at the Broad, Los Angeles (through March 13, 2018)
Reviewed by Emily Nimptsch
My work is largely concerned with relations between seeing and knowing, seeing and saying, seeing and believing. Preconceptions which are sort of “knowing” may be placed in doubt or may be affirmed by seeing. 一 Jasper Johns, 1965
In a sudden moment of creative clarity and focus, Jasper Johns awoke from a dream in 1954 with a vision of the American flag dancing around in his head. The then-emerging New York-based multimedia artist knew immediately that he had to paint it. Not having the money for a new canvas, he simply used some old bedsheets instead. Little did Johns know at the time that he was creating an image that would elevate him to the upper echelons of artistic fame and forever alter the course of art history.
Now sixty-four years later, the Broad Museum, the mecca for all things modern art in Los Angeles, is looking back on this celebrated artist’s momentous collection of flag paintings in concert with his later number, target, and map works. Consisting of over 120 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints, including many that have never displayed in the city before, this extensive and historically significant collaboration between the Broad and London’s Royal Academy explores Johns’s oeuvre thematically rather than chronologically. This curatorial choice allows the viewer to see works of different eras on the same wall and make unexpected, eye-opening connections.
With its title borrowed from a 2006 interview in which the artist hoped his works offered, “something resembling truth,” this much-anticipated retrospective is a meaningful one for the museum’s chief patrons and namesakes, Eli and Edythe Broad as Jasper Johns’s Untitled (1975), a lively cross-hatched painting included in this show, was one of the first contemporary art pieces the couple ever collected. Adding to the excitement and historical significance of this exhibition, this is also the first major Johns retrospective in City of Angels since a 1965 Pasadena Museum of Art showing curated by legendary Ferus Gallery co-founder Walter Hopps.
Undoubtedly a master of paradox, Jasper Johns seems to exist in a world of betweens, between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, between painting and sculpture, between chaos and structure, between public and private, between emotion and fact, and also between the familiar and the unexpected. Like a Zen koan, this paradoxical stance running throughout Something Resembling Truth allows Johns to break down preconceptions to get to the very heart of language, image, and communication. In a Descartian manner, he strips his knowledge back to the elementary school basics of letters, numbers, maps, and flags in order to question what he knows and gain a fresh, truthful perspective on the world.
Aptly titled Things the Mind Already Knows, the first room in this show is dedicated to Johns’s celebrated flag paintings. Here we see the artist breakdown assumptions and prejudgements about this ubiquitous and complex icon. The American flag is an object that most people have seen countless times in their daily lives. Nearly everyone has deep-seated opinions about this symbolic object. Much like art itself, everyone sees something different in the flag.
Created in the era of Cold War and McCarthyism, these flag images have the internal ambiguity of connoting both patriotism and subversion. Interestingly, with similar national debates surrounding the meaning of the flag, immigration, and nationalism thrust into the public consciousness recently, we are reminded just how much and how little has changed over the past sixty years.
Additionally, the flag has personal significance for Johns as both he and his father were named after American Revolutionary War hero Sergeant William Jasper (1750-1779), who rescued the flag in two significant battles, and even died raising the American flag over a fort. Reflecting on the autobiographical meaning of the flag in his work, Johns has admitted that “the flag could just as well be a stand-in for father as for me.”
However, the artist has also been known to be somewhat elusive about the meanings behind his work. Johns has never confirmed his own beliefs on the political meaning behind the image, but has urged viewers to come to their own conclusions as he believes that the audience completes the work themselves through their varied interpretations. In making these paintings, he hopes that the audience will take the time to simply look at these pieces without preconceptions.
Interestingly, as the flag paintings are some of the artist’s most recognizable works, they are also the first to be presented in the exhibition in an effort to break down the viewer’s assumptions about this artist and his work. In the act of looking, the viewer notices small, intimate details like the rough, impasto texture and the little bits of newspaper infused in the surface. In this emphasis on the gaze, the audience cannot help but admire the process, the act of art making. We notice that Johns’s version of flag features both geometric order and chaotic, gestural brushstrokes. The rigid, orderly aspect of these paintings foreshadow the wave of minimalism in the art world to come, while the disorderly dripping references the Abstract Expressionism of the previous generation. Further blending the old and the new, Johns famously created these richly textured, almost sculptural surfaces using the ancient substance of encaustic, a mixture of heated beeswax and pigment. The fluidity of the ecaustic in these images echoes the fluidity between abstraction and representation as they inhabit a mysterious, paradoxical realm between flag and painting of a flag.
Perhaps as an homage to Belgian Surrealist René Magritte’s famed The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe) from 1929, here we see Johns exploring the connection between an object, its name, and its image, a theme that Johns builds upon throughout his career.
The first painting that catches the eye in this room is Flag (1954-55). Originally debuting at New York’s Leo Castelli gallery in a group show in 1957, and then again in a solo show the following year, this iconic image skyrocketed Johns into the public eye.
Building upon the flag theme, Johns soon begins to experiment with vivid colors in Flag on Orange Field (1957) which includes a traditional red, white, and blue flag located within a vibrant orange field. With its sumptuous shades, luminosity, and vertical orientation, this painting is reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s abstract and yet deeply spiritual color field paintings. With Johns’s inclusion of the American flag in a painting of this style, he playfully mixes the sublime with the mundane.
In 1958’s Three Flags, we see Johns studying dimensionality and perspective through the layering of three painted flag canvases that get smaller with each added layer. In a rejection of the flatness associated with Abstract Expressionism, this painting extends into the viewer’s space. It also rejects the traditional gospel of illusionistic painting, depicting closer objects as large and farther objects as small.
Adding color theory into this flag motif, 1965’s Flags compares two flag images on the same ash gray field. Again orientated vertically, the top flag is painted orange, slate gray, emerald green, and black with a white dot at the center. Bottom flag is the same hue as the surrounding field but features textural hints of American flag design and a black dot at its center. If the viewer stares at the white dot for twenty seconds and then immediately at bottom flag, the eye will reproduce the red, white, and blue version of the flag in that spot. Here Johns masterfully makes looking at artwork a joy as the viewer’s effort is rewarded with clarity and understanding.
Moving on from the flag room, Johns extends this same emphasis on looking and elementary school basics to letters and numbers in the next two galleries. In the early 1960s, the artist depicted several arabic numerals and letters either alone, in grids, rows, or superimposed on top of each other. The font and styles typically varied. Some were stenciled and some were freehand. Greatly influenced by Willem de Kooning’s figure paintings, Johns referred to the numbers seen here as figures, therefore elevating them to a human-like status.
We can see this reverence for numbers in 1960’s Figure 5, a full, rounded, and mural-sized portrait of the number 5 featuring gestural black, white, and gray brushstrokes. Somehow simultaneously both voluminous and flat, ambiguous and clear, this public, everyday symbol becomes private, esoteric, and somewhat spiritual.
Moving through the exhibition, we find even more examples of recontextualized public symbols in Johns’ series of target paintings. These archery-inspired targets have gone through a Duchampian-inspired process here, elevating them to high art. The monochrome and primary-colored targets allow the viewer to simply enjoy the beauty and essence of this geometric design. Interestingly, these targets might actually also be inspired by the Zen ideology stressing the artist’s lack of ego, aim, and purpose. As Eastern religion was introduced to American audiences around this time and Johns became interested through his friend, composer John Cage. Resembling eyes, these works are quite hypnotic and meditative. As one’s eye is drawn to the center of the target, the pupil, the eye also seems to find center of the self, the “I.”
Furthering his study of the commonplace, Johns explores life as an artist with In The Studio, a room dedicated to his paintings about the artmaking process. Here we see a variety of artworks featuring a mix of everyday objects and studio tools such as cans, wires, and rulers adhered to the canvas. This theme of studio life is one with a rich history, as 18th century French still life painter Pierre Cossard, Pablo Picasso, George Braque, and Henri Matisse have all dabbled in this type of subject matter. In 1961-62’s Fool’s House, we see several kitchen related items, including a cup, a broom, and a towel attached to vertically oriented canvas. Building upon his interest in Magritte-esque semiotics and the relationship between word and object, Johns has actually labeled each of these items with lines and arrows. While these objects may be clearly marked, definable, they are also fraught with the duality of being the very tools used in the art making process. The broom becomes a stand-in for the paintbrush, and just below the broom we even see a hint of oil paint marking semicircular brushstrokes on the canvas. With this effect, it looks as if Johns has swept the picture-plane. Extending this repurposing to other items seen here, the cup could also serve as a paint mixing container and the dish towel could become a paint rag.
Titled Fragments and Faces, the following room returns to the theme of the human figure. While in the past, Johns had viewed the body through the lens of numbers, here we see fractured casts and molds of varying body parts to in order to examine the relationship between the part and the whole. In the 1964 pastiche Watchman, the artist had been inspired by the life-size wax figures of celebrities he saw while visiting London’s Madame Tussauds. This cryptic yet seminal piece features a wax cast of a man’s leg. Located in the upper right-hand corner of the canvas, we see this flesh-colored, objectified leg seated in a chair, both are upside down. Again, we also notice hints of gestural abstraction, patches of the primary colors, as well as the corresponding stenciled words “red,” “yellow,” and “blue.”
As an avid reader of spy novels, Johns is fascinated by the idea of the watchman, a character that simply watches the others. However, a watchman is not to be confused with a spy, someone who watches and collects information without being noticed. Perhaps the characters of spy and watchman are metaphors for the artist and the viewer. Here we see Johns perhaps concocting a mysterious narrative about seeing and being seen.
Ultimately, Jasper Johns offers a timeless meditation on the art and joy of looking. This is a passion that he shares with another one of his idols, Paul Cézanne. Both he and Johns were working directly in-between major artistic movements — Cézanne with the Impressionism and Cubism and Johns with Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. While both of these artists are often erroneously lumped in with the sweeping styles of their immediate predecessors, they both actually focused on themes of perception and optics. While Cézannes’ work may look like a quick, impressionistic take on a scene, he famously only wished to paint what he saw. He would labor for hours, staring at his subjects and making only methodical brushstrokes. He refused to rely on the artistic crutch of black outlines. The result is messy, but reveals the instability of reality. It is as if Cézanne is painting the raw data that meets the eye either directly before the mind processes the scene or the blurriness of an object the second you look away from it. Also a pupil or student of perception, Johns’ work does the opposite: it rewards your confused and often vexed gaze with an ecstatic moment of complete clarity and understanding.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.