Duplicity and repetition are essential in the work of Jasper Johns (Augusta, Georgia, 1930) and two of the most important museums in the US –the Whitney in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art– have relied on them to organize the largest retrospective to date of this icon of 20th century art. Johns’s work –extensive in six decades of work, complex due to its many evolutions– unfolds in two cities too far apart –about 160 kilometers– to visit the two exhibitions on the same day and too close to avoid the temptation of travel to the other to meet the other better half of the great exhibition of
this fall in the USA
That trip was already made in 1957 by Johns himself, in the company of the also artist –and then his sentimental partner– Robert Rauschenberg. Johns had just made a name for himself on the New York scene after appearing in one of the first exhibitions of the influencer’s gallery. Leo Castelli. On a visit to Rauschenberg’s studio – which also appeared in the exhibition – Castelli saw some of Johns’s paintings recreating the US flag. It was a radical counterpoint to the fashionable art of the time, the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock o Willem de Kooning, a slap to the idea of art as an inner world, to the inspired brush stroke. The flag paintings – they would soon become a symbol of 20th century art – expanded the artistic fields, questioned the relationship between object and art, unknowingly opened a door to the ‘pop’ art of the sixties.
The ‘Art News’ critic defined Johns as ‘Neo-Dada’, referring to the Dadaism of, above all, Marcel Duchamp. And the Philadelphia Museum had the largest collection in the world of the French artist, so the two young artists went to personally inspect his relationship with Duchamp. That trip was the germ of a friendship between the three, it was very influential in Johns’s work and now it is one of the connections between both exhibitions. The one in Philadelphia opens with the first US flag painted by Johns, which appeared in the Castelli exhibition and whose story is decisive in the artist’s career. In 1954 – the same year the Philadelphia Museum of Art installed its new Duchamp collection – Johns had a revelation. “One day, he began to destroy all his works, methodically,” recalled the artist Rose Rosenthal, who lived in the same building as Johns and Rauschenberg. “Those works were made in the spirit of wanting to be an artist, not to be an artist,” Johns later explained. “I wanted to find what I did differently from others, what I was that others were not.”
The reveal was completed that same year. “One night I dreamed that I was painting a large American flag. The next morning I woke up, went out and went to buy the materials to do it. The flag is a sample of the duality of Johns. It can be an object or a painting, a symbol or a work of art. It can be interpreted as a patriotic and unpatriotic allusion. The artist reproduced it in many ways in the following years: duplicated on itself, superimposed in three layers in a sculptural way, in other colors … Other works of that time had the same component, away from the dominant abstraction, an open door to art concept that dominated the end of the twentieth century and what we take from it: the series of targets, the use of numbers and, even more famous, US maps
More than 550 works
They are images that, despite the turns that Johns’ artistic career has taken, have continued to appear in his work, mixed with new ones. In the words of Hollad Cotter, critic of ‘The New York Times’: “Like memories and emotions, they always come back, with different weight and meaning, at different times and contexts, always the same, never the same.”
The sample is the size of Johns figure, no doubt America’s Greatest Living Artist and also the most influential: from Andy Warhol to Kerry James Marshall, and many of those in between. Are more than 550 works of art distributed in the two museums, which play with Johns’ duplicity and conceptual mirrors to present the works: both the Whitney and the Philadelphia Museum of Art the exhibitions are organized in ten rooms; the two museums recreate one of the exhibitions that Castelli organized of Johns; and both dedicate a gallery to one of the artist’s stages outside of New York: the Whitney, to his flight to a South Carolina beach area, Edisto Beach, after his break with Rauschenberg (much of what he created there was lost in a fire); Philadelphia focuses on his time in Japan, where he already was when he went through the army in the 1950s.
“They are not my ideas”
Johns has not stopped creating. Some of his most recent works are in retrospect. Lives and works in Sharon, a Connecticut town in which he lives forgotten by the world. Reserved, always reluctant to explain his workOr, he has not been involved in the retrospective, which was devised for last year – on the occasion of his 90th birthday – but was delayed by the pandemic. “Those are not my ideas,” she told Deborah Solomon, a journalist preparing her biography. “The exhibition was not my idea.”
The idea is, above all, by the curators Scott Rothkopf and Carlos Basualdo, respectively of the Whitney and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, two institutions closely linked to Johns’s work. Both have had to coordinate for the organization, a contradictory process, which has taken five years to forge, with ideas that clash many times, always complex. Like the protagonist of the retrospective himself.
“Jasper Johns is a mountain”, said Basualdo, Argentine and poet before curator, in the presentation in New York of the sample. But it is not a stable mountain; It is an imaginary mountain and every time you go it is different. Scott and I set out to be climbers, exploring this ever-changing landscape, ”he added. «Have we reached the summit? I do not know. But we certainly felt the breeze, we certainly saw the light. ‘