Art In Conversation
On Jasper Johns
“I think that theres a clear and strong ethics in the way in which he conducts himself, a deep respect for the viewer that is just in everything he says and everything he does, and its fully, deeply reflected in the work.”
PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia Museum of Art
Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror
September 29, 2021 – February 13, 2022
New York CityWhitney Museum of American Art
Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror
September 29, 2021 – February 13, 2022
As Alfred North Whitehead once stated, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them.” I’ve been thinking lately of Whitehead’s philosophy of process, which argues against a strict interpretation of mind-body dualism in favor of the notion of “actual occasions”: that is, a succession of states or diverse intuitions regarding our experiences—be it religious, scientific, or aesthetic—as the central and integrated feature of reality. One can readily, if willing, propose that the most reasonable descriptions of reality can concretely be revealed through the act of creativity, the act of making that may lead to our explicit speculations of the world, which—in its most elemental amplitude—is made up of momentary bits of our experiences rather than enduring material substances. I’ve been thinking likewise of John Dewey’s philosophy of pragmatism, being one of our most key proponents in making philosophy useful to the needs of our democratic life, which read, “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”
As we’ve been experiencing the fragility of our democracy in the last few years, we’re surely reminded of it being a perpetual experiment, one that requires constant mindfulness of the deceptively simple act of making as a learning process. I’ve been thinking of when and how American art entered world-wide recognition through Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, especially through the work of Jackson Pollock, for he’d mediated his own process and pragmatism during the act of making his painting, be it through his deep admiration of Albert Pinkham Ryder early on that subsequently lead to his immersive interests in Jungian psychology; or through his appreciation of the works of Picasso, Mexican muralist art, Surrealist automatism, Asian philosophy, and Indigenous art. This later came full circle in his transmutting, simultaneously, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and the rhythms of the Atlantic Ocean by his home in the Spring, Long Island. As I was recently standing in front of his epic 1950 painting Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) at our beloved Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was overwhelmed by the artist’s notion of the “self” alternating between expressionistic angst and transcendence, and it was the latter—whatever the equivalence of his trance-like state of mind—that was translated into such powerful and sustaining degrees of profound serenity and calmness. In having attended to both of Jasper Johns’s two momentous exhibits Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror—the most comprehensive retrospective devoted to his art, one at the Whitney Museum of American Art, curated by Senior Deputy Director Scott Rothkopf, the other at Philadelphia Museum of Art, curated by Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Carlos Basulado (both on view till February 13, 2022)—I felt a similar resonance with Johns’s work through his own mediations with Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, among others, and also at times very specific works of art from the past such as Matthias Grunwald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1510-15), Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed (1940-43) and at other times referencing broadly in spirit of say Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, along with anything that lies in between which can be fully maximized, materialized, transformed into the making of his work. Johns is an artist, instead of subscribing to the mere gesture of originality, he has chosen an ongoing experiment of various quotations from his contemporaries, as well as his ancestors as an act of resistance to easy interpretations. As an artist who is highly conscious of making his own work remain perpetually elusive, I felt how, through thoughtfully posing simple questions in his reading of other artist’s work, Johns has in turn welcomed the participation of his viewers as though they’re asking similar questions. As he famously said, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” This, I find to be the most profound democratic gesture any artist can offer, which, at the moment, seems so urgent and timely in reinvigorating our own understanding of the most elemental questions we ought to have with ourselves—the act of seeing and the act of thinking, the sense of touch and the sense of being touched are all interconnected through thin tissues of our perception. The following is one of such discoveries; it is an edited version of our NSE (New Social Environment Lunchtime Conversation) # 428 on Friday, November 2021 when our consulting editor, the legendary art historian and scholar Richard Shiff, spoke to Scott Rothkopf and Carlos Basulado about their methodology for organizing the exhibition, the emotional range of Johns’s work, and how the artist’s personality connects to his work, among other things for your reading pleasure. We consider this conversation of one of many portraits of the artist. —Phong H. Bui
Richard Shiff (Rail): I thought I would start with a very general question about curatorial practice, which I’ll connect to a statement that I came across that Jasper Johns made in 2005. Here’s what he said: “most of us have an underlying sense of helplessness, a necessity to make what we call artwork. Many have the odd sensation of being called upon to do it.” My question with regard to curatorial practice for both Scott and Carlos is, to what extent did Jasper's work determine your choices. How much is curatorial vision? How much is Johns’s vision? And how much is something that is not quite either of those two things, but the art pulling on you to do what you did?
Carlos Basualdo: We were very lucky, and we’re so grateful to the amazing scholars who produced the Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture, Roberta Bernstein, and to Kate Ganz for all her extraordinary work in the Catalogue Raisonné of Drawings, because when we started working on the shows those resources were available. Jasper has this incredible 70 year career that allows you to see a certain landscape. Once you see the totality of that landscape, you can create a sort of topological map. You can say, “well, that's a hill; that's a valley; that's a river.” What we intended to do was lay out the landscape and it was possible to do that thanks to the work of these extraordinary scholars.
As we see it from the perspective of today, the landscape is very stable and seems like it's always been there, but we know that isn’t true. Because the work is something that happens in time. So we started with the wonderful possibility of looking at that landscape, with the understanding that what we see now as a fait accompli was developed through time, and our work was simply a matter of mapping it out in the best possible way. In a way you can say that we didn't apply division to this equation, we applied multiplication. We didn't have to decide which works were going to go in the Whitney or Philadelphia as a matter of division. We felt that we could unfold the vision of the landscape within the parameters of two institutions. And it was a lot of fun.
Scott Rothkopf: I agree with everything Carlos said. There was this surveying of the landscape of Jasper's work, which of course is thousands of objects, if you think of all the prints, drawings, and paintings. From those works, we arrived at essentially 10 ideas that we wanted to explore. These ways into Jasper's work—his process, his themes—each could be articulated with two galleries, one in each city. At that point, the curatorial vision did guide the selection of the work. We never started out by saying, “these are our 500 favorites” or “the 500 best works of Jasper Johns,” which would have actually resulted in a different checklist. In fact, I think if we had started with a preconceived idea of Jasper's masterpieces, it wouldn’t have become this show.
What we did was to look for the works that would tell the story of those 20 galleries. So at that point, the works kind were selected in response to the curatorial concept that we had arrived at. But those themes or categories were drawn from the work to begin with, if that makes sense. So there was a cycle of looking at the landscape of work, creating our ideas, and then the identifying the works that could best tell those stories for the show.
Rail: That makes a lot of sense in terms of Jasper’s way of thinking. It seems in harmony with his oeuvre. He’s somebody who, throughout his career, has been very careful about documentation. And he’s got great people that he’s worked with on the scholarly end, who have organized all the documentation that he has kept. And I wonder, along those lines, how much of a hand did Jasper have in adjusting language or checking facts? Because I know with regard to scholarly work that he likes to review it. Not for the sake of changing an argument or an interpretation, but for the sake of making the factual account as accurate as possible.
Rothkopf: Yes, Jasper reviewed the catalog and the wall text, but I would say it was a very light touch. There were very few specific comments that he made on each text, or questions that were raised. It was interesting for me, especially as someone who's worked with a lot of artists who like to be very involved in the curatorial process, but Jasper observed a real separation of church and state to the extent that he thought the artist makes the work and the curator's job is to make the show. He was a great abiding presence and support through the entire process.
We would see him every few months, to share our ideas, to ask him questions, to look at what he was making that was new in the studio. And some of those things ended up in our exhibition. In fact, he was the single largest lender to the exhibition. So on one hand, he was very involved, but on the other hand, he gave us total freedom and trust to do what we wanted with his art, to create these categories. He seemed curious to understand what this next generation of curators might do with his work.
Basualdo: When we explained to Jasper how the process would work, he said, “Oh, my, it sounds so complicated. Good luck, I hope you can pull it off.” [Laughter] But, truly, he was very supportive with loans, and helped us navigate the troubled waters of asking for some of these amazing objects.
Rail: You’re right, he is a remarkably curious man, curious as to what people will say, and open to odd interpretations, so that's consistent with what you both seem to have experienced with regard to his wanting to see what you would come up with, as a show.
What I found really wonderful about the show, something that you've alluded to, is the combination of all the media: the large, the small, and the very small, as well. But I wonder when you get to including the smallest things, in terms of some smaller drawings, and some smaller paintings, you’ve got an awful lot to choose from. Was that in any way overwhelming? The amount of works on paper that Jasper has produced, or print work, and then print work which is modified and becomes singular, that sort of thing. I mean he'll take a run of prints, and modify each one by hand so that each is different.
Basualdo: That’s a very good point Richard, and maybe we can dwell with that a little bit longer. Usually when an artist makes a print there’s a number of intermediate steps, and often those intermediate steps are not preserved materially. Sure, the master printer makes detailed notes reproducing the process so it can be repeated, but in the case of Jasper, and from very early on, he kept those so called intermediate steps. And not only kept them but he has consistently signed those prints. So their status as artworks is really interesting.
Scott and I did some early visits to the major repository of those archival prints, which is the National Gallery. I think they have around nearly 2,000 archival prints that include working proofs where he has made additions as well as trial proofs that were simply done so he could basically see what he was working with. They were a revelation. Scott spent a couple of days there and sent me so many pictures, then I visited later. We saw many things that we were not familiar with at all. Most importantly, the evidence of a complete experimental spirit, open, playful. There is so much evident joy in trying so many different possibilities. That was a deep inspiration for us, not only in terms of including the material, but in terms of the entirety of the show.
Rothkopf: I agree with that, especially with regard to the prints and how we approached them. And to your question, too, Richard, about the drawings and being overwhelmed, there was some quality of that for me. I remember going down to the Menil, before the catalogue raisonné was published, when they were opening the Drawings Institute. That’s where the book was being edited. Joseph Newland showed me the page proofs and I was just overwhelmed. There were so many incredible, beautiful, and previously unpublished and unexhibited works. And I remember, Carlos and I went to see Jasper and we asked him something like, “how come you didn’t tell us about any of these things?” And he said, “Well, you didn’t ask.”
So there was this incredible, undiscovered country of drawings for us to explore. And I remember feeling very strongly that I could picture how they would inflect the galleries at the Whitney. For example, in the final Elegies Gallery, there are two trios of drawings. I don’t think that any of these six drawings are necessarily the most “important,” but they came together beautifully to tell a story or create a feeling in the room. Near the “Catenaries,” you have a drawing that's kind of like a shroud, and another that's like a cross, and another that's like a funereal monument, and those three drawings wanted to be together to create a certain mood or emotional sensibility.
In the next gallery, you have three small drawings, as well. One is the figure from Regrets, a quite beautiful ink on plastic, and another is on top of a print that has a heart shape turned on its side, so together they create this sense of maybe heartbreak or loneliness. It was not that any one of them was necessarily calling out to be included in this show, but that they created a constellation that expressed something we felt deeply across this whole period of Jasper’s work. So in that sense, as a group, they suggested themselves to be seen.
Rail: I’ve always found with his work that there is an emotional mood that he establishes. I wonder if you became conscious of a set of emotions that you would associate with him? Or even somehow got to know the personality through the work as opposed to the way we’ve also learned about it, through the kind of comment that you just referred to? On the emotional level, which is perhaps something that is not the first thing that people think of with Jasper Johns, how did the work, when you became more and more intimate with it, how did it strike you?
Rothkopf: I think the emotional range of Jasper's work is so powerful and profound and has been underestimated in its critical reception. Sometimes that’s because if you take, let’s say the work of the 1980s or ’90s, and sort it according to its motifs, like the Picasso portrait or the quotes from the Isenheim altarpiece, you end up going down a rabbit hole of iconography where you think that the work might reveal its mystery if you could just identify all of its sources. And that’s an interesting way to look at it. But if you sort it instead, as we did in the Dreams and the Nightmares Galleries at the Whitney and Philadelphia, according to the emotion of the works, you’re not now grouping all the Grünewald works together over here or the Picasso works over there. Jasper was exploring different ranges of emotion sometimes concurrently across motifs not only within them. And you don't see that as clearly when you take a core sample that's based on motif alone.
We also have that effect in the Elegies Galleries at the end of our exhibition. In Jasper’s penultimate show at the Matthew Marks Gallery, where he introduced the “Farleys” and some of the more recent Picasso pieces, they were all sorted by motif. However what we did was to unsort those motifs and re-sort them, according to a feeling, a temperature in the work, and hopefully to make that easier to experience in your gut when you walk in the room, even if you don’t read something or even know what source he was quoting within the picture.
Basualdo: And there is a deep connection between the way Jasper lives his life and the way he works and the work itself. Barbara Rose pointed at that very early on, in a couple of wonderful articles that she wrote on the work for Artforum1, and you can really feel it, it’s very present. There's a certain ethics about the way he goes about his work, and those ethics include an aesthetic position.
Rail: There are a couple of things related to what you've both been saying. One is that you did have some combinations of imagery, which definitely set a mood, although I’m not sure I can name the emotion. But I did notice in going through the groupings that you created, that there were certain emotional consistencies, regardless of the fact that the subjects might be diverse. And with some of the smaller works, what was happening when I looked at them, moving through the galleries, if I was too far away from them to immediately recognize the subject matter, I still felt that I recognized something like an emotion coming from the work, from the configuration of forms. And I was then sometimes surprised at what the subject matter was. As one example, he’s often using the optical illusion or the puzzle of the old woman and the young woman, where you see it either one way or another way. At times it looks joyous; at other times it looks sad. But it’s the same image. The same with the Green Angel. It sometimes is elating. And at other times, you feel a little bit depressed looking at that configuration.
The other thing that I would ask you about is something which has always struck me, especially in Jasper's interviews and the way he responds to questions, and it has something to do with the way he makes a mark as well, I think, the way that he’s self-effacing and wants to attribute whatever the effect is to the work itself and not to his having put the effect into the work.
Basualdo: It’s interesting, because very early on there is this fascination with visual ambiguity. As you said, in images that can be seen to be representing one thing or the other. They appear repeatedly in his work. But I think that the correlate of that is that there’s a conceptual ambiguity and even an emotional ambiguity in the work. So there’s these three consistent layers: the visual ambiguity, the emotional ambiguity, the conceptual ambiguity. And that means that things can be seen from one way or the other, depending on the viewer. I think he’s always been very faithful to the statement that Marcel Duchamp made about the viewer completing the artwork. He is profoundly Duchampian, and this aspect of his work is but another evidence of that.
Rothkopf: The opening gallery at the Whitney, which Carlos and I really debated a lot, started as a response to Jasper often saying that he didn’t want to make work about his own feelings. So he would maybe turn to common symbols, what he called “things the mind already knows,” or resist a kind of ostensible soul bearing. But then through that act of resistance he ends up in a whole other place of hiding or disappearing or negating that itself has a very powerful emotional resonance. When I look at the Ale Cans (1964), sometimes they seem funny to me, and sometimes they seem absolutely heartbreaking. That this is the position that the artist finds himself in in the early 1960s, trying to navigate his way amidst an overwhelming consumer culture. So he makes a painstaking replica of this thing that is basically disposable. I don’t want to say that’s a sad thing to do, but there’s a kind of pathos to it—like this is what thousands of years of artists perfecting mimesis has come to, a pair of beer cans. But in face of so much mass prodcution, there’s also something touching and tender about taking recourse to an old fashioned idea of how art could be made by hand and what art could be as this mimic of the world.
I recognize that to talk about this as an emotional work is kind of weird, because it’s not really the kind of feeling we started off discussing, you know like death or life or aging. But I've been trying to stick my head into the space that an artist would get into to make a work like this, both in their own life, and then in the context around them. That is something that has been growing in my mind the more time I spend in the show.
Rail: Perhaps Jasper is conscious of how much our culture has lost its old prevailing mythologies. That can be liberating, but it can also be sad. To hear you talk about the Ale Cans. Yeah, the sadness is there, I agree. It’s potentially there. It’s not a little game that’s being played, although it can be seen that way also, as a commentary on what other artists are doing. I’ve always thought of the paradox of Johns’s mark-making and his methods for making fine art being so obvious and dumb. I mean, as you know, he sometimes says, “Well, anybody could do this.” If you get to praise him too much, he becomes self-demeaning. And yet, people look at these works and they regard them as the works of a master with fantastic technical skills. So when you were immersed in Johns, how did you feel about things like the touch or the color sense or the sense of scale?
Rothkopf: The touch question in the early work is fascinating because over the course of history and the machinations of people like Carlos and me—the curators, and to some degree, the market—we’ve come to see certain early works as extremely virtuosic when in fact, there’s something kind of noodling, or even nebbish in Jasper's early marks. He’s not Gorky, he’s not nailing that perfect serpentine contour in a drawing or showing off the confidence of, say, de Kooning. Instead there’s a sense of repetitive noodling around on the surface, sometimes even like he’s just filling it in. And it’s kind of amazing when you think back on that because it’s as if Jasper was able to create something so fascinating and magnificent through an almost paucity of technical means. Of course he had a certain facility, but it’s good to remind oneself that these wonderful works are maybe the result of trying to negotiate a way of handling that doesn’t necessarily exude mastery of the mark. And if you spend time looking at the early work, what the encaustic allows for in that sense is so incredible. It's the perfect marriage of a medium, a touch, and the image that he’s trying to conjure that lets the work become so much more than an index of the manual facility or dexterity behind it.
Basualdo: I think he invents his own virtuosity. He doesn’t start from the traditional idea of what virtuosity is. He’s a modern in the sense that he starts from a tabula rasa. In that sense, I think he resembles Cézanne. If you look at Cézanne's “Mont Sainte-Victoire” they are simply breathtaking. You don't have any other word but virtuosity at the tip of your tongue, but they’re also laboriously constructed pictures. And many of Jasper's works are painfully constructed and laboriously built, and certainly through that process he finds something radically new. There’s a sense of joy that is very contagious, and that’s what we can call virtuosity. But it’s the joy that is found in his own process of discovery while working in those pictures.
Rothkopf: Often, for me, the most satisfying of his works are the small and medium sized ones. I think it has to do with the relationship of that touch, or that mark, to the scale of the image or the picture that he’s traversing. And, you know, we didn’t intend to focus on the smaller and midsize things but I think that there’s something about the relationship of the scale of the mark to the size of the object that’s really quite alive, especially in the early years, in some of the mid-sized works. Sometimes in some of the bigger ones there’s a sense that the scale of the work is escaping him. Even in something sprawling like According to What (1964) the agglomerative composition could be a way to control such a big field. It becomes a compendium of many different, almost discrete, ideas and moments.
Rail: He’s an additive composer, and so when he works large—even when he works mid-size or sometimes small—he’s combining things. I think that’s how he manages to preserve his own sense of construction in something that’s very large. He doesn’t seem to be an artist who wants to keep going larger and larger and larger. But I think you both had a sufficient number of the large works for the audience to get a good sense of it.
Basualdo: I would almost use the word “decomposed” rather than “composed,” there’s never an accumulation; it’s almost like he subtracts by adding, and that’s the paradoxical nature of the way in which the objects are made, what makes them so attractive, and what constitutes their enigmatic quality as well.
Rail: Yes, and thinking of size, you do have a rather large sculptural piece made of aluminum that’s in the big naturally lit gallery in New York. Just thinking of curatorial choices and getting back to that for a moment, that room seems to be made for sculpture…
Rothkopf: You know, the whole floor of the Whitney has no walls or columns and it’s 18,000 square feet. So you could say the whole place was made for sculpture. [Laughter] But when you build a vestibule or a gallery on the west side, you’re always contending with the windows, which we often cover because the light is so severe. Here, the space suggested the works rather than the other way around, which is how we designed the rest of the show. The windows called for sculpture.
Rail: Another thing that is always on my mind with Johns is the works where he combines oil and encaustic. One of the biggest ones is in Philadelphia, the Untitled (1972). And I wonder, whether this aspect of Johns's work influenced any curatorial choices? I mean that that aspect of his thinking where he would work in two or three mediums and in some cases it’s three on the same surface or the same construction.
Basualdo: I think Johns ultimately gets to a place where it’s really difficult to say how these objects are made and even harder to attribute them to any specific medium because he’s definitely—by 1972— thinking as a printer while making paintings. Jennifer Roberts wrote a beautiful essay talking about printing in relationship to casting for our publication.
So I think that what you have throughout the show is a postmodern approach to medium specificity—as much as I said that his approach to virtuosity is modern. He does not respect the boundaries between mediums, on the contrary, he’s constantly challenging them. Untitled (1972) is no exception to that, but the logic that Scott and I applied when selecting it was that there are several major paintings that Jasper has done throughout his career that have functioned as some sort of encyclopedic gatherings of earlier work or points of departure for new work, like According to What and “Untitled (1972).
Rothkopf: Richard you're talking about a work that might include encaustic and oil, but it's kind of amazing to think that Jasper is a rare artist who has made concurrent bodies of paintings over 60 plus years in two different painterly mediums. You don’t get the sense that most artists before they start making a painting at any one point in their career ask themselves, “Is this one going to be an oil? And is that one going to be an acrylic?” Maybe they have periods where they’re exploring one medium over the other, but with Jasper it’s almost from the beginning that you feel he has two signature painterly mediums he explores at the same time in different works. In the “Flag and Maps” room at the Whitney you see the MoMA map, which is oil, next to the encaustic flag on the orange ground; you see pairs of paintings, like the two versions of Racing Thoughts (1983), or Mirror's Edge (1992 and 1993), one in an encaustic, one in oil. And the idea that he almost has to think before he starts each one, “Well, today's an encaustic day, or this is an oil work” is really fascinating.
Rail: One thing that surprised me in New York, and I don’t know if it was true in Philadelphia also, but there were a couple of acrylic paintings in New York from the past decade. And Jasper’s always said that he doesn’t like acrylic, although there are occasional acrylic paintings, but there they were, and they look fine. Carlos, in Philadelphia, were there any examples of acrylic?
Basualdo: In our Mirror Room you can see one Green Angel painted in oil versus a mirrored version in encaustic, side by side. It’s the almost same image rendered in two different mediums.
Rail: Was it a …
Basualdo: A Green Angel.
Rail: Oh, a Green Angel. So he did occasionally experiment that way as well. And then, of course, with printmaking he’s all over the place, and works on paper, every conceivable thing, every conceivable surface using the plastic also, that’s another medium that he invented, ink on plastic, with all of its own characteristics.
I was also struck by the different black and white version. He’s so rarely truly black and white. There’s usually a little color that gets in there, but the black and white version of Green Angel seems to have a completely different mood to it.
Rothkopf: That one is not as well known; it’s the one from the Broad Collection which is a kind of grisaille with sand in the surface.
Rail: It was wonderful to see that.
Rothkopf: We hung it next to Montez Singing (1989) which also has sand on the surface in the encaustic version. The gray version of the Green Angel has such a different mood from those in Philadelphia and that's why it ended up in that Dreams Gallery. It has the kind of pale and fainter palette that we're exploring across those pictures.
Rail: Yes. The connections that can be made, the use of the sand, the quality of the surface, so much experimenting being done. When you were going through all the work, what kinds of things struck you as, “Well, I've never seen that before”? I mean, were there any just bizarre finds that you had?
Rothkopf: There were so many, but the thought wasn’t “I’ve never seen anybody do that,” but rather “Wow, Jasper did this.” [Laughs] Sometimes they were really weird and potentially even embarrassing things. Like if you look in the South Carolina Gallery at the Whitney, there’s a very strange portrait of his grandparents’ family that he used in a much more tasteful way in the prints, in a sepia-toned image that looks like an old photograph. And suddenly there’s this blown up, weird, almost minty blue and green picture of his family.
Or in our Mirror Gallery, we have a mirrored Rorschach–like tracing of a de Kooning figure, which is so goofy even and free. There’s also a tondo in the Dreams Gallery that feels like, wow, he let himself make this thing that doesn’t seem tasteful, and doesn’t even feel like a Jasper Johns maybe. So it became exciting to include something that people might not admire in the same way as if it were elegant or chic. I love that he’s not embarrassed, that he’s trying these kinds of marks; he’s pushing beyond a comfort zone of taste in a way that I think is really powerful.
Basualdo: I think that what Scott is saying can be summarized by acknowledging that by looking very carefully at the work, we found that many of the things we were looking at were evidence of a Jasper Johns that did not entirely coincide with the one that has been constructed by some of the literature.
Rail: You know, I was struck also by that South Carolina image. And then because the photographic version, or his trompe-l'oeil photographic version, was in the same room, going back to his rendering of that same photograph by itself, it looked more and more like a Jasper Johns, because it was flat in his strange kind of way. It seemed to feature the way that he made it and not the way the camera saw it. And he has that capacity to transform things in that way, to convert the effect of one medium into the effect of another medium. I think in general your exhibition reveals that. It’s a wonderful thing. And maybe it gets revealed because you’ve combined all of the mediums in the display. So the fluidity that the artist has is seen within the curatorial arrangement itself.
Rothkopf: I think that’s something we really thought a lot about and tried to make a hallmark of the show from the very beginning. There was always going to be this non-hierarchical relationship between paintings and works on paper, but also amongst motifs, amongst different sizes, amongst the known and the unknown. The whole approach was meant to be, like you said, extremely fluid. We were immersed in this stream of Jasper's production, his career, his life, which is how it came out of him. It wasn’t edited or boiled down into “Oh, masterpieces over there and study things over there.” He’s making all of these things at once and kind of simultaneously in relation to one another. We wanted to capture that protean turn of mind in relation to all these different works of art.
Basualdo: It’s interesting because Scott and I visited him a couple of weeks ago, and we had a lovely time with him. In conversation we mentioned something along the lines of “Well, Jasper, if anything, it seems that the show has managed to give a more comprehensive view of your work.” And he said, “Well, of course, because there’s more of my work being shown.” [Laughs] So at some level that’s very, very clear. When Scott and I started looking at everything, the enormous variety of drawings and so forth, it was clear to us that we needed enough space to show that. Certainly that was one of the reasons for having two museums, we needed the capacity to show that variety of work.
Rail: I guess there are not that many artists who demand as much square footage as you've given him to get something like a comprehensive view. And there’s certainly still more things I’m sure you’d wanted to include, for which there wasn’t enough room.
Rail: Do you have any cases in mind where something was considered and with regret—a word he uses—you had to eliminate it?
Basualdo: I would not say I have regrets. But there are many works that we acknowledged as important works, that we were not able to include in the show. The Philadelphia Museum owns the beautiful drawing of Voice 2 (1982), which is a promised gift from Keith and Katherine Sachs. And that really didn’t fit within the parameters that we were describing. And so there were cases like that of course—and we tried to be careful not having too many of those cases—but there were cases in which wonderful works didn’t resonate strongly enough with the choices we were making.
Rothkopf: In a few cases at the Whitney, those works even made it to the floor. [Laughs] It pains me to think of the small silver flag that ordinarily hangs in Jasper’s dining room that I was desperate to show but in the end decided just didn’t quite work in that room of Flags and Maps. Or there was a little green target drawing, also from his collection, that made the final cut, but not the final final cut, and not for any lack of merit on the part of the work. It was just a sense of how we wanted to space things.
Rail: You did have the miniature red and yellow on blue target, I believe.
Rothkopf: Yes, there is one in that room of miniatures, and there is the one in Philadelphia which is bigger. But cutting the green drawing was a tough one because of course we could have put one more small thing in that room, yet it felt like there needed to be space between the groupings of works, that they were like icebergs in a sea, and that that space would help you feel the sense of scale that they had, which I was trying to animate.
Rail: So, what would be your final thoughts about the connection of his personality to his work?
Rothkopf: Do you want to go first Carlos?
Basualdo: I think that there's a clear and strong ethics in the way in which he conducts himself, a deep respect for the viewer that is just in everything he says and everything he does, and it’s fully, deeply reflected in the work.
Rothkopf: I feel a lot about his personality comes through in this incredible sense of devotion to the work, the care, the craft, the hard work of it, the attention, and to some degree the shutting out of other things in life or in the world in order to make this remarkable art. It’s almost overwhelming sometimes when I go through the show, knowing that I'm only looking at half of it and the other half is sitting there at the exact same time in Philadelphia. The idea that this artist gave so much to his work which in turn gives so much to us is really a very beautiful thought.
Rail: So I think you both hit on what we started off with, that remark that Jasper made. Many have the odd sensation of being called upon to do it. And, you know, it’s that devotion to the work, or that focus that he has which is part of his personality, and it’s so very evident in the work itself.
Richard Shiff is Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair at The University of Texas at Austin, and a Consulting Editor at the Rail.
- Barbara Rose, The Great Graphic work of Jasper Johns, March 1970. Vol 8., No. 7. ↩