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Jasper Johns's Shades of Gray Revealed in Major Metropolitan Museum Exhibition
Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Racing Thoughts, 1984, Oil on canvas, 50 x 75 in. The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection, Phoenix, Maryland © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo: Jamie M. Stukenberg / Professional Graphics Inc., Rockford, Illinois.

NEW YORK.-Opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on February 5, Jasper Johns: Gray will be the first exhibition to examine the use of the color gray in the work of American artist Jasper Johns. From the mid-1950s to the present, gray has been a consistent thread in Johns’s practice and an important means for the artist to evoke different moods and to explore a range of formal ideas. This major exhibition offers a new lens through which to see the work of this pivotal American artist, bringing together more than 120 paintings, reliefs, drawings, prints, and sculptures. Jasper Johns: Gray features masterworks of Johns’s career — such as Canvas, Gray Target, Jubilee, 0 through 9, No, Diver, and The Dutch Wives — as well as works from the artist’s recent Catenary series and new works never before exhibited.

The exhibition in New York is made possible by United Technologies Corporation. It was organized by The Art Institute of Chicago, in cooperation with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The exhibition is supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

“At the Museum we are especially pleased to be able to present the extraordinarily beautiful and enigmatic work of Jasper Johns, an artist who anticipated many of the dominant concerns of contemporary art, and who continues to astonish and disturb,” remarked Gary Tinterow, Engelhard Curator in Charge of the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art.

One of the most important American painters and printmakers of the 20th century, Jasper Johns (b. 1930) emerged in the 1950s as a leading artist of the generation that followed “The New York School” of Abstract Expressionists. Johns eschewed the highly subjective themes and expressive techniques of artists such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and turned to a more conceptual approach to painting. Most widely known for his paintings of flags, targets, numbers, alphabets, and maps, Johns was a progenitor of Pop Art, incorporating elements of popular culture and everyday objects directly into his work. In addition, Johns’s use of language, his monochrome canvases, and his conception of the painting as a material object served as a catalyst for Minimal and Conceptual Art.

This exhibition is the first to focus on Johns’s varied use of gray, tracing the progression of this color throughout the work and highlighting its appearance in diverse media, such as encaustic, oil paint, Sculp-metal, aluminum, silver, lead, graphite, charcoal, and ink. As early as 1955, Johns was working in gray and finding infinite variety within a narrow color spectrum. With gray in particular, Johns’s sensuous, layered surfaces emphasize the physical properties of the work. When asked if gray draws attention away from figuration, for example, Johns replied, “The clues a range of colors gives are lost, of course. Gray puts perception on a more tactile level, perhaps.” He continues, “…through the use of gray, the object nature of the materials would come forward, their physical existence isolated or intensified.”

The exhibition also focuses on the intellectual and emotional significance of gray in Johns’s work, and how it has varied over the past five decades. The neutrality of gray distances his work from that of the Abstract Expressionists, whose paintings were often characterized by black and white compositions or bold colors. In the late 1950s, Johns also used gray to suggest skepticism or ambiguity. “It is the gray zone between two extremes that I’m interested in,” Johns has said. “…You can have a certain view of a thing at one time and a different view of it at another.” In later work, Johns’s use of gray may evoke an emotional coolness or suggest obfuscation, veiling, or concealment.

Jasper Johns: Gray begins with the pairing of the colorful painting False Start (1959) — in which bursts of red, yellow, blue, and orange are surrounded by stenciled words naming but not labeling colors — and Jubilee (1959), its pendant painted in black, white, and gray. With these tactics and with his highly stylized brushstrokes, Johns makes the viewer aware of the arbitrariness of color and “expressive” painting.

The next section of the exhibition will focus on Johns’s early and groundbreaking practice of embedding objects in the paintings themselves, disrupting the illusionistic role of historical painting technique. Highlights include Canvas (1956), Tennyson (1958), and Coat Hanger (1959).

The exhibition continues with sections that demonstrate Johns’s serial practice in gray, objects in which the artist repeatedly reworks sets of favorite found images: flags, targets, numbers, alphabets, and maps. In addition to presenting several well-known paintings on these subjects, these sections will feature large-scale works on paper and a significant body of prints that will highlight the importance of other media in the artist’s oeuvre. Trial prints will be included to show the artist’s working process through these motifs.

In 1961, there was a noticeable change in mood in Johns’s work, and the exhibition will present in a number of significant paintings from this year — including No, Liar, and In Memory of My Feelings--Frank O’Hara — in which gray conveys an emotional tone of bleakness, froideur, or negativity. The exhibition continues with his Device paintings, such as Fool's House (1962), in which tools of the artist’s studio, such as wooden stretcher bars, rulers, or brooms, are agents for art-making and remain attached to the surface of the canvases.

The exhibition proceeds with Johns’s abstract Crosshatch paintings of the 1970s and early 1980s. Although the series is generally known for its bright coloration, among the Crosshatches are a number of important works in gray: The Dutch Wives (1975), an elegant work in encaustic and collage; Céline (1978), a nuanced oil; and Between the Clock and the Bed (1982–83), an encaustic triptych that is titled after a 1940 work by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.

Next, the exhibition follows the artist’s return to figuration in the 1980s. In works such as Racing Thoughts (1984) and Winter (1986), Johns incorporates art-historical and autobiographical motifs in his paintings and, in drawings, experiments with materials such as ink on plastic. The last section of the exhibition focuses on Johns’s Catenary series, which began in the 1990s, and more recent work. The name of the Catenary series refers to the artist’s use of the curve made by a cord hanging from two points — as in Bridge (1997). The exhibition concludes with two recent gray paintings, Beckett (2005) and Within (1983 and 2005), and a newly released lithograph, Within (2007), none of which have been exhibited before.

Jasper Johns: Gray is curated by James Rondeau, Frances and Thomas Dittmer Chair, Department of Contemporary Art, Douglas Druick, Searle Chair of the Department of Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture and the Prince Trust Chair of the Department of Prints and Drawings, both of The Art Institute of Chicago, and Nan Rosenthal, Senior Consultant in the Met’s Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art. Nan Rosenthal organized the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.

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