"Jasper Johns: Gray"

For Jasper Johns, painting is gray matter.

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Grey Alphabets

Photograph: Jaimie M. Stukenberg

Given Jasper Johns’s reputation and the immense scholarly attention paid his work, it seems astounding that before this survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, no one had ever thought to examine his use of gray. The artist has claimed that he isn’t much of a colorist and that he prefers gray. He’s made so many grisaille versions of his familiar flags, numbers, targets, etc.—118 paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints are exhibited here—that they practically constitute a kind of alternative universe within his career. Here, minus the distraction of color, Johns has deepened his obsessive interest in transforming, refracting and rendering motifs. In considering this “colorless” oeuvre, “Jasper Johns: Gray” expands our understanding of the complex conversation among materials, meaning and art that is the paramount thrust of his work.

Two paintings from 1959 opposed in the first gallery amply demonstrate that dialogue. False Start is a riot of explosive bursts in red, blue, yellow and white—it’s the only non-gray piece on view—featuring the names of various colors spelled in pigments that don’t necessarily correspond to the words. Jubilee, slightly smaller and rendered in black, white and gray, could be called its fraternal twin. But for all of False Start’s brilliant palette, its sober impasto and the conceptual play between word and appearance tamp down the emotional impact of its visual fireworks. Counterintuitively, Jubilee, painted in dour tones, is freer, living up to its joyful title.

What’s at play is more than a game of variations. The tension between the two works shifts their meanings in unexpected ways: The bright painting is tarred as a lie; the dark one is a celebration. This reversal divorces color, gesture and emotion from each other, breaking the sacrosanct connections that underlay Abstract Expressionism, the then-dominant style.


Jubilee

Photograph: Jaimie M. Stukenberg

Other works from the late ’50s go further, pitting the sensuous tactility of Johns’s encaustic surfaces against a puttyish tone, and the flatness of the canvas against three-dimensional intrusions. Coat Hanger, from 1959, includes not only an image but the actual item, a wire hanger painted gray and hooked onto a peg. The literalness of the thing—you could hang a coat on it—riffs on Magritte’s disconnect between language and image and on Duchamp’s interest in punning and conceptual slippage. Today, we take the artificiality of signs and the multivalence of meaning for granted, but Johns’s work slammed the door on feeling as the goal of painting, setting up our current mind-set.

The visual thrill of these spare pieces gives way, however, to a fatigue born of an installation in which works are grouped by subject: maps, numbers, alphabets, targets and flags. This compare-and-contrast arrangement replays the idea of variation and alteration to the point of redundancy. Most pieces are too physically luscious to be formulaic, but together they convey a sense of artistic constancy at the expense of innovation and invention. Works from the ’70s and ’80s, thankfully underrepresented here, seem particularly obtuse and ungenerous. Overburdened with personal references and encrypted quotations from painters as diverse as Holbein and Picasso, they are compositionally dull and iconographically turgid.

Still, there are moments of release. A small, commercial map of the U.S. overpainted in thick gray encaustic from 1960 bursts with energy. The titles and dry, almost distressed surfaces of Liar and No, both from 1961 (the year Johns and then-lover Robert Rauschenberg broke up), telegraph bitterness and isolation. Painting Bitten by a Man, made the same year, bears the violent mark of the artist’s teeth; Skin (1975), the imprint of his body. All evince the deeply personal connection Johns maintains with his work.

At the end of the exhibition, several paintings from the recent “Catenary” series suddenly bring him back, almost, to where he began. In these, a string hangs from wooden slats affixed to the work’s sides and forms an arc in front of the canvas. Several subtly painted curves mimic this line, setting up tensions between two and three dimensions, object and imagery which recall the artist’s stunning work of the late ’50s. Small autobiographical references, such as the diamond pattern taken from the harlequin costume Johns wore as a child, enliven the play of gray tones and underscore the hints of impending mortality communicated by titles like I Call to the Grave. Pompous as that title sounds, these most recent works are powerful and quiet paintings, full of mature and deeply sensed emotions communicated with a finesse developed over 50 years.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, through May 4.

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