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A woman leans in to inspect a spoon dangling from a hinge attached to a canvas. “Who would think to do something like that?” she says, to no one in particular. Jasper Johns would. And he’s been doing things like that for about seven decades.
The 91-year-old Johns’s creatively disruptive art receives its most comprehensive consideration to date in Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, simultaneous companion retrospectives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Curiosity in art
Untitled (Gray Painting with Spoon) (1962) appears at PMA, where the first of 10 exhibition rooms showcases Johns’s ongoing challenge to what constitutes “art.” For him, drawer fronts, fountain pens, flashlights, and more all qualify. In Fool’s House (1961-62) the subject is also the artist’s instrument—Johns swept a semicircular track across wet paint with a weary broom, and then placed it at the center of the canvas.
The show is huge, involving more than 500 works in both venues, many of them not previously exhibited. Eighty-eight lenders contributed paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture, including Johns himself, who provided 99 pieces to the exhibition.
Curators Carlos Basualdo of PMA and Scott Rothkopf of the Whitney, with assistants Sarah B. Vogelman in Philadelphia and Lauren Young in New York, organized Mind/Mirror to present Johns’s artistic progression in a loose chronology that captures his impact in the moment. In an exhibition essay, Rothkopf wrote, “we have attempted to segment [the exhibition] into pointed, discontinuous chapters that rekindle a sense of brisk curiosity in both the works and their beholders.”
Johns in Japan
Each museum explores corresponding, though not identical, concepts, one of which was location. “Place was incredibly important for Johns,” Basualdo explained in a virtual PMA walkthrough (available to watch on YouTube). “It was clear we needed to show how the work in many ways is a reflection of the place in which it was made.”
The Whitney features the artist’s connection to South Carolina, while PMA features Japan, where Johns created a series of works named after the Japanese word for light snow, usuyuki. Several iterations of the deceptively simple design are on view, including silkscreen and watercolor versions. The largest, Usuyuki (1982), is executed in encaustic, a method in which pigment is combined with beeswax and heated.
On approach, the complexity of the pattern and coloration reveals itself across three canvases. Each canvas is divided in thirds, making nine rectangular segments in all. Over these, Johns repeats thick straight lines arranged like the fingers of a saluting hand. These are angled to form starbursts against shifting color: green fingers on a pink field gradually become purple on yellow-orange, to orange on bright blue. The effect is similar to the climax of a fireworks display.
Johns first visited Japan while serving in the US Army in 1952-53, and returned several times. A video in the gallery shows him in 1964, working at Tokyo’s Japanese Artists Hall. In it, he explains that the usuyuki works represent the fleeting quality of beauty.
Through Jasper’s eyes
Japanese art inspired by Johns is also on view, with handwritten letters he sent home in May 1964 to composer John Cage and art dealer Leo Castelli, who were close friends.
Castelli mounted Johns’s first solo show in 1958, and each Mind/Mirror venue replicates a subsequent Castelli Gallery show. “It was very important for us that the audience would see the work through Jasper’s eyes,” Basualdo explained. “To do that we need to recreate two shows that Jasper himself had installed.”
A February 1960 exhibit contained just eight works, six of which are on view in Philadelphia, including Jubilee (1959), considered an early Johns masterpiece. Rendered in oil and collage on canvas, it’s a black, white, and gray explosion of energetic brushwork, with names of colors stenciled in capital letters here and there. Nearby hangs Jubilee’s forerunner, False Start (1959), similar in every way but one: it’s awash in color. In it, Johns winks at the viewer, creating tension between perception and cognition by stenciling color names in mismatched hues.
Numbers by paint
“This is not an artist who’s ever been on autopilot, not an artist you can boil down into one or two signature images,” said the Whitney’s Rothkopf, and Mind/Mirror bears this out.
Though Johns is prone to wring every possible inspiration out of a single concept, groundbreaking ideas flood the exhibition. His early work foreshadowed Pop Art and Minimalism, and his Numbers series, a recurring motif that has become a signature, prefigures the digital age, in which so much of daily existence is reduced to 1s and 0s.
Philadelphia devotes a gallery to the Numbers, which for Johns are integers 0 to 9. He layers, repeats, stacks, and spills them across the canvas like dice. In Numbers (1963), a grid in sculpt-metal and collage on canvas, every row and column counts out in neat cycles.
Repetition and segmentation are prevailing themes. Canvases are divided, wholes are split, ideas inverted, tonalities reversed, and works twinned fraternally, inducing observers to compare and contrast as they search for similarity and difference. For Johns, the act of perception completes the circle between artist and viewer.
Johns’s tendency to add, subtract, multiply, and divide flows through Mind/Mirror, but it’s duality which receives special attention in each venue, curated as Doubles and Reflections in Philadelphia, and Mirror/Double in New York. For PMA’s Basualdo, those spaces constitute “the conceptual hinge of our two shows … it presents the idea of the double and it’s the one gallery of both exhibitions where we play the same idea twice.”
Mortality pervades Johns’s recent work, beginning with the Catenary series, named for the curve made by a flexible object supported only at its ends. Think of a length of string, tacked on either side of a falling-apart frame, and you have Untitled (2003), which looks like it’s been hung backwards.
The string makes a feathery shadow across the monochromatic canvas and, being too long, continues off the right side and down toward the floor, moving ever so slightly when nudged by a breath of air. It’s a scene that could be observed in any attic. But would anyone standing amid cobwebs under a 60-watt bulb take the time? Would they consider how the string and the decomposing frame hint at the passage of time and fragility of life?
In making viewers think such thoughts, Johns upends assumptions about what art is, extending the notion beyond physical works to provocation, perception, and contemplation. Discovering why an artist would hang a spoon from a hinge isn’t the point. Instead, it’s noticing that he did it, and trying to figure out why.
What, When, Where
Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror. Through February 13, 2022, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. $12-$25; free admission for PA ACCESS and EBT cardholders. (215) 763-8100 or philamuseum.org.
Masks are required, in accordance with City of Philadelphia regulations. Purchasing tickets in advance is recommended, and timed-entry tickets may be reserved online for contactless entry. Hand sanitizer dispensers are available throughout the building, and enhanced cleaning of high-touch areas is in effect throughout the day.
The West and North (Kelly Drive) entrances of the PMA are barrier-free, as are the café and museum store. All floors are accessible by elevator, and all restrooms are accessible. Height-adjustable canes and wheelchairs are available at each entrance on a first-come, first-served basis. Personal attendants for visitors with disabilities are admitted free of charge, and service dogs are welcome. Accommodation information for visitors with vision, hearing, and other needs is available on the PMA’s accessibility page.
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