It all began with my painting a picture of an American flag. [...] So I went on to similar things like the targets -- things the mind already knows.And that's how the story begins and continues to this day. At the young age of 77, Jasper Johns continues his process of appropriating familiar imagery, as he says, "things the mind already knows," and creates lush painterly works in oils, encaustic, prints, drawing, and in the current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, Jasper Johns: Gray, sculpted metal and most anything that may be lying around the studio.
On the morning I arrived at the Met for the preview a wet snow was falling, melting on impact, giving my eyes a little gray adjustment before entering the building. The adjustment was soon shocked by the first Johns painting at the entry to the exhibit, the brilliant colors of False Start, and next to it, sort of a sister image in grey tones Jubilee. This is in my mind an apt start to this show, a taste of Johns's bravura with color in False Start and an example of his repetition of a theme but anew. The title Jubilee could also be a reference to the artist's Southern roots and sensibility.
Once past Jubilee's lush color it takes a moment to transition. I'm such a sucker for color that I was at first lost, unable to find a point of reference. I slowly circled through the galleries and then returned to the beginning. This not only gave me a moment to adjust but to feel the importance of gray and what an illusion and distraction color can be. In Johns's famous flag images, in color, we have so many pre-conceived notions of valor, country and patriotism, or negative connotations. In beautiful shades of grey, as life itself, the image is more vulnerable. I was reminded of the firemen and flags on September 11th, covered in gray soot, open, exposed.
That's the essence of gray: it allows you to see an object or image in an opposing way. Throughout his career Johns has taken our icons, the ordinary, and flipped them. Flags, typography, targets, or crosshatching may be a starting point for a painting, but through repetition in drawing, prints, castings, and a return to the theme throughout a career a metamorphosis takes place, altering our perception. The target is staring at me! The formally set type becomes a code to be broken and ordinary objects -- forks, spoons, eye glasses, and brooms -- develop a mind of their own; surrealism via Lewis Carroll.
Jasper Johns: Gray is open through May 4th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. More images and gallery shots on Flickr.
Related: Review of Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965, at the National Gallery of Art (February 21, 2007) Also see New Art TV and James Kalm on You Tube, featuring my cameo appearance at the end.