Seeing double with Jasper Johns
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Seeing double with Jasper Johns
Carlos Basualdo, senior curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Aug. 26, 2021. Two major museums teamed up for “Mind/Mirror,” only to realize they disagreed. Alike yet different, the two shows offer a revelatory look at America’s most famous living artist. Erik Tanner/The New York Times.

by Deborah Solomon

NEW YORK, NY.- On a recent Saturday morning, I arrived at the stone house in Sharon, Connecticut, and found Jasper Johns outside on the lawn, tending to a massive oak tree. An infestation of gypsy moths was visible on the trunk; gauzy deposits of tiny eggs were imperiling the tree’s health. Johns, who was dressed neatly in khaki pants, a turquoise linen shirt and a pair of heavy yellow gloves, was using his hands to scrape the eggs off the bark. The moths’ gray wings fluttered wildly as they tumbled to the ground.

In a summer when so much of the world was still reeling from COVID-19, it was heartening to think that at least a towering oak might be saved. I had started writing a biography of the artist a few years earlier, and was aware of his love of trees and plants, which probably bring him more satisfaction than social interactions do. He is something of a solitary creature, a man who is eloquent in his silences and prefers to skip his own openings.

Two new ones are coming up. On Sept. 29, “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” the largest-ever exhibition devoted to his work, will open simultaneously at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Planned to celebrate Johns’ 90th birthday, the show was postponed a year to await the end of the COVID lockdown. In the interim, the two curators developed differing ideas about the show and sometimes clashed. Johns turned 91 and kept making art, maintaining an Olympian detachment from the preparations.

Asked about the show, Johns said only, “I don’t want to be quoted. These are not my ideas. The show is not my idea.”

Some might question the necessity of honoring America’s most famous living artist in a megashow spanning the Northeast Corridor, to use an Amtrak term. It comes after acclaimed exhibitions at London’s Royal Academy (2017), the Broad Museum in Los Angeles (2018), and the Matthew Marks Gallery in Manhattan (2019).

But “Mind/Mirror” stands to offer a revelatory approach to Johns’ work by virtue of its two-venue structure, which is not just a vehicle for more-is-more, Barnum-like showmanship. The shows were cleverly designed as mirror versions of each other, and as such go to the heart of Johns’ work, which abounds with doubles and doppelgängers.

Johns is best known as the radical figure whose paintings of flags and targets hastened the end of abstract expressionism in the ’50s and helped hatch pop art in the ’60s. Yet the dramatic and much-told story of his influence on other artists has in some ways overshadowed his work, which is about patience, process and interiority, about constructing and expanding a visual language over six decades. And its essence lies in his use of doubles: twinned images that resemble each other but are not identical.

“Two Flags” (1962), for instance, is a radiant, 8-foot-tall painting of two American flags stacked vertically. It requires you to become a close observer of minute variations and ponder the conundrum of how-are-these-two-images-different? (Hint: study the brush strokes.)

At first glance, the two cans of Ballantine ale that stand side by side in Johns’ well-known sculpture “Painted Bronze” (1960) — which was just acquired by the Whitney — look anonymous and interchangeable. But in fact they’re opposites. The can on the right has a pierced top; two triangular cuts have been left by a beer-can opener. If you lifted that can, you would know it’s hollow while the other can is solid bronze. That tension sets up an entrancing dissonance and, perhaps, an implied drama between the choice of whether to drink or to abstain.

Art historians tend to view Johns’ penchant for repeating forms as a philosophical inquiry, a refusal to settle on one fixed message. A more personal reading might assert that his double imagery is the expression of a man divided against himself. His childhood in small-town Allendale, South Carolina, was a painful one in which he was abandoned by his parents. It left him with a resistance to intimate connection, and it is telling, perhaps, that he has chosen to live by himself since he was in his 30s. His art suggests a longing for wholeness undercut by a distrust that casts doubt on that possibility.

A High-Concept Affair

The idea of mounting a Johns show in two reflecting halves was conceived by Carlos Basualdo, the senior curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum. “There will be a lot of echoes and resonances between the two shows,” he said recently. “Actually, it’s completely one show.”

Basualdo is a tall, thin, bespectacled man of 57 with a gracious manner. Born and educated in Rosario, Argentina, he was known as a poet before he became an art historian. When we met at the museum’s espresso bar, he arrived on a bicycle, wearing a navy baseball cap and a denim blazer.

“As a curator, you have to try to get into the artist’s head,” he said, “but not to look for the ultimate meaning. I don’t believe there is one.”

Indeed, a key difference between the two shows is that Basualdo will emphasize the unsteady, ever-shifting meaning of Johns’ work, while the Whitney half is more likely to have a step-this-way clarity. For example, the Whitney plans to open its show with a chronological timeline of three dozen prints; Philadelphia, by contrast, will mix and mingle 34 prints in a randomized installation based on a composition by John Cage, who championed chance operations and was an early Johns supporter.

Each museum will divide its exhibition space into a core of 10 galleries. Each will recreate one of Johns’ early one-man shows at the Castelli Gallery (1960 in Philadelphia, 1968 at the Whitney). So too each will highlight a geographical place that shaped him: The Whitney will focus on South Carolina, where Johns grew up, the son of generations of Scottish-Irish farmers stretching back to the American Revolution. Philadelphia will concentrate on Japan, where Johns was stationed as a soldier in the Korean War, and whose layered and ritualized culture offered him an escape from Western perspectives.

Basualdo mentioned that he was reading Diana Eck’s “India: A Sacred Geography,” which has led him to think about art sojourns. “We have forgotten about that in the West,” he said. “I hope these two shows can become pilgrimage sites for people who love art, so that the trip itself is part of the experience.”

That idea sounded agreeable, but I soon learned that he and Scott Rothkopf, the chief curator of the Whitney and co-organizer of the Johns show, disagreed on its basic premise. Rothkopf is a trim man of 45 who grew up in Dallas and earned a master’s degree from Harvard. We met recently in the conference room of the Whitney.

“Most viewers will only see the show in one of two places,” he declared at the outset, adding that he had felt that way even before COVID-19 curtailed travel.

Then he talked about numbers. “The scale is tremendous,” he noted, tallying the square footage of the two museums for me. “The show is 19,000 square feet at the Whitney. Philadelphia is not quite as big.” He added that the combined number of works, which includes paintings, drawings and prints, exceeds 500 and that the Whitney has more than Philadelphia “if you count an additional 50 items of ephemera.”

What about the “Mind/Mirror” duality posited by the show’s title and bifurcated structure? “In the end,” Rothkopf said matter of factly, “that wasn’t to be the theme of the show.”

What is that theme? “For me, it was very important to make Jasper’s work feel alive,” he said. “Older people may admire him and take for granted that he is among the greatest living artists, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true for younger viewers at the Whitney.”

The catalog for the show openly courts new audiences. In lieu of a familiar lineup of art historians, the contributors represent a mix of voices, some flattering, some decidedly not. For instance, Ralph Lemon, a choreographer who is Black, views Johns’ work through the eyes of his mother — another South Carolina native — and concludes that it fails to reflect her experience of the Jim Crow South. Johns, according to Lemon, was “afforded the emphatic advantages of southern white primacy and Black segregation,” but his art remains blind to that privilege.

One could argue, to the contrary, that the profusion of double imagery in Johns’ work represents an act of social empathy, an identification with the Other. Tellingly, the cover of the exhibition catalog is embossed with a white stick figure wielding a paintbrush. The back is embossed with a black stick figure. “That was Jasper’s idea,” Rothkopf said, “and his only contribution to the design of the book.”

When I left the Whitney and walked along the sun-baked sidewalks of Gansevoort Street, I thought to myself that the two curators were themselves a kind of Johnsian double: alike but different. One was competitive and expedient. The other was poetic and filled with visions of pilgrimages.

Perhaps it was just that they embodied the aims of their respective institutions. The Whitney, founded by heiress-sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to concentrate on living artists, is known for its Biennials and all-around brashness. Philadelphia, by contrast, spans centuries and continents, inviting you to dream your way back into the vanished past.

Assembling the show had not been easy, and the tension between the two curators at times was fanned by the willful behavior of lenders. I had heard an unsettling story about “Good Time Charley” (1961), an elegiac, ash-gray painting that is considered an early masterwork, and has been on loan since 1997 to the Philadelphia Museum.

Problems arose when the painting’s owner, Mark Lancaster, a British-born artist and former assistant to Johns, made a request. He and his husband, David Bolger, according to their account, wanted the painting moved to the Whitney for “Mind/Mirror,” hoping to augment its visibility. Basualdo was firm: he wanted the painting for Philadelphia; the museum had paid to insure it for more than 20 years. The couple told him by email that they’d rather see “Good Time Charley” hung “in the bathroom at the Whitney” than in the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum. Then they asked that the painting be returned to them.

In October 2019, the painting arrived at their apartment in Miami Beach, where it languished in its crate in their kitchen. After a delay of several months, Rothkopf surprised and delighted the collectors by accepting the painting for the Whitney show. (Lancaster has since died, at age 82.)

“The painting made a great complement to other works from 1961 that have been associated with Johns’ breakup with Rauschenberg,” Rothkopf said, referring to Robert Rauschenberg, the brilliant and irreverent artist who elevated old fabric, newspaper funnies and other detritus into so-called Combines, a label that was coined by Johns when they were lovers in the ’50s.

Asked about the brouhaha, Basualdo said, carefully, “I think Scott is truly an excellent curator. He maximizes the benefits for his institution, and I applaud him for that.”

It will be nice, finally, to have “Good Time Charley” in Manhattan, at least until the show closes on Feb. 13. The painting is singular in Johns’ oeuvre, in part because its title hints at a narrative, one about a sybarite who likes to drink and party. A metal cup affixed to the painting’s surface is overturned and toppling off, evoking spillage and waste.

There’s a wooden ruler too, angled like a clock hand against a semicircular area of paint. I once asked Johns why the ruler was in the 7 o’clock position. “I think it suggests the end of a period of time,” he replied. “It is at an end. It can’t go any further.”

Why not, I asked. “Because the cup is stopping it,” he said.

It seemed breathtakingly logical. The cup was blocking the path of the ruler, signifying that time was up. Johns painted it in the fall of 1961, a season of melancholy endings. Rauschenberg, who lived one flight below him at 128 Front St., took up with someone new and moved out.

The painting suggests loss in formal terms as well. The ruler is made to look like a scraping device that has removed pigment from the canvas. You might think of painting as a process of additions. But in Johns’ case, it is also a sum of subtractions.

Vying To Be The Showplace

The Whitney may promise larger audiences, but the Philadelphia Museum has its own enviable advantages. Johns was a relatively unknown artist of 27 when he first made the trek to Philadelphia to see its deep holdings of work by Marcel Duchamp, the elusive dadaist who spurned painting as passé and claimed to have given up art for chess. Philadelphia is home to his “Large Glass,” a 9-foot-tall, visibly cracked, uncategorizable masterpiece whose motifs later surfaced in Johns’ work. Duchamp’s early “Bottle Rack” (1914), an inexpensive kitchen accessory that he alchemized into art by exhibiting it under his own name, perhaps encouraged Johns in his own inclusion of quotidian objects.

Philadelphia also has strong holdings of Paul Cézanne, who was born in France a half-century before Duchamp, and who epitomizes much that Duchamp rejected. Cézanne’s chunky bathers and vibrating pine trees attest to slow, careful looking. “So much of what’s recorded in his painting is what’s seen when the eyes shift position,” Johns told me, and he shares with Cézanne an interest in visual instability as exemplified by his use of doubles.

In the ’70s, at the request of Anne d’Harnoncourt, then Philadelphia’s director, Johns lent the museum some prized early sculptures from his personal holdings — the famous ale cans among them. They fit in well with Philadelphia’s collection, evoking at once Duchamp’s devotion to the found object and Cézanne’s obsession with process. Eventually, the museum was able to start a permanent Johns gallery, the only one of its kind.

It was a sad day in Philadelphia this year when the beloved sculpture of the ale cans departed for the Whitney, sold by Johns. Leonard A. Lauder, the Whitney’s chairman emeritus, made the purchase.

“I love Jasper,” Lauder, who’s now 88, told me. “I think he’s difficult to know, but he’s solid. I wanted to make the Whitney the place for Jasper Johns.” As early as 1980, he orchestrated the purchase of “Three Flags” (1958), a mesmerizing painting in which three successively smaller panels jut toward the viewer with a full-frontal energy.

Lauder mentioned that he had once dreamed of starting a permanent Johns gallery at the Whitney but it was not to happen. He showed me a letter from 1994, in which Johns wrote, with his usual politeness (“I hope my declining it will not make me seem ungrateful”) that he felt reluctant to commit too much work to one museum.

Not one to be dissuaded, Lauder went on to acquire many key works by Johns for the Whitney, including a spectacular suite of 17 Savarin monotypes, one-of-a-kind, large-scale images that will occupy their own gallery in the upcoming show. The image of an old coffee can, repurposed to contain a dozen-plus paint brushes, is one of the artist’s crowning motifs. It first appeared as a witty, life-size tabletop sculpture, “Painted Bronze” (1960), which viewers sometimes confused with an actual coffee can despite the informational title.

In the Whitney’s monotypes, from 1982, the can rests on an ambiguous surface that keeps changing (a ledge? a shelf? a coffin?) and has a newly vibrant personality. From one work to the next, light intensifies and fades; hatch marks become handprints; the kindergarten clarity of primary colors yields to the mixed sensuality of high-keyed purples, oranges and greens.

It is easy to love these Savarin works, and I sometimes wondered if they were related to a stirring detail Johns once mentioned when we were talking about his childhood.

In May 1939, just a week before the artist’s 9th birthday, his grandfather, W.I. Johns, a well-off farmer with whom he lived, died of a heart attack. In recalling the funeral, a graveside service, Johns mainly remembered the flowers. “I remember the violets in a tin can at the head of his grave,” he said. They had been brought to the funeral by one of the Black farmhands who worked for his grandfather. The violets struck him as so much more alive than the bouquets around it, which had been prepared by a florist.

A can of wild violets glimpsed by an 8-year-old boy in rural South Carolina. A sculpture of a coffee tin stocked with paintbrushes created by a 30-year-old artist living in Manhattan. Did the violets indirectly inspire the sculpture of the Savarin can? Perhaps.

Or perhaps not. The scenes from childhood forever floating around in our heads echo in the present in unknowable ways. The past and the present are themselves a Johnsian double. Alike but totally different.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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