false premise. The more one talks with him, the more his scrupulousness seems distinctively extreme: not just a mannerism, but a deeply ingrained reservoir of feeling.
Looking at these latest works, Johns’ scrupulousness seems to have intensified rather than been left behind. You can almost hear him ask himself, “What am I doing today?” or “Now what happens if I do it this way?” As the artist approaches 90, these questions take on poignant urgency. Though each image might address a new subject, every piece here is filled with references to images, marks, and tropes from earlier work. Even without the ubiquitous skulls and skeletons that peak out of many of these works, it is almost impossible to look at them and not think that here is a person patiently and systematically facing the prospect of death: The completion of the content of his artistic life.
A whole series of work in this show centers on an image of grief. The words “Farley Breaks Down After Larry Burrows,” stenciled on each of the untitled canvases and drawings and prints in this group, refer to an image in a famous LIFE magazine photo essay by Larry Burrows of Farley, a mission leader during Vietnam. Johns has chosen the particular photo of Farley burying his sobbing face in his arms after a battle where comrades were killed and wounded. But curiously, the original title of the Burrows photo was “Farley Gives Way,” not breaks down. What we see in these paintings, drawings, and prints is a literal breaking down of the image’s surface; not just an emotional breakdown but an actual disintegration of the image into marks and puddles of paint, and sometimes, silkscreened cartoons and play money.
Understanding this photographic moment of grief is not only about the grief, but the effect of death on the living. Each image can be seen as a completed text which — like a life itself — is unified, but composed of many small, seemingly random experiences whose relationships to each other, upon examination, become infinitely complex.
Other references to his own earlier works abound: For instance, the vase/silhouettes figure/ground optical illusion image. Do you see two symmetrical facing profiles, or the vase that exists as the negative space between them? Johns favors optical illusions that, depending on one’s attention, flip between two images such as a vase or a pair of silhouettes, or a duck and a rabbit, or (but not here) a young woman and an old crone. In the context of these paintings, the conundrum of contemplating these dualities of image from a single point of view could be a metaphor for one’s inability to imagine the disintegration of one’s own consciousness. We can grieve for the dead, we can know that we will die, but we can’t imagine being dead. It’s reminiscent of the title of Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”
Not only do we have this examination of a man burying his face in his arms in the “Farley Breaks Down” paintings (ironically, the photographer himself later died in a helicopter crash), but there is also a series of works based on John Deakin’s photograph of a young Lucian Freud on a bed, with his face held in his right hand. The photo, which had belonged to Francis Bacon, is paint-spattered, creased, folded and torn. Johns already used this photo for a series of paintings titled “Regrets” that were shown at MoMA a few years ago. In it are newspapers on the floor, and a diamond patterned quilt on the bed. You can see why it spoke to Johns——it has so many iconographic elements that he already uses. The folds, patterns, newsprint, and splotches create a very Johnsian, mark-abstracting surface. Curiously, the resulting images in both these series reminded me of the way Bonnard broke down his painting surfaces into a series of abstract shapes and marks, which adds the possibility of another layer of meaning, as Bonnard’s paintings, though in a different way, also explored quotidian daily life. By horizontally mirroring the image of the torn photo, Johns further abstracts it and turns a part of a white wall into a shape that becomes a skull.
The ideas of mirroring and reflection have occupied Johns’s process for a long time. In treating an area as a mirror, he turns the formal idea of flatness into a more sophisticated and useful concept that the surface of the canvas is a field, with properties that the painter assigns to it. Mirroring might have to do with his long involvement with printmaking but it is worth remarking upon because it seems to be another way of breaking down an image, making forms abstract, and destabilizing a single reading.
Despite flashes of mordant humor – a whole series of dancing skeletons, for instance – we don’t have the pleasure in this late work of the lush encaustic surfaces familiar in early Johns, or the startlingly opaque conundrum of a simple, ubiquitous pop image to offset the lugubrious tone. Some of these paintings even have dispiriting harsh acrylic texture, and if you didn’t know the photographic references some were based on, you might not have a clue of what you were looking at.
Deconstructing these images is an endless task, and trying to find the Easter eggs of hidden references and relationships keeps a viewer in a submissive, student-like relationship to the artist. For instance, Johns constantly references Picasso. The double silhouettes could be Picasso profiles, or Johns’ own profile, or both. There is a series that uses a Picasso figure with a hand to its mouth. Is the point to identify his artistic stature as equal to that of Picasso, or does he have other motives?
In place of solipsistic questions like, “Do those ASL hand signs of letters stand for significant initials?” or “What image did those stick figures holding torches or brushes come from?” we are better off asking “What do I feel when looking at this and why am I feeling that way?”
Conversely, we could also use these paintings to consider the nature of grief and mortality. What is a life? What is regret? What is it that we grieve? Perhaps the feelings we are left with mirror our struggles with our own mortality. The paintings are the intense crackling evidences of a lively mind, pushing and probing and asking uncomfortable questions about what it feels like to be alive and continue to relentlessly produce, after having lived so long.