The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues
APR 2019 Issue

Jasper Johns: Recent Paintings & Works on Paper

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 2018. Oil on canvas, 39 x 30 1/8 inches. © 2019 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

This old dog can teach you more tricks than you can ever learn. Jasper Johns (b. May 15, 1930) fills Matthew Marks's gallery with 37 works and a 24-piece suite of drawings in ink on paper or plastic. But the 37, all produced between 2012 and 2018, include myriad media: oil on canvas, acrylics, encaustics, ink, watercolor, monotypes, linocuts, charcoal, and sugarlift aquatints. Johns, it seems, has mastered the art of keeping busy in his eighty-ninth year. To the point that he seems more a whirling dervish than a man in the autumn of life.

What do we mean when we speak of an artist's "late style"? It may be a kind of euphemism for decline or it may chronicle a late, totally unexpected, flowering of an aged genius. It may be work marked by what Kenneth Clark (in "The Artist Grows Old") called "transcendental pessimism," the phenomenon of an artist's being haunted by the menace of an ending, by the presence of end of life things in his imagination. In this exuberant show, there is no decline. There is playfulness mixed with melancholy, as if one Johns could snap another out of maudlin sadness by saying, "Come, come, enough of that. Get to work." But when he works he, inevitably it seems, meditates on loss.

On View
Matthew Marks Gallery
February 9 – April 6, 2019
New York

In this show Johns departs from the overtly elegiac style he used a decade ago (in another Matthew Marks show), where his allusion to Merce Cunningham (1919­­­­-2009) was poignant and specific. Here Johns conjures loss with a series of works derived from Larry Burrows's 1965 photograph of marine lance corporal James C. Farley hunched over and weeping after a failed helicopter mission during the Vietnam War. The photo, the pathetic denouement, to Burrows's ride on Yankee Papa 13 is simultaneously reportage and art. The event did take place, but the photograph transforms circumstance into art. Johns retransforms Burrows's own artistic metamorphosis of experience by using Farley's contorted body, twisted into a Rodin-like pose, as a motif.

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 2018. Oil on canvas, 50 3/4 x 34 1/8 inches. © 2019 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Untitled (2018) is a 78 × 60 encaustic on canvas, a large painting that summarizes this theme in the show. Johns translates Burrows's photograph of Farley into his own painterly idiom. Farley in the photo is hunched over some packing cases in a room flooded with light: behind him, to our left double doors stand open; above and right a small window lets in more light. Johns flattens the interior, while retaining some depth through a horizon line. But the space is dominated by a segmented, bamboo-like vertical column. The interior of the original storage shed becomes a landscape whose predominant color is jungle green.

The mood lightens in Untitled (2012), an oil on canvas. Here, and in some other pieces, Johns reprises his Shrinky Dink paintings (ca. 2011). Once again he turns to the trick vase that is also two faces in profile staring at each other, though in this instances the vase is set in a collage-like setting, framed on the left by bright blue bosomy shapes and, on the right, by a swath of black vaguely reminiscent of Robert Motherwell. But the humor of the pictorial paradox turns black at the end of the show with six paintings of skeletons seemingly derived from Mexican Day of the Dead figures. These figures, a collective, but ironic, even humorous memento mori, are complimented by 24 ink on paper or plastic drawings from 2018 that present Mr. Bones in black and white.

Though much is taken by time, much abides. Long Live Jasper Johns!

A catalogue with an essay by Alexi Worth accompanies the show.


Alfred Mac Adam

Alfred Mac Adam is Professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He is a translator, most recently of Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo (2021), about Mexico City.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues