February 9, 2008

On Jasper Johns at the Met

At artnet, Donald Kuspit suggests that Johns is a good avant-garde conformist, and that his gray is evocative of the "man in the gray flannel suit." "Modernism was no longer a terra incognita of art when Johns entered its ranks, but an established phenomenon, if still a little risqué, at least in the United States. If art hangs like a cross around the necks of Duchamp and Pollock, signaling that they are blessed by it -- even if they mortified it on a cross of their own making -- then art hangs around Johns’ neck like the albatross that hung around the Ancient Mariner’s neck, signaling he is cursed by it....Each gray hallucination in the exhibition seemed like a silent film of a staged explosion or its aftermath. The violence seemed to whimper, and the whimper grew more excruciating with every hallucination. There was a sense of anti-climax, mined for all it was worth. Modernism was re-playing itself like a broken record, squeezing every last bit of enigma and insinuation out of the medium. But the uncanny was exhausted. This gray was not oceanic, as in Pollock’s Ocean Grayness (1953). This gray seemed stale, flat, unprofitable and sometimes pedestrian. I thought I was looking at the suicide of art in process. Even when the gray -- it had certainly lost a lot of subtlety from Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black (1871), more commonly known as "Whistler’s Mother" -- was punctuated by bright spots or energetic streaks of color, or a photograph of Leo Castelli, Johns’ art dealer father figure, or Johns’ own scowling face on an advertising campaign-for-myself button, I felt suffocated by the paranoid boredom grimacing in John’s hallucinations." Read more.

In the NYSun, Lance Esplund writes that Johns' gray is reflective or icy. "It is ghostly, smoky, or hairy. Gray is scumbled, worked up into a frenzy; or it is sluggish, a primeval sludge. Generally, though, Mr. Johns's gray, no matter what face it puts on, is as dense and unresponsive as cement; gray shuts down as soundly as the door of an iron tomb. In what almost can be described as Mr. Johns performing a feat of magical misdirection, his art closes down and deadens; pushes us away, rather than bringing us closer. We are made aware not of Mr. Johns's artworks' substance (if, in fact, they have any), but of their banal and meaningless gray surfaces — the brushstrokes and materials out of which they are made, as well as the objects that are attached to the artworks, or to which the artworks refer....In Mr. Johns's art we are made aware of the means by which it was constructed — where it began and how it ended; but we are allowed little, if anything, in between. An engagement with the artwork on any other grounds is a dead end, a rather useless endeavor. The poet and playwright Samuel Beckett correctly observed about Mr. Johns's work (although he was voicing approval), 'No matter which way you turn you always come up against a stone wall.' I guess this show's message, then, is 'Hail to the master of the stone wall.' I prefer art, however, that opens doors, rather than shuts them." Read more.

Dan Bischoff in The Star Ledger: " There are gray maps, flags (Johns' encaustic painting of an American flag was for a time the most expensive painting by a living American artist back in the 1980s), targets, numbers, alphabets, handprints and skulls in this show. They have an elegance of reference that is understated and notional, as if gray were the new black." Read more.

Roberta Smith in the NYTimes: "Moody, opulent and eloquent, it examines his many encounters with shades of gray and discovers a veritable shadow career. It also offers a supremely clear account of Mr. Johns’s maturation from brilliant, methodical young artist to a deeper, more lyrical, less predictable one....This is a marvelous show, a shadow retrospective of a career within a career. It amplifies gray into a color spectrum all its own. And it illuminates 50 years of a life saved by, and lived for, the incessant pursuit of art." Read more.

Jerry Saltz at artnet: "Although the show is ravishing and brings you into close contact with the numinous ways Johns combines process, materials, tangibility, language, thought and seeing, it’s too big. That in turn robs it of some of the radiance it had this fall at the Art Institute of Chicago. At the Met, the works are set too close together; a small alcove is crammed with ten pieces; shiny black floors, stark white walls, and a lack of natural light impede the resonant sensuality and obdurate otherness of Johns’ work. As alluring as "Gray" is, it reminds us that although the Met gets the first 50,000 years of art so right, it often gets the last 50 wrong." Read more.

Blogger (and encaustic virtuoso) Joanne Mattera: "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." Read more.

"Jasper Johns: Gray," curated by James Rondeau and Douglas Druick at The Art Institute of Chicago. Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY. February 5 - May 4. Check out the NYTimes slide show of images.

Related post:
Jasper Johns: Eminence gray

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